From Africa to Robbins: Raz Sachania Has Found a New Hometown
The new look of downtown Robbins, with comfortable benches and flowering planters up, down and around the L, started with a boy in Africa helping his father. Raz Sachania was the fourth youngest of five children growing up in Uganda in the days before Idi Amin. His father, a carpenter, let him hold tools and help.
Sachania owns and operates the Galaxy market in the middle of town, at the corner of the downtown L. He built by hand all the benches and planters, modeling them on one he built for the store.
Sachania is one of the new people of Robbins: those who've come to town to start rather than to shut down a business. He found he'd bought into more than a grocery store: he and his family had bought into a hometown.
"I really want to see the town prosper," Sachania says. "I have given myself to the town. I have my son with me. We could have picked any town in America, but our fate brought us to Robbins. As the town prospers, it will prosper us."
That fateful journey started far, far away, in Kampala -- capital city of a mostly rural, poorly developed east African nation. Sachania met his first American when he ran away to see the world. He was four years old, and so eager to explore that his father used to tie his foot to keep from losing him to wanderlust.
"One day I ran away to see the city," he says. "I got picked up by an American woman in a VW Beetle. There were quite a few police cars looking for a four-and-a-half-year-old boy stolen from the city. Again my foot got tied. She picked me up, eventually ended at my house."
His was a simple world, missing many features thought commonplace in industrial civilization.
"In those days, hot water or electricity was hard to come by," he says. "Where we lived then was not developed yet. All the things we are accustomed to now, we didn't have. We moved to Kakira -- a small town, no stores, no shops around. To buy a pair of sneakers you had to get in a cab to buy sneakers from Kampala. It was not like a developed country where you see stores. It wasn't like that then."
Yet from the beginning he had the advantage of an educational system that considered learning foreign languages essential. Those studies started the first day of school, on a concrete slab outdoors in the shade of nearby trees.
"When I started going to school, we had to learn one national language, Swahili," Sachania says. "You had to learn English, too. I spoke Gujarati at home. It is very, very different. Like east and west. Swahili has no phrases that resemble English or the English language or any we are familiar with."
He stayed in Kakira until he was about 9, becoming fluent in English with a working knowledge of Swahili.
"Back in those days, the first school was sitting outside, beneath a huge tree with continual shade through the day," he says. "Under the tree, a concrete slab and in one area you had a chalkboard. Teachers every 30 minutes had a different period, only one teacher at a time. I could speak fluently English and Gujarati. Swahili was difficult at the time, but we could communicate using certain common words, the words used for politeness that you pick up right away."
The greeting rituals of the south, still alive in Robbins folk, were not unfamiliar to Sachania. His father and mother had come to Uganda from India, bringing its culture of courtesy with them.
"In Asia, one thing they do well, is -- in meeting or greeting -- the well-being of the individual is paramount," Sachania says. "Bring a glass of water. In the old days, you never knew how far they might have had to travel. The first thing to do was to look after their comfort needs, then begin your conversation."
That is what led to the benches of Robbins. That, and what he learned from his father as a boy.
"My father, an uneducated man, was a carpenter in India. His father died at age 21. In those days, people married at a very young age. My dad had no money for school, so he picked up a trade. Then, his trade was recognized by a British company. They told him they would look after his mother in India, and he went to Africa and was building post boxes. Later, he was asked to go to Great Britain."
The boy learned early on that there are two choices in life: work hard, or have a good education.
"I didn't want to do what he did, but I picked it up, watching him around the house," Sachania says. "He would let me help, hand him tools. As I got older, I learned how to hold a hammer, or what happens with a screwdriver. The way we were traditionally brought up is to understand you have to do your best, regardless of your education or background. I learned one thing in particular: in anything I do, I have to give 110 percent -- put all my heart and effort into it. First of all, the business, then -- there are things that could change."
His father eventually took the family to London, where he still lives. There, Sachania met his wife. He'd been helping a youth team of cricketers -- chaperoning the club, taking them to weekend matches, and honoring the British version of courtesy.
"In England, you have to have tea time, a break. We had arranged on alternate weeks to make arrangements for tea: sandwiches, tidbits, along with hot tea. During our half-hour break, we would have tea time. One day, one of the ladies made an arrangement for a replacement server. That's how I met my wife, Jayshree. She was that replacement. Ever since then, we have been together -- almost 35 years."
His work for General Motors took him all over Europe, and occasionally to home offices in Michigan. His wife had come from another African nation, Kenya. Her family eventually moved to South Carolina, where he and his wife settled after he took early retirement from GM.
"When I arrived here, I saw they had a grocery store," he says. "When I wasn't working at my job, I helped out in the grocery store."
He put his settlement from GM into a series of hospitality ventures. A successful partnership in a Columbia, S.C., Econo Lodge ended with the sale of the motel. Sachania decided he would go into the grocery business like his father-in-law.
"My brother-in-law, in the grocery business, became aware of this particular store through a sales rep, and passed that information to me," he says. "I dug my computer out, and started looking to see where it was. There wasn't anything about Robbins, just Pinehurst. We got an Internet map to Robbins, and looked at it one time. The second time, we made the purchase. It was a huge investment for us."
Sachania and his wife started going to early community-wide STEP meetings at the suggestion of former mayor Mickey Brown. Theron Bell had been asked to head up those early efforts.
"The first meeting I could see, much to my surprise, so many things going on that I was very happy about: taking charge, doing something for the town," he says. "That was my first experience. I could see at that meeting that things that could have an effect could be some of the most simple things."
Sachania started looking around to see how he and his family could take part. He thought about seeing his customers waiting for a ride because their ride had just left them at the store.
"What would these people do? -- They can't just stand there with their groceries," he says. "I thought, why don't I make a bench? Then they could sit, and employees could sit on their breaks, have a smoke outside."
That thought led to another.
"What does the elder community do?" Sachania wondered. "I would see them taking their exercise walk, and thought they might enjoy sitting down. Just sit down somewhere and enjoy watching. Why not have a place where people can sit down, enjoy maybe a cup of coffee or just enjoy being outside in the fresh air? Eventually Theron Bell, working with STEP and the people she got together, we all came up with the idea of benches for town. I kind of opened my mouth and said, 'Don't worry about the benches, just get the lumber.'"
Some of the money from the first STEP grant paid for the wood. Sachania did the rest, designing benches and planters, and building them behind the grocery store, or inside on rainy days.
"Back of the market, we allocated space when we didn't have deliveries," he says. "We juggled it around when we couldn't work outside. Inside, we made the benches. Robbins had some old half-barrel planters. 'We could make some planters, too.' I thought. I asked what kind of dimensions they wanted, and said I would make them and try to make them more appealing. Growing up in London, they had places where we would play cricket, but also benches alongside. Here in Robbins, we cannot put flowers where they won't grow, on concrete. But you could have appealing planters. It opens up people's minds, that you are looking at more than walls. You are talking with other people."
The benches and planters brought a big change to the old L of a town. RobbinsAlive! wants nine more, and people around Robbins are starting to realize Sachania is a little more than the corner grocer. He's home folks, now.
"We are trying to make Robbins our town," he says. "As we prosper along with Robbins, it will make us very, very happy to be part of Robbins and its growth."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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