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Harlem’s Little Senegal: A Shelter or a Home? A Conversation with Senegalese Immigrants in New York City

Nogaye Mboup owns a beauty and electronics store, “Soppy Naby,” on West 116th St. in Harlem, in the area popularly known as Little Senegal. She walks confidently with a strong stature, and while making instant coffee in the office of the Senegalese Association, she transfers endlessly between her incoming phone calls, a Bluetooth hanging from her ear. “I love America, but it’s stressful, everybody works and nobody has time. I want to go back to Senegal!’’

“I want to go back to Senegal so bad!” exclaims Adama Diop. She sits in her air-conditioned office at Harlem United, an HIV prevention, awareness and treatment facility, and is the lone employee for the African im-migrant community. “I’m like a robot here, I’m always busy: I wake up, I go here, here and here…”   

According to Linda Bator, who works in communications at the United Nations, “People don’t come here to build a peaceful life or socialize, they are just here to earn money. The motto is work, work and work. I can’t wait to go back home. I miss my family and Dakar lifestyle”.

A longing for home floats to the surface of any conversation with a Senegalese immigrant in New York City. Whether they came thirteen years ago to raise children born in the United States, or if they have come in the past year through a visa lottery program, all speak of their desire to return to the cities and villages from which they came. Faced with a stagnant economy in Senegal, most immigrants to New York City are spurred by the prospect of social mobility and the chance to capitalize on what is reported to be an economy of endless wealth. Once here, however, the reality of a fast-paced, demanding, English-speaking and paperwork-filled new life in New York overwhelms any newcomer, and, in the case of Senegalese immigrants, is in immediate tension with a traditional, familial lifestyle.  

This tension between true economic potential — earning money to support those who reside back in Senegal— and the near-impossibility of reconciling Senegalese and New York cultures lies squarely in Little Senegal in south-west Harlem. Developed in the last fifteen years, the blocks between Lenox Avenue and Morningside Park on West 116th St. offer pri-marily Senegalese-owned beauty shops, elec-tronic stores, and restaurants, and mosques along the block filled daily with men and women wearing Senegalese fashions and chat-ting in Wolof. Although Little Senegal has an air of home, this lifestyle is not without a price. In many respects, Little Senegal serves its population of immigrants as a catalyst for integration with the rest of New York City. Often times, however, it also symbolizes a separation between Senegalese immigrants and those outside of their community.

The Senegalese Association: “The Link Between There and Here”

“The Senegalese are gifted in business. We are a business-minded people. That’s why they call it Little Senegal, not Little Mali or Little Guinea.” Ibrahima Diafoune, the President of the Senegalese Association, sits overlooking legal documents on a Wednesday afternoon, and greets all people who walk into the Asso-ciation with a “Salam Alaykoum,” meaning “Peace upon you” in Arabic; Senegal is 95% Muslim. Dressed in a white dress shirt, with a serious glance that frequently breaks into a smile, Diafoune is passionate in promoting his work in what he says is the only service center by and for a particular African national com-munity in New York City. The Senegalese As-sociation was created in 1989 and counts to-day around 2,300 members in New York City “Once Senegalese come here, they have nowhere to go, no place of reference,” he says. “We provide services such as nightly English classes, computer literacy programs, a translator, legal education and counseling,” which Diafoune, as a professional paralegal, does pro bono.  One service that Diafoune feels is central to the mission of the Senegalese Association is their family counseling services. “When a married couple has a problem, we talk with them and try to make solutions in the ways that we know. People don’t know what is legal here, what the protocol is.” Particularly in socially stigmatized cases such as domestic violence and child support, “It’s not about getting around the law, it’s about accommodating it.” Ultimately, he says, “A bad arrangement within the community is better than a good judgment from a judge outside.” His insis-tence that familial conflicts are best resolved by those who are of the Senegalese culture —and its apparent success—has earned the As-sociation government funding to continue their counseling services.  

