Nigerian Americans

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
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Nigerian Americans

Kwasi Sarkodie-Mensah


Nigerian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Nigeria, a West African state on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. Nigeria is bordered by Niger to the north, Benin to the west, Cameroon to the east and southeast, and Chad to the northeast. The climate and the geography of Nigeria are diverse, with the arid Sahara desert in the north, a tropical rain forest in the south, mangrove swamps along the coast, and mountains in the southeastern part of the country. Nigeria's total land area is 356,669 square miles (923,768 kilometers), equaling the combined areas of New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

The 2010 Nigerian census put the country's population at 158,423,000. Nigeria's population is extremely diverse—more than 250 ethnic groups are identified, with 10 ethnic groups accounting for 80 percent of Nigeria's population. As in many other African countries, the distribution of religion can be broken down into three major areas: Christian, Muslim, and animist. In Nigeria 50 percent of the population are Muslims, the majority of whom reside in the northern part of the country; about 40 percent are Christians and mainly live in the southern part of the country; and 10 percent practice animism or traditional African religion. Nigeria is among the world's top oil-producing nations and is one of Africa's most powerful economies. However, political instability, corruption, and mismanagement continue to put Nigeria in the category of developing countries.

Over the course of the twentieth century, education has been the primary reason that Nigerians have immigrated to the United States. In its 1935 annual report, the New York–based Institute of International Education indicated that in 1926 there were three documented Nigerian students in U.S. universities. Almost two decades later, in 1944 the Institute of International Education reported that there were 44 Nigerian university students in the United States. The numbers began to increase dramatically in the 1970s when an oil boom made Nigeria one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. Most students were sponsored by their parents and relatives, both in Nigeria and in the United States, while others obtained financial assistance from American universities and colleges. In the late 1970s and 1980s Nigeria was among the top six countries in the number of students sent to study in the United States. In the 1980s, when Nigeria's economy began to decline precipitously, many Nigerians remained in the United States and obtained citizenship. After becoming citizens Nigerian Americans often brought their relatives into the United States. The Diversity Visa Program, also known as the Green Card Lottery, established through the Immigration Act of 1990, has been a source of migration to the United States. From 1990 through 2013, an average number of 6,000 Nigerians annually migrated to the United States through this program.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates, in 2011 there were approximately 271,098 people of Nigerian ancestry living in the United States. The largest numbers of Nigerian Americans are found in Texas, New York, Maryland, Georgia, and California.


Early History The name Nigeria was coined by the British colonial administrator Lord Lugard's wife in 1897 in honor of the 2,600-mile-long Niger River. The first Europeans to reach Nigeria were the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. In 1553 the first English ships landed at the Bight of Benin, then known as the “Slave Coast.” Present-day Nigeria came into existence in 1914, when the Colony of Lagos, the protectorate of Southern Nigeria, and the protectorate of Northern Nigeria were amalgamated. Even before the arrival of Europeans, the many nationalities or ethnic groups were highly organized and had law and order. There were village groups, clans, emirates, states, kingdoms, and some empires. The Kanem-Bornu empire goes as far back as the tenth century. The Oyo empire, founded in the late fourteenth century by Oranmiyan, a prince of Ile-Ife, had a powerful army and maintained diplomatic contact with other kingdoms in the area. The Fulani empire was established in 1803 by a jihad, or holy war, against the rulers of the Hausa states by Usman Dan Fodio; it went on to become one of the most powerful kingdoms. Within two decades, parts of the Oyo empire, Bornu, and Nupe were added by conquest to the Fulani empire. Although there were no centralized governments, trade and commercial activities existed. Intermarriages flourished among the various groups.

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One of the most prosperous trades even before the arrival of the Europeans was the slave trade. It was common practice in many African civilizations to sell war captives, delinquent children, and the handicapped; and Nigeria was no exception. With the arrival of the Europeans, slavery became more lucrative. Intertribal wars were encouraged by the Europeans so that more captured slaves could be sent to the New World. The British Parliament abolished slavery in 1807.

When the mouth of the Niger River was discovered in 1830, the British heightened their economic expansion into the interior of the country. Formal administration of any part of Nigeria goes back to 1861 when Lagos, a vital component of the lucrative palm oil trade, was ceded to the British Crown. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, geographical units and artificial borders were created in Africa by European powers without any consideration for cultural or ethnic homogeneity. Britain acquired what is now Nigeria as a result of this contest between European powers known as the “scramble for Africa.” In 1914 the various protectorates were consolidated into one colony, the Protectorate of Nigeria.

Modern Era After World War II, nationalism rose in Nigeria. Under the leadership of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigerians began to demand self-determination and increased participation in the governmental process on a regional level. On October 1, 1960, Nigeria became an independent country, but this independence brought about a series of political crises. Nigeria enjoyed civilian rule for six years until January 15, 1966, when, in one of the bloodiest coups in Africa, the military took over the government of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, assassinated him, and replaced him with General J. Aguiyi-Ironsi. Later that month Ironsi was killed in a counter-coup and replaced by General Yakubu Gowon. In early 1967 the distribution of petroleum revenues between the government and the Eastern Region, where the majority of Igbos come from, sparked a conflict. Gowon abolished the four regions of Nigeria and replaced them with twelve states. Colonel C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, a soldier from the Igbo tribe, announced the secession of the Eastern Region and declared a Republic of Biafra. Events following this declaration resulted in the Nigerian Civil War, also referred to as the Biafran War (1967–1970). It was one of the most deadly civil wars in Africa, claiming the lives of over two million Nigerians.

Gowon was overthrown in a bloodless military coup on July 29, 1975, when he was attending a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity. Brigadier General Murtala Ramat Muhammed became the leader of the government. He started a popular purging of the members of the previous government and announced a return of the country to civilian rule. On February 13, 1976, Muhammed was assassinated during a coup attempt. Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo, chief of staff of the armed forces in Muhammed's government, became the new head of state. In 1978 Nigeria produced a new constitution similar to that of the United States.

