Onochie Chukwurah has brought a touch of Africa to downtown Monrovia.
Earlier this month, the 45-year-old native of Nigeria opened Rhythms of the Village on Lemon Street just east of Myrtle Avenue. The arts and crafts shop stocks African clothes, jewelry, masks, bangles, beads and artwork--including colorful robes, baggy Sala pants, fila, or caps, and dashikis, the loose-fitting, blouse-like garments popular throughout the country during the black-power movement of the 1960s.
Two seamstresses working in a back room make the clothes from African fabrics.
Hanging on the walls are some custom-made outfits brought back from Nigeria by friends of Chukwurah, priced at $60 or $70.
Before opening the shop, Chukwurah was a drummer and choreographer with a dance group also called Rhythms of the Village. But, fed up with the hectic city life in Los Angeles, he disbanded the dance group and moved to Monrovia. He brought along all the goods from a similar shop he operated in Los Angeles.
Such boutiques are common in southwest and South-Central Los Angeles, but, according to Monrovia's Business License Department and Chamber of Commerce, Chukwurah's is the only African specialty shop in Monrovia.
"I have no idea what's going to happen here," Chukwurah said. "I feel good about it. People are coming in all the time looking at things. If the business is successful, I will travel to Africa myself and bring back different things, depending on what people want."
Customers, passersby, and longtime residents heartily welcome the novelty.
"I think it's great," said Monrovia resident Debora Houston. "It'll definitely be an asset to the community. Monrovia is small and a little behind things, although a variety of cultures live here.
"There aren't many businesses here operated by minorities. It will stimulate this community and allow us to understand and accept people better."
Chukwurah learned the art of salesmanship from his mother. His father died before he was born, and his mother supported him and four brothers and sisters by selling tea, sugar and rice in front of their home in southwest Nigeria's Bendel state.
In 1969, he came to the United States on a tour with a Nigerian band and never left. He graduated from Cal State L.A. in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in theatrical arts, and taught English, speech and drama at Compton High School for 2 1/2 years before quitting to perform full time.
Besides operating the shop, Chukwurah plans to re-form his dance troupe. Recently, he taught African mask-making and storytelling at Mayflower Elementary School and Foothill Preschool, both in Monrovia, and Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica.
He had bit parts in the 1985 movie "The Color Purple," and the 1987 television show "Frank's Place."