September 10, 2008


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Cashing In On His Roots

When he came to Nigeria almost 20 years ago at the urging of his Nigerian friends living in the United States, John Marcus Cashin was enthralled by what he saw. An African-American, his childhood curiosity about the motherland had finally been satisfied but he won’t let go. He decided to stay. Now the chief executive of Metrolan Ventures, authorised resellers of Apple Super Computers, Cashin spoke to DEBO OLADIMEJI on his sojourn in Nigeria.

ALABAMA, United States-born John Marcus Cashin dramatically landed in Nigeria in the process of tracing his roots on Christmas Day in 1988. His singsong had always been: “We are all black. You should remember your brother coming home.”

Cashin recalls growing up in a segregated society, having attended a black nursery school and black kindergarten.

At the University of Alabama, he decided to study Communication and Broadcasting to liberate blacks from racism because “of the politics I grew up with. It is like you interview somebody white, they play it the same way. You interview somebody black, they edit it or only take what they want.

“So I knew the power of that when I was young and my parents complained about how the white reporter misinterpreted what Luther Martin King or Andrew Young said. They all try to confuse us,” he reminisced.

Born in 1959 to Dr. John Cashin, a dentist, now 80 and Mrs. Joan Marie, a psychologist, who passed on in 1997, Marcus, who is the first of three children, comes from an elite family. Like his father, his grandfather, Dr. John Legan Cashin, was also a dentist. His great grandfather, Hershel, one of the first black lawyers in Alabama, graduated from Cheney University in 1869.

Marcus’ sister, Sheryll Denise, graduated with Bachelor of Law from the prestigious Oxford University, England. His father owned a weekly newspaper called The Eagle Eye and a monthly magazine, The Valley Informer, published for Tennessee River Valley.

His father ran for the governorship of Alabama State in 1970 on the platform of his own predominantly black political party, the United Democratic Party of Alabama. The senior Cashin founded the party when, during the 1964 Democratic Convention, he observed that the whites wouldn’t allow the black delegates to have a say.

His father it was who introduced former President Bill Clinton as candidate of the Democrats to the Black Dental Association and the National Democratic Party of Alabama, the black community in Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, New York and Washington DC.

Because his father was preoccupied with political activities and was always travelling for political reasons, Marcus was closer to his mother who happened to be always around to attend to his immediate needs.

She was on the board of the Community Action Agency for the whole of South East United States, an agency that helps the poor and distributes rations for the people on welfare.

His parents, he recalled, were always there to guide them. “Even though they knew something, they would tell us to go and look it up in the dictionary. We thought they were hard on us, not knowing that they were nurturing us on how to become a star in our field,” he said appreciatively.

Marcus attended Integrated University Place Elementary School in Brandon, where he was the first black to attend a white elementary school in the town. He and his brother, Carroll, were the first blacks to attend Integrated Blossom Wood Elementary School for their Second Grade.

He recalls that during his Junior High at Hartsville for his Seventh and Eighth Grade, his history teacher was the only one that gave him a B. “She did not like the way l used to answer my history questions, according to the history books l read in my father’s library. She was not comfortable that black people discovered certain things like George Washington Carver, who invented the machine that makes shoes and Lewis Latimer, who did the installation of the first electric steel lighting in New York City,” he explained.

He also remembers being a wrestler and sprinter while in his Ninth Grade at Ed White Junior High City Champ. He was indeed a state champion wrestler and a chess champion in his Fourth Grade. He attended Slammel Butler High School for his 10th to 12th Grades.

Marcus wanted to be an architect but his mother wanted him to be a doctor because her father, Dr. Marcus Carpenter, was one. However, although he was precocious and did well in the sciences at elementary school, he rebelled or was not keen to go the medical way. So he settled for Broadcasting and Film Communications at University of Alabama, which he wanted to use as a vehicle to project the black race.

“That meant that I got to find the right information and disseminated it to thousands of my people out there,” he stated.

But fortunately or unfortunately, he could not complete it. One day, while he was at the University of Alabama, he met a white lady, who introduced Geological Petroleum Engineering Technology to him, a course he ended up studying at the University of Southern Texas.

“I was riding home with a 25-year-old lady, who told me that she was studying Geology. I said, ‘what does that mean?’ She said that they had a way of getting petroleum out of the rock. I was just anxious to know more about the course,” he recounts. And that was the genesis of his final withdrawal from Alabama to Southern Texas.

While at Southern Texas, he developed more interest in Computer Science, which he did as a course. “I had to learn the computer to see how it worked. That was how I sharpened my knowledge about computer, joined a computer science club and used to go for their programmes.”

After graduation, he had a stint at Philip Petroleum Company in Texas before coming to Nigeria. But he actually started mixing with Nigerians while at Alabama. He had a girl friend, Angel John, who, though not a Nigerian, had lived next door to a Nigerian named Labu Adeleke. “Labu then asked whether I had ever heard about Fela and I said no. He said Fela Kuti, I said no. He said, ‘come over.’ So I went to his house,” Marcus recollects vividly.

Labu, he added, was the first Nigerian he ever met and who introduced him to Fela. Labu was studying Agricultural Science at Alabama University of Agriculture and “was really a cool guy” with whom he has lost contact for somet ime now.