The country returned to civilian rule in 1979 when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was sworn in as president. He was ousted in 1983 by a group of soldiers led by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari introduced stringent measures to curb corruption, imprisoning many former government officials on corruption charges. Under Buhari's government, the death penalty was reintroduced in Nigeria and freedom of the press was rigorously restricted. Many newspapers were banned and journalists were imprisoned or tortured.

On August 27, 1985, Major General Ibrahim Babangida led a bloodless coup, deposing Buhari as the head of state. Babangida promised to restore human rights, establish a democratically elected government, and eradicate corruption, which has frequently been a part of Nigerian politics. Babangida not only violated his promises but also imprisoned journalists who stood up for the truth. After repeatedly postponing a return to a democratically elected government, Babangida annulled the results of the election held in June 1993, which was won by his opponent, Chief Moshood Abiola. Under pressure, Babangida resigned and left power in the hands of a handpicked and widely opposed interim government. Later in 1993, General Sani Abacha, a longtime ally of Babangida, became president; he ruled Nigeria until his death in 1998. The country returned to civilian rule in 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military leader, won the presidential election; he was re-elected in 2003. Umaru Yar'Adua won the 2007 election. After being hospitalized in 2009, he transferred power to his vice president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, in 2010. Jonathan subsequently won the presidential election held the following year.


Compared with other ethnic groups in the United States, the presence of Nigerian Americans in the United States does not date back very far. However, if the slave trade is considered, then Nigerians have been part of American society as far back as the eighteenth century. Even though Nigerian Americans of the modern era do not want to be associated with slavery or categorized as African Americans, history bears witness to the fact that the coastal regions of modern-day Nigeria were referred to as the Slave Coast. Nigeria provided a vast percentage of the Africans who were separated from their families and forced into slavery by European entrepreneurs.

World War I expanded the horizons of many Africans. Although European colonial masters wanted Africans in their territories to receive an

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African-based education with emphasis on rural development, many Africans wanted to go abroad to study. In the early parts of the twentieth century, it was traditional for Nigerians to travel to European countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany to receive an education and then return to their countries. Two dynamic ideological movements emerged after the war: Marcus Garvey's military platform of Africa for Africans, and W. E. B. Du Bois's Pan African movement. The colonial powers in Africa feared that the strong ideas of identity and freedom preached by both Garvey and Du Bois would turn the Africans against their colonial rulers.

Nigerian immigrants to the United States have typically settled near family relations or near colleges or universities previously attended by relatives and friends. They have tended to prefer areas where weather is similar to that of Nigeria. Most early Nigerians coming to the United States went to schools in the southern United States. Today large metropolitan areas attract Nigerian immigrants, many of whom hold prestigious professional jobs. Poor economic conditions have forced many highly educated Nigerian Americans to take up odd jobs. In many metropolitan areas, Nigerian Americans with one or several graduate degrees work as taxi drivers and security officers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates, in 2011 the states with the largest populations of Nigerian Americans included Texas, New York, Maryland, Georgia, and California.


English is the official language in Nigeria, but it is estimated that there are between 250 and 400 distinct dialects. There are three major ethnic languages in Nigeria: Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa. Yoruba is spoken by more than 15 million people, primarily in southwestern Nigeria. Belonging to the Kwa group of languages, Yoruba is a tonal tongue. Depending on the tone used, the same combination of sounds may convey different meanings. Igbo is also spoken by more than 15 million people in Nigeria. Formerly considered a Kwa language, recent research has placed Igbo in the Benue-Congo family of languages. Hausa is spoken in the northern part of Nigeria and is considered to be the most widely spoken language in Africa. It is a member of the Chad group of languages frequently assigned to the Hamitic subfamily of the Hamito-Semitic family of languages.

Pidgin English has become the unofficial language in many African countries, and Nigeria is no exception. It can be loosely defined as a hybrid of exogenous and indigenous languages. It has become the most popular medium of intergroup communication in various heterogeneous communities in Nigeria. Nigerian Americans from different tribal entities who may not communicate in English can communicate with each other in Pidgin English.

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First-generation Nigerian Americans speak their native languages at home and when interacting with people from the same tribal groups. English words have found their way into most of the traditional languages spoken by Nigerian Americans. Children born into Nigerian American homes speak English and may learn the native languages if their parents teach them or speak the languages at home.

It has been proposed several times that Nigeria needs an African language as its official language. This laudable desire may never become a reality because there are so many languages and dialects to consider. The existence of the diverse tribal and cultural groups makes it hard to single out one native language as the national language.

Greetings and Popular Expressions The following are common Yoruba greetings: Bawo ni? (“baa wo knee”)—Hi, how are things?; Daadaa ni (“daadaa knee”)—Fine.

Common Hausa greetings include: Sannu (“sa nu”)—Hi; Lafiya? (“la fee ya”)—Are you well?

Igbo greetings and expressions include: Ezigbo ututu—Good morning; Kedu ka imere?—How do you do?; Gini bu aha gi?—What is your name?

Popular greetings in Pidgin English are varied and may include: “How now?”—How are you? or How is it going?; “Which thing you want?”—What do you want?; and “How body?”—How's your health?


As in many African countries, Western religion was imposed on Nigeria. Traditionally, Nigerians believe that there are two types of divinities: the Supreme Being and the subordinate deities. The Supreme Being can be likened to God, and the subordinate deities to the saints and others through whom people can communicate with the Supreme Being. The Igbos, for instance, refer to the Supreme Being in powerful terms, such as Chukwu (the Great Providence) and Chineke (Creator and Providence). The traditional religion of the Yorubas focuses on different gods who represent aspects of one almighty, all-encompassing God, Olorun—owner of heaven and earth, who is too sacred to be directly approached or worshipped.

