NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Their dad rarely talked about his family in West Africa, never putting his boys on the phone with their aunts and uncles when he called back home.
Growing up in Antioch, Christopher and Jonathan Oye (pronounced OH-yay) didn’t know they had aunts and uncles in Nigeria.
That changed seven years ago. The boys were in their 20s. They overheard their dad, again, speaking to someone on the phone in his native Yoruba language.
But this time, he handed the phone to his younger son, Jonathan Oye.
“Here’s my sister,” his dad said. “I want you to talk to her.”
“Do you have a sister?” Jonathan Oye said, wide eyed.
“Yes,” his father said, “I have lots of sisters and brothers.”
Jonathan Oye put the phone to his ear, and a joyful, heavily accented woman’s voice poured out.
I am your Auntie Grace, the woman said. How are you? I love you so much and I want to meet you! My children want to meet you too!
Jonathan Oye, nervous at first, didn’t stop smiling during the 30 minute call as his aunt flooded him with affection and excitement about the possibility of meeting in person.
“It was indescribable,” he said.
“It felt like she really loved me without meeting me. I felt it in her voice. It was a comfort. And it was a little overwhelming.”
Jonathan Oye said he knew after just a few minutes he wanted meet her: “I was all in.”
He passed the phone to his brother, Christopher Oye, who had the same reaction.
Their father, Johnson Oye, beamed at the jubilation he saw in his sons’ faces: “It was like they won the jackpot.”
Since then, the brothers have connected online and on the phone with many of their father’s 19 siblings. They met their aunt at Jonathan Oye’s wedding in Chattanooga five years ago. They found a renewed interest in their Nigerian heritage and culture.
In fact, Jonathan (Olumide) and Christoper (Adewumi) Oye, 31 and 32 respectively, are so pumped about the connection with Nigerian relatives that they’ve started what they hope will be an international family business. They hope Oye Coffee Co. will give their farmer relatives a U.S. market for coffee beans.
“The biggest goal is to bring back the family farm in Nigeria,” Jonathan Oye said.
“They’re not doing much with it. It isn’t making much money. It’s just there. And we want to help.”
Mostly, though, the brothers want to go to Nigeria to meet the relatives they didn’t even know they had when they were growing up.
‘I WAS SHAKING AND NERVOUS’
Their parents, Johnson Oye and Metro Register of Deeds Karen Johnson, divorced when the boys were in elementary school.
The boys didn’t know where dad was. “It’s like he vanished,” Jonathan Oye said.
Several months later, Jonathan Oye popped into his mom’s bedroom and asked, “Where’s Dad?”
“Well,” she said, “he’s not going to be here anymore.”
End of conversation.
The brothers said they were confused and hurt, but they didn’t know what to do with those feelings. So they poured their emotion into sports and other hobbies.
About a year later, their father reappeared and told his sons they would be staying with him every other weekend and some in the summer.
End of conversation.
Their father had Nigerian friends in Nashville, and that’s how the boys learned about Nigerian culture. Christopher Oye fell in love with the potato dish fufu. (His brother still doesn’t care for it.)
Some classmates made fun of the Nigerian last name, and the brothers got bullied now and then.
“I didn’t like it,” Jonathan Oye said.
The brothers, a year apart, went to University of Tennessee Chattanooga after high school. The call with his aunt in Nigeria happened during Jonathan Oye’s senior year in college. About two years later, at his wedding, the brothers finally met their aunt.
“I was kind of like shaking and nervous,” Christopher Oye said.
“I just walked up to her and gave her a big hug, and she started talking and talking and smiling and laughing. I was kind of stunned. She was so beautiful. And I kept thinking, wow, this is my dad’s sister.”
Jonathan Oye said he also experienced a sense of loss in that happiness. “I felt like I’d missed out on something,” he said.
Both brothers became mesmerized with their aunt’s stories about their dad’s life in Nigeria.
“She made him sound soft and sweet, softer than what I knew of him,” Christopher Oye said.
“But I started seeing that in him as I got older. He was more patient, more light after we started communicating with the Nigerian family,” he said of his dad. “We would hang out more and talk more about history and family and things like that.”
Among other things, the brothers learned their paternal grandfather had five wives, the reason their father had so many siblings.
After college, Jonathan Oye started a career selling beverages while Christopher started life as a freelance content developer.
As the two got to know their Nigerian relatives better — and as Jonathan learned more about the beverage industry — the brothers hatched their plan to launch Oye Coffee Co.
The brothers sell bags of beans online at oyecoffeeco.com and in three Nashville retail shops, Compton’s Foodland, Produce Place in Sylvan Park and the Tennessee Tribune store at the airport. They want to have a brick and mortar coffee shop by the end of next year.
Costly shipping prices prohibit them from using beans from Nigeria for now.
The brothers recently learned why they didn’t get introduced to their Nigerian relatives sooner. It’s because their dad was ashamed he got divorced, in part because of the stigma around divorce in Nigeria.
“It’s not our tradition for our children to be in separate houses,” their dad, Johnson Oye said. “It’s very shameful and painful.”
The brothers said that revelation surprised them.
But, Christopher Oye said, “after having a relationship with the family in Nigeria, I can understand where he’s coming from.
“I still wish he would’ve been introduced us earlier,” he said, “but how he handled it was the best he could for his mental health.”
Their father said he definitely plans to join his sons for their first trip to Nigeria to be part of the happiness of those first-time meetings.
“I can finally relax,” Johnson Oye said, “and feel all that love.”