The same Labu also introduced him to other Nigerian musicians such as Sunny Ade. “I like Fela’s music. I started listening to Fela since 1976,” he disclosed, adding that he got to know about FESTAC through Fela’s music.

“So in 1977, Labu invited me to come to FESTAC, saying Stevie Wonder would be there. But I couldn’t make it,” he said regretfully.

His performances at Southern Texas also attracted the attention of many Nigerians. “I was doing well in school and was on the Dean’s list 3.0. They had respect for me and everybody knew my name. Out of about 600 people, half of them were Nigerians. They saw my name out there and many of them became inquisitive about me,” he stated.

His Geography and Geo-Physics lecturer at Southern Texas, Dr. Ken Chinwezu, was also a Nigerian. Chinwezu told his students that the Niger Delta region in Nigeria was just like Louisiana, Mississippi Delta but that there is more oil in the Niger Delta.

“I was still in my last semester but I was working and going to school. We had two classes with him. One will start at 5pm and stop a 7pm and he will take a 30-minute break, then from 7.30 to 9pm, we had another break and everybody who went to a night school knew him,” he said with fond memories.

Marcus decided to follow four Nigerian schoolmates: Paul Ene, Joe Chuks Uzoka, Hyke (IK) Chuks and one Godwin to Nigeria in December 1988.

He retraced this journey to Nigeria: “I remember one of them saying that there was a business that we could do in Nigeria. IK told me that he would fly from New York to Lagos, then to Enugu and from there go to the village. That when I get to his village near Ozalla in Enugu State, I should ask of Chuk’s compound. He asked, ‘are you going to make it?’ and I said, ‘don’t worry, I will plan it.”

He asked IK the meaning of Enugu and was told that it stands for hilltop. “I said, ‘so I am going to the hilltop?”

His friend also gave him the name and phone number of an uncle in Enugu to call once he got to Lagos, because there was no telephone in their village. They agreed to meet on Christmas or Boxing Day of 1988. But he was reminded that if he did not go as planned, he would miss his friend, who was returning to the US after the Yuletide.

So Marcus left Miami for Germany, then to Nairobi, where he stayed for two days before going to Cameroun aboard Ethiopia Airline. He landed in Lagos on Christmas Day of 1988. Aboard the flight, he met some Nigerians as they wined, dined and chatted together.

“We all exchanged addresses. One of them warned me to beware of Nigerians. We landed safely at Murtala Mohammed Airport. N5.32 exchanged for a dollar at that time,” he recalls.

He checked into Sheraton Hotel in Ikeja and later walked down to the bar for some oranges. “I heard somebody calling my name John Cashin. His name is Kentler, a black American. He came to Nigeria too. We knew each other before. I told him that I was planning to go to Enugu to see my classmate.”

He was to go to Enugu the next day but he got to the airport and was told that the defunct Nigeria Airways, which was the national carrier, could not fly because of the harmattan. Then he remembered that if he did not get to Enugu and then his classmate’s village, he could miss him.

So he called IK’s brother office at Enugu and was able to talk to one of the nurses in his office who put him through to IK’s brother, whom he told that he was stranded in Lagos. He finally got another flight to Enugu a week after.

The passenger sitting next to him happened to be one Arthur Nwube, also a graduate of Alabama, who gave him his telephone number in Enugu and his address in Lagos, in case he had any problem.

Marcus eventually found his way to IK’s brother’s office in Enugu around 6.30pm and he sent somebody to take him to the village. They got to Chuks’ compound around 9pm.

“They were playing Prince’s music, Sign of the time in the dark. I said Sign of the time by Prince in the middle of an African jungle? No, it can’t be.””

It later dawned on him that IK brought the tape from Houston, Texas and was playing it in front of his house. “IK couldn’t believe that it was me, at that time of the night,” he recounted.

After a few days, Marcus went to buy a flight ticket back to Lagos, but again the weather was bad. So he had to stay back in the village until the weather improved for the plane to fly.

On getting to the airport, he met Godwin waiting for the same flight back to Lagos. He was on his way back to Houston. Godwin, with whom he used to discuss politics in the US, after a while, looked at him and said: “John Marcus Cashin, you are the only black American that I know that will come to Nigeria and Enugu.”

That was the beginning of Marcus’ sojourn in Nigeria. “We came back to Lagos. I stayed in Sheraton for about three to four weeks on and on. I did not want to go back. He urged me to stay back and renewed my visa for me. That was how I got hooked on Nigeria.”

He got into the computer business in the 1980s while still in school and working part-time. In Nigeria, he soon became an Apple man and a major reseller in Nigeria in 1998.

Marcus has been basically an Apple exporter, buying and reselling in the last 10 years under the auspices of Metrolan Ventures Limited.One thing that fascinated him about Nigeria is the level of freedom and the fact that there is no discrimination among the citizens.

The Apple magnate hopes that there is a drastic improvement in the supply of electricity soon. “You can imagine what the rate of development will be in Lagos with 24 hours supply of electricity,” he opined.

The last time that he visited his people in the United States was in 2001. He is in contact with his brothers and sisters via the telephone and the internet day in day out. His sister, Sheryll, a lawyer, is also into the business of Apple Computers.

He is not planning to marry yet “but it is possible for me to tie the nuptial knots in due course.”

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