Through commercial contacts and colonization, Islamic and European religions were introduced in Nigeria. The majority of Nigerian Americans hailing from Nigeria's northern states are Muslims. Islamic groups in the northern part of Nigeria include the Hausa, Fulani, Kanuris, Kanemis, Bagirimis, and the Wadayans. About 40 percent of the Yoruba population also practices Islam. In 1973, Nigerian Muslims in the New York and Washington, D.C., area formed the Nigerian Muslim Association (NMA). Since then many Nigerian American communities in large cities in the United States have formed their own NMA. One reason Nigerian American Muslims have formed their own worship communities is that, unlike many Muslim Americans, they do not speak Arabic.

The majority of Nigerian Americans from the Igbo tribe are Catholics. While many Nigerians worship in churches alongside the broader American community, Nigerian Americans also have their own groups in which they can worship together. For example, in Boston, the Igbo community has formed a group that worships in the Catholic tradition, using the native language in both prayers and songs. They also incorporate traditional practices such as dancing and drumming into their worship.

A key development in religion in Nigeria was the establishment of Aladura, or spiritual churches. Aladura is a Yoruba word meaning “one who prays.” The Aladura movement started among the Yoruba people in Nigeria during the first decades of the twentieth century and spread throughout Africa. Among the many practices of this movement, all participants wear white robes when they worship. They may worship in a church building, along the beach, on top of hills, or by the mouth of rivers, praying, confessing their sins, healing, singing, and clapping. The Aladura movement can be likened to the charismatic movement in the United States. In many U.S. cities Nigerian Americans have established their own Aladura churches.


Nigerian culture defies easy generalization because the country's people and their traditions are so varied. Nigerian Americans come from diverse ethnic, religious, and financial backgrounds, and therefore they come to the United States with various levels of attachment to their native traditions.

There is no typical Nigeria American household decoration. Depending on which region in Nigeria they come from, Nigerian Americans decorate their houses with various art forms. Many of them bring such artifacts when they travel home to visit. Other Nigerian Americans become so Westernized that their households do not have any indication of their heritage. Nigerian Americans have always had the reputation of living comfortable lives and maintaining high standards of living.

Traditions and Customs Nigerians have a variety of traditions and lore dating back to antiquity. For example, peeking at the eggs on which a hen is sitting was believed to make you blind. Singing while bathing could result in a parent's death. A pregnant woman who ate pork could have a baby with a mouth like that of a pig. Among the Yoruba it was believed that there were spirits hidden in rivers and hills in various cities. Since these spirits were there to protect the people, they were not to be disturbed on certain days of the week. In almost all Nigerian societies, there is a strong belief that most disease and death is caused supernaturally, by witchcraft, curses, or charms. Witches Page 333  |  Top of Articleare usually elderly women. For a long time the Igbos believed that twins were an abomination and killed them at birth. Among some of the Hausa people, it was believed that marrying a Yoruba woman could result in mystical dangers such as serious sickness or even death. As Nigerian immigrants became acculturated to mainstream American society, these beliefs and superstitions were forgotten.

In many Nigerian cultures elders are supposed to be served first during a meal but leave food in the bowl for the children to eat as leftovers. The proverb “the elder who consumes all his food will wash his own dishes” attests to this belief. However, in many Nigerian American homes children are served before adults, an indication of the Western influence whereby the needs of the child come first.

The younger generation of Nigerian Americans sometimes struggle with adhering to traditional cultural protocols. For example among Nigerian Americans of Yoruba origin, younger people are supposed to greet older people properly by prostrating to them, that is, by kneeling down or saluting them in some way. Many younger Nigerian Americans find it hard to keep this tradition alive, especially when their peers from other American groups are present. Outside of embarrassment, it makes them feel that they are breaking the common American right of all people to be treated equally. They ask in their minds, “Why should older people be treated as God, someone to be served?”

Cuisine Ask anyone who has tasted Nigerian cuisine, and one answer is almost guaranteed—it is hot. There is no typical Nigerian American dish. Among the Yoruba, a meal may consist of two dishes: a starch form of dough derived from corn or guinea corn, or mashed vegetables that may be served with stew. The stew is prepared in typical Yoruba way, using palm oil, meat, chicken, or other game cooked with many spices and vegetables, flavored with onions or a leaf vegetable called bitter-leaf. A common Yoruba food is garri, made from the roots of cassava (manioc).

Among the Igbo people, cassava, cocoyam (taro), potato, corn, okra, beans, peanuts, and pumpkins are common foods. In the northern part of Nigeria, grains constitute a good component of the diet. Tuwo (“tu-wo”), a porridge-like dish, is common in the north and is eaten with different types of soup and sauce made from onions, peppers, tomatoes, okra, meat, or fish.

For group functions, the most popular food item for both Yorubas and Igbos is pounded yam or its variant fufu, served with stew or soup. Both groups cook ogbono soup (so called because it is thickened with ogbono seeds) to go with the dishes. Jollof rice, which is usually yellow in color, is another popular and very common dish among both groups. The only reason why Nigerian Americans may abandon traditional cuisine is the difficulty in obtaining the right ingredients. Nigerian Americans living in major metropolitan areas

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The following are some common Nigerian proverbs:

  • The voyager must necessarily return home.
  • Death does not recognize a king.
  • A foreign land knows no celebrity.
  • An elephant is a hare in another town.
  • The race of life is never tiresome.
  • The nocturnal toad does not run during the day in vain.
  • A child who does not know the mother does not run out to welcome her.
  • If birds do not seek a cause for quarrel, the sky is wide enough for them to fly without interference.
  • It is not a problem to offer a drink of wine to a monkey; the problem is to take the cup away from him.
  • Many words do not fill a basket.
  • Truth is better than money.
  • If the elephant does not have enough to eat in the forest, it puts the forest to shame.

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There is a mine of proverbs in Pidgin English, including the following:

Man wey fool na him loss.

It is the fool that loses.

Lion de sick no be say goat fit go salute am for house.

Just because the lion is sick does not mean the goat can go to the lion's house to greet him.

Monkey no fine but im mamma like am so.

The monkey may not look handsome, but his mother likes him as he is.

Cow wey no get tail na God dey drive him fly.

