By Denne Dickson
Imagine walking down the street in downtown Oakland and suddenly the smell of incense and oils began flooding the air surrounding you. Fifty feet before a shop’s entrance, you’re drawn in by the smell of frankincense and myrrh. Upon entrance you’re hit by an abundance of loving and welcoming energy. Soon enough you’re greeted by an elder, a woman by the name of Ellen Nzinga. Welcome, you’ve made it to Sankofa.
The term Sankofa is derived from a small tribe in Ghana and translates: “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” The shop Sankofa meets that translation in a variety of different shapes and forms. Sankofa markets several natural handmade products straight from Ghana.
The owner of the shop sees great value in the understanding of one’s history and future which motivated her to give her shop such a powerful name – Sankofa. Through this term she has been motivated to practiced unifying the community through her shop. However, hardships have taken toll on Ellen Nzinga’s goals.
“Success is about somebody who has it all, someone who sees himself from the bottom to the edge,” said 57-year-old Nzinga.
Nzinga goes by Mama Ellen to many. Nzinga’s shop is not only known for the product being sold from it, rather it is known for its welcoming energy and Nzinga’s shared wisdom.
Before cultivating such space in Oakland, Nzinga began running her own business in Ghana in 1984. She sold much of what she sells now. The difference between then and now is Nzinga’s definition of success. Then, she considered herself successful for simply making a living, now her standards of the term has been lifted.
Nzinga’s work in Ghana ended only a few years late.
“Business in Ghana was very competitive,” she said.
The competition of business, on top of having a husband and child drove Nzinga to the United States, where Nzinga picked up work as a nanny. She had done such work in order to stabilize herself and prepare herself to further business to come.
“After a few months I realized I would never work under anyone again,” she said. “It was clear what I needed to do.”
Nzinga said she opened the shop with the intentions to bring something new to the community, to share the handmade natural products that people wore in Ghana.
“Upon coming here I was under the impression that people were in need, in need of natural chemical not the chemical that is internally damaging to the human body,” Nzinga said.
While natural products sound ideal, Nzinga has expressed much difficulties getting her products to sale. Other than people just not being interested in her product she has recently concluded that her store location might be bigger than people’s lack of interest.
“The homeless surrounding this street make business bad,” said Nzinga.
She protests that the drunk and homeless run off the possible customers.
“I don’t blame them for their circumstance because I know sometimes life is too heavy, but yes they run off possible customers with their heavy begging and drunk talk,” Nzinga said. “They crowd the front of the store and make it look like I run a bad business.”
With the lack of funds to relocate, Nzinga has to promote her business by other means. Most recently Nzinga has decided to promote her business in a variety of events that happen around the community. Despite the connections being made Nzinga worries about the money being generated.
Nzinga has been running her own business for the last 33 years and it hasn’t been until recent years where she has begun falling short of her own definition of successful. For Nzinga her level of success is measured by the revenue generated from her business.
“Success is about surplus, not someone who doesn’t know what they are doing,” Nzinga said “For instance, I’ve been in this business for 30+ years and now I’m always crying about money. Yes, I have a surplus of merchandise but what good is the merchandise if it does not sale? No one can be successful if they are not moving forward.”
Although Nzinga has a difficult time seeing some of her own successes she is truly admired by the community surrounding her.
“Mama has paved the way for to many of us,” said 21-year-old Adolfo King. “How many black businesses do you see surrounding this neighborhood? None, there is no way that we are all gonna let this shop fall off the map.”
King has been visiting Sankofa since the time of its opening back in 2014. He loves the place and Nzinga who is said to have been a great support for him. King is truly motivated to help Nzinga keep her shop, he has been providing Nzinga with free labor whenever she needs.
King isn’t the only customer determined to see Sankofa thrive. 36-year-old Larry Bey comes around the shop to donate and purchase when ever he can.
“Ellen taught me about business and furthermore motivated me to start my own,” said Bey “I’m now getting started with shea butter products, so of course I look out for her when I can.”
Other customers admire the positive energy Nzinga carries and has cultivated within the shop. They have also measured her success upon other means.
“Ellen is successful because of the relationships she has developed, whether young or old rich or poor she’s met people, showed love and it is only a matter of time before she starts receiving” King said.
“Mama is successful because despite the hardships, everyday I come in here she is smiling and so full of energy,” said Leilani Lewis who is a current customer.
“Ellen is successful because of her mentality, she is strong in the mind and that will carry her far out,” said Donte Banks who is also a customer.
With such influence on the community it won’t be long before Nzinga reach her standards of success or even sees her successes through the lenses of her customers.