John Otagburuagu: A story of deportation and optimism

Headshot of John Otagburuagu, taken by Jon Howard.

Forced to abandon his unborn son, John Otagburuagu came to London four years ago with nothing and through sheer determination has built a successful business. Georgina Blackwell has been to meet him and share his tale of deportation and optimism.

John Otagburuagu, owner of Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles, outside Elephant and Castle shopping centre, stands with his cowboy hat and a wide-eyed smile in his café. Which is a wonderfully decorated horsebox with nick-knacks that his customers gave him over the years. 

John moved to the United States from England fourteen years ago to pursue his dream job as a cameraman. He made a stable life as a truck driver, through which he met his current wife and had four children.

He made good money and had a huge house, “leading to the point of becoming a billionaire.” When, after fourteen years in the US, “my friend reported me to immigration services.” He was put on a plane back to England. He went from having everything, to having nothing. 

“I saw it as an opportunity, not the end of my life.”

 His three daughters came to live with him in the UK however his wife and recently born son were in the US. He didn’t see his baby boy until he was two years old.

When trying to get his wife and son into England, they were constantly refused. John remained hopeful about the situation: “The way I see stuff, everything in life has a reason.” and “eventually they will be here so why panic.”  It was three years before they were reunited.

John’s optimism was blinding and his regular customer and friend, Mascha Angoscini butted in, saying, “This is also the optimism he always brings here to his customers.”

After being deported, to get back on his feet, “I contacted Prisoners abroad.” he said, pulling out their business card from all those years ago. When he arrived, they provided him with money and a hostel.

“When I’m in a bad spot I deliberately look for the silver lining.” He told himself: “This is a time to create myself, it’s a time to live again.”

He decided to open up his own cafe which was made possible through an enterprise programme organised by Prisoners Abroad. He chose the name ‘Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles’ because when living in Richmond, Texas, he learnt about the origins of Black Cowboys. “It’s part of my history as a black person.” he told me.

The coffee inspiration was from being a truck driver and always drinking, “really shitty coffee.” and the waffles were inspired by ones he ate in Liege, Belgium.

He started with a cart he built out of wood and on his very first day “I earned £40 pounds, I put on music and started dancing.”

A year later he had enough money to move into his horsebox: “you know when you wake up in the morning and breathe oxygen? This is how this was for me.”

John Otagburuagu cafe, taken by Jon Howard.

Four years later John has a thriving business which supports him and his family, and for the future has applied for a shop space.

When asked where his resilience and determination come from he is sure: “In life you have to have passion and my passion is my children, I love my children, I don’t even call it love, it’s something deeper than that, I feel like they are a part of me.”