God drives away the flies from the cow without a tail.

typically have easy access to shops selling the appropriate ingredients. Those living in smaller areas do not find it financially viable to drive several miles—sometimes fifty miles or more—to shop for authentic Nigerian ingredients.

Akara (“ah-ka-ra”), or Nigerian bean cakes, are fried patties made with uncooked, pulverized Page 334  |  Top of Articleblack-eyed peas ground into a batter with onion, tomatoes, eggs, and chili peppers. Egusi (“e-goo-she”) soup is a fiery soup made from egusi seeds (these seeds come from certain kinds of gourds; pumpkin seeds are often substituted in the United States). Other ingredients required for a typical egusi soup include okra, hot peppers, onions, any type of meat, poultry, or fish, palm oil, leafy greens, tomato paste, and salt.

Chinchin (“chin-chin”) are fried pastries made from flour mixed with baking powder, salt, nutmeg, butter, sugar, and eggs. Kulikuli (“cooley-cooley”), or peanut balls, are made from roasted peanuts (called groundnuts in Nigeria), peanut oil, onions, salt, and cayenne pepper. Moi-moi (“moy-moy”) is a savory pate made from black-eyed peas, onions, vegetable oil, tomato paste, parsley or fresh vegetables, salt, and pepper. Okra soup is based on meat, smoked fish, seafood and vegetables, and okra. This dish is similar to New Orleans gumbo.

Traditional Dress Men from various Nigerian groups wear loose-fitting trousers called sokoto (“show-kowtow”), a buba (“boo-bah”) or loose-fitting overshirt, and a cap. Yoruba men wear agbada (“ah-bah-dah”), which is flowing robe worn to the ankle. It covers an undervest with no sleeves and a pair of baggy pants. The women wear a wide piece of cloth that goes from below the neck to the ankles. A blouse hanging to the waist is worn over it. A head tie and a thin veil are also worn. Many Nigerian Americans wear their traditional costumes on special occasions such as National Day (October 1).

Dances and Songs Nigerian Americans boast of a wealth of traditional and modern music and dances because dancing and music are central to Nigerian life. At birth and death, on happy and sad occasions, and in worship, dancing and music are present. Traditionally in many Nigerian societies, men and women did not dance together. Western education and influence have changed this tradition, though Nigerian Americans who want to recreate their culture retain this separation.

Drums are an integral part of Nigerian dances and music. Juju music, a very popular form of music from Yorubaland, is a slow and relaxed guitar-based music. Highlife music is popular in all parts of West Africa, including Nigeria. It usually consists of brass, vocals, percussion, drums, double bass, and electric guitar. People from northern Nigeria who practice Islam enjoy music with origins in North Africa. Such music is varied, but the instruments commonly used include trumpets, flutes, long brass horns, cymbals, and kettle drums.

Today in Nigeria popular music includes hip-hop by young Nigerians, mostly sung in Pidgin and local languages—especially Yoruba and Igbo. Many Nigerian Americans listen to music by Nigerian musicians of the older generation as well as by Nigerian hip-hop artists such as P-Square, 2Face Idibia, Flavour N'abania, D'banj, Wizkid, and Aৢa. Most of the music is accessible online. Nigerian Americans enjoy music from all over the world. In addition to American and British music, reggae, calypso, and Zairian music are popular.

Holidays The major public holidays in Nigeria are New Year's Day; Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan); Easter; Eid al-Kabir (Feast of the Sacrifice, known as Eid al-Adha in other parts of the world); Mouloud (birth of the Prophet Muhammad); National Day or Independence Day; and Christmas. Nigerian Americans also celebrate the major public holidays in the United States.

National Day (October 1), celebrating the independence of Nigeria from colonial rule, is one of the most important holidays for Nigerian Americans. A whole week of cultural, educational, and political events are scheduled in areas with Nigerian American communities. Activities include lectures on Nigeria, traditional Nigerian dances and music, fashion shows, and storytelling of myths and legends from various Nigerian communities. Many Nigerian Americans volunteer to talk to neighborhood schoolchildren about Nigeria and the African continent at large. When the holiday proper falls on a weekday, parties and other festive celebrations are held on the weekend. The parties and festivities culminating in the celebration of Nigerian's independence are open invitations to Nigerians, people of other African descents, and others associated in one way or the other with Nigerian living in the United States. In New York, for example, the staff of the Nigerian Consulate attend these festivities.

For Muslim Nigerian Americans, Eid al-Fitr, or the end of the Muslim fasting season, is the second most important holiday in the Islamic calendar. For the approximately thirty days of Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to sunset. They also abstain from sex, drink, tobacco, and other activities associated with physical pleasure. To celebrate Eid al-Fitr, Muslims say the special feast prayer in a community format and give special alms to the poor. Nigerian American Muslims also share food and gifts with relatives and friends, and children receive gifts of all kinds.

There are many other holidays and festivities observed by Nigerian Americans to preserve their cultural heritage. Igbos in large metropolitan areas make it a point to celebrate the New Yam Festival every year. Traditionally, the yam has been the symbol of the prowess of the Igbo man. Just before midnight, the ezejis or elders offer prayers of thanksgiving and break kola nuts. Drums are played while blessings are offered. Other participants perform libation using Scotch whiskey or other similar liquor by pouring from a ram's horn. During the ceremony, prayers are addressed to an almighty being and to the ancestral gods who control the soil, through whose constant kindness and guidance yams and other foods of the land bear fruit. The ceremony also includes dancing, eating, and exchange of greetings.

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Even though Nigerian Americans take time to celebrate these holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter are moments for bigger family gatherings because it is easier for people to take time off from work.

Health Issues There are no documented health problems or medical conditions specific to Nigeria Americans. However, like all black people, Nigerian Americans are susceptible to sickle cell anemia, an abnormal hereditary variation in the structure of hemoglobin, a protein found in the red blood cell.

