Ken Nwachukwa stands atop a grey metal fold-up chair and clangs his champagne glass with a metal spoon. The crowd of family and friends, each engaged in separate conversations, congregate around Ken and his step-son, David Ayeke. The occasion is David’s high school post-graduation party. “David, I pass the torch to you,” laughing in a deep boom, Ken steps down from his chair, and shakes David’s hand.
Ken Nwachukwa’s family includes Aretha, his Nigerian American wife, and his three sons, David, Frederick, Zach. Born to the Igbo tribe in Lagos, Nigeria, Ken speaks husky, heavily accented English. Ken is a large man around five feet eight inches tall. He is sixty-four years old, but looks as if he is forty. He is clean-shaven and has his hair styled in a short fade. He has a rounded head and a slightly crooked smile. When he sits, his stomach spills over his lap.
David, on the other hand, is extremely skinny and stands over six two. Even though David is nineteen and physically towers over Ken, in comparison, David still looks like a boy. Ken’s stoic presence overshadows David’s bright eagerness.
David, Frederick, and Zach all have different fathers but share the same mother. David doesn’t know his biological father and never asked about Frederick’s. Zach is Ken and Aretha’s. Frederick is fourteen and has autism, but is high-functioning and able to take care of himself.
Frederick does well in school, has high grades but doesn’t socialize with the other kids. He does daily chores, dresses well, and takes care of his little brother, Zach. Ken hopes that through summer programs, Frederick will able to socialize more with the normal kids at his school.
Ken’s family lives in a small two bedroom ranch-style house facing the street located in a quiet suburb in Ferguson, MO. His family has lived there for over ten years now. They moved in when their second son, Frederick, was one year old. Turquoise blue shutters line each of the three windows of the house. Inside, family pictures line the off-white, eggshell colored walls. An abandoned metal swing set stands alone at the bottom of the sloped backyard. Ken parks his red and white ABC taxi cab outside next to the curb in front of his home. Ken loves to renovate and paints the children’s bedrooms yearly. Over the years, David’s bedroom has been all palettes of the color spectrum, from royal purple to sea foam blue to vomit green. The two-bedroom home after modifications now has five bedrooms. Two new bedrooms were added in the basement, and the master bedroom was split into two separate bedrooms.
Ken comes from family of eight, was the second eldest and first boy. Although his family was poor, Ken’s father, nicknamed “the British man,” was recognized as the wisest and most educated man in the whole village, even though he only had an elementary school education.
Ken’s father was highly regarded because he spoke English and was able to “walk with the British guys.”
“Even if you went to Harvard, you would recognize that he went to school. He became an accountant, because he was so smart,” Ken recounts.
As the first son, Ken held responsibility for all of his siblings. In the Igbo tribe, the parents are only responsible for raising their eldest son, handing down everything to him. The first son will then take care of the other children. From a very early age, Ken did what was expected of him to provide for the family. After middle school, Ken quit school to work, selling bread on the streets in order to pay for his siblings to go to school. Ken only went to college years later, earning a degree in marketing and business administration at Federal Polytechnic
Offa Kwara State. Ken still takes care of his family to this day. David tells me that before Ken arrived, David, Frederick and his mom used to go to Six Flags a couple times a year. Now, his family doesn’t ever take vacations, because the money goes back to support Ken’s extended family in Nigeria.
Like Ken, David also held tremendous responsibility growing up. For most of his early childhood, David took care of his autistic younger brother Frederick by himself. Aretha, who had been a single mother her entire life, worked late and took night classes. Ken didn’t enter David’s life until David was 10. Every day, David would ride the school bus to the bus stop on his street and wait for his brother, who would arrive shortly afterwards. David made dinner every night, while making sure Frederick did his homework before doing his own. Dinner consisted mainly of noodles, chicken or rice. Since he didn’t own any computer or video games, most evenings, David would read a book or go to sleep by nine o’clock. Aretha typically came home late, after David and his brother had already gone to bed. When most children played outside after school, David was busy looking after his brother, who was diagnosed with autism at age two. Ken thinks the reason David is “too quiet,” is because as a child, David was always with someone who didn’t talk. David only started interacting with other boys at school when he was eleven.
