By Ruth Samuel
At 808 Hodges Street in Raleigh lies the Reign Lounge, an empty nightclub with a fading baby blue exterior and brown shingle roof, temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Behind the club, its parking lot is full, overflowing with life.
Lyrics to “Koroba” by Tiwa Savage are blaring from the speakers.
“Who no like enjoyment? If money dey for pocket? Shebi na national budget o?”
Dressed in matching lavender ankara sets, aunties with penciled eyebrows and pencil skirts dance to the beat of congas and snare drums. Some Yoruba men are clad in black agbadas with matching loafers, others are flaunting 2018 Super Eagle football jerseys, and a select few Igbo elders wear their hard-earned bright red chief caps.
There’s a 40-minute line forming for the only thing Nigerians can impatiently wait on: jollof rice, chicken, and spicy, mouth-watering suya. As smoke emerges from the coal grill, “Pana” by Tekno is playing instead of “If” by Davido, the go-to song American DJs play for Africans if they know nothing about Afrobeats.
A Moment of Celebration
This is Independence Day.
Nothing, not even a global pandemic, can stop Nigerians across the diaspora from celebrating 60 years of freedom from the grip of British colonizers. Nigerians are the largest African immigrant population in the United States, with over 1,000 Nigerian-born residents in Raleigh alone.
“Eh, people decided to, now,” said Uchenna Richards in his big-city Lagos accent to someone pulling up. “It’s past five o’clock. We’re Nigerians. After you tell people once or twice what to do, they’re like, ‘Ah, I’ma leave this guy.’”
The 38-year-old Richards, a Greensboro resident, has lived in America for the past 25 years and graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. In 2006, he was tired of traveling out of town to celebrate his home country, so he spawned this celebration idea with his friends, and the event has become a tradition ever since.
This year, he wanted to try a COVID-conscious drive-thru cookout. On October 3, the event started at 1 p.m. and ended at 6 p.m., but it seems Nigerians are incapable of following someone else’s instructions. Running on “African Time,” folks were still trickling in at 5:11 p.m., parking along the street, and lingering.
“At the beginning, it was more like, ‘Let’s just get people to just drive through, get some food and go,’” Richards said. “Some people didn’t want to leave, so we figured, we’ll start off by telling people if you want to stay, park down the street.”
Huddled together in masks, groups of young adults are drinking Sprite or Vita Malt, greeting each other. Middle-aged men are slapping the backs of their palms three times followed by a hug. As soon as “Killin Dem” by rapper Burna Boy comes on, the small crowd erupts in cheers.
“At school, I’m PJ or Petronilla. Here, I’m Oge,” said Amaogechukwu Egbuna, sitting on the hood of a black SUV with her friends. Her real name — the name that Nigerian parents labor and pray over — means “in God’s time.”
Egbuna, a first-generation Nigerian-American, attends East Carolina University and came home just to attend the 14th annual celebration with her mom and auntie. She was craving the seasoned food and feeling of community that she couldn’t get at school.
“Being Nigerian is amazing because it’s one of the greatest African countries in the world, one of the most known countries in the world,” the 20-year-old Egbuna said. “You know Nigerians, we love to throw parties and celebrate.”
A Catalyst for Community
In the ever-growing suya line, stands “Mirabelle” Nneoma Uma, wearing a neon green, yellow, and pink dashiki. As a little girl runs through the queue with a ball the size of her head, Uma is checking for messages from her relatives via WhatsApp.
“This event is about getting to meet people, fellow Nigerians, and socializing,” said Uma, who emigrated from Abia State two years ago. “The United States is a very individualistic country, so it’s really nice to be able to socialize and connect with fellow Nigerians, fellow Africans generally. I still really miss Nigeria.”
The 29-year-old is a graduate student at UNC Greensboro. She said the biggest change after moving to the United States was being in a country “where the structure works, roads are well-paved, and opportunity seems possible. The National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) in Nigeria isn’t fully functional.
Uma and her friends turn to face the caterer, Prince Kalu of PK Suya, as he scolds everyone in line and reminds them to not take more than one piece of chicken. When Kalu announces that there’s no more suya left, attendees groan and leave the line, some rolling their eyes, and others sucking their teeth, eliciting a distinctly West African sound of disdain and disgust.
Life in the United States
Yards away, fanning herself comfortably under a tent, wearing a green t-shirt, jeans, and black slip-on hospital shoes is Amaka Ofodile, a member of the Nigerian Nurses Association with over 16 years of nursing experience. She immigrated to the United States 27 years ago and first landed in Newark, New Jersey.
“I don’t know what I was expecting to see,” Ofodile said. “I actually went back home, then after some time, I came back again. I thought in America, money just comes. I didn’t know you’d have to work so hard in order to eat. America is really difficult.”
Along with their three-panel posterboard, members of the Nigerian Nurses Association of North Carolina (NNANC) were handing out informational pamphlets on hypertension and domestic violence, which saw a 134% increase in Nigeria in 2018. Despite its issues, Ofodile misses Enugu state, so events like this bring home closer to her.
Ofodile said, “I miss everything about Nigeria: the food, the social life, the vegetables. Everything is real, organic. We don’t have adulterated food. We’re having some challenges in Nigeria, no 24-hour light, food, and water, but our country is working on it. There is hope.”
Richards believes that this celebration is a necessity, a reminder of the progress made and the progress yet to come.
“I tell people this is the one event where you can get Nigerians of different tribes and there will be no problems,” said Richards, who is Igbo. “Growing up, our generation versus the parents’ generation, there was this big tribalistic problem. When it comes to independence, for that weekend and that day, everyone puts everything aside.”
Edited by: Luke Buxton