A 1994 deportation victory by a Nigerian immigrant brought the health issue of female circumcision to light. Lydia Oluroro won a deportation case in Portland, Oregon. If she had been sent home, her two daughters could have had their clitoris and part of their labia minora cut. Nigerian Americans reacted differently to this decision; some praised it, and others expressed concern that Americans might consider female circumcision a common practice in all of Nigeria. In a similar case in 2003, a federal appeals court upheld the deportation of Doris C. Oforji, a Nigerian illegal alien with two daughters born in the United States.


Africans in general have strong family commitments. It is traditional in Nigeria to maintain extended families. Unannounced visits are always welcome, and meals are shared even if no prior knowledge of the visit was given. Nigerian Americans continue this tradition. However, as a result of hectic work schedules and economic realities, it is common for Nigerian Americans to make a phone call, email, or text before paying visits to relatives or friends.

Children are required by tradition to be obedient to their parents and other adults. For example, a child can never contradict his or her parents; and the left hand cannot be used to accept money from parents, or as a gesture of respectful communication. Nigerian Americans try to maintain these traditional values, but as a result of peer pressure in American society, young Nigerian Americans resist this type of strict discipline from their parents. Even though children are treated equally in Nigerian American families, girls are usually the center of attention for several reasons. With teenage pregnancies on the rise in the United States, many parents seem to keep a closer eye on their female children. As part of sex education, many Nigerian American parents alert their children, both male and female, to the problem of teenage pregnancy and its ensuing responsibilities.

Gender Roles In a typical Nigerian American family, the man may still be regarded as the official head of household, but the role of women continues to be instrumental. While child care and other household chores may be expected to be equally divided between the husband and wife, there are usually areas of tension. In his 2012 book, Nigerian Immigrants in the United States, Ezekiel Umo Ette relates the story of a Nigerian American couple's realization that in the United States, the husband needed to participate in household and child-rearing duties, since they no longer had help from extended family like they had in Nigeria. Equally important is the role of women not to draw attention of the police to domestic issues. One of Ette's Nigerian American interviewees recounts being “lectured” by her in-laws on the importance of not calling the police on her husband.

Years ago in Nigeria it was traditional for women to stay home and take care of children, but today, both in the United States and in Nigeria, educational opportunities are opened equally to men and women. The areas of specialization are not delineated between the sexes.

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Don't misunderstand me. I love America. The freedom, tolerance, and respect of differences that are a part of everyday public life are some of the first things a visitor to America notices. But I also saw a public school system disconnected from society's most important institution—the family. In Nigeria, with all its political and social problems, the family remains strong, and by doing so helps to define the social and economic expectations of the nation.

Jide Nzelibe, a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (from “A Nigerian Immigrant Is Shocked by His U.S. High School,” Policy Review, Fall 1993, p. 43).

Education Nigerian American families believe that education is the key to success in life. Both male and female children are encouraged to attain the highest level of education, whether the parents have a lower level of education or hold terminal degrees or are well established in various professions. The early immigrants were educated people and they instilled in their children the importance of education as a component of a successful life. A May 2008 article in the Houston Chronicle reported that Nigerian Americans—both women and men—were the most educated in the United States, with a notably high percentage of them holding at least a master's degree. Indeed, the American Community Survey's estimates for 2011 showed that 28.5 percent of Nigerian Americans over the age of twenty-four held a graduate or professional degree (whereas the rate for the total U.S. population was 10.5 percent). Nigerian Americans also had higher high school graduation rates (97.1 percent held a high school diploma or equivalent, compared to 85.6 percent for the total U.S. population), and a whopping 60.9 percent held a bachelor's degree or higher (compared to 28.2 percent for the total U.S. population).

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Courtship and Weddings Traditionally, in many Nigerian communities, a man marries as many wives as possible. In the United States, where polygamy is illegal, Nigerian American men marry only one wife. While in their native country large families are common, Nigerian Americans have fewer children so that they will be able to give them the best education possible. Nigerian American parents encourage their children to marry people of Nigerian origins. They believe that such marriages can preserve Nigerian identity. They think it will be easier to build better family relationships with people familiar with their culture and traditions. Many want their male children to marry Nigerian women to reduce the chances of divorce. However, it is now common practice for young Nigerian Americans to court whomever they choose.

Different groups in Nigeria have different types of weddings, but usually they are a combination of the traditional and the modern. Among the Yoruba, for example, on the day of the traditional marriage, there is feasting, dancing, and merriment. At nightfall, the senior wives in the family of the groom go to the house of the bride's family to ask for the bride. At the door, the senior wives in the house of the bride ask for a door-opening fee before allowing the other women into the house. In addition to this initial fee, there are several others to be paid—the children's fee, the wives' fee, and the load-carrying fee. The family of the bride must be completely satisfied with the amount of monies given before the bride can be taken away. The senior members of the bride's family pray for and bless her and then release her to the head of the delegation. A senior wife from the groom's family carries the bride on her back to the new husband's home. The feet of the new wife have to be cleaned before she can enter the house. This symbolizes that the new wife is prepared to start a completely new life.

In the United States, the traditional marriage ceremonies seem to be fading, but many Nigerian Americans continue to perform them at home and then hold a Western-type wedding in a church or a court of law. When there are no close relatives of the bride and the groom in the United States, friends take on the roles of the various participants in the traditional wedding. After the traditional wedding, if the couple practices Christianity, the ceremony is performed according to the tradition of the church. Friends, relatives, and well-wishers from the home country and across the United States are invited to the ceremony. Although many guests may stay in hotels, according to the African tradition of hospitality, friends and relatives of the couple living in the immediate surroundings will house and feed the visitors free of charge. The accompanying wedding reception is a stupendous feast of African cuisine, traditional and modern music and dancing, and an ostentatious display of both African and American costumes.

Funerals The African concept of death is that it is a transition, not an end. Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa people, including those who practice Christianity and Islam, believe in reincarnation. Even though Western education and religion may have changed many traditional African beliefs, many Nigerian Americans hold on to those beliefs. Thus, if a person dies, he or she is

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In many Nigerian American homes, the child-naming ceremony is even more important than the baptism.