The Waves of Senegalese Immigrants

The Association estimates that there are 18,000 Senegalese currently living in New York City. Immigrants from Senegal arrived in New York City as early as the late 1970s and quickly gained a reputation as street vendors, ubiquitous and always armed with discounted sunglasses and cassette tapes. According to Diafoune, a large portion of these early immigrants was uneducated and had entered the country without documentation. However, key federal legislation widened both the number and the profile of Senegalese immigrants. Most notably in 1990, the Immigration Act increased the number of employment visas available, and instituted a Diversity Visa Lot-tery program meant to provide more visas to underrepresented countries. After 1990, immigrants from Senegal to New York City were increasingly younger, more educated (an esti-mated 65% of immigrants after 1990 had at least a high school diploma) and interested in attending school in the United States. Ousseyhou Ndiaye is one of these “second-wave” immigrants. He came to New York City in 2000 after winning the Diversity Visa Lot-tery already with a bachelor’s degree in French and German. He was a street merchant for a year — “sunglasses and hats, for the most part” — before beginning another under-graduate career at John Jay College. “You know us Senegalese, we’re entrepreneurs, we don’t work for someone else. While I was in school I drove a Yellow Cab; I needed something flexible where I could make money and get my education.” Now, Ndiaye teaches foreign language at the Bronx International High School.

Once You Go, You Can Never Come Back 

Despite having lived here with his wife for seven years, “I’ll go back in two, three years. “I want to go back, start my own business, and help people.” 

He sees coming to the United States as an opportunity, albeit one a decade long, to receive a Western education in order to contribute to his community. “Immigration can be a win or a loss for Africa. The money that goes back, that’s good. But many people, almost all peo-ple plan on going back, never do.” Diafoune says that officially, eight million dollars are transferred annually from the United States to Senegal. “It’s so difficult to be on your feet here. It takes seven, eight years before you can even say you’re comfortable in New York City.” Kaaw, the permanent secretary for the Senegalese Association, is the only employed member in the office. “And meanwhile every-one back home thinks you’re making a lot of money, and they expect so much from you.” He swivels slightly in his chair, checks his phone to see if he has any missed calls. “You’re dealing with paperwork and back home everyone wants a piece of you.”   Nogaye, adjusting her Bluetooth, agrees. “They think we’re rich over here. They think we’re rich in the way that we thought we would be rich. But we lie too much! We lie too much to our families back home, we never say the truth.” She sits back, exasperated. “If they only knew. All my wishes are to go back to Africa, and invest. Then I will come back. See family, invest, and then come back to New York City.” Returning to Senegal to invest primarily in real estate and developing technology has become the next step for Senegalese immigrants who have earned enough in the United States. “You’re not going to go back empty handed,” says Kaaw. “And you know, if you invest, someone else has to run it for you. If you start a business back there it’s never going to work. Too many family members depending on you and your business. You left, you had five people in your family. You come back, there’s fifty! It’s impossible!”  

The Problem of Progress

This disconnection from life and family in Senegal does not necessarily indicate a growing affinity towards American culture. Those who are of a younger generation that attempt to adapt to a more progressive and American lifestyle are affronted with their Senegalese roots. On one hand, Kaaw remarks that Senegalese culture provides no room for intergenerational conflict. “We do not have a generation gap. If you know Senegalese society, everybody knows his own place. Elders have to assist and need young people, and youngsters have to respect the elder’s word. We’re not trying to bring the Senegalese society here. We need to keep our traditions but by keeping our positive things (in New York).”   Adama Diop sees things differently. “People think I’m crazy, really. They think I’m a feminist. But you know, even though I am not beloved, if there is a problem, they come to Adama.” Adama is ethnically Senegalese and was raised in several African countries, before moving to New York City fourteen years ago. She had a long career in a venture capital firm and now she attempts to spread information and encourage conversation about HIV among the African immigrant community, which is highly resistant to dialogue on any diseases, particularly those that are sexually transmitted. “If you collect a lot of people together to talk about HIV, there will be nobody there in one minute.” Moreover, “In Senegal, going to the doctor is nothing natural. Prevention doesn’t exist, we believe in treatment. Diop found that radio broadcasting was an effective way to begin dialogue on health issues in the Senegalese community, although she encountered several problems. “We had a health fair at the Senegalese Association, and eight of every ten people had a high cholesterol rate. Terrible! So I did my first radio show on decreasing cholesterol. The difference between whole milk and skim milk, you know, everyone thought it was just ‘the red milk’ or ‘the green milk.’” Diop delivered her first broadcast in French, and found that her listeners were highly critical and suspicious of her authority. “They heard me and said, ‘She is too white! Who is this woman speaking French to us?’ So even though my Wolof was not very good, I had to learn it, so that I could speak in a language that they trusted.” Ultimately, Diop’s radio campaign to educate on cardiovascular diseases was a success: the next year at the health fair, only two of every ten had high cholesterol.   “When I put condoms at the front of the Senegalese Association, people flipped out. ‘What are you doing, Adama!’” She laughs. “But things are better. People come around.” At Harlem United, she is the African Community representative who works to include more African immigrants in their comprehensive HIV programming. 

