As a young nursing student in New York, Chantel Eloundou never imagined she would work in business, let alone run her own shop.
Yet, this past June, she found herself straightening racks of skirts and dusting off the counters of her new store, called Nyianga.
The Midtown shop has unisex clothing, dashikis and headwraps in vibrant patterns and hues. Each piece has a mixture of warm and cool colors, made with Cameroonian cotton, bazin fabric and linen.
Even though “nyianga” translates to “fashion” in Eloundou’s native tongue, the shop has much more. Along with the clothing and wraps, Nyianga features jewelry, masks, raw shea butter, oils, authentic African black soap and even dolls. Most items are designed by Eloundou and handcrafted in her home country of Cameroon by family and friends.
“[Nyianga] gives me the opportunity to present Africa in a different way that is sometimes shown in the media,” she said. “These beautiful things, people make it, and Africa is also [beautiful].”
Eloundou got her first taste at selling at a Christmas flea market in 2015. She had a few pieces of jewelry sent from Cameroon and decided to sell them. She went home with only $37 in her pocket but, still, she knew she was on to something. She felt a calling.
She had more pieces flown in and eventually found a place in the Broad Street Market, where she worked as a pop-up vendor every Friday and Saturday. For two years, she sold in the market, slowly building a customer base and learning the ropes of running a small business. Her jewelry was nearly sold out every week, she said. She knew her customers wanted more, so she added clothes to the mix and, eventually, masks, artwork, shea butter and soaps.
Eventually, a women came up to Eloundou and said she was looking to open a jewelry store and asked if the two could work together.
“I was really afraid to move forward,” Eloundou said. “I thought it wasn’t going to go anywhere, but my fate or the world or whatever—I didn’t know I was going to be in this building, but here I am.”
“Here” is a snug storefront on N. 3rd near Reily Street. Old-time Harrisburg residents may best remember it as a storehouse for amusements, with games piled high inside a shabby exterior, blocking the large picture window.
In early 2013, Mayor Eric Papenfuse and his wife, Catherine Lawrence, bought the building, eventually restoring it to create new retail space. And, right next door, her jewelry-selling friend set up shop. Thus, Nyianga was created.
Eloundou calls herself a student of her own business. Instead of pulling the shop in a certain direction, she lets it lead her, and she learns along the way. She credits her customers for broadening her business to where it is today.
“I’m learning things—I learned so much,” she said. “This business, I discovered, I can talk about it from the morning until the next morning, which I didn’t know I could do.”
Through her journey, Eloundou has connected with customers who have shared their stories with her. Though Nyianga has customers from all walks of life, the store has a large African-American following. Some speak to her of their African roots, while Messiah College students have shared stories of traveling to Africa on mission trips. Some customers have even talked about the recent “Black Panther” movie—which brought in so much business that Eloundou sold out of headwraps.
“The African-American community kind of searches for their roots in Africa,” she said. “Everybody wants to know where they come from. I know where I come from. When the stress stikes me, I can think of my Cameroon roots, and I remember those memories. One phone call home can set my balance, but not everybody has that.”
These are the communities that drew Eloundou to Midtown and eventually kept her there.
“There’s nothing like Midtown Harrisburg,” she said. “There is something that is unique here.”
In the years to come, Eloundou hopes to increase the items in her store, which may necessitate looking for a larger location, but she still hopes to stay in Midtown. She said that, through her journey to the Broad Street Market and then opening her shop, she has learned not to let fear keep her from pushing herself.
“Whatever will come out of [Nyianga], I will embrace it,” Eloundou said. “I cannot set limits to my entrepreneurship. From the fashion to the arts, I am everywhere.”
Nyianga is located at 1432 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. To view the clothing, accessories and more, visit www.nyianga.com and follow on Facebook and Instagram @NyiangaJewelry.