Septuagenarian David Olupitan, erstwhile president of United African Organization (UAO), is one of the first African settlers in Chicago. He is revered in City Hall, amongst African immigrants and African American communities. Here he gives Joseph Omoremi, Editor of The Chicago Inquirer, an exclusive insight into the state of African community in the 60s, genesis of mistrust between African immigrants and African Americans and why the two must work together to solve once and for all, problems plaguing Blacks in the Diaspora.
Inquirer: How has the African community fared since your arrival here in the 60s?
Pa Olupitan: In Chicago, I’m one of the elders in Chicago. We’ve been trying to bring together Africans in Chicago so that we can talk like other communities. We are the only group in the city that is not working as a team. If we are united as a group the better for us. We can achieve great things. Firstly, I consider myself as an African despite the fact that I’m an Ijebu man. I should be seen as an African, and secondly as a Nigerian and an Ijebu man thirdly. That is the way we should see ourselves. I try to work with everybody and unite our people as a team. That is the only way we can get things done in this country.
Inquirer: Why is it difficult to work as a group?
Pa Olupitan: It is a long story and we’ve been searching for the answers for the past 40 years and we still don’t have the answer to it. A typical African is individualistic. An African wants to see what he can do for himself. Nigerians are the worst. We don’t consider ourselves as Nigerians. We see ourselves as either Ibo, Yoruba or Hausa first. The other African nations all have the same problem we have in Nigeria. In the past 10 years in this city, we’ve been trying to put the Nigerian community together but we’ve not been successful because of the tribal allegiance among the various Nigerian groups here. In the 70s and 90s when we founded the Continental African Chamber of Commerce and the African International House to promote the festival of the arts in Chicago and to unite our people, but we are very difficult to bring together and work with because the Ghanaians want to promote Ghana, the Senegalese want to promote Senegal and the Cameroonians want to promote Cameroon. So we are really divided and hope the second generation will put this into perspective.
Inquirer: Can you talk more on the continental African Chamber of Commerce?
Pa Olupitan: When we started it in the 80s, myself, the late Dr. Okoli and some other Africans and African Americans, it was a huge success because we came together at a time when there was no promotion for Africa in this part of the world. We took it upon ourselves to form an organization that would promote Africa culturally and to induce investment in the Black continent. In the 70s, we were responsible for taking a lot of American companies to Nigeria and other African countries. We are still the voice of Africa in this part of the world in the business community, whether you are white, green or yellow. We worked with all the international organizations that promote businesses and joint ventures in Africa. The goal has changed overtime since we started. When we formed African Chamber of commerce, we didn’t have any African owned businesses in this area. All our goals were to promote business between US and African countries and we were working with various African consulates and embassies throughout the country and Washington DC. I’m retired now. Our second goal now is to get involved with African companies growing up here too since that wasn’t within our original goals, we set-up another organization-African Business Community organization-to cater for African businesses to promote them locally, nationally and internationally.
Inquirer: What about the African International House?
Pa Olupitan: We formed the African International House as a cultural division of what we were doing. It was incorporated in the 90s as part of the window to Africa. We pioneered the African market place in Chicago. We used to host a market place in Hyde Park.
Inquirer: What about the United African Organization?
Pa Olupitan: It was started in 2000, just before I had the accident. We formed the United African Organization from the pressures from the City of Chicago. They kept telling us that everybody wanted to deal with the city and Cook County. The mayor?s office said we couldn’t?t deal with you individually. The Nigerians want to deal with the city of Chicago. The same goes for Ghanaians, Liberians and other nationalities of African countries here. Through the advise of the mayor, we had a meeting with our good friend Charles Bowen, executive assistant to the mayor. He advised us to form an organization to represent the whole of Africa. That was how we started UAO.
Inquirer: How has UAO fared since 2000 when it was incorporated?
Pa Olupitan: We were doing pretty well but after my accident the whole thing stopped. I keep telling other leaders to continue it because one person cannot dictate what the rest of the community should do. As a result of the pressure I was putting on all of them, they finally got themselves together and Andrew Eperi was appointed last year and did the inauguration.
