By Stephanie Harp
Under a wide wooden shelter in Augusta’s Mill Park, about 70 Nigerian Mainers gathered on July 25 to meet, talk, eat, sing, play games, and celebrate their community. This first-ever gathering of Maine’s Naija (Nigerian) community was organized by Chinonye Anumaka, Mariam Arabambi, Lanre Fashina, Victor Iwegbulam, Emmanuel Juwah, Anita Nwanna-Nzewunwa, Jude Okonkwo, Isaac Oyinlade, and Oga Suya. Several of the organizers spoke with Amjambo Africa.
Nigerians in Maine stay in touch via a 120-member WhatsApp group. The connections began with a Facebook group that Anita Nwanna-Nzewunwa started after she moved to Maine from San Francisco four years ago. “Coming in, I just felt lost,” she said. “I would go to church and see a huge Congolese community, Somali community…but there was no Nigerian community known to me.” She had some friends, but wanted a broader sense of community, too. “I would put up posts here and there, as much as my schedule would permit.” After visiting friends in Bangor, the busy Waterville physician posted pictures to reach more people.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Juwah had moved to Maine from Texas, but had met only a few other Nigerians in the state, including someone on a Concord Coach trip to Auburn and someone else from California. Juwah enjoys networking, which he uses in his work as an assistant branch manager at a bank. When he invited his new friends to his home, in the course of conversation they all wanted to find a way to connect with other Nigerians. They started the WhatsApp group with only four members.
“I would go to church and see a huge Congolese community, Somali community…but there was no Nigerian community known to me.”
Juwah contacted attorney, business owner, and Bangor City Councilor Angela Okafor to help spread the word about his group and she added her Nigerian contacts throughout the state. When he saw Nwanna-Nzewunwa’s group, he said, “I looked at my wife. ‘There is actually a Nigerians in Maine group on Facebook!’ ” She was astonished. He and Nwanna-Nzewunwa decided to merge their social networks.
“We don’t know the number of Nigerians in Maine,” Isaac Oyinlade said. “However, we do know that we are more than 120 because there are people I talk to from time to time. There are couples in the group, and students who know others.” One 2020 estimate based on the American Community Survey put the number at 224, a 23% increase over 2015. In any case, the organizers know their WhatsApp group doesn’t reach everyone, and doesn’t include children.
“Last week, I heard someone speaking a Nigerian language, but he was far away from me so I couldn’t reach out to him,” said Nwanna-Nzewunwa. “Who knows? That’s the number we have.”
Group members were excited about the idea of meeting in person, and formed a committee to plan the event.
Importance of connections
Connecting with each other – whether by Facebook, WhatsApp, or at the gathering – was a huge relief. Indeed, even during a Zoom interview, their sense of relief was palpable.
“I was in Maine a year and four months before I met my first Nigerian,” said Oyinlade, a data analyst who moved here from Maryland seven years ago. One time, when Oyinlade was in a small African restaurant, the owner said one of his regular customers was also Nigerian. The owner offered to tell the other customer about Oyinlade. Because he was desperate to meet another Nigerian, Oyinlade went back to the restaurant over and over, hoping to run into the other patron. In the meantime, he also joined a dance class to make connections, and learned the Lindy hop, a dance that was popular in the U.S. in the 1930s.
The group is valuable to Chinonye Anumaka who is working on her second master’s degree as a health data programmer at the University of Southern Maine. “It adds to the feeling of being at home because I could ask for a food ingredient that nobody knows about except for Nigerians,” she said. “In my six years living here, things have changed. It’s even more different when the diversity includes Nigerians who speak the same language.”
Juwah agreed. “It was so easy to ask a question – ‘Hey, where do we get this?’ It makes everything really easy.”
Child care is another point of relief. “When you’re in need of child care, you can ask, ‘Is anyone available to watch my child? Now I have people I can ask,” Nwanna-Nzewunwa added.
But Nigerians in Maine enjoy knowing each other for more than just practical reasons. “When we came here, the majority of us left our families behind,” said Victor Iwegbulam, who lives in Bangor. The American culture and daily practices are very different from Nigeria’s. “It was tough here… No going out, no one to visit,” he said. So when Juwah contacted him, Iwegbulam was excited. “One of the things that causes depression is when you [don’t] have people you can talk to. To a large extent, it helps to unburden yourself.”
Gathering united community
For the July event, the group chose Augusta as a central location. “We had a lot of support from people from the community,” said Anumaka, through monetary donations and people offering to cook, make snacks, or play music. “Nigerian music played all day!” she said. “I think we had everything. We all came there with our families. Every activity was planned to engage the youngest up to the oldest.”
Nwanna-Nzewunwa added, “It’s just amazing how little connections here and there can make things so big and beautiful.”
Food included favorite dishes like chicken suya (a Nigerian street food), jollof rice, fufu, meat pies, moi moi (steamed bean pudding), and egusi soup, which is made from melon seeds. There was even a cake decorated with coats of arms from both Maine and Nigeria. Singer Anozie Ikemba, whose song “Bangor, Maine” is on YouTube, entertained the group. And adults and kids played musical chairs, chess, Jenga, and volleyball.
“I think one of the highlights…was actually meeting people for the first time,” said Anumaka. “I met this guy that came all the way from Caribou, about a five hours’ drive. … I know someone came with friends who are not even Nigerians, which was nice. It was open to anybody, any friend.” Two weeks later at a store, she was happy to see someone from the gathering whom she might not have recognized from only the WhatsApp group, if they hadn’t met in person at the event.
The group’s next step is becoming a formal organization. They continue to network to reach other Nigerian Mainers while a committee works on a constitution, by-laws, and an electoral process. Their primary goal is supporting other Nigerians. “We want to help the community, make sure we connect, have meetings from time to time, and have gatherings and events,” Juwah said.
“One of the things that causes depression is when you [don’t] have people you can talk to. To a large extent, it helps to unburden yourself.”
“We’re trying to empower Nigerians who need help, and then trying to see what we can do healthwise, otherwise, and have programs for younger Nigerians, and other communities outside of Nigerians,” said Nwanna-Nzewunwa.
“Step-by-step action. That’s more like what the objective is – where we are, where we’re coming from, where we want to go,” said Oyinlade. Once they establish the organization, they will make further plans, such as providing translation services and contacting Nigerians in other states who have formed schools, churches, and businesses. He pointed out that Afrobeats, a fast-growing musical genre that unites different African traditions, could be a point of connection.
“As time goes on, we want to create a very good platform for Nigerians. We are people who are very talented,” Iwegbulam said. “In the long run, it could turn into a business, a start-up in the community, and employ people in the community. …The more businesses you have in the community, that goes a long way in creating positive impacts.” They also will look into helping Nigerians outside of Maine and the U.S. “Go back home and give back to the less privileged ones there who cannot help themselves,” he said. “When we get to that bridge, I’m sure we’re going to cross it.”
For now, they are glad to be connected with each other, and they like Maine. “It’s been such a wonderful place. Everybody is warm and welcoming, and it’s so peaceful, especially with everything that’s going on in America right now,” Nwanna-Nzewunwa said. “It’s safe. It’s a good place to raise kids.”
The others agreed. “I love this state as a whole,” said Oyinlade. “There’s one word I use to describe it – peaceful.”
Photos courtesy of Emmanuel Fakorder. Instagram: @hemmarphotography