Believing in Hard Work and Blessings, from Nigeria to Bangor
The move to America from the West African nation of Nigeria has not always been kind to Angela Okafor. Trained as a lawyer over there, at first she could only find work as a dishwasher over here. Yet today, Angela is a practicing lawyer—when she’s not busy raising three kids, running her international food market, sewing, or braiding clients’ hair in her salon. All of the businesses are co-located on Harlow Street in Bangor.
Angela is now an American citizen. She lives in Bangor with her husband, Ben, who owns two pharmacies, and their three children, ages 10, 7, and 5. Last December, she became the first immigrant and first person of color to be elected to the Bangor City Council. She has served on the board of the Maine Multicultural Center, taught as a guest lecturer at Eastern Maine Community College, and been a public and inspirational speaker. Angela is also an occasional columnist for Amjambo Africa and a recipient of the Trailblazer award from Empower the Immigrant Woman. She has been appointed to Governor Janet T. Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee. And in August, she was slated to be named one of Mainebiz’s Women to Watch 2020.
Challenges and opportunities shape a dynamo
Growing up in Nigeria had some difficult aspects for Angela, a bright and ambitious learner. Children did not always have the opportunities there that are provided in the United States, and little people are expected to be seen and not heard. “You know when not to talk, and you dare not talk back to an elder, or call an elder by name,” Angela said.
Angela’s father taught in a Catholic school, and her mother ran a cooking business. She and her two brothers and two sisters grew up in a family without much money, but with plenty of access to fresh foods that would be considered “organic” by U.S. standards. “We would pick mangoes from the trees,” she recalled. And at her grandmother’s house, the children would climb from one type of fruit tree to another, eating their fill along the way. “We ate a lot of very nutritious foods,” she recalled, adding that her mother’s cooking business, “is where I got my love for food.”
Life was challenging, “but everywhere has its own challenges,” she said. For children of families that were not rich, the opportunity to continue in school is “nonexistent,” Angela said. “Tuition fees are high, books are expensive, and the cost to study law or medicine is even more expensive, just like in America. At times, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go to college.”
For several of her college years, Angela sold food to earn money. “I would make moi-moi, (Nigerian bean dough). I also prepared turkey wings and thighs, dipped them in bright red tomato stew, and placed them on a plate with beautifully sliced onions and peppers. I would drop them off with store owners next to where we lived then and head off to school.”
Store owners would not agree to buy directly from Angela but would sell for her. “I would return by the end of the day. They would give me [money for] what they had sold, and I would take back any leftovers. I would also go shopping for people for cash. . . I would sight things first, way before anyone else.” That sharp vision allowed Angela to select the best wares for her clients. And she worked on holidays, which was not common at the time.
“I would find jobs,” she said. “At times I would help businesspeople. I was pretty much doing a lot of things on the side to help myself.”
Finances weren’t the only roadblock. “My family members did not want me to study law because they were afraid I would not be able to find a husband,” she said. Societal norms dictated that women marry fairly young rather than spending years at university. “I remember in high school, I had a lot of classmates getting married even before they graduated.” Family strife moved her from her mother’s home to the housing provided at the school where her father worked, and then off to live with a friend. But Angela persevered and obtained her law degree.
Her husband, Ben, also grew up in Nigeria. The couple met in 2004 through his nephew, who was visiting one of her friends. They married in September 2006. In 2008, Ben, a pharmacist, was recruited out of Nigeria by Rite Aid to work in the Guilford, Maine, retail location. To say that Guilford, a town of about 1,500, lacked diversity at the time would be an understatement.
“Even Bangor was a struggle,” recalled Angela. “Life here is not just different, but very different!”
Coming to America has its own challenges and opportunities
With her new law degree in hand, Angela was excited to get hired with a local law firm in her new city, but that didn’t happen. “Everything about me was questioned,” she said in a profile for Amjambo Africa in 2019. Potential employers did not take her education in Nigeria seriously. She was told she could not sit for the Maine Bar Exam without careful scrutiny of the content of every course she had taken in law school over a six-year period. So instead, she took the New York Bar Exam—and passed. Okafor Law Practice, which specializes in immigration law, was founded in August 2016.
Experiencing any sense of community was also a challenge. Accents and language barriers made it difficult to chat with people, which Angela said she loves to do. Being one of a sparse population of immigrants in a very white region of a relatively white state was also difficult.
Angela explained the difficulty comes in part from “coming from away, not seeing people like myself,” Angela told Maine Public Radio last December during an interview. “And you know, people are still kind of scoping at you, like, ‘Who is that one? Are we even safe around her?’ You know?”
When Angela lacks something, she creates it. To encourage immigrant families to stay and to entice more to the area, she eventually added an international food market to her law practice. She believes that to keep families in Maine, the women need to be happy. Finding a little bit of home on market shelves has helped. But when women had trouble finding ethnic clothing, Angela taught herself to sew and added her clothing line to the market’s product offerings. And then she heard of women traveling hours to get hair weaves, so she taught herself to do that, adding hair care to the mix.
Angela has always been creative and has a knack for watching and learning new skills. Back in Nigeria, one of her side gigs was as a self-taught makeup artist. “I made brides up and sold cosmetics alongside. I also learned how to tie the Nigerian headscarf, or gele.” While English is the common language in Nigeria, gele is a Yoruba-language word for the large, elaborate head ties that can be worn day-to-day, but that are even more elaborate for weddings, special events, and church activities.
“I’m very good at picking things up,” she said. “I love to cook. I love to meet people and chat. The law is my profession, but everything else here is my hobby!”
And that “everything else” has also created community for Angela and other immigrants in the Bangor area, as well as other residents eager to try flavors from around the globe. The shop, Tropical Tastes and Styles, is a gathering place where connections are made and friendships are forged.
Running for Bangor City Council shortly after gaining her U.S. citizenship was “a crazy decision, but I felt it was a necessary decision,” said Angela. “With my business, I meet a ton of people. We share our struggles. And I hear from a lot of other people through my business. Who truly advocates for [other immigrants, minorities, people of color, people from away]? We need to have somebody stand up for us. Basically, there is a need for new perspective. So, I thought, ‘Why not me?’”
Before COVID-19, business was so good that Angela was poised to hire some help. Being shut down for a month and selling only via delivery much of the time has impacted her income, and she is unable to keep regular business hours with three children who are doing remote learning. “It’s been a real struggle, but it is what it is. It has been tough, but we have it better than a lot of people, so we are really grateful for that. We have a roof over our heads. We have food. We always remember that and are grateful for it.”
“I believe in blessings, but at the same time, I believe you have to work for it. I don’t believe in luck.”
Angela doesn’t let much get her down. “I feel like I am a woman who believes I can do anything I want to do, anything I put my mind to. I don’t believe in ‘how things are done’ in the sense of my hometown [belief] that a woman shouldn’t want to study law or do this or do that. I believe in hard work. I am a very religious person, and I believe in blessings, but at the same time, I believe you have to work for it. I don’t believe in luck.”
All women, and especially women of color, face extra challenges, Angela said. “But I try not to self-pity. I think it is not okay to be sad. Know when to stop and pull yourself back up. Make sure you have people around you that can pull you up,” she advised. “One huge treasure I have had has been friends—truly, truly good friends—around when I feel like I’m down, to encourage me. Know the circle you move with. Always believe in yourself. And people ask me, ‘How do you do that with all the children?’ The truth is, it’s not easy, but it comes back to that self-pity. I just do what I need to do, and when I can’t anymore, I take some time off. Having children does slow you down, yes, but it does not stop you, unless you want to stop.”