Otieno Nyangweso, “Oti” to many, was born Thomas Otieno Nyangweso. Names do, indeed, have meaning. Otieno means “one who was born at night.” Nyangweso, “one who was born during a locust invasion,” is his father’s grandfather’s family name who was born during a locust invasion. Otieno currently works for the City of Saint Paul after being self-employed as the owner of Uhuru Books for over a decade. He never thought he would return to a 9 to 5 (“but I had to pay bills!”). The transition was initially difficult but 7½ years later he still likes his job. Of Saint Paul, he says, “It is a nice, mellow place.” As a people person, he enjoys his interactions with the public, even though he deals with citizen complaints, “too many potholes,” “cars are speeding down my street.”
“Born and bred” in Nairobi, Kenya, an international hub—named after a Maasai watering hole, “enkare nyarobi,” which means “place of cool waters,”—known for traffic, tree-lined streets, parks, and tourism. After finishing high school like so many African youth, Otieno left home to come to “America” to further his education at the University of Minnesota where he studied civil engineering.
At the heart of what makes Otieno thrive is that he owned Uhuru Books, an Afrocentric bookstore, on 13th and Lake Street in Minneapolis for more than 10 years. He’s always loved books. “Uhuru” in Swahili means freedom. Befittingly one of Otieno’s four children, his eldest son, is named Uhuru. He is currently planning to re-open the store at a different location.
Why own a bookstore?
Afrocentric or Africancentric information at the University of Minnesota libraries was elusive at best, never satisfying his thirst for knowledge because it did not make sense to him being from somewhere else. Most, if not all, of the available material on Africa and Africans was written from a European worldview and did not explain the black condition in the U.S. What was the story of the dispossessed and oppressed people here in the ghettos, in Europe, in Africa? He adds, “I consider myself to be one of them.” This was the mid- to late 80s. He went to New Jersey with a friend to attend a student conference on strategies for continuing support for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, “Free Mandela.” Once again the dearth and the lack of depth of the information presented was sorely apparent. He met a Jamaican who invited him to a church in Harlem where Harlem’s First World Alliance was sponsoring a talk the following day by Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan (Dr. Ben), egyptologist, African historian, author of African Origins of the Major “Western Religions.” Upon leaving the church as Steel Pulses’ Grab Education blasted on a boom box, he found what he was looking for, books full of Afrocentric information being sold by various vendors —The Mis-Education of the Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Destruction of Black Civilization by Chancellor Williams, The Philosophies and Opinions of Marcus Garvey by Amy Jacques Garvey and Stolen Legacy by Professor George G.M. James. “Wow, I found it!!!” He bought all the books he could, collected the vendor’s business cards and his quest to quench his thirst was on. Not only did he read the works of Dr. Ben, but of Dr. Clarke, Dr. Ivan Sertima, Dr. Maulana Karenga, and others.
Upon returning to Minnesota he was compelled to share this wealth of knowledge so he started a book club with a friend, joined the U of M’s black student organization, and set up talks to bring these academics to campus. Otieno coordinated with fellow student Farouk Seti Olajuwon who was the president of the Black Student Union and program director of Black History Month to have these books available for sale at the lectures. Otieno considers Farouk to be among the most prominent current black authors. Farouk recently authored a book, Bootstraps and Metaphors: Black Power Economics under the name Lawrence “SmoothBlack” Yates. Desiring to get these books into others’ hands, he began to sell books from his apartment—he had to—later he opened Uhuru Books.
The books featured and available at his store were handpicked to get the right information to others who had his same thirst for knowledge. “After all, people who don’t know their history make excellent slaves, regardless of the type of slavery or time period (18th or 21st Century).” “You have to be discriminating, you have to know what to look for and verify the authenticity of the information by making sure it is credible and not myth or fallacy. The right information is out there, you just have to be able to find it.” “It is important for bookstores to carry relevant information because somebody wants to know.” This is especially true when it comes to African history since it is often told by European scholars. An African proverb says, “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” There are many credible scholars, including Europeans that, for example, the United Nations uses to interpret African culture and history. The work and collaboration of many eminent African scholars such as Cheikh Anta Diop and his assistant Theophile Obenga, and Joseph Ki-Zerbo are referenced in the resulting documents of the Proceedings of the 1974 UNESCO symposium in Cairo, The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of Meroitic Script and in the acclaimed 8-volume series of almost 10,000 pages, UNESCO’s General History of Africa. Additionally in 1974 at the UNESCO symposium Diop and Obenga collectively and soundly reaffirmed the African origin of the pharaonic Egyptian civilization. The consensus reached was that there was no evidence that the ancient Egyptians were white; that Egypt was not influenced by Mesopotamia, but by the peoples from “the Great Lakes region in inner-equatorial Africa.”
