WooVoice #7: George Opoku, Barber at Midtown Mall

It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday morning and the Midtown Mall is coming awake with activity.  Pedestrians walk through to go from Front Street to Mechanic Street.  A young woman stops in front of the window of the clothing store with prom dresses.  She is waiting for the store to open.  Already, a line of customers are queuing up in front of the Ahenfie (meaning “palace” in Twi, one of the languages of Ghana) Barber Shop.  After almost five years in business, George Opoku has a loyal customer base.  His place is hopping and he says he rarely can sit down.  He never stops working.  After he shuts the doors of the barber shop, he follows his other love for music.  He works as a disc jockey, spinning music at parties and hosts  his own international music radio show broadcast from Los Angeles and reaching all the way back to his native Ghana.

Worcester is a city of immigrants with over 38,000 residents foreign born.  By far, the largest immigrant group in Worcester originated in Ghana.  Indeed, Worcester has the largest concentration of Ghanaians in the country. This may not be initially apparent since the community is spread throughout the city.  George lives right downtown.  He explains that other Ghanaians call Lincoln Village or Washington Heights home.  The immigrants from Ghana have brought their determination to work, their places of worship, their food, their dedication to building strong community to this city. We are indeed a more interesting place because of this. 

 From Ghana to New York to Worcester

"When I first moved to America (from Ghana), right after high school in 1994, I resided in the Bronx with my grandmother.  After some time, I decided to move on my own.  I followed my friends and ended up in Massachusetts.  My friends said there were lots of opportunities here with work. Since then, I’ve been living here.  Worcester is a part of me.  It is my town."

Opportunities in Worcester

"When I came to Worcester, I saw opportunity in terms of work- warehouses, office jobs, temp agencies.  I had a work ethic and decided to follow my work destiny by going to school.  I chose the barbering career because that is what I knew when I was in Ghana.  When I was in school there, I was a barber for my friends.  When I came here, I needed to learn much more about it.  It wasn’t just about cutting hair.  It was about learning the ethics of business.  It’s about building yourself up as an entrepreneur.  You get to know the products.  You get to meet clients.  You are getting to know companies who want to work with you because you are out there and you are selling yourself.  It’s about customer service skills as well.  You welcome them.  People come to you due to your comfortability.  If a person is able to feel comfortable around you, then you are selling your business as well."

A barber is a therapist

"A person comes to you for you to put confidence in them. Why?  Because they come in not feeling good and they end up leaving feeling very good, confident.  A barber is like a therapist.  It’s true.  A person may not be feeling well in the early waking up morning day but when you are finished with them, they are ready to face the day and go wherever they are going.  Maybe they have a job interview and you can give them the confidence.  Maybe they can share a story with you."

"I have built a substantial amount of regular customers.  If I’m not around, it’s like, “Yeh, oh no!  That guy is not around!” When people come to you, you give them hope because when they look in the mirror, they can say, “Wow!  I feel good!” And it makes me feel good too.  When they go outside, they feel proud, “That’s my barber!”   I say, ”Wow! Did I make him feel special?”  To you, you are just doing your work but you have done something for someone that has brightened their day.  At the end of the day, the smile he shows you gives you a brighter smile."

Business is good in Worcester.

"I went to Rob Roy Academy in 2001 and then finished at American Barber Institute in New York.  I went to New York to get that kind of experience in Manhattan with big business.  Coming back to Worcester, I was a different person. I came back because the opportunity is greater here.  It’s not so expensive so with the little that I had, I was able to establish.  If I really want to move onto a bigger city with the capital I now have, I can.  To be a beginner and start a shop in New York, you need more capital.  With the little that I had, it was able to sustain me here for 4 years.  My business has grown and is still growing.  I’m in my 4th into my 5th year now and I’m ready to bring in students who can learn from me."

The change in bus service cut down on business

"When we used to have the bus services coming here, the clients were able to come here.  Since the bus has been moved away, the clients have cut down.  There was a bus right here (he points in the direction of city hall) and somebody would just take the bus, stop, get a haircut and go back, go home and not worry about parking.  When the bus moved away, I think it cut my business by at least 40%.  It was a blow about two or three years ago.  They moved the bus to the main terminal.  In the beginning when I first opened up, Oh man!  I couldn’t sit down!  The bus moving made a big difference for the businesses here in downtown."  

