Sunday, August 26, 2012

West Africa on the Hudson

Interviews and research from Bineta Fall and Mohamed Ka, New York

Entrance to Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market
Statistically many immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa to the United States are from English-speaking countries (former British colonies), such as Nigeria, Ghana, with a relatively large influx from South Africa (which is not officially an English-speaking country), along with Kenyans, not shown in the Wikipedia article.
However in New York City, the French-speaking population from Western African countries is noticeable, especially in Harlem. In the 1990s, Harlem seemed to be a mini-outpost of Senegal and Guinea. Gambians (English-speaking) are also represented, as geographically, their country is wedged within Senegal.

Arame Adje, the self-proclaimed "Grandmother of the Community" arrived in 1986 from Senegal. She says that the Senegalese started arriving in the United States in the mid-eighties, during a very bad drought in Senegal. Also, flights from Dakar and Abidjan, were relatively inexpensive, compared to flights from many other African airports. At first, they stayed in hotels throughout Manhattan, and little by little moved to Harlem, where rent was relatively inexpensive in those days. Many were here illegally, but President Reagan proposed a bill to legalize immigrants, while cracking down on new illegal immigration.
Ms. Arame Adje, Harlem, NY
Ms. Adje recounted that in the early days, the Senegalese newcomers encountered some hostility as newly arrived immigrants in Harlem, however, over the years, their contribution to Harlem's revival though the small businesses they created came to be appreciated.

Mohamed Ka's research showed that in the 1990s, immigration accelerated, as not only farmers, who were more concerned with making money than continuing their education, but students also fled Senegal's ceaseless student strikes and unemployment. The Senegalese Association of America was founded (1990), men brought their spouses, and their children attended school. 
Sanna Kanuteh in his shop
Another relative longtime Harlem resident is Mr. Sanna Kanuteh, originally from Gambia, whose shop is located in the Malcolm Shabbaz  African Market. He sells African clothes, jewelry , artwork, and more. He came to the United States in 1990. As per Mr. Kanuteh, Harlem was "empty, had no life" in those days; no one wanted to come visit Harlem. When the Africans came, that changed, and Harlem became a destination for many tourists who came to New York. They could "discover African cultures without having to travel to the continent."
One way of discovering the continent is through the many West African restaurants that have sprung up, especially in Harlem.
Due to the economic crisis in the United States, and the fact that the first immigrants are getting older, many opt to return home to their African homeland. Often the community will fund-raise to help them pay for the trip home, so that they have a small nest egg to start over once back in their village. The Senegalese community is a model of solidarity and assistance to its members, helping pay for children's medical expenses, sending deceased members' bodies home, and more. Faith-based groups called "Dahiras" offer both moral and financial support to newcomers, who are taken care of till they find employment.
Clothing in Sanna Kanuteh's shop

Despite the problems and the woes encountered in a new land, with an unknown culture, the United States is still the place of which people from all over the world will often dream, and will be until there are better chances of a career and even simple survival back home.


116th Street and Lenox (Malcolm X Boulevard) 
Photographs by Bineta Fall

Sanna Kanuteh's shop: Shabbaz Market/ Booth #78, 116 St. & Lenox Ave. (near the #2 train), New York, NY
Post about another Senegalese in New York: Bibi Seck, Industrial Designer

Bineta Fall is of part Senegalese, part Mauritanian origin, born in Ivory Coast and living in NYC since the age of 12, in 1999. She is a graduate student at The New School, pursuing a Master's Degree in International Affairs. She is also an instructor in one of the NYCHA Digital Vans, assisting residents.
Mohamed Ka is  a graduate student at The New School, pursuing a Master's Degree in International Affairs. Previously, he worked as interpreter, journalist and strategist in various African countries and in New York.