She says her most effective tool has been the Popular Opinion Leader program, where significant community leaders are educated on HIV prevention and treatment, and encouraged to train their peers. But the dearth of information on the African immigrant populations greatly hinders her work. “Health educators say that if you get 15% of the community, your message will get to everyone. But what is 15% of my community? Who is in my community? Where is my community?” A leaflet sitting in the Harlem United office says: “Yaakar is HOPE: Health, Optimism, Prosperity, and Encouragement. HOPE lives at Harlem United.” The brochure says “Our staff is made up of African immigrants like yourself who know first-hand the devastation that HIV has caused all over Africa. Yaakar means HOPE in Wolof. To us at Harlem United, it means quality health care for the African immigrant community.” Raising African Kids in an American World

Diop still wishes to move back to Africa, but recognizes that she is more adaptive than other women and mothers from Senegal that live in New York City. She estimates that ninety percent of women that immigrate to the United States come to join their husbands, and many do not leave their homes. 

Often they do not have the same access to English education and work opportunities that their husbands do, and their experience can be further compromised if they are involved in a polygamous relationship. Although they may have a smaller family than those in Senegal, due to their living conditions, many mothers face the problem of raising their children Senegalese culture while existing in an American environment. 

“It’s very difficult to raise African kids here, especially in Harlem. Very difficult,” repeats Mboup, finishing her coffee. “You tell them something, then the kids go outside, people are telling them something else, and school is telling a third thing. So they have three things in their head! How do you want them to match three discourses in the same time? Moreover, you can’t scare them by beating them because at school we tell them to call 911 and you know what will happen… OK, for example, they wear those big pants without belts. Do you know where it comes from? It comes from jail to prevent prisoners to kill themselves. That doesn’t make sense! America is not a place to raise the children.” 

The issue of raising an “African kid” in an environment that encourages assimilation is cen-tral for all Senegalese parents with American born children. Ndiaye, the teacher at Bronx International High School, has two children that only visit New York during school breaks; otherwise, they live with his family in Dakar. “I feel that you have to know yourself before you know something else. Once you raise your kids here, you can’t get out, and they will never know their home.”  As for Diop, her daughter attends school in New York and lives with her grandmother every summer in Senegal. “She is ten years old and she acts like she’s 18.” She laughs wearily. “My mother complains to me and says, ‘Why is she talking back to everything I say?’” Her daughter sees both Senegal and New York City as home, Diop says. “She of course is westernized, and that’s OK. But every summer, she wants to go back home. What does that say?” 

Daba Diakhate, 20, enters the Senegalese Association wearing a red t-shirt on which “Harlem Children’s Zone” is printed, a community development program for Harlem’s youth. She holds a bundle of Africa Day Parade posters, a multinational African heritage celebration which will be the first of its kind in New York City. “Parents don’t let kids do certain things and wear certain things,” she says, “They still keep us in the house and children try not dis-appoint their parents. Parents are stricter here because they want to protect our culture... ac-tually, children are more religious here than in Senegal.”  She says that the difficulty of being a second-generation Senegalese American is not just tension between the outside culture and the family. “I guess I’m more proud to be Sene-galese here because many people are offending my culture.” 

The Umoja Media Project was a response to the tension between African and African-American youth. “We want to clear misunderstanding and misconception between cultures,” says Kaaw. “To do that, we need to go to the roots: the kids.” In a workshop, 300 youth from Harlem were asked to conduct research about a culture other than the one they were born into, “and the Africans talked about the African-American culture and vice versa.” Captured on video, the project became a movie that aired on local public television.   Two other youth that work for the Harlem Children’s Zone lingers by the door. One, Mary, is entering her senior year at Landmark High School in Harlem and was involved with the film project. She wishes to go to college and study Asian cultures, most specifically Japan. She and her family visit Senegal once every year and when asked what the most difficult aspect of visiting was, she replied: “The bugs.” 

