Central Avenue’s African immigrants keep their culture alive through coffee, conversations

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Inside a small brick building on Central Avenue one recent morning, after giving the dark beans a few more minutes on the stove, Shito Negussie inspects them, tosses a few that don’t meet her quality standards and puts them in the grinder. The fresh grounds go in the jebena, an Ethiopian coffee pot, back on the stove. She flits around the Charlotte restaurant with ease as she sets up cups and snacks, keeping one eye trained on the pot and another on the back door. Suddenly, it opens. “Good morning, Mama,” Yodite Tesafye says, kissing her mother on the cheek, while Negussie chides her daughter softly for not waking up earlier.

Abugida, Central Avenue’s most well-known Ethiopian restaurant, will be open in a few minutes. But for now, as they sip from steaming cups, Tesafye and her mom are back in their home country for a few minutes longer. It’s this sense of tradition that many of Charlotte’s African immigrants, from the East to the West, bring with them to keep their roots alive in their new country — using faith, language and customs. Abugida’s dining room is just one of those spaces.

ROYAL AFRICAN CUISINE You don’t have to travel 5,000 miles to taste the many flavors of West Africa. Just visit Eastway Crossing’s Royal African Cuisine. Owner Frank Appiah takes pride in the variety and quality of cuisine served at his restaurant, featuring fare from Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and his home country of Ghana. Appiah opened the restaurant in September 2019. He’s spent half of his two decades in the United States in Charlotte, moving here during his early 20s to “pursue his dreams.” He worked for Intel for a while — but dreams change. With an engineering and technology background, he knows it was a “crazy” choice to open a restaurant, but he said it was a needed addition to the community. “I’m somebody who likes to eat outside,” he said. “When I came here, it was like there was basically nothing.” There were a few African spots with foods from different countries. Appiah had the idea to create a one-stop shop for people interested in finding all of the flavors of West Africa in a single sitting. “That was how the idea was actually born,” he said. Appiah’s wife, who specializes in hospitality management, manages the kitchen — where everything from fufu, egusi, jollof rice, red snapper, peanut butter soup and okra are made daily — while Appiah handles the customers.

About half are African immigrants, Appiah estimates, but more Black Charlotteans are visiting Royal African Cuisine for a taste, too — joining Appiah’s son in his corner table at the restaurant. While raising his son in Charlotte, Appiah said it’s been important to him to teach his son his language, Twi, and feed him the same foods he was raised on. It’s been hard getting the word out about his restaurant to the community, and opening right before the pandemic has been a struggle, Appiah admits. “It hasn’t been easy,” he said. “Some days I’ll go home and cry. Some days I’ll go home with a smile.

“But we are still here.” Appiah, who fell in love with Charlotte during his first visit, said the city has changed dramatically during the decade he’s lived here — for the better. “I see the future coming to Charlotte,” he said. That, and one other memory, makes him hopeful for his restaurant’s future. During the first few months of Royal African Cuisine’s opening, a man came in and ate by himself. After he finished his meal, he told Appiah, “I haven’t been home in 16 years. Thank you … you brought Africa to me.”

MOYHE HAIR BRAIDING Nearby, at Moyhe Hair Braiding, Moyhe-Eugenie N’Dri-Zie’s fingers deftly weave through her client’s hair. But N’Dri-Zie wasn’t always this skilled — she had to start somewhere. When she was in middle school, Moyhe-Eugenie N’Dri-Zie begged her cousins, sisters and mom to let her style their hair. At 12, she’d braid their hair with unpracticed fingers and put a relaxer on their heads, sometimes burning their scalps in the process. But now, with nearly 50 years of practice under her belt, none of N’Dri-Zie’s customers leaves unhappy.

N’Dri-Zie opened Charlotte’s first official braiding shop 26 years ago, she said, just a year after she moved to the Queen City. Born and raised in West Africa’s Ivory Coast, N’Dri-Zie immigrated to Queens, New York, joining a cousin, when she was about 26. N’Dri-Zie, who had studied computer science and accounting in Africa, took English classes at LaGuardia Community College, and in the afternoons, she helped out at a friend’s salon. “It was my passion to do hair, but I never thought, ‘I will do it,’” she said. In Africa, N’Dri-Zie said being a hairstylist is not a sought-after career, so her father didn’t approve.

