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Africa Talks to You

Miles Marshall Lewis
Photo from SoulofAmerica.com

To thrive in a new country, immigrants must cultivate a degree of economic insularity. As a woman from Senegal tells, Paris' Little Africa is no exception.

Five ragamuffin Senegalese drummers sit before a kiosk, pounding out rhythms on djembe drums before a rapt French crowd (African, Caribbean, and native origin): children and elders, whites and blacks, sitting, standing. Underneath the park's kiosk, a dread in a green-and-yellow shirt emblazoned with SENEGAL across his chest chats on the microphone, exhorting folk to enter square Léon and dance. Advertising the annual summertime Festival Rue Léon — lasting three Saturdays — a huge handwritten sign hangs behind the mass of spectators, reading Nous Sommes Tous Des Africains (translation: We Are All Africans). People pass plastic cups of iced ginger juice (gingembre) and plates of beignets; tourists film the dancers and drummers with digital cameras. For a few hours, it seems, we are all Africans.

Rue Léon runs through the eighteenth arrondissement, an area heavily populated by West African residents. My buddy, Maria "Dr. Hiphop" McMath, once lived on this street, where she introduced me to this truly noir part of Paris earlier in the year. After the good doctor organized a hiphop lecture featuring KRS-One and scholar Cornel West at the École Normale Supérieure this spring, she split and relocated to New York. She crosses my mind as another friend, Magbé Camara, and I pass through Maria's old neighborhood, leaving the drummers behind and discussing the African presence in the French capital.

"Girls from Africa not married yet, they come very dressed, like for a wedding, and they meet boys like this," says Magbé, pointing out some decked-out young ladies on the place du Château Rouge. Magbé herself is casually dressed, her close-cropped perm neatly styled, walking briskly with me through the crowded area. A resident of Paris for the past 22 years, Magbé moved from Dakar, Senegal, with her mother at the age of 14. Her family originates from Guinea, but her father was stationed in Senegal at the time she was born, serving in the marines. "He died when I was six years old," she says. "My mother decided after that to come here so that she could give us the best education and social security." Magbé now raises her own 5-year-old daughter in Paris with her German partner, in the nearby twelfth arrondissement. Magbé is one of the girlfriends of my girlfriend Christine whom I communicate best with, her broken English meeting my broken French somewhere amicably in the middle. (For the record, my French has further to travel.)

The open market of the marche Dejean teems with locals, while black market goods are hustled near the parked cars on the street: Dax hair pomade, Tenovate cream for skin-lightening. Many women and men sport headwraps and boubou, colorful wide-sleeved robes decorated with embroidery, while others wear smart suits despite the summertime heat.

"Senegalese, Mali, Guinea, West Africa, they are more wearing what we call 'African clothing,' " Magbé says. "Central [Africans] — Congo, Zaire, Gabon, Cameroon — they are more dressing like European clothing." Shops on the rue Myrha sell discount phone cards, DVDs, and CDs of popular African artists like Amy Koïta and Meiway, next door to seamstresses with boubous in their windows and on sewing machines, next door to food markets stinking sharply of smoked fish with palm oil and maggi arome seasoning on their shelves. These grocery stores in particular are run and operated by Chinese proprietors, busy ringing up purchases on registers.

"In Château Rouge, the business is in the hands of the Chinese, all the food and everything," Magbé says. "But, of course, the customers are Africans. Businesses are [also] in the hands of Jews from North Africa. The only businesses held by [black] Africans: African clothes." Touring the arrondissement with Magbé for her grocery shopping and the Festival Rue Léon, getting to the heart of black Paris, discussion of this sort is inevitable. Who holds the wealth in the community, and why is it that people of color are not the ones profiting off of our own wealth (again)? The conversation is a rerun for me as it concerns black America, but hearing the French argument is a new slant. Magbé recently sought a loan from a French bank for starting her own black business, a cleaning company, and met with rejection.

"The government has help for people like me who want a company," she says. "So I went to one of these [banks] who are supposed to lend you money with a very high interest compared to the normal banks, but the difference is you don't need to bring any guarantor. If the business seems okay, they take the risk. So for one-and-a-half months, I worked like hell to get the credit through them. At the end, they called me last week while I was on holiday to tell me it's not gonna work. I don't know why. I'm a French citizen, I studied [at the Sorbonne Nouvelle], I have experience and everything, and it's still difficult."

Reconciling this with the businesses surrounding us in the African eighteenth arrondissement, nearly all Jewish- or Chinese-owned, Magbé speaks of the strong communal support in their cultures. "This kind of unity does not exist in the black community. Actually, it exists in Mali, Senegal. These are the two that I know for sure. It's called a tantin. Every month a group of people pay a certain amount and won't [spend] it."

I'm familiar with this concept of collectively pooling resources, I say. I know it as the Caribbean sousous. She continues.

"That's how they start the small business that they do, and most of the time, they also do it to help people that want to leave the country. For instance, if a man or a woman wants to leave Senegal, she will get in one of these tantin and get the money. She can pay the ticket in order to come to Europe to get back the money [working]. The people who live in the second floor of our building, they own the restaurant that is in front of the Gare de Lyon. But they only go buy their things in Chinese stores. Also, they are willing to pay a little bit expensiver [sic] but give it to a Chinese instead of paying lower to the foreign people. But black people, they would say, 'oh it's cheaper to the Chinese? I go to the Chinese, I don't care.' "

I mention African-American companies like Carol's Daughter (selling face, hair, and body hair and oils) and Nubian Heritage (a one-stop lifestyle emporium), telling Magbé that I support companies like this, even banking with the black-owned Carver Federal Savings Bank, for just the reasons she's raising. She laments that French blacks haven't set up such companies. The only French-African businesses in Paris are restaurants like Le Petit Dakar and the stores we pass by in Château Rouge selling boubou and African material.

As we turn the corner, a half-dozen police officers guard the park entrance on the rue Cavé; even more stand watch nearby on the rue Saint Luc. A century-old hotel in the thirteenth arrondissement housing African immigrants from Senegal, Ghana, Mali and Tunisia caught fire days ago, killing 17. Thirteen were children. The heavy police presence is meant to provide a sense of security for the Festival Rue Léon, but as usual in cases like this, the officers seem more menacing than protecting. Life for Africans in Paris takes in tragic events like this regularly. Only four months ago, 24 Africans were killed in an accidental electrical fire at the Paris Opéra hotel.

Leaving Château Rouge, I ask Magbé how living in Paris is preferable to living in Senegal. She says, "It really depends. Probably for the work and the comfort you can have here. I don't come from a rich family in Africa, so let's say for a middle class situation, I prefer to live here." And how can living in Africa trump living in France? "Well, living at home. I think for everyone, if you can be in your own country, you feel stronger. You have the family around, you're not alone. You know the rules, you know the language, and you are not seen immediately as someone different. But I don't really see the color stuff in France every day. We're talking about it but it's not an issue. It's only in some situations; then you remember you're black. But when I go out, I really feel full-percent French.

"As long as you are in the middle class, they accept [you]. If they have the feeling that you are getting more than what they can have, then you'll have a question of xénophobie. So I don't know if it's called racism or jealousy."

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