 Does Little Senegal Isolate or Invite? 

While Little Senegal may be a sign that the Senegalese are taking root, that its population is integrated into the surrounding community remains questionable. “What is integration?” Diop asks. “People live here like they do in Senegal. Same language, same food. You see people live here for 20 years and they don’t speak English.”  

Although New York City has been said to be “the most African city in the world” due to the high concentration of diverse African cultures, the interactions between different African immigrants is largely reduced to economics. Kaaw attributes this to a lack of “structure” in other African communities. “Interaction is not that strong,” he says. “You have the Togolese association or the Ghanaian association but there is nothing to show that they exist. We are the only African organization here with a structure. We invite them to some events, like our Senegalese Independence Day and our annual soccer tournament, but when the game is over, they disappear.”   In the Harlem Market, on West 116th and Malcolm X Boulevard, booths overflow with Coach handbags, hand-tailored dresses and thousands of pairs of earrings. The vendors that occupy these booths are from a wide range of African nations, from Mali to Kenya, as well as Caribbean countries. Most passively sit and fan themselves as obvious tourists walk through the shops. 

Kal Kreyasyon, a Haitian immigrant who has sold his paintings in the Market for three years, says that African immigrants cannot be considered “integrated.” 

“Do you see them in politics?” he asks. “Are they running for public office, trying to change the government? Look, there is cohabitation. But at the end of the day, we tend to go with what we know. There is little unnecessary mingling.”  

African Day, African Unity?  

On Sunday, August 5th, the African Day Parade was held. The Parade marched down West 116th Street, where floats blasted national music and flags waved everywhere. It was proof of a willingness to unite and represent the African continent in the main celebration format of New York City’s minority groups. The parade was organized by country and finished at a large concert stage in the middle of Morningside Park. Street vendors sold curried goat and tiagri, a West African dessert, as performers representing all sorts of African cultures (including African-Americans) spoke of peace and unity in the Black community. “We are all Africans!” yelled the MC to a wave of cheers from the crowd.  MetroPlus Healthcare, Harlem United, and Western Union had booths, however ethnic community organizations, such as the Senegalese Association, were absent. The spirit of the parade and celebration was enthusiastic. When shouting out countries such as Nigeria and Mali for audience cheers, the two loudest responses came at the end, when the MC yelled, “Africa, Hooray! United States, Hooray!”   Mboup, now screening her phone calls, reflects, “I am grateful to this country because of what I’ve learned. I know how this country was built—by Africans. The opportunity to gain knowledge and meet people, which make us powerful. We must come together if we truly want to succeed.”  

 

References

 

Sources Interviews

Linda Bator, department of Communication in the United Nations  

Catharina Bufalino, director of communications of the African Services Committee 

Ibrahima Diafoune, president of the Senegalese Association of America 

Daba Diakhate, student and volunteer in the youth department of the Senegalese Association of America 

Adama Diop, working at Harlem United in the department of HIV & African immigrants and also as a representative of African immigrants in many organizations including the UN 

Nogaye Mboup, businesswoman (owner of a fashion, cosmetic and electronic shop) and vice-president of the women department of the Senegalese Association of America 

Ousseyhou Ndiaye, teacher in an International high school in the Bronx 

Kaaw Sow, permanent secretary of the Senegalese Association of America 

Mohamed X, translator for the Senegalese Association of America and other organizations Vendors in Harlem market (from Mali, Haiti and Senegal) 

An anonymous Senegalese street vendor

Websites

http://www.africamigration.com/archive_02/j_takougang.htm, “Contemporary African Immigrants to The United States” by Joseph Takougang

http://www.africaresource.com/content/view/343/217, “Dakar on the Hudson” by Tony Karon 

http://www.consulsenny.org/viepratique.htm, Memorandom by Amadou Bocoum the Consul General of Senegal in New York City, December 2003 

http://www.nyu.edu/classes/blake.map2001/senegal.html, a case study about the Senegalese communities in New York City

Newspapers

“In Dense Stews From Senegal, Intriguing Secrets” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, New York Times, 1 August 2007

 

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