Uptown, Africa Toujours
By Nana Kankam (July 22, 2007)
Along Frederick Douglass Boulevard at West 116th Street, sepia-skinned women parade by swathed in richly colored fabric from West Africa, home still fresh in their minds and dear to their hearts. Young men swagger around in oversize shirts and low-slung jeans, chatting in Senegalese French.
Nine blocks away looms the historic Apollo Theater, where busloads of tourists regularly unload for a nostalgic glimpse of Harlem’s storied days. Yet increasingly every year, a decidedly foreign feel prevails on this particular stretch of Harlem — Le Petit Senegal, as it is often called. Young men sell sweet-smelling incense, and middle-aged women with plaited hair plead in urgent West African accents, “Hair braiding, miss?” Giddy, clamorous children make the crowds part as they dash by, all braids and knees and laughter.
In the five-year period ending in 2005, the number of African-born immigrants living in central Harlem increased by two-thirds, to about 6,500, nearly a sixth of them from French-speaking Senegal. Along with soft drinks and toothpaste, bodegas and delis carry items like an African bleaching cream used to lighten the skin, a malted milk beverage called Nestle Milo that is popular in West Africa, and cans of egusi, melon seeds that are the base of a pungent soup laden with vegetables.
For a first-generation Ghanaian-American who has settled in Harlem, as many West Africans have, the sights and sounds of home are everywhere.
They are in the features of men and women on the streets — the cheek cuts, made soon after birth, signifying the tribe to which they belong — and in the disapproving sucking sounds that women make at misbehaving children.
They are at Les Ambassades, a Senegalese bakery and bistro near West 117th Street that attracts a pan-African clientele, a place where Nigerians debate politics while Ghanaians trade impressions of the Black Stars, the national Ghanaian soccer team.
And they can be found at AG Fashion, a tiny tailor shop on St. Nicholas Avenue near 120th Street that is crammed with pinstripe suits as well as outfits fashioned from bright African cloth. Customers are buzzed in by AG himself, a Senegalese immigrant. When a garment that has been ordered is not ready, eyes roll. But it is hard to be really annoyed; customers are accustomed to the more languorous “African time.”
A customer inspects the alterations on her Dolce & Gabbana dress, then decides to stop by a street vendor on West 125th Street to buy pure shea butter, a moisturizer. This will be a gift for an African mother, now settled in Ohio. The mother hasn’t been to Ghana in a while, so this will be a piece of home.
Originally appeared in New York Times.