Community gathering place
Uhuru Books was a community gathering place where people could learn about culture, history, the black experience, and purchase African crafts, artwork, clothing, and accessories. Weekly Saturday morning talks on African history, sometimes led by Professor Mahmoud El-Kati (www.mahmoudelkati.com/biography.html) or a guest lecturer, were well attended by 20-25 individuals. All attended; African Americans, Whites, Latinos, Islanders, alike, came for book clubs, author readings, book signings, to hear speeches by Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Vernon Bellecourt (WaBun-Inini), leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and others. Janet Jackson came to the bookstore two summers in a row while she was recording in the Twin Cities with Flyte Tyme Productions. Uhuru Books was named as one of America’s cultural hotspots in EM Ebony Black Male magazine in its October 1996 issue which featured Eddie Murphy on its cover. Use of the space was free to community organizations to host events on the “issues of the day.” He misses this connection to the community. It was a good feeling, very fulfilling. “I felt I was contributing something to the African liberation struggle, to understanding people.”
Through owning the bookstore, Otieno learned much about African history and cultures and the more he learned the more attracted he was to Africanism. This commitment showed itself in long hours—the store was open six days a week from 10 am to 8 pm—and in the fact that he finished his civil engineering degree after closing the store. “Black children especially here in America aren’t necessarily taught their ancestral history and hence may be alienated by popular culture. Knowing where you came from makes life easier and makes it possible to concentrate on the good [in life] and manage stress.” Once a semester Seed Academy/Harvest Prep School would bring their students on field trips to tour the store and Professor El-Kati and others gave short lecture on Afrocentric topics.
Why was it difficult to make the bookstore viable?
Inaccessibility to capital was the most prominent reason. There were programs to help small businesses, but the bookstore was never a good fit. Funding came mostly out of his own pocket. Internet book retailing changed the face of bookstores and many small bookstores went under. Ironically, after closing the bookstore, he sold his inventory online through Amazon.com to recoup his costs even after Amazon got 15% of the sales.
In early 1993 Otieno and Kennedy Agyenkwah from Ghana in partnership opened the Pan-African Marketplace in north Minneapolis at Plymouth and Washington Avenue as a business incubator for African entrepreneurs. At the height of its operations the Marketplace had 12 businesses on the premises and a huge hall that was rented to diverse community groups for their events. The City of Minneapolis took over the building and the area as part of their development plans resulting in the businesses dispersing.
Thoughts on current society
When asked about his thoughts on society now, he responded optimistically, “These are exciting times.” On Obama being president, “Who would have thought that would occur!” “There are opportunities for those that seek them.” “Learning about Pan-Africanism will cure more of our ills. The lack of knowledge is detrimental. Lack about knowledge of self is dangerous, a recipe for disaster.” True knowledge of self and the resulting pride works most effectively against white supremacy and awakens the sleeping giant.
Being only 19 when coming to the U.S. to go to school, it was “tough” being away from home and family. He came from a family of nine children, three sisters and six brothers. One of his brothers passed away in 2010. His parents are living: his father is 85 and his mother is 75. His father was here recently visiting from Kenya. The best part of being his parents’ child is that they taught him to treat everyone with respect. “You treat others the way you want to be treated.” They always had relatives living with them; some were less fortunate than they were. He grew up in Nairobi but during school holidays he spent time in the rural areas with his grandparents and other relatives.
On raising children
Otieno relayed his personal story about making sure one’s children grow up happy and get the knowledge and guidance they need. He married in his early 20s. He said perhaps he didn’t get the guidance he needed. “My girlfriend got pregnant and I was not going to abandon her or my child so I said let’s make a life.” They had another child but they just couldn’t get the marriage to work. After divorcing, he was granted custody of his two boys, Uhuru and Ramogi, then one and four years old. Two boys, a single dad, going to school and work, changing diapers, no family here to help, he knew that the kids would end up growing up at the daycare not in a family setting, and that most days would be very challenging so he had to figure something out. His sister convinced him to send the boys to Kenya to be raised by his family and while it was not an easy decision, he decided that it would be best. A few years of African training and culture would serve them well and they would then have a better chance to make something of themselves. His boys were 7 and 4 when they left and they lived in Kenya for six years. The boys—now young men—are “respectful,” “as teenagers they didn’t give problems.” Last May his eldest son, Uhuru, received his master’s in business administration and Ramogi is finishing his last year at Rock Hill, South Carolina where he will earn his bachelor’s in computer engineering. Otieno attributes their success to the fact that they received a different perspective of life. Otieno remarried and has two girls, Paju and Zoe, 5 and 15. I asked him, how they are doing given that they were raised here. “This time around I and their mother together were able to provide a strong Afrocentric foundation for them.” Their mom is strict, one of the girls went to Seed Academy/Harvest Prep School, they now have family here whom visit often; all factors that have helped to raise healthy, respectful children. Otieno couldn’t be prouder of his children. “It is challenging to raise healthy kids. We all need lots of help to do so, as you know from the African proverb it takes a village to raise a child. It is hard to get that here.”
This is a shorten version of a more extensive article found at www.agrmn.wordpress.com To contact Otieno e-mail firstWorld TV@gmail.com and to keep abreast of the reopening of Uhuru Books visit uhurubooks.co (later this year).