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Senegalese Communities in New York City


     The purpose of our assignment was to investigate the Senegalese-American municipality in Harlem. We had a difficult time finding published and/or documented information about the Senegalese community in New York City. Therefore, we relied on our interview of a Senegal native to expand on the little information we learned from articles, books and periodicals. We will begin by describing our observations of a small community in Harlem.

     Since the mid-1980's a large number of the African working class immigrated to a particular area of Harlem (116th Street between St. Nicholas and 8th Avenues). This neighborhood encompasses many African cultures such as people from Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali and Senegal. The primary language in this Harlem community is English although many of these people also speak French and their native African tongues. Senegalese natives make up the majority of Africans in this area.

     Senegal is a small African country north of Mauritania, east of Mali and south of Guinea. Since Senegal was French colony the official spoken language is French, however the national/native language is Wolof. The Wolof language originated from an African tribe that migrated west from Mali to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. This migration led the tribe to settle in the area now known as Senegal during the 11th Century. The strong influences of this ethnic group are still present today in the African nation.

Case Study

     The following information is a case study on Mrs. Madjiguene she is a Senegalese native who moved to the United States in 1989. Upon arriving in America Mrs. Madjiguene moved to the African neighborhood in Harlem mentioned above. This interview discusses Mrs. Madjiguene's linguistic history, her experiences in Senegal and her experiences in America.

Question: What is your linguistic background? What languages did your parents use and teach you while growing up?
Answer: I was born Senegalese so the language I grew up speaking was Wolof. There are many ethnic languages in Senegal, however Wolof is the main/national language. Since Senegal was a colony of France the official language of Senegal which is taught in school is French. Senegal gained independence from France on April 4, 1960. My mother spoke Wolof and my Father who is from Mali (a neighboring country) spoke Bambara, French and Fulani. My father spoke to us in French because children needed to know French before they went to school. French is taught in kindergarten, so if you had educated parents they would speak to you in French. If your parents were not educated then you would speak only Wolof until you learned French in school.

Question: Can you explain the linguistic situation in Senegal? What is the communication like between Senegal and other countries?
Answer: Well, there is French Africa and English Africa they are called Franco-Africa and Anglo-Africa. West Africa which includes the countries of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Togo and Benin were all French colonies so French is the official language. Countries like Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania were British colonies so their official language, in addition to their national languages, is English. We can all communicate in French and English, but communication is rather difficult among Africans because there are many ethnic groups. For example, the Ivory Coast has about one hundred ethnic groups, Nigeria has a little more than one hundred ethnic groups and Senegal has about five main ethnic groups. These ethnic groups are the Bambara, the Jola, the Fulani, the Wolof and the Hassaniyya. In Senegal, English is mandatory but I am not sure if French is mandatory in Nigeria. In Senegal you learn French and English in school, so before I came to United States I was already speaking English.

Question: Do you ever hear Wolof spoken in this community?
Answer: Yes, all of the time I hear Wolof spoken in the streets, on the trains, downtown and at the supermarkets.

Question: Do you label the languages based on the ethnic groups? Are the ethnic languages described by the area where the ethnic group is historically from?
Answer: Yes, in Senegal labeling is easy because when you have a country with a national language like in Senegal everyone speaks Wolof. For example, the Jola, the people from the south and the people from the north all speak Wolof and they also speak French. However, in the Ivory Coast (a neighboring country) the people have to speak French because they don't understand each other. The people develop a type of urban French they call it Le Petit Biyan which is like a creole. This urban French is spoken in the markets and in the streets and it is not educated French. They have this problem everywhere in Franco-Africa except for Senegal. The other Franco-African nations have to speak the official language to understand each other.

Question: Does your son speak Wolof?
Answer: Yes he does, but it is a type of Wolof I don't understand very well because he has an accent. I tell him 'this is not how you speak Wolof you're losing your Wolof accent' but what can I expect he was born in America and lives in the American enviroment.

Question: Does your son speak French?
Answer: No, he doesn't speak French anymore. He used to but I no longer speak French with him. I shout to him English and whenever I speak French to him he answers me in English. So, I say to myself teaching him French is too difficult so I should forget about it. I also have not been speaking a lot of Wolof with him...I should not be doing this. [laughs]

Question [To Son]: In your school are there a lot of people who speak Wolof or does everyone speak English?
Answer: A lot of people in my school are in the International class. A few of my friends are from the Wolof ethnic group and are in the International class. [He attends The Booker T Washington Junior High School which is located on 108th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.]

Question [To Son]: Does your school separate you from students whose parents are from America and only speak English?
Answer: Everyone in our class speaks English, but everyone was born in another country. They have only been here for one or two years so they don't know how to speak English that well. They have to stay in the International class. Next year I will move to another class because I am not supposed to be there.