Inquirer: Some leaders alleged that before the accident, you met the mayor and told him the African immigrants were not getting their fair share job-wise in the city and county governments and had to resort to doing odd jobs with their degrees. The mayor asked UAO to come with resumes and a fight broke-out and you did not return to the mayor with the resume?
Pa Olupitan: I’m not aware of that. Before my accident, we had two meetings with Mayor Daley and that was the last movement before things stopped. I handed over all the documents with me to the new president. I hope things are coming together because I assisted in forming the Tanzanian organization too. I?m hoping since young bloods are coming up, things will get better. All we can do now is to initiate and leave the execution to you new bloods.
Inquirer: What advice do you have for the new executive?
Pa Olupitan: My advice always to them is to be inclusive and to unite. They should forget about themselves and work on the overall interest of Africans. They should work on the interest of African nations and to be open and inclusive.
Inquirer: What are the African agendas you aim to achieve with the formation of UAO?
Pa Olupitan: We are trying to be relevant in the city. Africans are the only group that really doesn’t?t have an area or a community. Africans have been here before the Vietnamese. If you go on the north side, there is an area called the Vietnamese. We have the Italian area and the Chinese area. Africans are the only ones without a base in the city. This is one of the only goals we’ve been trying to achieve. We’ve been trying to have an African town through the African International House to build. The goal is to have a center that the Africans could go to and do whatever they want to do.
Inquirer: When are we likely to have an African community center?
Pa Olupitan: Well, it is still in the agenda of the African International House. Everybody has to work together, be it Ghanaians, Ethiopians, Somalis, Liberians or Nigerians. We’ve got to work as a team. The problem is every one of us has been promoting his own agenda. It is about time we all come together because for us to have power in this city and country, we have to be united. We need the power base like the Italian-Americans and Polish Americans. We don’t have any alderman; we need to sponsor one of us to be our alderman. The Japanese have got their own alderman. The Chinese and Italians each have one. We need to start forming power base because we all came to this country and had hoped to be here for few years before returning to Africa but this has become a permanent home for all of us. We need to change our attitude to reflect that. We are not visitors anymore. We are permanent residents and we have to start acting like permanent residents. We need to forget our old thinking and have a new vision.
Inquirer: The Ghanaians and Ethiopians are next in population to Nigerians in that order here but they were missing during the inauguration last month. What message do you have for the Ethiopians and Ghanaians?
Pa Olupitan: They should come back. Right from the beginning, Ghanaians were part of UAO. They are part of the founding organization. They should be supporting UAO, though I don’t know their reservations. There has been a problem with the Ethiopians right from the beginning. They like to stand-alone. It is left to the leaders of UAO to bring them into the organization. We?ve got to negotiate with each other and compromise.
Inquirer: What advice do you have for the Africans here?
Pa Olupitan: They should look around them and see how other communities are surviving in America.
Inquirer: Congressman Danny K. Davis wondered how African immigrants and African Americans could come together during the fund raising committee for Barack Obama recently. How did the mistrust between the two groups start?
Pa Olupitan: The African Americans and African immigrants are the same. The problem we had when we first came here was that the African Americans were not accepting Africans because of lack of trust. And the lack of trust is in everybody’s blood. It is just like talking about west side African Americans and South side African Americans. The trust is not there and the same kind of trust that exists even today between west side African Americans and south side African American residents is the same that is affecting African immigrants. We all just have to find a way to come together. This is a formula we?ve been trying to devise by forming the African Festival of the Arts. We started with few hundreds and now it is the number one neighborhood cultural event in Chicago today. Every year we have thousands and thousands of people gracing the event. Based on that we want everybody to come together. We all need to start reaching out. It’s our duty that must be done.
Inquirer: Why would the African American not trust you when you came in the 60s?