Among the Igbos, when a child is born, the parents set a time for this ceremony to take place and invite friends, relatives, and well-wishers to the event. Grandmothers traditionally prepare the dish that will be served, but in modern times all the women in the household take part in the food preparation. At the ceremony, benches are arranged in a rectangular form with a lamp placed at the center, and guests are ushered in by the new mother. Kola nuts (the greatest symbol of Igbo hospitality) are served, followed by palm wine. When the guests have had enough to drink, the new mother asks her mother to serve the food, which is usually a combination of rice, garri, yams, or fufu, and soup and stew made with stock-fish, ordinary fish, meat, and other types of game meat. After the meal, more palm wine is served. The host, usually the most senior man in the household, then repeats one or more proverbs, orders the baby to be brought, and places the baby on his lap. The grandmother gives a name, followed by the child's father, and then the baby's mother. Guests can also suggest names. After more drinking and celebration, the guests depart and the household gathers to review the suggested names and to select one, which becomes the name of the child. Possible Igbo names include Adachi (the daughter of God), Akachukwu (God's hand), Nwanyioma (beautiful lady), and Ndidikanma (patience is the best).

The Yoruba naming ceremony takes place on the ninth day after birth for boys, and on the seventh day for girls. Twins are named on the eighth day. By tradition the mother and the child leave the house Page 337  |  Top of Articlefor the first time on the day the naming ceremony takes place. Relatives, friends, and well-wishers join together to eat, drink, and make merry. Gifts are lavished on the newborn and the parents. An elder performs the naming ceremony using Kola nuts, a bowl of water, pepper, oil, salt, honey, and liquor. Each of these items stands for a special life symbol: Kola nuts are for good fortune; water symbolizes purity; oil symbolizes power and health; salt symbolizes intelligence and wisdom; honey symbolizes happiness, and liquor stands for wealth and prosperity. The baby tastes each of the above, as do all the people present. The name of the child is chosen before the ceremony. After dipping his hand in a bowl of water, the person officiating at the ceremony touches the forehead of the baby and whispers the name into the baby's ears, and then shouts it aloud for all around to hear. Some Yoruba names are Jumoke (loved by all), Amonke (to know her is to pet her), Modupe (thanks), Foluke (in the hands of God), and Ajayi (born face-down). Nigerian Americans preserve the traditional ceremonies, modifying as needed. For example, an older relative or friend plays the role of the grandmother when the real grandmother of the child is unable to be present.

After the traditional naming ceremony, if the family is Christian, another day is set aside for the child to be baptized in church. Hausa children born to Islamic parents are given personal names of Muslim origin. The Muslim name is often followed by the father's given name. Surnames have been adopted by a few Hausa people, especially those educated abroad. Some given Hausa names are Tanko (a boy born after successive girls), Labaran (a boy born in the month of the Ramadan), Gagare (unconquerable), and Afere (a girl born tiny).

born into another life completely different from the one he or she had. In addition to our visible world, there is believed to be another world where ancestors dwell and exert influence on the daily activities of the living. In many Nigerian societies, when a person dies, the entire community becomes aware of the death almost immediately. Wailing and crying from family members and unrelated people fill the town or village where the death occurs.

Funeral traditions vary in Nigeria according to group. For example, among the Kalabari people of eastern Nigeria, unless a person dies at childbirth or from what are considered abominable causes such as witchcraft or drowning, every adult receives an Ede funeral, which consists of laying the body in state and the chief female mourners donning a particular costume called iria. Traditionally the dead were buried the day after death. In the case of an older person, a whole week of ceremonial mourning was set aside. In modern times, the dead are kept in the mortuary up to eight weeks or more so that elaborate preparations can take place and relatives both local and abroad can come to the funeral. The initial wake is usually held on a Friday, and the burial takes places on a Saturday. After elaborate traditional burial ceremonies, those who practice Christianity are taken to the church for the established funeral rites before the corpses are taken to the cemetery. A week after that the final wake is held on a Friday, and the funeral dance and ceremonies on a Saturday. The day of the final funeral is filled with elaborate activities; relatives of the dead person dress up in expensive garments.

Many Nigerian Americans prefer to be buried in Nigeria when they die. For this reason they buy enough life insurance to cover the transportation of their bodies home. It is also common practice for Nigerian Americans to belong to societies within their communities where people, through monthly or annual dues, aid each other in times of hard economic expenditures, such as deaths and funerals. Bodies in the United States are usually kept in the funeral homes till the wake is done. When the body is flown home, in addition to the traditional burial ceremonies, Nigerian Americans who practice Christianity will be buried according to established rites. Nigerian American Muslims whose bodies are sent home are buried according to the Islamic tradition. Even though cremation is becoming a common and a more economical way of burial both within and outside of the United States, Nigerian Americans, like many of their counterparts in the African American community, have not embraced this funeral rite. The grandiosity of saying goodbye to a loved one has to be done while the deceased physical body can be seen by all. Most importantly, in the minds of Nigerian Americans, “burning” a loved one is very much against nature.

Interactions with Other Ethnic Groups Nigerian Americans interact with other ethnic minorities and the community as a whole, though most Nigerian Americans will first seek out people from their own tribes. At one time, as a result of the Nigerian Civil War (or Biafran War), Nigerian Americans from the Yoruba tribe would not interact with others from the Igbo tribe and vice versa; but this situation has Page 338  |  Top of Articleimproved in contemporary times. Interaction exists between Nigerian Americans and people from other African countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. Most Africans in the United States see themselves as brothers and sisters, since they all left their home countries to come here. There are some Nigerian Americans who prefer not to interact with people of their own heritage. There have been many cases of fraud, crime, and drug smuggling involving Nigerian Americans, and some Nigerian Americans want to avoid any implication in such criminal cases.


