African American Studies
Chief Paul Okali Ogbuisi was born in 1954 in the Ugweke section of Nigeria’s southern Abia State capital, Umuahia. The eldest child of his family, Chief Paul was educated at both the primary and secondary school level, finishing at age 18 eighteen to join the textile business. When Chief Paul was six years old and still in primary school, Nigeria gained its independence. In 1967 when Chief Paul was thirteen years old, a civil war known as the Biafran war began between the predominantly Islamic north and the predominantly Christian south. Due to violent attacks on hospitals, churches, and schools during the war, all schools were closed. Those who were able to fight, including Chief Paul’s mother, were sent to the warfront. Chief Paul also joined the army as a child spy for his region’s troops.
During his time as a young participant in the war, Chief Paul was witness to many violent acts. He also experienced the effects war had on his people who fell victim to sickness and hunger. Despite these difficult experiences, Chief Paul noted during his interview that he was appreciative of all he witnessed. For Chief Paul, experiencing the harsh realities of war has provided him with an understanding of the world that he would not have been able to gain through any other means.
After the war ended in 1970, Chief Paul returned to Ugweke to continue school. In 1975, at the end of Chief Paul’s secondary education, he joined a textile business. For fifteen years he worked for a man named Dr. M.M. Ihekwumere who taught him a great deal about the textile industry. By 1979 his boss began to send Chief Paul all around the world to purchase textile goods for resell in southern Nigeria. During this time Chief Paul was sent to countries like England, Germany and the United States. His first business trip to the United States and New York was in 1979. During his stay, he shared an apartment on Fish Avenue in the Bronx with a family friend from Ghana. While visiting New York City he began to learn about factory machinery and the pesticide industry. Following his first visit to the United States and subsequent return to Nigeria, Chief Paul continued to travel back and forth from Nigeria to New York City for business purposes.
After a few years of working for Dr. M.M. Ihekwumere and saving his earnings, Chief Paul began to purchase land and houses in his hometown in Nigeria. Eventually, as his income and investments grew, he was able to begin his own business. At the start of his business, Chief Paul had more than forty people working for him. Once established and earning a substantial amount of profits, he began to help his extended family and those within his community. Over the years he has helped many children pay for their school fees and books. He also helped send his brother-in-law to the United States to attend college at Fordham University in the Bronx. According to Chief Paul, spending money on others within his community has given him many blessings.
After some time, Chief Paul’s community in Umuahia recognized his generosity and leadership by asking him to become chief at the age of fifty. Chief Paul noted that a chief is given significant authority within the community and assists in resolving many issues that arise among neighbors and families. These issues include land disputes, financial disputes, marital difficulties, and behavioral problems with children. As for the chief’s wife, she is given the title of Lolo and is to be respected as a leader among the women within her community. She is given the responsibility of assisting mothers, wives, and daughters, providing them with needed counsel and guidance.
Although Chief Paul became a chief back in his hometown of Umuahia, he is still recognized as chief among the Igbo community in the Bronx. Those who know him address him as chief and continue to seek his advice on a variety of matters. He spends a great deal of time attending to his duties as chief and is constantly on call assisting others with a variety of issues.
Throughout the interview, Chief Paul mentioned various cultural traditions that are still practiced within the Igbo community in the Bronx. Some of these practices include libation ceremonies where there is a ceremonial exchange of kola nuts, a nut that is only eaten by the Igbo people of Southern Nigeria, and the practice of paying a bride price to the father of a potential bride. He also points out that although there are Africans from many other countries in Africa living in New York City, he sees them all as Africans and appreciates the cultural similarities they share.
Chief Paul has lived in the Bronx for the past seven years and is a member of the Victory Assemblies of God church. He and his wife have five children, four boys and one girl, all of whom live in Nigeria. Although he appreciates the positive aspects of life in the United States, he plans to return to his home in Nigeria eventually. In the meantime, despite being separated by thousands of miles from his hometown, he still provides leadership through financial support to those within his community and maintains a connection with those he serves in Umuahia by means of his children and the Igbo community in the Bronx.
Ogbuisi, Chief Paul Okali. April 15, 2010. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
Click below to download supplemental content.Oguisi, Paul Okali Part 1.mp3 (93589 kB)
Oguisi, Paul Okali Part 2.mp3 (19134 kB)