Nigerian Community Chief: ‘We Need a Change in the Mansion’

Nigerian Community Chief: ‘We Need a Change in the Mansion’

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Editor's Note: With the New Jersey gubernatorial elections around the corner, the African Sun Times spoke with 53-year-old Chief Uma Kalu, a Nigerian immigrant who has lived in the state for 33 years, to hear about the hopes and concerns of those in his community. Chief Kalu became a U.S. citizen in 1991, and is a long-time activist within the Nigerian American community. He lives with his wife and four children. New Jersey has the sixth highest population of Nigerians in the country (nearly 19,000), most of them in Newark, Hudson, Bergen and Middlesex counties.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

For years, I have worked as the supervisor of an adult day care in Bloomfield, NJ, where my family lives. I am also a chief in the Nigerian community. I became a chief by following traditional Ibo rites of passage that are found in my village, in Ohafia-Abia, Nigeria. I am of the Ibo tribe.

How is a chief selected in Nigerian culture?

The process of becoming a chief is very sacred … It is observed in my village and the entire Nigerian community in the United States. In order to become a chief, you have to be an upright citizen in the community, both morally and financially. All aspects of humanity need to be a priority. But most importantly, you have to be chosen by the Chiefs in Council. The Chiefs in Council are a traditional committee dedicated to making decisions in the village and deciding who can become a chief. These Chiefs are all based in Nigeria. Once you become a chief, it is observed and recognized by Nigerians around the world.

What do you think of this year’s NJ gubernatorial election?

I am a Democrat. I have to admit that I have some concerns about this year’s gubernatorial election. In New Jersey it’s easy to understand why voting is so critical to the people who are suffering from high property taxes, horrible toll traffic, and an alleged bully governor. Under Gov. Christie I have noticed that the cost of living has gotten higher since I moved to Bloomfield, NJ. My family and I are tax-paying citizens, and it seems like the more we give the less we get.

What qualities are you looking for in a gubernatorial candidate?

I would like a candidate who is going to fight for us in Trenton. Someone who would keep our property, sales and income taxes low — and that’s what New Jersey wants. And after eight years of having a Republican governor, the state needs to have a new party. I feel like this reign of being a bully is over. The Christie administration was hell bent on making life hard for hardworking people in the state of New Jersey. We need a change and we need a leader in the Mansion.

What’s the number one issue you’re concerned about?

Nationally, New Jersey ranks 33rd in job growth. I am most concerned about our jobs. I would like to see more jobs and economic success, which means lower unemployment. Yes, lower than the current 4.1 percent unemployment rate. I want to have a governor who will have a better working relationship with the state’s education system, the civil service workers and the unions.

Is immigration an issue for you in the election?

Like any American, immigrants in New Jersey want the same thing: to live a decent life in this country. Immigrants need affordable health care, a quality education system, and perhaps free tuition for low-income people. Immigrants need decent, affordable homes. I am happy that we have a good house for my family, and I want my fellow immigrants to enjoy the same.

You are a native of Nigeria. How active, politically, are Nigerian Americans in New Jersey?

Nigerians here are involved in the political process. For example, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy has been involved with several of the state’s African organizations, including Africans4philmurphy, which is directed by Charles Eke, a Nigerian who is influential in the community. The Nigerian community has been truly invested in the state’s civic and political affairs. We are hoping— and waiting— to make our voices heard.

What do your children think of the NJ election? Is there a generational difference in attitudes?

My children are still young and are not involved in politics. I don’t want them to be exposed to politics at this young age; they have to focus on their academics. They have to enjoy this stage of their lives. But, because they were all American-born, I believe there is a gap in terms of knowing how to speak the language of Ibo and speaking English in the United States.

Can you discuss your work with the Ohafia Association of New Jersey (OANJ)?

I am presently the vice president of OANJ, which connects the Nigerian community in the United States with Nigeria. OANJ has been doing an annual health fair that helps drive awareness of high blood pressure and diabetes in the African and African-American communities. As the vice-president of the organization, it allows me to push issues that we face on a continuous basis, like health programs. Community health awareness is important to me— it is the best way to give back.

This story was produced as part of the Voting Block collaborative project in New Jersey, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.