African American Studies
Johnson Otibu (b. 1955) is the proprietor of the Sahara African Caribbean market in the Bronx. He came to New York from Ghana in 1978, at the age of 23. Otibu left a good job in the social security business in Ghana in order to try out the opportunities in America. When he immigrated, the exchange rate was 2 American dollars to every Ghanaian dollar, so Otibu arrived with more money than most immigrants. Initially he settled in Harlem on 150th St. and lived off of what he had brought. However, he soon realized that it was much harder to make money in America than he had realized, and he was soon forced to seek full-time employment. Otibu was almost deported early on because of an incident that happened with a black American who lived in his building. His neighbor was having trouble with the rent, and Otibu, in accordance with the communalist custom he had been raised with in Ghana, gave him a loan of 800 dollars. However, the man refused to pay him back, knowing that if Otibu made a legal issue out of it, he would be deported. Indeed, his neighbor actually called the authorities on Otibu, and he was taken to jail.
After getting out of jail at a price of $1,000, Otibu set about becoming a legal American citizen. He first drove to Sandusky, OH in order to marry a woman in a contractual marriage. This would be the first of six arranged marriages for Otibu. Upon returning to New York, Johnson began taking classes in business at Manhattan Community College while working as a security guard at a CVS on 57th St. He was a good student, and after several semesters on the dean’s list, he was in a good position to get a job. He became a private accountant for a few years before deciding to teach high school in the Bronx. However, the hours were so long, the pay was so low, and the students so difficult that he only stayed a teacher for two years. Otibu finally obtained his green card in 1991, and worked in the New York State Tax Department for about 15 years. Frustrated with how difficult it was to get a promotion, however, he left in 2004.
Inspired by an African grocery store-owner he had met in Perth Amboy, NJ, Otibu decided to open up his own store. He chose a neighborhood in the Bronx with a high concentration of Ghanaian residents, and opened up his store with an initial investment of $47,000. One of the problems that Johnson encounters frequently is importing African goods into the US. The US only allows a short list of goods, and each of Otibu’s shipments has to be carefully inspected. For instance, Otibu imports a high volume of Ghanaian yams each month. Each shipment must be inspected, detoxified, and ultimately shipped to Otibu. The grocery store owner thus loses a considerable amount of money on each shipment, since he must pay for the detoxification process and the shipment besides. Moreover, frequently the goods have to be frozen so that they do not rot. Otibu is also involved in initiatives to improve African food distribution. Because Ghana is primarily an export economy, sometimes they export too much food, and people go hungry. Otibu is looking into a way to keep the import/export price stable while allowing Ghana to have their yams and eat them too, so to speak. He claims that yams can be freeze-dried without loss of flavor for up to three years, meaning that if both US business owners and Ghanaians had access to dry-freezing technology, Ghanaians would not need to choose between eating and exporting their goods.
Otibu, Johsnon. October 15, 2008. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
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