It’s hard to fit all the rich and diverse cuisine of an entire continent into a small store next to the old 63, but Mahinga Tubirore is still trying to get into its African market all over the place.
“We will have Africans – international students and refugees – visiting, and they will be (able to find) familiar foods… with the taste that makes them feel right at home,” Tubirore said.
Tubirore opened African Market in 2019 after chasing that feeling from Columbia to St. Louis to regularly visit the nearest African grocery store. He came to the United States as a refugee from the Congo, and it wasn’t always easy to find foods that reminded him of his country.
Now he spends his days surrounded by tea from Kenya, beans from Nigeria and cassava leaves from Congo to help support Colombia’s small but growing African community.
Make the trip
One of five siblings, Tubirore grew up in a town in eastern Congo. He said that at the time, life in the Congo was great. He spent his time going to school, hanging out with friends, and helping in his parents’ store.
“I thought they just wanted me to be someone to work for free,” he joked. “But I realized later that they really needed me.”
But that peace and stability was lost when the country fell into turmoil after the fall of former Congolese President Joseph Mobutu and the ensuing chaos that was accelerated by the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The lives of millions of people have changed irrevocably, Tubirore is one of them.
Tubirore lost his parents to the conflict and fled with his siblings to a refugee camp in Burundi. In 2007, he came to the United States at the age of 19. Before coming to Colombia, he spent time in Washington State and Iowa, working in restaurants, meat production, and manufacturing.
Tubirore said one of the biggest culture shocks upon arriving in the United States was the sheer excess of American life. Before coming to Columbia, he worked for a while in a pizzeria in Seattle. He said he was amazed at the amount of leftover food he would throw away throughout his shift.
“(Some) people here, they have so much stuff, but they don’t like it,” he said. “I was just coming back from a refugee camp (where) people were dying and (had) no food, and then I came here. And to see how much food they throw away… I just feel like my heart is sinking and I wish there was a way for people in my country to have something to eat.
He said other difficulties included mastering a new language and adjusting to winter conditions. He is now able to use his own experience to empathize and help clients who come for advice on how to navigate American life as a refugee. (And he’s able to do it in English, French, or Swahili.)
Find a home away from home
Tubirore and his wife, Marthe Beza, were both born in Congo, but they met through friends in the United States. They hit it off right away and the couple celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary at the end of October.
Beza couldn’t keep a smile on her face as she spoke about her husband.
“He’s a good guy, a good friend,” she said. “We share the same culture, so it’s easy to understand each other. “
On a recent weekend, Beza cooked a hearty meal of goat meat, rice, cassava leaves, and mandazi, a type of fried dough that may or may not be sweet. As usual, all the ingredients were sourced from African Market. While cooking, Tubirore entertained their two children – Ezra, 3, and Hosea, 1 – in the living room with toys and the captivating scenes from CoComelon.
Sunday meals are one of the few times they can spend with their family. Tubirore works six days a week, sometimes almost 10 hours a day, and Beza works nights to complete his degree at MU. But Beza said Tubirore is always sure to make the most of his time and put family first.
“We have very little time, but we are using it well,” she said. “The good thing about (Mahinga) is that even though he had a bad day there (at the store), by the time he comes home he is still smiling and ready to see us and to play with the children. “
Tubirore also said he was able to find a sense of belonging and larger community in Colombia. He attributed this fact to the region’s strong refugee and immigrant populations and community organizations like City of Refuge. He said that while it’s not that big, Columbia attracts people from a lot of different places around the world.
“When my brother and I arrived in Colombia, we thought we would be the only Africans here,” he said. “But we were able to find people from everywhere: from Burundi, Nigeria, Eritrea. It was surprising. “
Tubirore said he always thinks about the things he misses by not being able to raise his family in Congo. The opportunities and peace offered to him in the United States do not overshadow the homesickness one can feel.
He said one of his best childhood memories was how everyone in his neighborhood got to know and take care of each other, meaning kids could run around and mingle with their friends. Here in America, he said he didn’t feel comfortable letting his children out of his sight.
“It’s good (here) because there is peace. … But I wonder how they grow up, ”he said. “We’re here, but we could do that – the kids, the store – over there (in Congo). But we can’t because there is no peace. … It makes me sad to think of home now.
But despite the hardships, Tubirore said moving to the United States gave her the stability and comfort she needed to raise a happy and healthy family.
“It is a place where you can find peace, come to this country to have opportunities and a job,” he said. “I have friends here and family. So I have hope.