Before Ken moved to the United States, David was the “man of the house,” and did everything from comforting his mom to acting as a handyman. He learned how to drill when he was six or seven. Each Christmas, David was responsible for buying Christmas presents. During high school, David also held a part-time job through federal work-study as a research assistant at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. David tells me that Ken’s arrival “hurt his pride a bit,” because his stepfather now assumes most of those responsibilities. David is especially exasperated that his father hires repairmen instead of paying him to do it.
In 2005, Ken moved to the Ferguson, MO from Lagos, Nigeria. He had been dating Aretha, who was an American citizen for a few years prior to that. David doesn’t know how they met except that they spoke often, either on the phone or on Skype. Ken and his wife chose to move to Ferguson, because most of Aretha’s extended family lived there.
When Ken first moved to the United States, he started working with adults with mental disorders including Alzheimer’s and autism at the Judevine Center for Autism in St. Louis, MO. Ken told me that he took his first job there not because of money, but to better understand Frederick.
“When my wife had him and I was told about autism, I didn’t know anything about autism, you know, we don’t really have it back in Africa, even if you do, it will be rare,” Ken says.
Ken told me he never encountered anyone with Alzheimer’s or autism until he came to the United States. His own father died at eighty, but was still “strong” and could do everything by himself until the end. Even though Ken talked to Frederick on the phone, they didn’t meet until Frederick was eight.
“When I saw [Frederick], I was like are you serious? Does this disease exist? Oh my God.”
At the urging of his wife, Ken worked at Judevine Center for Autism to learn more about autistic children and know how to work with his son better, so he would not “disown the child or dislike him.”
Ken tells me, “You can’t understand autism by reading in a book. You would not get it by watching a movie, unless you work with the person. C’mon now.”
Ken thanks the grace of God that he took the job.
Even though Ken worked his way up to supervisor at Judevine Center for Autism, he still believes he hasn’t learned anything about the disease. He told me that a patient’s personality can vary week to week; each time is “a whole different ball game.” There are over twenty types of autism – “some individuals are violent while others don’t do anything except mope and defecate on themselves.”
At the autism center, Ken and his coworkers did not get along. According to David, taking care of autistic adults is easy because the patients don’t complain, so “the employees treat them like shit.” Ken got in trouble because he kept reporting his coworkers for not doing their jobs. Once, an autistic patient defecated on himself, and the coworker left it for Ken, who had the next shift, to clean it up. Imagine a man walking around the whole day with feces dripping down his pants.
Ken still works at Judevine, but only as a part-time job on Saturday and Sundays.
Monday through Friday he works as a taxi driver and owns an ABC cab, a red and white minivan with sliding doors. He tells me he became a driver in order to earn some more money, to take care of his family in St. Louis and his extended family in Nigeria. Typically, he works sixty to eighty hours a week, and often works night shifts.
Ken tells me that you have to at least spend eighteen hours a week in the driving business to earn money, because taxi drivers have to pay the taxi company seventy dollars a day in addition to paying gas out-of-pocket. He has a company tablet that sends him messages if people need a taxi. If there is a game that weekend, he can make profit after only ten hours. If it isn’t busy, then he has to keep driving.
Ken’s Monday-Friday Schedule
4:00am Ken takes his private clients to work
7:15am He drives a school bus along three different routes to Normandy public school, so the kids get to class before 9am
9:00am He drives his taxi around town to make “small money” until it is time to pick up the kids from school
2:00pm He picks up the kids from school
4:00pm He picks up his private clients from work and brings them home
I asked Ken if it would be more profitable to wait instead of using gas driving around. He told me that it is more profitable to “drive around,” but I still don’t get it.
“You have to know where the busy spots are, hotels, restaurants. The time people go for lunch, the time people go for dinner,” Ken explains.
All of the taxi drivers know the hot spots, so there may be a line of taxis waiting.
