African Presence

Comments: 0

There used to be a market in Harlem that specialised in the buying and selling of African crafts, fabrics and other things. I think it was at 113th Street, quite close to a Subway station. I don’t know if it is still there, but it was a reassuring oasis of African presence in New York when I spent some time living and working in that city about ten years ago.

I was slightly disappointed when I discovered that the market was even more culturally specific than I had expected, when I took a close look at the products being sold. Everything available for sale seemed to be of Francophone African origin. I like Wolof, Mandinka and Bambara clothes and accessories as much as anything else from the continent, but I did wonder to myself “where are the Nigerian, Ghanaian, Sierra Leonean or even Ugandan products?”

I’m aware that immigrant communities in US cities tend to cluster together in mini versions of villages in their lands of origin, much more than they do in Europe and other parts of the world. I have been told that there is a strong Ethiopian presence in Washington DC, for example. Perhaps I missed some of the cultural exchange and cross fertilisation that I’m accustomed to as a Londoner of African heritage, in these places.

How do expatriates from Europe, the USA and similar countries behave when they visit or reside in African cities? From what I remember seeing, they look for places that remind them of their lands of origin a lot of the time.

I guess we all need to define for ourselves as individuals the extent to which we might try to fit in when we are seen to be “different” in a location. From my point of view, it is important to maintain a sense of balance between understanding the ropes of another culture and remaining truthful to one’s self.