By Alicia Rivera on February 9, 2018
Inside Sankofa African Arts, a quaint shop on Telegraph near 28th Street in Oakland, are walls covered in dashikis, dresses and masks of Africa. The owner of the shop, Ellen Manu-Bimpeh tells the story of how she and her shop have become a go-to source for African designs in the East Bay. It all started when Manu-Bimpeh began working as a young business girl. At nine years old, surrounded by wall-to-wall fabrics at her mother’s fabric store, Manu-Bimpeh learned business savvy she would apply to the rest of her life. When Manu-Bimpeh arrived in Berkeley, California in 1991 to settle in with her husband, Israel F. Adejobi, her heart was set on starting a business in America. “I knew what I wanted to do,” she proclaims. Living close to the Ashby Flea Market at the time, within months Manu-Bimpeh had a table set up every Saturday and Sunday at 7 am where she started off selling African artifacts.
With an innate attraction to jewelry crafting and clothing design, Manu-Bimpeh walked around the market, fancying herself visits to the jewelers. Though many were beautiful, none gave her the feeling of home brought by the vibrant colors and traditional designs of African jewelry. When she earned enough revenue off of artifacts, Manu-Bimpeh would start a business she could be passionate about. Making trips to LA, she and Adejobi delighted in fabrics sellers brought from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. Her creativity was sparked and the designs followed suit. Employing three of her children who live in Africa to work on the clothing line, Manu-Bimpeh focused on the finishing touches upon arrival and crafted the jewelry. With a focus for her brand, she and Adejobi opened up their first shop on Solano Avenue in Albany. Together they had upgraded from flea market table to store, Agyeman Jobi African Import. All was going well
Sadly, that momentum took an abrupt halt. Adejobi passed away, leaving her a single parent to care for the business, the mortgage and their three-year-old daughter, Rachel. Grieving the death of her late husband and struggling as a single parent, Manu-Bimpeh decided to close up shop. “When he died I kinda put everything away in the garage. It’s tough, because after he passed it’s like I’m always doing this by myself,” she reflects.
With the closing of her shop and the need to change the pace as a widowed, single mother, Manu-Bimpeh went through an 11-year phase of rebuilding her business and life, teaching at Grand Lake Montessori and working as a nursing assistant trainee. When funds were sufficient, she started up a new store, Sankofa African Arts. “In the morning I opened the store. I would be sitting down sleeping and customer[s] would come in and wake me up,” says Manu-Bimpeh with a coy smile. Sleepless nights were not the only bother she had. Due to the state of the economy, rent prices rose and Manu-Bimpeh hit more bumps on the road, hopping to four different store locations throughout the Oakland area within eight years. It was not until she landed a location on Telegraph Avenue that she found out about Oakland First Fridays, and began selling her works at the street festival, stabilizing Sankofa’s exposure to the public. “First Friday has made my store [even more] famous. Believe me, a lot of publicity coming from the First Friday,” she says.
Authentic African Designs
Working the festival, Manu-Bimpeh seized the opportunity to broaden her store’s reach and create lifetime customers. From bringing out her best products to handing out business cards and pointing visitors to her store, she would put in her best efforts at the festival. “It’s the quality of the items you bring into First Fridays; that’s what makes First Fridays. What they see is what they buy, so I have to bring quality for them to follow-up to my store,” says the businesswoman. Through networking at the festival, Manu-Bimpeh began stacking up a clientele of long-term customers.
As she continued selling at Oakland First Fridays, Manu-Bimpeh observed competition in the air. Other businesses were selling similar African designs, but they were not from Africa. This not only affected her sales, but also altered the public’s perception of authentic African works. So Manu-Bimpeh stepped up her business savvy, emphasizing the original, native work of Sankofa African Arts. With her knowledge of genuine, African fabrics and materials, Manu-Bimpeh can spot a fake dashiki in a heartbeat. When one of her customers realized the dashiki he arrived at the festival wearing was not from Africa he immediately undressed his shirt. “He took his stuff off, bought my stuff and threw his away,” laughs Manu-Bimpeh. A visit to Sankofa African Arts gives you more than pretty things to wear. You leave with a greater sense of what it means to wear African designs.
Whether it be dress wear for a wedding, graduation, baby shower or weekend out-of-town, a purchase at Sankofa African Arts brings customers a level of attachment to Africa, but also to Manu-Bimpeh. “They come to me as a customer and then they become like family. I adopt them as my children.” She is speaking metaphorically, of course. “You will hear everyone calling me ‘Mommy. Mommy Ellen’...you’ll see them in my booth.” Just as a child makes its way back to their parents, so do customers return to Sankofa African Arts. All of her adopted sons and daughters sprouted out of her knowledge of African designs and heritage. “So they come here. They want to find out, ‘What is this?’ Then the more you [tell] them, they get more interested. They stay here all day,” says Manu-Bimpeh. By helping customers feel connected to Africa, Manu-Bimpeh has built not just a business, but a home away from home. “They stay here one hour, two hours.”
Whether vending at First Fridays or designing, the heart of Manu-Bimpeh’s work is Ghana. It’s even apparent in the way she describes Sankofa, “you’re going back to the root. Whatever you left from the past you bring it [with you]. Always remember where you come from, the Akan way.”
Akan is a person from southern Ghana or the Ivory Coast and Manu-Bimpeh always remembers that, committing to Ghana’s essence in the fabrics, beads and inspirations she applies to the creations. Manu-Bimpeh plans to pass on the business to her children - her natural children - who will carry on the Ghana heritage and work of their parents, Manu-Bimpeh and Adejobi. You can see the designs of Sankofa African Arts at the new store location at 2815 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland California, 94609 or at the next Oakland First Fridays street festival March 2, 2018. If you visit, you may just see Mama Ellen and her adopted children gathered, talking about home.