Question [To Son]: So there are other classes that speak only English?
Answer: Yes, the classes are called the delta and the alka-mingo. The alka-mingo is the Spanish class. [Mrs. Madjiguene interrupts] My son was born here, but when he was little I sent him back to Senegal. This is why he speaks very good Wolof. When he came back he went to public school and was enrolled in the regular English classes. However, this year is the first year of junior high school and his teachers thought that sending him to the International class would help him before his second year of junior high. He was a little bit weak in math and they thought it was an English understanding problem. Now that he is in the International Class his teachers found out that he should be in a regular class. So probably by the end of the month he will be put into the regular class because his English is good.

Question: Are there Senegalese publications such as newspapers, magazines or pamphlets in this neighborhood?
Answer: Yes, most of them come from Senegal and are sent in the mail. Most of the information comes through newsletters, but there are not many newsletters. [We did not find any official publications, however we did obtain a Senegalese restaurant menu and an pamphlet advertising a Senegalese nightclub.] I should also say that many Senegalese people in Harlem are not well educated and did not go to school. These people come from small villages in Senegal and are not even used to the big cities in Senegal. When the Senegalese people are educated they move elsewhere like New Jersey they don't like Harlem. So all of the people around here are business people like vendors, peddlers and restaurant workers basically the working class.

Question: Are the newsletters that are sent to you about what is happening to the Senegalese in America or about what is happening in Senegal?
Answer: The newsletters are about what is happening in Senegal. Now, there are three Senegalese programs on the AM radio stations, one of which is called Voices of America. The programs are on for one hour every Sunday and the radio hosts speak Wolof most of the time. The newsletters are written mostly in French and there is only one written in Wolof. People are also learning Wolof at Columbia University.

Question: In this neighborhood, do you find any doctors who speak Wolof? Are there any medical services available for Wolof speakers?
Answer: No, even though at Harlem Hospital or the Health Center on 125th street there are a lot of Senegalese patients. Sometimes there are Wolof interpreters who volunteer at Harlem Hospital. However, patients eventually learn English although it is a broken English that they use to communicate.

Question: What are the religious backgrounds of Senegalese people?
Answer: Ninety-five percent of the Senegalese are Muslim and about four percent are Christian. However, African people are animist. While they believe in the prophet Mohammed or Jesus Christ their African beliefs are still present. So Africans incorporate African beliefs with Muslims or Christians beliefs. This is why African Muslims or Christians are not very religious. The African Muslims are not as religious as the Muslims in Saudi Arabia. However, they do go to mosque everyday after work. There are three mosques in this neighborhood and they are all English speaking although sometimes they speak Arabic for the people who went to the Koranic school.

     This paragraph is data found in articles and our observations. In Senegal, ninety percent of the population are of the Islamic faith; eighty-eight percent of this ninety percent are Sunni Muslim. Five percent are Christian and two percent of this five percent are Roman Catholic. The rest are Animist. An animist is a person who attributes conscious life to nature as a whole and/or to nonliving objects. The names of two of the mosques mentioned above are the Masjid Salam and the Malcom Shabazz Mosques which are both located on 116th Street.

Question: Are there any organizations or nationality groups that support Senegalese recognition or activism in America?
Answer: Yes, The Association of Senegalese in America (ASA). ASA used to have a FM radio station broadcast that would discuss how Senegalese in America should cooperate within the community and what life is like in America.


     When we went to the Senegalese community we felt as if we were outsiders. Even though we are both "Black Americans" we did not feel as though we were welcomed into that particular Black community in Harlem. Although, we felt this way we pressed on with our research and visited some of the local stores in the area. Many of the shops sold both Senegalese and Western products and we noticed that the residents greeted each other in their native tongues upon entering the stores. This seemed to produce a small cohesive community where everyone knew each other.

     We furthered our research by going to a Senegalese restaurant on 116th Street. The food was excellent although very spicy. Young adults come to this restaurant to socialize it was a relaxed enviroment and seemed to be a mix of different African cultures. The owners of the restaurant were Wolof speakers and the menu was written in both Wolof and English.

     Senegalese people began to arrive in Manhattan about twenty years ago, mainly as street peddlers of counterfeit watches and African crafts. During the past twenty years, the Senegalese culture has not been properly researched or recognized. Information on the presence of Senegalese-Americans in New York City is under developed. Based on the research we conducted the majority of Senegalese people are now store owners, jewelers, cab drivers, travel agents and business professionals, however they are still not getting the recognition they deserve. Senegalese people have successfully assimilated into the American culture while still maintaining their native language, Wolof. Preserving this language helps unify and strengthen the small three blocked community in Harlem known as 'Little Senegal'.

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