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Scoring a victory on the Afro turf 

At home in Nigeria, Timothy Adebule wouldn't have been working on a rainy Saturday afternoon. But this is Orlando, and the proprietor of the Three Masks gift shop was wringing the last few hours of potential profit out of a slow day on West Church Street. And he still had a long night ahead of him: Only a few hours remained until Adebule ventured across the street to Gossips Caribbean Restaurant to host "Ethnic Night Out," a recurring showcase of African sights and sounds he created to serve the twin goals of cultural advocacy and self-promotion.

"This is like a history house," the affable Adebule understated as I surveyed his formidable display of handcrafted African statuettes, jewelry, masks, musical instruments and clothing. My eyes fell approvingly on a rack of colorful Nigerian tunics, then widened at how affordable they were. One could abscond with a beautiful cotton number for the cost of a pair of name-brand sneakers. Then again, Phil Nike doesn't keep his prices down to further international education, as is Adebule's stated motive.

It took a while to make his didactic dream a reality. After 21 years of living and working in Nigeria and another six studying in London, he brought his wide grin and linebacker's frame to the United States in 1990, seduced by TV images of Diana Ross' mansion, which to him made America look so "magnificent." But the first six years of his residency were a long road to self-employment, beginning with one of the dishwashing jobs with which Florida regularly greets foreign transplants.

"I never thought that was a job!" Adebule laughed. All his life, he had been cleaning up in the kitchen for free.

Drumming up interest

Sufferers from similar culture shock made up his target audience for "Ethnic Night Out," which after only four editions (the last two at Gossips) has become a reliable cure for the homesickness felt by the African-born workers doing time at Disney's Animal Kingdom and its neighboring attractions. Who could they better trust to replicate their motherland's comforts than a patron saint whose business card announced him as "Bushman #1" -- the African vernacular for "free spirit" ?

"I wish everyone was a bushman," Adebule sighed wistfully.

As free spirits can't be rushed, the 10 p.m. party didn't get moving until shortly before midnight. Now bedecked in a flowing blue robe, Adebule ambled across the floor of Gossips, finalizing last-minute preparations. The few early birds amused themselves by staring intently at a television set, watching the decidedly non-ethnic Miss Kentucky accept the tiara of Miss America.

Her accessory was a mere trinket compared to the native finery that soon transformed the tiled dance floor into a collage of gold, auburn and red. A strong turnout of costumed revelers (and a few in stateside evening wear) hoofed it up for a solid three hours, dancing rapturously to the sounds of house DJ Richieyama and visiting mixmaster from Tampa. Afro-pop rhythms thundered from a massive set of speakers, growing progressively bass-heavy as the night went on.

Culinary expert Gloria Green brought a bowl of goat pepper soup to my table, a representation of the African cuisine she serves up at Gossips every Friday and Saturday. Tasty and very spicy, the dish was accompanied by a glass of water that Green thoughtfully plunked down just before my virgin tongue could call out for it.

Ghana make you sweat

Adebule had advertised a costume contest and something called "The African Continent Game," which sounded like a fun, more illuminating take on "Jeopardy!" ("What is a diamond mine, Alex?" ) But neither came to pass; everyone was having too good of a time just dancing. The announcement that prizes would be handed out to the best male and female gyrators brought the couples even closer together -- as in you-are-now-my-best-friend close. The host led his guests in a climactic circle around the floor as they waved napkins and sheets of paper in the air, occasionally fanning themselves to fend off collapse.

Only a handful of night owls were left when the glasses were collected from the mostly empty tables at 3 a.m. If either of the dance winners missed their coronation, they can collect next time: Adebule plans to stage his celebration of Afrocentric identity on a monthly basis -- a comforting, empowering routine in a neighborhood whose future is no more defined than it was when he opened Three Masks in 1996.

"Ask not what your city can do for you," he laughed, impersonating one of his adopted country's own tribal leaders. "Ask what you can do to benefit your life, and help the city along the way." He's already wearing the mantle of a Great Society; why wait for local government to belatedly bestow it upon him?


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