Los Angeles has long been a dream for immigrants haling from various parts of Africa. The United States Census estimates the current population of African immigrants at about 881,300. With so few numbers in the disparate communities, Africans are a silent minority, carrying a very low profile. They are less likely than other immigrants, say Latinos, to question political decisions. And many come from countries where the political consequences for questioning government can be harsh.
Most Africans seem to take the position, that while things are not perfect here, African Americans, comparatively speaking, have it much better than they realize.
In Los Angeles County, there are about 26,000 Africans, representing almost 3 percent of the Black population. The African nations with the most immigrants in Los Angeles County include Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. Like immigrants from other places, Africans tend to congregate in areas where other countrymen already are. Inglewood has become ground zero for many Nigerian families while Carson boasts a large number of Ghanaians. Orange County is a popular destination for both Sierra Leoneans and Kenyans, and Ethiopians numbers are largest in the Fairfax District of the city.
While this survey involves only four African communities, it hopefully gives a glimpse into an often overlooked segment of immigrants. In the city’s close-knit African communities, many still view America’s educational system as among the best in the world, despite its problems. One reason why: it’s free.
“In Africa, nothing was given to us,” explains Nigerian native and business owner Kehinde Ololade, 46. “I had to walk to school. My parents had to pay for our tuition and for us to have a desk, a chair, textbooks, and uniforms. Education was not free. Our classrooms had no air conditioning. Too many American children take education for granted. I stress the importance of a good education every day with my children.”
She’s not alone. Ololade, like millions of other African immigrants, finds it hard to believe that American children don’t want to go to school.
“You read about the dropout rates, especially among Black American students, and it’s sad,” she says. “There are so many African kids who would risk their lives for the chance to come here and go to school.”
The Lagos, Nigeria, native and popular mid-city hair salon owner, recalls coming to America in 1987, following the pattern of other African nationals who took advantage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that saw an estimated 1 million Africans immigrate to the United States.
“I came here alone,” she recalls. First arriving in San Diego, she remembers getting her first job at a local Jack in the Box restaurant.
From there, Ololade says she had a string of jobs, ranging from a parking-lot attendant in Boston, home health aide in New York, before eventually settling in Houston as a shipping and receiving manager with a part-time seasonal job at the post office.
By the time Ololade moved to Houston, she was a single mother, having been married and divorced.
“When I got laid off in Houston, I decided to follow my passion for styling hair,” she says. “Back home in Lagos, I was always doing everyone’s hair.”
Ololade then enrolled in Franklin Beauty School in Houston, getting her cosmetology license before moving to Los Angeles in 1995.
In 1998, she opened the Spice Salon on Pico Boulevard, just east of La Brea Avenue.
“It wasn’t easy, but I saved my money,” she says. “I saved my money, found investors, and had help from my brother.”
Remembering those first days of running her own business while having a son to care for, she says, “there were some days when I would just pray for someone to walk through the door. There were days when I only had water to drink and no food.”
But 13 years later, the Spice Salon is thriving, and Ololade’s dream has been realized. Her son Zana, 17, is a senior at Harvard-Westlake School and has full scholarship offers from USC, UC Berkeley and Harvard, to name a few. A homeowner in the North Hills section of the San Fernando Valley since 2002, Ololade soon remarried, and in 2005 gave birth to fraternal twins, Lola and Ola.
Reflecting on her journey, Ololade says that life wasn’t easy. As the fifth fo 11 children, she remembers her constant yearning to leave Nigeria and go somewhere she felt she could be free.
“Back home as a woman you are expected to live at home with your parents until you marry, and after you get married you are expected to stay home with the kids. I didn’t want that lifestyle right away. I wanted to explore me and be more independent.”
Ololade says that both she and her husband stress education with their children.
On the issue of the DREAM Act, which makes illegal immigrants eligible to receive state financial aid to attend California universities and community colleges, among other things, she says, “I support it because there are kids in America who really want to go to school, and there are kids who take it for granted.” [On the whole, however, very few Africans come to the U.S. illegally.]
But Ololade, like many other African immigrants, feels that the conversation leading up to the DREAM Act excluded Black people.
“You never hear them mention Africans,” Ololade says. “Even though many of us supported the DREAM Act and have as much to gain from its passage as Latinos do, they [Latinos] never reached out to the Africans here in California. It’s like to them we don’t exist. The same with the elected officials.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Cecil Williams, whose family lost their Krio tribal name when the nation was colonized by the British, is making the most of his time in America. Having escaped to Los Angeles during the height of the Sierra Leone Civil War, which lasted 11 years and resulted in more than 50,000 killed and even more mutilated and raped, the middle child of three says that it was never a question about whether or not he was going to college, only where.
Williams finished high school in neighboring Gambia. While there, he applied to several American colleges and universities.
“I didn’t wait for an American college to find me,” he remembers. “I went and found an American college, and it wasn’t an easy process. Technology in Africa is not the same as it is in America. Even finding a computer with reliable Internet access can be a daunting process, but I was determined, as were my parents.”
Williams applied to and was accepted at Glendale Community College.
But that was only half the battle. The other half included obtaining a student visa–an arduous process that includes filling out an application, submitting various documents, a review of parents’ bank statements to show that they can afford to pay for their child’s education, a lengthy waiting period and then the interview.