But once N’Dri-Zie found out she could make a career out of doing something she loved, she never looked back. Soon after, she opened her first hair salon in Queens on Eastside Avenue. One turned into two, but the cousin N’Dri-Zie had in New York encouraged N’Dri-Zie and her husband to move out of New York once they started having children. The cousin moved to Greensboro, and N’Dri-Zie gave it a shot. But as someone who grew up in Ivory Coast’s capital city, she couldn’t deal with the slower pace of the city. She decided on Charlotte. “We will apply for an apartment,” she said to her cousin. “If we get approved, that means God wants us to move here.” Mere days later, and N’Dri-Zie started her life in the Queen City.

When she first moved, she wondered, “Where are all the people in the streets?” Her cousin replied, “In their house or in the mall.” In the years since then, Charlotte is unrecognizable, she said — and the Ivory Coast community is growing, too. She joins them every week in church at Mont Carmel International Church of God on Plaza and Sugar Creek, which has a congregation composed of mostly immigrants. And every week, she thanks God for her life in Charlotte. “I love it here,” she said. Now, when N’Dri-Zie refers to “home,” she no longer means the Ivory Coast.

“Check my driver’s license,” she said. “It says North Carolina.” ABUGIDA ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT Back at Abugida, Tesafye is reflecting on her first few weeks in Charlotte, remembering how quiet it was. She’d grown up in Ethiopia, then immigrated with her family to the Washington, D.C., area for a year. There, she was surrounded by other Ethiopian immigrants, including aunts and uncles and cousins, so it still felt like a “little bit of home.” But Charlotte was another story.

There were no other Ethiopian students in her classes and no family nearby, and Tesafye, who was still learning English and taking ESL classes, felt lost. It was a difficult couple of years of transition for the 16-year-old, whose mother had brought her to America for better educational opportunities. “It was quite a shock for me,” she said. “And the kids will make fun of you. I just hated that.” At home, though, Tesafye’s mother began growing a community through her cooking. As more Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Charlotte, Negussie would invite them over and feed them. They’d tell her to open a restaurant, Tesafye remembers, but Negussie would always explain she couldn’t take the risk with kids. Her responsibility was to them, she’d reply. Years later, Tesafye took the risk for her.

Abugida opened in 2017. The restaurant — kitchen manned by Negussie, managed by Tesafye and partnered with her brother — has allowed the family to keep doing what they love: gathering people through food. Tesafye wanted the restaurant to be a gift for her mom — but also to the Charlotte community. “I really wanted to teach … about cultural food,” she said. “If you notice, there is Indian, there is Mexican, there is Chinese (food). Beyond that, it’s very rare. “A lot of people have a misconception of Africa. We have so many flavors, so many dishes.”

Before the pandemic put an end to it, Tesafye and her mother would perform a traditional Ethiopian tea ceremony for customers, showing them their daily custom. Every morning, even at home on the days the restaurant is closed, the family gathers for coffee. “Drinking coffee is like having a conversation,” she said. “Sitting together, the ceremony, making a cup of fresh-roasted coffee every morning, having that is a big deal for us.” Tesafye loves when first-time customers find something they like on the menu, something that reminds them of the food they grew up on. “Even though the injera is different… they will find something that they relate to,” Tesafye said. “Then you start to see them relaxing.” The support the restaurant has received from the Plaza Midwood community has been shocking, Tesafye said. She said residents of the neighborhood are big supporters of small businesses, and they’ve continued to come back for years. And the local Ethiopian community has supported them since the beginning. They’d leave $90 tips for $10 meals, just to help out.

“We never had to struggle,” she said. When the family first moved to Charlotte, they lived off Central Avenue, where there was a mix of Asian, Somalian, Ethiopian and Hispanic families. But Tesafye fears what will happen if housing prices continue to rise. “Housing is going to change this community,” she said. “I think three or four years from now, most of the businesses you see over here … I don’t think you’re going to see that.” It’s disappointing — Tesafye knows the value of a diverse community. She grew up sharing meals and conversations with people from different cultures and discovering similarities across them in the process. And to Tesafye, there’s no better way to bridge those differences than over a cup of coffee.

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