The close knit Ghanaian community

"We are a big community. We help each other and support each other.  Every weekend, we meet.  It is through them that my business keeps going on.  It’s one big family.  Through the people who have lived here, they have brought other people in.  When you see that a Ghanaian is doing good, you think you can come here and have something better going on.  If you are doing well, then he will come in and do well as well.  We have the churches.  We have the restaurants."

Ghanaian blood, it flows. We are all one family.

"We are all family together.  You reach out to everybody.  Your brother’s children are your children.  Everywhere you go, the little ones call you ‘uncle’.  That makes you feel responsible because the children look up to you.  When another brother sees your children, they are his children.  When something is going wrong, they call say, “You need to stop.”  It’s not just look at them and let them go wrong."

In praise of food from Ghana

"We have about five to six restaurants for the bachelors, just a place to eat your own home cooked good food.  My lunchtime I go there to support.  Today, I think I want to enjoy some fried yam and fish so I’m going to check out Anokye Krom in the afternoon.  I’ll put in an order and either have it delivered or take time to have a nice sit down rest and feel at home.  Fried yam and fish!  Oh man! The best! Ghanaian food is a mix of spices.  Okra soup!   You don’t want to miss that.  And fufu which is plantain and flour and you keep mixing and stirring."

My mother lives in New York and I visit her every two weeks. I need to eat some peanut butter soup or okra stew! You can never miss that.
 George told me to ask for "Big Shoe" at the restaurant, Anokye Krom at Millbury Street.  He wasn't there but I did order a yummy plate of fried plantains and peanuts.

George told me to ask for "Big Shoe" at the restaurant, Anokye Krom at Millbury Street.  He wasn't there but I did order a yummy plate of fried plantains and peanuts.

 Fufu and peanut soup

Fufu and peanut soup

Living downtown

"I’m a downtown boy.  I chose (to live downtown) because I didn’t want to be far.  I’m a city boy and I want to be in the middle of the city.  At the end of the day, it is very quiet.  It could be more lively if businesses operate later, but after 6 or 7 pm, the only place that stays open late is the Chinese restaurant down there and maybe the Dunkin Donuts."

Ghanaian Celebration of Life

"Let’s say a person passes.  After the service is done, we get together, honor and cheer up.  It’s a real big party. Oh man!  With loud music and food!  The person is gone.  We have to celebrate his life. He didn’t just go around suffering.  He had a good life.  We have to remember him and honor his family as well.  One of these days, I will take you."

Being a barber, being a DJ

"That’s the other side of me, DJing.  Put it together – music, fashion, entertainment.  I have the music side and the artist needs to be looking good to appear.  The music part is what I really, really wanted to go to school for, but I use the hair cutting part because it was an opportunity at the beginning. I use the hair cutting as my work base and the music as my destiny.  I put both together and it is working for me. One day, I want to establish myself in hair and also establish a good radio station and recording station. I’m working towards this.  Every day I work and see it grow."

Dreaming of going back to Ghana

"Ghana is a dream destination.  I want to have a barber institution in Ghana to teach the young ones to know about hair, skin and scalp.  I have started something online to introduce Ghanaians what I’ve studied.  I need to go back and get to the ministries of health to let them know what I want to bring.  I have a couple of years to build that kind of entity.  I am a master barber and I want to give back to the young ones.  It’s not just about cutting hair.  You can have a future."

I have seen a lot of development downtown and I would like to see Worcester focus on local business because it is through local business that the city will do well.

Midtown Mall is the place to be

"What I have noticed is that this is the main center of Worcester because it has the walk through. Everybody goes through and sees the businesses.  The families in here are established and doing well and help serve the community.  If the city wants to grow it, that would also help our businesses.  We want to continue our services.  We have Kim Jewelry. In case I want something for myself, I go to Kim.  If Kim needs a haircut, she comes here.  We have there the clothing when there are proms.  We have the mini-post office.  We have the restaurants where most of the workers around come in to eat.  We have the African clothing store. We have the computer repair store. Churches are downstairs. Offices that do taxes are up there.  People are here doing work helping the community.  It’s a good place for us."