Early Nigerian Americans came to the United States to study, acquired terminal degrees, and returned home. Since then, many Nigerians have pursued studies in the United States and then settled here permanently. Through their status as U.S. citizens or permanent residents, some Nigerian Americans have been able to acquire prestigious jobs in academia and other professions. Nigerian Americans without such academic qualifications accept jobs in various sectors of society. It is also common for Nigerian immigrants to establish their own businesses in the United States. For many, trading in Nigerian and other African costumes has become a profitable business. This requires traveling between Nigeria and the United States to arrange importation of items. In large U.S. cities, it is not uncommon to find Nigerian and other African restaurants and grocery stores owned and operated by Nigerian Americans. Nigerian Americans have also established small businesses such as travel agencies, parking lots, taxi stands, cultural exchange programs, and health and life insurance agencies. Even though they target the general population for their clientele, Nigerian American business owners also invest time in acquiring Nigerian and other African clientele.

In the United States, the medical, engineering, legal, and many other top professional areas are filled with people of Nigerian descent, both male and female. On their own initiative, or under pressure from their parents, young Nigerian Americans pursue higher degrees in these prestigious professions.

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated in 2011 that, among employed Nigerian Americans ages sixteen and older, 48.7 percent had jobs in management, business, science, and arts occupations. This was higher than the rate of the overall U.S. population (35.9 percent). A significant proportion of Nigerian Americans, 43.2 percent, were employed in education, health care, and social assistance jobs (compared to 23.1 percent for the total U.S. population). Nigerian Americans' median household income stood at $54,546 (slightly higher than the total U.S. population's median of $51,484). The economic recession that began in 2008 did not affect well-educated Nigerian Americans in any significant manner.


Nigerian Americans as a group do not have political clout in the United States. They do work in small groups through established associations or where they

Guests dressed in the ceremonial robes of the Yoruba Tribe arrive at a wedding in Santa Ana, California. Guests dressed in the ceremonial robes of the Yoruba Tribe arrive at a wedding in Santa Ana, California. MARMADUKE ST. JOHN/ALAMY

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reside to raise political consciousness when appropriate issues arise. When the press in the United States reports sensational stories that create stereotypical impressions about Nigeria, Nigerian Americans react by uniting to correct such impressions.

Nigerian Americans maintain a high sense of pride for their country. They remain attached to Nigeria no matter how long they stay away from it. Many go home to visit occasionally while others make a visit to the motherland an annual obligation.

When Nigerians first came to the United States, they would often gather with other African students to promote nationalism and protest against colonial domination in their homeland. In contemporary times, Nigerian Americans have been vociferous in protesting against injustice and despotic rule in Nigeria. In 1989, when Nigeria's military leader, Ibrahim Babaginda, summarily dissolved several groups that aspired to be registered as political parties to compete in elections, Nigerian Americans throughout the United States held demonstrations to protest against this act of despotism. In 1993, when Babangida refused to accept the June elections and proposed a second election in August, Nigerian Americans added their voice to the international protest. As the political situation in Nigeria remains in turmoil, Nigerian Americans have constantly expressed themselves and worked to ensure that justice prevails.

In 2011 there was a protest held in front of the Nigerian Consulate in New York in objection to the condemnation of homosexual marriage in Nigeria. In December 2012, the Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN) mobilized thousands of Americans to sign a petition to ask President Barack Obama to declare Boko Haram, the jihadist group from northeastern Nigeria, as a terrorist organization.

Nigerian Americans forge strong ties with their motherland. Working with both private and governmental groups, Nigerian Americans have succeeded in organizing exchanges between businesspeople in the United States and Nigeria. Individual organizations also pool their resources to assist their motherland. A good example is the Network of Nigerian Engineers and Scientists, whose members sometimes offer free services to the government of Nigeria. As a result of these efforts, there has been a boost in trade between the United States and Nigeria as well as increased tourism in Nigeria. African American tourists visit Nigeria in huge numbers every year to explore their heritage.


Academia Bartholomew Nnaji (1957–) is known as one of the world's top scientists in the fields of robotics. He came to the United States on an athletic scholarship in 1977. After earning a PhD from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, he taught at the College of Engineering of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from 1983 to 1996. He was then appointed

A Nigerian store owner in Harlem, New York. A Nigerian store owner in Harlem, New York. AP PHOTO / BEBETO MATTHEWS

a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Nnaji has won many awards, including the 1988 Young Manufacturing Engineering Award and the 2004 Nigerian Order of Merit, the nation's highest intellectual recognition.

Victor Ukpolo (1950–), born in Lagos, Nigeria, became the chancellor of the Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO) in 2006, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. During the hurricane SUNO was severely damaged. Ukpolo led an aggressive and progressive campaign to restore all the damaged buildings and build two additional structures.

Toyin Falola (1953–) is a historian, writer, and professor of African studies. Falola became a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1991. He has authored and edited numerous books, including A History of Nigeria (2008; with Matthew M. Heaton), The Women's War of 1929: A History of Anticolonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria (2011; with Adam Paddock), and a memoir, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt (2005). Falola has served on the Library of Congress' Scholars Council.

Art Toyin Odutola (1986–), artist, was born in Nigeria and studied art in the United States. Her intricate drawings have been exhibited in various places, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, and are included in the collections of museums such as the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. In 2012 she was included in Forbes magazine's “30 Under 30,” a feature highlighting accomplished young individuals in various fields.

Marcia Kure (1970–), born in Kano, Nigeria, is a painter and a performance artist who has had artist residencies in Atlanta; Bayreuth, Germany; Tampa, Florida, and other places. Her work has been exhibited all over the world. She began residing in the United States in 2000. The themes of her work include political violence, the plight of women, and Page 340  |  Top of Articlemotherhood. She has been commissioned by several agencies of the United Nations to design calendars for various occasions.

Film Femi Agbayewa (1966–), produced the film God's Own Country (2007), which depicts the plight of the immigrant in America. Based in New York, Agbayewa worked for a trucking company while he produced this impactful movie that combines American and traditional African themes.