Sometimes the taxi drivers don’t wait in line and “steal customers.” Ken explains that he is successful, because he has his own car, business card, and client base. By interacting with customers more, over the years, he has built a customer base, and many times he drives the same people. Once in a while, he will send them a text, and when they need a cab, those clients call him up.
Daily income varies depending on how busy business is, from $100 – $350. Ken tells me taxi drivers don’t go broke because hotels are always busy. If he is at the airport, he checks the incoming flights to know when to pick people up. He especially loves driving college students, including WashU and SLU students, because it’s profitable to know where college students hangout, party, and “when something is going on.” Every taxi driver has his own secret to making money. To make money downtown, Ken sometimes bribes security guards and bouncers to tell him about upcoming events, because “you have to spend money to make money.” Ten dollars spent can easily turn into one hundred dollars earned. Eventually, he hopes to someday start his own taxi company and own a fleet.
I asked Ken if he ever sleeps or has free time.
He tells me that he spends his minimal free time with his kids and his wife because he works weekends. Ken chuckles and points to his eye bags. He always wants more sleep but tells me that is what it’s like to be the man of the family.
When he got to the United States, Ken tried to get a college degree from a community college but dropped out due to cost. Aretha works as a dental assistant at a private practice on the Delmar Loop in St. Louis and has an associate degree from an online college for dental assisting, as well as thousands in student loan debt. David worries that if he ever has student loan debt how his family is going to work it out.
David told me that his family highly values education. David went to a private Catholic high school, St. Louis University High, with a full-ride scholarship. David told me that what high school you go to is very important and determines a lot about a person, because education is a status symbol in Ferguson. SLU high was a “regular school” for white people, but it was virtually unheard for a black student from Ferguson to go there.
I asked David if he ever felt out of place at his high school.
“Of course, I was one of the few black people there,” David told me.
Located forty minutes away from Ferguson, SLU High is an all-boys school, with approximately 1000 students, only fifty of which are black. Out of David’s class of 270 boys, only ten were black. The school has a mandatory dress code of tucked-in collared shirts and khakis, something David had a hard time getting used to. David tried to relay the feeling of being out of place to me but had a hard time putting it into words.
“It’s the feeling like I shouldn’t be there. Sometimes I’m like, where the hell am I?” David said exasperatedly. “I felt awkward, but I had fun in the school, liked everyone there and considered them my brothers.”
I asked David about his experience in Ferguson Middle School before he went to a “white” high school. He told me that he wasn’t very social in middle school, and “only knew the people in his little suburb, only the people on his street.”
“The reason why I only knew the people on my street was because I didn’t want to get involved with any dumb shit. The Ferguson police department has a quota. I’m smart enough to know who I should hide from,” David explained.
According to a 2014 study by the Missouri Attorney General, in 2013 in Ferguson, 483 black people and thirty-six white people were arrested. 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved blacks. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department revealed a pattern and practice of massive constitutional violations of the city’s black residents borne out of racial animus. The city has funded itself by fining and punishing black citizens. The report states that Ferguson officials repeatedly behaved as if their priority is to maximize the revenue that flows into city coffers, urging the police force to ticket more people. In the aftermath of that report, the Ferguson police chief, city manager, three employees of the police department and a municipal judge have all resigned.
David’s neighborhood in Forestwood is known as a “trap,” an area or neighborhood where people sell drugs and fall into a downward spiral. David tells me that living in Ferguson was like living in a police state.
“You go home after curfew. You don’t hang out with a lot of people because if a police officer with a quota sees five black guys walking down the street, he’s thinking maybe if I follow them, I’ll be able to arrest them or give them a ticket.”
David told me he dissociated completely from all of the people from his middle school and only hung out with the white people from his high school. That way, at least, he wouldn’t get in trouble with the police, because no police is going to arrest “one black guy with a bunch of white friends.” David told me that he was afraid that if he got involved in “one little thing,” he could not go to WashU and get a scholarship from FAFSA and Pell grants.
Currently, David is a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, with a full-ride scholarship, double majoring in biology and computer science. He is involved in two tech startups, maintains his own website, and conducts research on autism at the Washington University Medical School. One day, he hopes to become a neurosurgeon to help Frederick and others with similar conditions.