Pa Olupitan: It’s a long story. When we first came in the 60s, African Americans didn’t have any knowledge of their heritage. In those days, they were used to seeing Tarzan movies and this is the closest the African Americans knew anything about Africans. It’s always people jumping and living on top of trees. We still have jokes that we used to crack in those days. They used to ask us: “Do you have houses in Africa? Do you people ride in cars? Do you live on top of trees?” The portrait of Africa in this country was Tarzan and Tarzan movie wasn’t even shot in Africa. It was shot in Mexico and an average American didn’t know all of this. This is the kind of image they carried about Africans. It was in the 70s and 80s that African Americans started investigating who they were. Few of us that came from Africa used to work in schools to teach African history. That was how we started spreading the knowledge. Today, you could see African Americans wearing African dresses and attires. When we used to wear those dresses in the 60s, they used to say: “Why are you walking around in your pajamas.” It was funny then but everybody is proud to wear African garments and costumes now. That is an improvement but we still need to improve on our thinking especially on how to do business together. If African Americans and African immigrants can unite and work as a team, we will be the greatest on earth. All the problems about Africa will be half solved if we all can team up with all the intelligent ones that are here, heaven is the limit to what we can do. And all we can do is to continue to work to achieve the goal.
Inquirer: How is it possible for African American community and elected leaders to meet their African immigrant counterparts?
Pa Olupitan: This has been done. We’ve had meetings and conferences and all that. The younger generation needs to start doing what we started long time ago and improve on it. There is more knowledge today than we had in the 60s. We just have to start improving on it on a daily basis. There are lots to be done and we are not going to achieve a common goal if we are not united. It is just like in Africa, we are having the same problem. Everybody is competing with each other instead of uniting together to get things done. In 2004, we have seen a lot of unity in Africa and I’m hoping the same unity will come together between Africans and African Americans. All we are saying is there is a lot of improvement. There is more African American business that are establishing in different African countries now. They are also making money and that is the name of the game. The American corporations are making money and they don?t want anybody to compete with them and they will do everything to keep you out. We have to learn to go around them and bring out people into the picture.
Inquirer: How feasible is the community policing you organized for Nigeria practicing federal policing?
Pa Olupitan: They are coming here to learn the formula and put the formula into use to suit your own purpose so that you can achieve the same goals. The CAPS police in Chicago was a formula originally. The Chicago Police took it, analyzed it and started initiating it and learnt from both their mistakes and success and perfected it. The same thing we are going to do in Nigeria. We are going to modify it and learn from both the success and failures. That is all we are trying to do to expose them to the formula.
Inquirer: Why do they have to come to Chicago and not New York that is 2 1/2 bigger than Chicago but recorded few murders last year?
Pa Olupitan: They are not only here. They were in Houston and Atlanta and they will be in Washington D.C. Anything that is happening here in Chicago is happening in Lagos, Ibadan or Port Harcourt.
Inquirer: Why not learn in New York that is 2 1/2 bigger than Chicago and has been able to control crime considerably?
Pa Olupitan: They are looking for program that works. You go to an area that has program that works. It is an idea they want to take a look at and see how to formulate the formula to work in their environment?
Inquirer: What message do you have for African Americans regarding uniting with African immigrants?
Pa Olupitan: We are all the same. We have to learn from each other and resolve our differences. Children of the same parents have different goals and minds. That is the same thing with all of us. When we were growing up, our father used to say, regardless of what you do, I want you all to stand together as a team. You work together and tolerate each other and love each other. That is what we need to do and work out our differences.
Inquirer: You talk about Tarzan movies. There is another school of thought that hinged the mistrust between Africans and African Americans to Africans who sold them into slavery?
Pa Olupitan: We have nothing to do with slavery. That was something that happened before my time and I?m in the seventies now. It is very difficult to go that line and blame anybody. That is the more reason we have to move forward. The most important thing is for us to work together as a team and help each other out. We have to tolerate each other. You don’t have to like the person but you must tolerate them and respect them and don’t backbite anybody. Whatever you pursue, you are going to get it. If it is your goal, you will achieve it.