Malcolm X Boulevard, America’s Dakar!
Most French people discovered the existence of this little enclave in the heart of Harlem where a large African community lives thanks to Rachid Bouchareb’s latest film Little Senegal. Alloune, a retired Senegalese man played by the Burkinabè actor Sotigui Kouyaté, comes to New York to find his family’s descendants brought here as slaves. Turning up on his illegal taxi driver nephew’s doorstep in this « revisited » Harlem, Alloune discovers a world where his African brothers and American cousins live side-by-side without actually mixing. This is a daily reality in this part of New York where the African population has grown considerably.
The neighbourhood is known as « Little Senegal » as it is mainly Senegalese immigrants who have settled there. Although a recent and as yet poorly documented immigration, it’s nonetheless a big talking point. According to the Senegalese journalist Dame Babou, « no one really knows their number. Some say 10 000, 15 000 or 25 000 in New York alone. I reckon that there are a lot more than that! It’s impossible to know with all the illegal immigrants. What is certain is that it’s a predominant group that represents more than half the African immigrants here. »
For most New Yorkers, this new wave of immigration is incarnated by the street-sellers seen everywhere in Manhattan’s shopping areas. They sell false Rolex watches, tee shirts, or umbrellas. But what do people really know about them, beyond this reductive stereotype? Not a lot, unless they adventure into their « territory » in west Harlem.
Little Senegal is indeed quite another world. Strolling along 116th West Street in the humid New York summer heat is like being in the centre of Dakar, or even the popular Médina district. Men and women brighten up the sidewalks with their brightly coloured boubous. Wolof can be heard everywhere (or occasionally a bit of French), melodiously drowned out by the sounds of Youssou N’Dour emanating from nearly every shop. Loads of hairdresser’s with garish signs are dotted along the street. At a crossing, touts hassle you gently, like in Paris’ Château d’Eau or Stasbourg St Denis, « Come in, we do beautiful plaits at half the price« .
But when spicy smells start tickling your taste buds, you really feel at home. The neighbourhood has no less than half-a-dozen restaurants offering a wide range of West African specialities. One of the most popular is « Africa », where exiles with nostalgic palates meet up for a good Thiebou Dieune, Senegal’s national dish. The restaurant opened in 1994 and quickly became a favourite in the community. « The dishes are quite simply excellent« , explains Mustapha Sylla, one of « Africa’s » regulars. But there is more to it than that. « It’s like being in Dakar, or with the family here. More than just a restaurant, it’s a meeting place for the community too. Various small community groups put their notices up here, for concerts, parties, and the like. There are sometimes respects for the dead too. It helps us to stay informed about what’s going on and to help too if needs be« .
Mutual aid and hospitality « teranga » in Wolof remains a fundamental value for the Senegalese in America. They have brought their « daïra » tradition with them, a system of weekly or monthly contributions whose funds are used in the event of an emergency. When someone dies, for example, these groups pay the cost of repatriating the body and also financially provide for the deceased’s family.
This scenario is all the more tragic when the body brought home is riddled with bullets Little Senegal is Harlem, after all, and does not escape the ambient violence. Taxi drivers are particularly vulnerable to this violence. The phenomenon directly affects the community, therefore, many of whom work in this profession. Their poor English and the fact that they don’t know the neighbourhoods they drive around very well makes them easy targets.
To date, 41 Senegalese taxi drivers have been killed in the streets of New York.
It’s hardly surprising that Harlem’s other black populations are greatly mistrusted in this climate. Very few Little Senegal residents frequent them and vice-versa. There is a two-way feeling of racism and the divide is difficult to breach. Some do make the effort, however, albeit timidly, notably a few « back to the roots » black Americans seeking to reappropriate their African roots. They can sometimes be seen eating at « Africa » they almost overdo their enthusiasm! The same people can be seen buying cloth, craftwork, or music at Harlem’s African market on a quick, imaginary journey. After all, Little Senegal already offers a real taste of Africa.
///Article N° : 5268