Photo: Sengalese at cultural parade in Harlem in New York. Photo: Alamy | Richard Levine | Source: Africa Renewal. - Photo: 2019

African Migrants Strive to Preserve Their Cultural Heritage

By Sharon Birch-Jeffrey*

NEW YORK (IDN-INPS) – To experience a taste of African culture deep inside the Big Apple, visitors – including many Senegalese – turn to Le Petit Senegal (Little Senegal), a West African neighborhood in West Harlem, New York.

African grocery shops, fabric stores, hair braiding parlors and regional restaurants sit shoulder to shoulder along the streets. The Sandaga Market of Little Senegal showcases a strong blend of African cultures, customs and languages, symbolizing efforts by African immigrants to project and protect their cultural identities.

Sharon Birch-JeffreyMalcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, also in Harlem, bestrides a wide city block. There, master tailors are busy sewing all manner of African wear: the flowing robes of the boubou and agbada, stylish dresses made from kente cloth, sarongs of kitenge and ever-popular dashiki. Maasai beads, crafts and leather products overflow in traditional baskets, imported from the homeland.

There were about 2.1 million African immigrants living in the U.S. in 2015, up from just 816,000 in 2000 – a substantial increase from 1970, when the U.S. was home to only 80,000 foreign-born Africans, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Millions of immigrants have left Africa since the turn of the century, many going to Europe and the U.S. One factor behind this recent wave is the Refugee Act of 1980, which made it easier for those fleeing conflict-ridden countries like Somalia and Ethiopia to resettle in the U.S.

With a dream of improving their families’ well-being, many of these immigrants acquire higher education, get well-paying jobs or become entrepreneurs.

Like many immigrant groups, Africans are keen to preserve their cultural identity and ensure their children do not replace their traditional values with foreign ideas.

“When they are in my house, it is the Gambia. When they are outside, they have free will,” said Dembo Jaebeh, a tailor in the Harlem market, in an interview. He was referring to his three children, aged 21, 18, and 16, who relocated to the US from the Gambia four years ago.

Jaebeh, who has lived in the United States for 14 years, says that being part of a close-knit community as well as having extended family on whom to rely helps immigrants like him preserve African beliefs and values.

British-born Christabel Nsiah-Buadi, whose parents migrated to the UK in the 1980s, received significant support from her UK extended family as well as the African community in that country. She is the producer and creator of the online TV series The Media Disruptors.

The mother of Arao Ameny, a graduate student and instructor at the University of Baltimore, Maryland, always worried that Ameny would lose her Ugandan identity.

“My Ugandan mother told me every single day since I came to America: ‘You are a black African and you are Ugandan. Do not forget where you come from. Home is Uganda,’” Ameny, who migrated to the U.S. in the 1990s, recalls.

The story is shared by many other African migrants in the U.S. who do their best to keep their culture and traditions alive.

While many African migrant parents would like their children to develop a strong bond with Africa, achieving that goal can be problematic because some parents, including hers, may not understand that their children face an identity crisis, said Nsiah-Buadi.


Migrant children face real challenges, including a negative perception of Africa by Americans, that first-generation African immigrants may not understand because of views shaped by experiences growing up back home.

Nsiah-Buadi remembers that as a teenager in the UK, she had difficulties understanding her identity.

“I went to school knowing if I behaved within English cultural norms, I would stay out of trouble, then go home and follow my Ghanaian parents’ rules,” she said.

Nsiah-Buadi added that her sister, Phyllis, who had come to the UK at age eight, was better able to handle the bullying in school.

“As a child of immigrant parents from Africa, you are constantly straddling two worlds, reconciling, negotiating and trying to make sense of both worlds,” noted Ameny.

She was of the view that immigrant children who migrate at an older age tend to maintain their parents’ traditions more than those who migrate as children or are born in foreign lands.

Older children tend to forge dual identities, while younger ones may quickly reject their parents’ customs and languages as they assimilate in American schools and with friends.  

Seventeen-year-old Brigitte Fofana, who was born in the United States to a Guinean mother, is not keen on cheb jen, a West African dish of rice and fish. She is not fond of African music either and sees no need to wear African dresses in New York. She is not alone. Lots of American-born children of immigrants feel the same.

But African-born parents are not about to give up the culture struggles. The jury is out as to how successful their efforts will be.

*This article first appeared in Africa Renewal, December 2018-March 2019 issue. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 April 2019]

Photo: Sengalese at cultural parade in Harlem in New York. Photo: Alamy | Richard Levine | Source: Africa Renewal.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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