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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.
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.
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
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
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
Question: What are the religious backgrounds of Senegalese
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
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
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'.