Early Nigerian Americans came to the United States to study, acquired terminal degrees, and returned home. Since then, many Nigerians have pursued studies in the United States and then settled here permanently. Through their status as U.S. citizens or permanent residents, some Nigerian Americans have been able to acquire prestigious jobs in academia and other professions.

Government Bumi Awoniyi (1965–) is an expert in family and immigration law who practiced law in England before migrating to the United States. She was admitted to the California State Bar in 1991 and was appointed a judge by California governor Jerry Brown in 2012.

Journalism Folosade (Sade) Olayinka Baderinwa (1969–), an Emmy Award–winning television news anchor, is the daughter of a Nigerian father and a German mother. She has worked as a co-anchor at New York's WABC Channel 7.

Literature Michael Chikelu Mbabuike (1943–2006) authored many books and pieces of poetry, both in English and French. After completing his bachelor's degree at the University of Nsukka in Nigeria, he went to the University of Sorbonne, France, for his MA and PhD in literature. He migrated to the United States in the 1970s. Mbabuike was the director of the Center for Igbo Studies and chair of African studies at the City University of New York's Hostos Community College. He remained active in the African Studies Association in New York and around the world.

Music O. J. (Orlando Julius) Ekemode (1942–), born in Ijebu-Ijesha in Nigeria, started playing drums at age eight. His combination of traditional African music with contemporary jazz, religious, reggae, Afro-beat, and soul music in the fashion of James Brown has made him one of the living legends of real African music in the United States. Orlando Julius continues to entertain the Nigerian American community in the United States, as well as Nigerians elsewhere in the diaspora. His tours outside the United States have included performances in Germany and the United Kingdom.

Ralph Victor Folarin (1984–), a rapper better known as Wale, was raised in Washington, D.C., by Yoruba immigrant parents. He gained attention with his 2006 hit song “Dig Dug (Shake It).” His recognitions include BET's Best Collaboration Award in 2012, the Best New Artist Award (2010) at the Soul Train Awards, and a Grammy nomination in 2013 for his song “Lotus Flower Bomb.”

Science and Medicine John O. Agwunobi (1954–) served as the secretary of Florida's State Health Department from 2001 to 2005. He was appointed by the Bush administration to be the assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and served as an admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service in 2005. He advocated for empowering the ordinary citizen to become familiar with over-the-counter medications as an asset to improving their health. In 2010 he was named director of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

Sports Hakeem Olajuwon (1963–), affectionately known as Akeem, led the University of Houston to three consecutive trips to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament. Olajuwon subsequently led the Houston Rockets to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2008. SLAM magazine ranked him thirteenth among the top fifty greatest basketball players of all time.

Donald Igwebuike (1961–) kicked five years for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team; when he was released in September 1990, he was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings for the 1990 football season. Soon afterward he was arrested and charged with being an accomplice to heroin trafficking, but he was later acquitted.

Christian Okoye (1961–), known as the “Nigerian Nightmare,” was a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1987 to 1992. His sports career in the United States started when he came from Nigeria on a track scholarship to Azusa Pacific University in 1982. Okoye was the NFL's leading rusher in 1989.


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The African Sun Times

Formerly the Nigerian Times, this newspaper bills itself as “America's only African weekly newspaper on newstands. Now online.”

Chika A. Onyeani, Editor
368 Broadway
Suite 307
New York, New York 10013
Phone: (212) 791-0777

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Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN)

Formed in 2012 by a group of U.S.-based Nigerian Christian leaders and professionals, CANAN aims to represent Nigerian American Christians and their interests, views, and causes.

Pastor James Fadele
P.O. Box 1041
Bay Shore, New York 11706
Phone: (631) 647-3465

National Council of Nigerian Muslim Organizations in the USA

Initially founded in 1976, the NCNMO has six chapters. It strives to help strengthen Muslim communities through religious, social, educational, and charitable activities.

P.O. Box 91736
Washington, D.C. 20090
Phone: (832) 359-4202

Nigerian American Public Professionals Association

The NAPPA promotes social culture, economic, and professional development among members through various educational seminars, workshops, conferences, and publications.

Vitto Eneji-Okoye
28 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois 60604
Phone: (773) 933-0427

Nigerian Healthcare Foundation

The Nigerian Healthcare Foundation was founded by a group of Nigerian Americans to provide medical services to people living in Nigeria and improve the country's health care conditions.

Ijeoma Obilo
P.O. Box 4070
Wayne, New Jersey 07470
Phone: (973) 831-0080


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African American Museum in Philadelphia

Maintains a vast collection of African sculpture and artifacts relating to Africa and the slave trade. Nigeria is well represented in the collection.

701 Arch Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106-1557
Phone: (215) 574-0380
Fax: (215) 574-3110

National Museum of African Art

Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum has more than 6,000 objects of African art in wood, metal, ceramic, ivory, and fiber. Its collection of Nigerian art is extensive.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Director
950 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, D.C. 20560
Phone: (202) 357-4600
Fax: (202) 357-4879


Arthur, John A.; Joseph Takougang; and Thomas Y. Owusu. Africans in Global Migration: Searching for Promised Lands. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012.

Burns, Sir Alan. History of Nigeria. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.,1929; reprinted, 1976.

Casimir, Leslie. “Data Show Nigerians the Most Educated in the U.S.” Houston Chronicle, May 20, 2008.

Ette, Ezekiel Umo. Nigerian Immigrants in the United States: Race, Identity, and Acculturation. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012.

Kalu, Ogbu, et al. Religions in Africa: Conflicts, Politics and Social Ethics. Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 2010. Print.

Koepping, Elizabeth. World Christianity. London; New York: Routledge, 2011.

Obi, Samuel C. Readings for Amerigerian Igbo: Culture, History, Language, and Legacy. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2010.

Obiakor, Festus E., and Patrick A. Grant. Foreign-Born African Americans: Silenced Voices in the Discourse on Race. Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2005.

Olupona, Jacob Obafemi Kehinde, and Regina Gemignani. African Immigrant Religions in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300132