“The process is very tense and gut-wrenching,” he says in his distinctly British accent. “It’s not guaranteed. I know people who didn’t get it, because maybe they answered a question wrong or had never left the country before and were deemed a risk. If you have never been on a plane, it can affect your chances for a visa.”
Williams says that the night before and the morning of the interview is usually spent praying.
“It’s a difficult process and little has been done to educate African students about the process.”
Williams says that it’s because of students who graduated before him and obtained their student visas that he was able to learn the process, because the U.S. Embassies in Africa do very little to help African students with information on applying.
“I didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles when I moved here,” he says.
He remembers being amazed by California’s freeway system.
Laughing, he remembers, “I thought, how am I going to be able to drive here and get around?”
Williams’ educational journey has taken him from Glendale Community College to Cerritos College and then California State University, Long Beach, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business, with an emphasis in management information systems.
“Dropping out was never an option,” according to Williams. “My family sacrificed a lot for me to come here and get an education, so I had a responsibility to graduate.”
A supporter of the DREAM Act, Williams believes that the younger generation is America’s future, no matter their status or country of origin.
Today, Williams lives in Bellflower and works as a sales coordinator for a metals company in Paramount during the day. His passion, however, lies with Royal Dynamite T-Shirts, a business he owns with his partner, fellow Sierra Leonean Raphael Saye, whom he met after joining the Leone Stars of Southern California, a local soccer team comprised of mainly of Sierra Leoneans.
An up-and-coming company, Royal Dynamite was officially launched in 2010 and features an assortment of socially conscious T-shirts.
“When we first launched, we sold 60 T-shirts in one week,” Williams says excitedly. “We knew we were on to something, and from there we’ve been careful to study the business and the market.”
Williams says there are plans in the near future to have consumers design T-shirts. In addition, both he and Saye remain committed to using a portion of the profits to help children in Sierra Leone.
Thanks to his employer, Williams has a green card that’s valid for 10 years, during which time he can apply for citizenship, something he says he plans to do.
“My parents, who were educated in England, were given the same opportunity [for citizenship] when they graduated, but didn’t take advantage of it. Consequently, during the war we couldn’t leave and go to England. I don’t want to make the same mistake in case something like that were to happen again in Sierra Leone.”
Popular musician Marcel Bwanga, 46, has been in America 13 years. The talented musician and father of twin girls, says that it was his music that paved the way for him to live in America after native Cameroonian Ndedi Eyango, more commonly known as Prince Eyango, signed him to his U.S.-based record label Preya Music.
Bwanga began his music career in the early 1980s, singing and writing original songs for artists in Cameroon. Specializing in Makossa, a popular Cameroonian style of music originating from the Douala region, at the age of 15 he was invited to tour the African content with Nigerian singer Nico Mbarga and his band. At 16, Bwanga went to Europe where he continued performing and writing songs for other artists, including Jimmy Cliff and the popular Les Nubians.
Bwanga’s most popular song, “Ndolo L’Amour,” was made famous by Cameroonian artist Pierre De Moussy.
Reflecting back on Cameroon and his musical start, Bwanga says that he used music as an outlet.
“My parents were always fighting,” he says. “They fought so much that I turned to music to drown out their voices.”
College-educated in Spain, Bwanga obtained a degree in languages and speaks English, French, Portuguese, German, Spanish, Italian, and the Cameroonian dialect Duala.
A divorced father with twin 12-year-old girls, Bwanga stresses education with his daughters.
“They have more opportunities that I had growing up because they are here in America,” he says in his thick Cameroonian accent.
“It’s imperative to make sure that they take full advantage of America’s educational system, including attending college. They are lucky; they don’t have to rely on a talent to get them out of their native country and into another. They are Americans by birth.”
On the issue of the DREAM Act, Bwanga like many other African immigrants, feels that if there are children who want to go to college, they should be able to, regardless of their status.
“This is America, the land of dreams. Why not?”
Dickson Ngunjiri, 36, a native of Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa, came to America in 2001 to visit a cousin in Massachusetts and never left. Impressed with life in America and the opportunity for advancement, he decided to apply for admission at Clark University in Worchester, Mass., and was accepted. Having already completed a bachelor of science degree with an emphasis in mathematics back home at the University of Nairobi, Ngunjir decided to further his educational goals in America.
Today, he lives in Hollywood and is a budding film director and producer. Having already worked on CBS’s “Amazing Race” and produced a few of his own independent projects under his business, True Blaq Entertainment Group, Ngunjir, like 10,000 other Kenyan natives, has become part of the fabric of Southern California life.
“It’s never easy to leave home,” Ngunjir says. “It’s very hard for us Africans to move to a foreign land and become comfortable. There are so many rules and customs to learn. We really just come here for the opportunities, opportunities that we can’t find in Africa.”
More than 950,000 Kenyans have furthered their education abroad, the majority graduating from schools in India, the United Kingdom, Canada, the U.S., Russia and Uganda.
Ngunjir believes, if given the choice, most Africans would rather be at home helping to build up their country.
“America is not home,” Ngunjir says. “There’s a huge brain drain in Africa, because many of us left our homeland to go elsewhere for better opportunities and a chance to help our families. Africa is suffering.”
Ngunjir says the road for African immigrants is not easy and that they worked very hard to excel in school back home so that they could come to America to further their education.
Fluent in English, Swahili, and his tribal dialect, Kikuyu, Ngunjir says that only the top students in Kenya are accepted at Kenya’s national universities, a system much like California’s UC system.
“There’s so much competition for very few positions.”