A Little Taste Of Senegal In Harlem In West Harlem, there's a small and very dense community of immigrants from Senegal. A strip of about three blocks is jammed with restaurants, nightclubs and shops. For the residents, Little Senegal provides a much-needed taste of home.

A Little Taste Of Senegal In Harlem

A Little Taste Of Senegal In Harlem

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In West Harlem, there's a small and very dense community of immigrants from Senegal. A strip of about three blocks is jammed with restaurants, nightclubs and shops. For the residents, Little Senegal provides a much-needed taste of home.


Harlem is just one slice of New York City. It's a pretty fat one, though, with a lot of little neighborhoods wrapped inside.


Little Senegal is a three block stretch of West 116th Street. The West African community's been growing steadily there for more than 20 years.

BRAND: Independent producer Christopher Johnson took a trip to Little Senegal, and he sent us this postcard.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: West Africa is alive in West Harlem. It's in what you hear and see, like tall dark, dark skin women wrapped in robes with brilliant orange and yellow patterns chatting in Wolof.

Unidentified Woman: (Wolof Spoken)

JOHNSON: Senegalese men strut the blocks in white booboos (ph) as bright as flashbulbs snacking on red-skinned peanuts as mandele (ph) oil slices right through the humid New York air. But don't get too distracted. The swarms of African kids on razor scooters will take you out as they plow down the sidewalks with that reckless mid-summer abandon.

(Soundbite of children)

Ms. ESA JOOTH (Freelance Journalist): Hello, my name is Esa, and welcome to Little Senegal.

JOHNSON: Esa Jooth (ph) is a freelance journalist from Dakar. She agreed to show me around the strip. I follow her as she steps past a storefront mosque off the curb and out into traffic, greeting friends as she weaves.

Ms. JOOTH: Oh, we are on 8th Avenue and 116th Street. On this street, on 116, from, yeah, basically 8th Avenue. You see all these stores are, most of them, most of them are Senegalese stores.

JOHNSON: A lot of the clothing and hair-care shops are named after Senegal's holy city, Touba. Esa says store owners pick the name to bring them good business luck. But the Senegalese immigrant, Ms. Ingmao's (ph)'s Fish and Rice, 116th has the cure. Esa and I stop outside of one popular restaurant that puts that king of all Senegalese meals right at the top of the menu.

Ms. JOOTH: Thiebou Djeun? It's basically a national dish in Senegal. Senegalese people love Thiebou Djeun, and when you chill and you go out, and you decide, wow, where can I find my Thiebou Djeun? Here, when you come on 116, you know, it's just all here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Esa has only been in the states a couple of years. Like a lot of the folks in Little Senegal, she says she landed in just the right place.

Ms. JOOTH: When I came here for the first time, it was just like, wow, it's amazing. It's like Senegal. And with all the ambience, you just feel like you back home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: I stopped by the Association of Senegalese in America. Most evenings, folks fill the ASA's couches and turn the place into their living room. One man I've never met wordlessly hands me a spoon, as if he's been waiting for me to show up. Then he joins two friends seated around a huge foil pan full of chicken, vegetables, and rice. Politely, I decline the implied invitation, but he wasn't really asking me. He kicks out a chair and points a finger that says sit down.

Got you. His name is Abduli Cham(ph). He's a retired tailor who's been in Little Senegal for more than two decades. He's obviously a friendly guy, but he barely tolerates my question when I ask why he wanted a total stranger to break bread with him. Abduli says sharing your food or anything else with everyone is a key piece of his culture, and he loves the way his traditions come alive in Little Senegal.

Mr. ABDULI CHAM (Senegalese Immigrant): You have to come. You have to share, as family.

JOHNSON: In a restaurant right next door, Ibrahima Jafunei remembers when Senegalese businesspeople began opening shops in the area during the 1980s. Jafunei runs the Association of Senegalese in America.

Mr. IBRAHIMA JAFUNEI (Association of Senegalese in America): Harlem was not like this. It was like a ghetto. When we came over, we was trying to make it a much livable place. We improve 116th by investing.

JOHNSON: Construction work drones and pounds in West Harlem, a sign that the area is in for another big transition. The new luxury condos have many long-time residents thinking they'll be priced out of their own neighborhood. Jafunei says a rent spike on commercial spaces could force some Senegalese businesses to close. He and lots of shopkeepers worry about the future of their community.

Out on the sidewalk, Esa and I run into her friend, Bonz (ph), a neighborhood hair stylist. He's confident that Little Senegal will survive, when he compares the people there to another group that went wandering in hopes of putting down new roots.

Mr. BONZ (Hair Stylist): Senegalese lonely, like the Jews from Africa. Everybody support everybody together. I never see that kind of community. We got strong-strong community.

JOHNSON: For NPR News, I'm Christopher Johnson.

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