Ethnic diversity strong for Mass. Nigerians
Kenneth J. Cooper
As sound trucks slow-rolled up the hill in Roxbury, the rhythmic music from outsize speakers thumped the chests of spectators, and young female dancers in skimpy, colorful costumes pranced and gyrated in the street. Processions flowed past waving the national flags of Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Panama and Haiti.
One contingent in Boston’s Caribbean Carnival in August, though, didn’t dance, sing or play music. About a dozen people wearing traditional African attire in the national colors of green and white marched silently in the festive parade, holding aloft the banner of the Nigerian-American Community Organization.
It was the second year that Nigerian Americans, the second-largest group within a rapidly growing population of African immigrants in Massachusetts, joined the annual carnival.
Besides historical ties from the slave trade, Nigerian Americans say they find a cultural bond with people of Caribbean descent.
“Culturally, we are the same,” said Kamalu (Kah-mah-lóo) MacPhilips, a Nigerian who owns a printing shop in Hyde Park. “If the Jamaicans have a cultural festival, if you come to the roots of it, it is an African festival.”
The state’s Nigerian American community started with college students who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s and stayed because of the economic turmoil and political corruption in their homeland.
Many are reluctant émigrés who, like others of the first generation, remain focused on affairs back home. Most, though, have become naturalized citizens.
Africans are one of the best-educated immigrant groups in the country, and the Nigerians of Massachusetts are generally a professional and entrepreneurial lot.
Most of the community lives in the Boston area, in the neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Roslindale, Dorchester and Roxbury, as well as Cambridge, Brockton, Randolph, Lynn and other suburbs.
There is also a Nigerian presence in the Worcester area.
“We live all over the place. We don’t have a set Nigerian area,” said Shola (Show-láh) Muyide (Moo-yee-dáy), an accountant who lives in Milton.
The 2000 Census estimated the Massachusetts Nigerian community at about 4,000, outnumbered only by Cape Verdeans among state residents with ancestry in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigerian Americans say the number is much higher, perhaps 30,000 to 40,000. The official estimate does seem low, given the relatively large number of cultural and religious groups the community has spawned.
The Nigerian-American Community Organization, an umbrella group, was formed last year in an attempt to fill a void left by the splintering of the Nigerian American Multi Service Association in 1994. Josephine Erewa, operations director of the new organization, says it has joined the Caribbean Carnival for “cultural exchange and cultural enrichment.”
Also in 1994, two major ethnic groups established cultural organizations: the Yoruba (Your-oo-báh) Community of Massachusetts and Igbo (Ee-bów) Organization of New England. Smaller ethnic groups have their own organizations, too.
Roxbury lawyer Mike Ozulumba (Oh-zoo-loom-báh) said the multi service association disintegrated because a change in election rules made it difficult for an Igbo like himself to get elected its president. The divisions, he said, reflected tensions that have lingered since an Igbo-dominated region seceded from Nigeria and then lost the Biafran War from 1967 to 1970.
“Almost every tribe in Nigeria was a member of that group,” said Ozulumba, who is moving back to the country permanently. “That 1994 election was a watershed that broke” the multi service association.
The Igbo organization, which offers language classes for children and others, has had fissures of its own. Disputed elections in 2001 and last August led to lawsuits. The most recent one is pending in Suffolk Superior Court.
Nigeria’s diversity also shows in the community’s religious life. The country has a large Muslim population, but most Nigerian immigrants to Massachusetts are Christians.
Igbo Catholics worship in their language at the St. Katharine Drexel Church in Lower Roxbury, while Episcopalians hold a monthly fellowship at Trinity Church in Copley Square.
Nigerians have established several Pentecostal churches, including Christ Apostolic Church in Mattapan. A small group of Muslims, mostly Yorubas, prays at the Ar-Rahman Mosque, which the Nigerian Islamic Society of Massachusetts opened in Dorchester two years ago.
The Nigerian Youth Organization of Boston, founded about a decade ago, offers academically oriented services, like a series of discounted SAT prep courses held at Roxbury Community College, to young people ages 13 to 30.
“It is open to the public. We have a lot of Chinese and [other] Asians that benefit from our program. It’s not just for Nigerians,” said Muyide, 47, a Yoruba who is the group’s treasurer. “Most of our children go to college and very good colleges.”
The community college in Roxbury Crossing is one center of Nigerian activity. The weakened multi service association has monthly meetings there, and the Yoruba group held its annual cultural program on campus earlier this month.
Cleary Square in Hyde Park is becoming another hub. The African Cuisine restaurant, owned by Nigerian Roy Ude (Oo-dáy), is there, and the People’s Club of Nigeria International is opening a community center in a blond-brick building a block away.
MacPhilips, whose Minuteman Press franchise is nearby, said two local magazines focused on Nigeria are published intermittently.
The Global Africa Independent Network, based in Allston and known as GAIN TV, is run by a Nigerian, Abiodun Shobowale (Ah-bee-oh-dóne Sho-bo-wah-láy). It airs cable programs on public access channels in Boston.
The state’s most prominent political figure of Nigerian descent is Egobudike Ezedi Jr. (Ee-go-boo-dee-káy Ee-say-dée), a Baptist minister who ran for a Boston City Council seat against Charles Yancey in 2003. The veteran African American councilor defeated Ezedi, a second-generation Nigerian American who now directs the Roxbury YMCA.
In contrast to the warm dealings between the Nigerian and Caribbean communities, fear and distrust characterize relations with African Americans, MacPhilips said.
“We Nigerians feel African Americans — not all of them, most of them — see us as a threat, which shouldn’t be,” he said. “Many Nigerians feel African Americans don’t like us.”
On the other hand, Muyide notes, a small number of African Americans attend the annual cultural program that the Yoruba organization holds.
(New England Ethnic News)