UI alumnus runs authentic African restaurant


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The walls of the restaurant Elikia, 118 Second St. Suite C, in Coralville are adorned with photographs of leaders and icons of African and African-American descent.

The faces of Nelson Mandela, President Obama, and Martin Luther King Jr. honor the accomplishments made throughout black history.

Peter Nkumu is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he is the co-owner of Elikia with his cousin, Mpeti Otola. Though he now lives in Iowa with his wife and two children, he comes from a rich culture.

"We are pretty close — Peter is my first cousin, and where we come from, there is no cousin, there are just brothers," Otola said. "It helps in how we run the restaurant — it's me and my brother's place."

Nkumu immigrated to Iowa in 1991 from central Africa to live with his aunt, her husband, and five children. He started attending Kirkwood, then transferred the University of Iowa, where he earned a degree in economics.

He held several jobs as an undergrad at the UI, including working for Parking and Transportation and the UI Hospitals and Clinics. After graduation, Nkumu got a full-time job at the UI Community Credit Union, a position he still holds today.

In 2008, a friend sold the restaurant to Nkumu and Otala, who then turned it into a bar. But the flood of summer 2008 wiped out their space, forcing them to relocate and start from scratch.

"We lost everything; we basically lost the business," Nkumu said. "We didn't have insurance for this at this time, we didn't have anything. We lost the money and the business."

Despite losing everything, the pair was able to reopen the business as a restaurant and bar in November 2010.

Nkumu said Elikia may appear like a regular Midwestern restaurant, but the authentic food and the music bring a small part of the Congo to the Iowa City area.

Nkumu said there is a large Congolese population in the area and, as president of the Congolese community created in 2006, he said it became clear there was a need for a restaurant such as Elikia.

"We wanted to share our culture with the people in Iowa through food, especially," Otola said.

Brad Horswell, a friend and coworker of Nkumu at the credit union, said he has gotten a full authentic dining experience at Elikia.

"It has a real nice setting; it's one of those great 'hole in the wall' spots," Horswell said.

With a loyal group of diners and a cozy environment including TVs, a DJ, and dance floor, Elikia is an escape from the crazy college scene. Horswell said it's also the kind of place where everyone will learn your name.

"Peter is 200 percent committed to the business," Horswell said. "He goes after work and spends his whole day doing it, he has a lot of interaction with his customers and believes in it."

What makes Elikia unique is the food, which is cooked with traditional sauces and flavors. Meals in the Congo are customarily eaten with diners' hands, not an uncommon practice at Elikia.

"Our menu is in Lingala [a national language of the Congo] because we want people to say our words; instead of saying chicken, we want you to say 'soso,' " he said.

Nkumu said he thinks authentic ethnic restaurants are becoming more and more popular in Iowa City and the surrounding communities because of the diversity of the area and the need for a connection to home.

"We are used to McDonald's, and once in a while, you want to try something different," Nkumu said. "We have African channels, and we play African music. It's all about the ambiance and accommodating the crowd."

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