Africa in America

photo by Temple Shipley

photo by Temple Shipley


It was late on a frigid Wednesday night, and I was stranded miles from home. Immersed in a sea of unfamiliar faces, I was at a loss to ask someone for a ride home. My company was warm, but I had begun to resign myself to the prospect of a solitary, chilly bus ride home. Hopes for understanding gave way to brutal awareness that I was different, and that my trip home differed greatly from those around me. However, the Islamic patriarch seated near me discerned my sense of concern, and told a man from his congregation to drive me home through the snow.

The name of my companion was Mohammad, and he was a member of the Touba Dahira of Chicago. I had spent my evening with Mohammad and the other members of the Touba Dahira, enjoying their hospitality and Qur’anic chants. The chants draw on traditional Senegalese melodies, inflected with the kind of granite piety that persists across continents. Food and debate had rounded off the evening–traditional Senegalese chicken and onions were served and eaten by hand, while the brothers furiously monologued about problems–from a shot businessman to the cost of travelling back home–that African immigrants face throughout the Midwest.

Touba Dahira is a branch of the Mouride brotherhood, an order of Islam born under the weight of Western colonial oppression in Senegal. The rituals that made up the evening stretch back across the oceans and decades that separate the members of Touba Dahira from their home. The religious organization, and its constituent Mouride men and women, generates a sense of community. They are devoted to assisting the local Senegalese and African immigrant communities at large.


photo by Temple Shipley

photo by Temple Shipley


The Mourides follow the teachings of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a religious poet and Imam whom the Mourides regard as a major spiritual figure. As the young men of the Mourides eagerly told me, Sheikh Bamba was exiled by the French in 1895 to Gabon. He then traveled around West Africa, before returning to Senegal a few years later. Falou Diop, a jovial Mouride with a booming voice, summarized Sheikh Bamba’s teachings for me: “Muslims should be real believers…the first thing that can help you [as an immigrant] is self-sufficiency!” He continued, “To step in the soil of America, it is really tough. Leaving your culture and religion is the biggest challenge that a human can face.”

Despite a doctrine grounded in self-reliance, the Mourides fit into a larger community as well. While East Africans tend to congregate in Rogers Park on the North Side, West African from countries such as Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and Mali, have dispersed across the South Side. This constitutes a new underground–not the Italian speakeasies and Irish rackets for which Chicago was once known, but a tight-knit community of African immigrants striving to adapt and survive while building a cultural identity that straddles the old in Africa and the new in America. Nearly nine out of ten African businesses in Chicago have opened within the past five years*. These run the gamut from hair braiders to traditional African restaurants, and they stand alongside numerous religious and ethnic organizations.

That Wednesday at Touba Dahira, the main drift of discussion concerned an 82-year-old Malian man in Indianapolis. Infirm and wishing to go home, the man could not pay for the trip, and was thus relying on the social grapevine to spread news of his plight in hopes that he might secure funds for his final trip back home. As I don’t speak Wolof, the affable Mouride brothers took turns translating bits of the conversation. The discussion centered not on whether to help the man–that was a given. Rather, they were arguing over whether or not he had the right to go back. Should he die in Mali, where he had neither lived nor worked for many years, or in America, where he had spent so much of his life and raised a family?


photo by Temple Shipley

photo by Temple Shipley


The questions surrounding death play an important role in uniting different Africans as they adapt to life on the South Side. A representative from the Malian Community Association, who chose to only be identified by his first name, Sharif, told me that his organization began, “in 2001, after a member of our community had died…the family didn’t have enough money to send back the body, but other communities helped.” After that, a group of Malians got together to found their organization in order to protect and help Malians and other African immigrants who found themselves in similarly difficult situations.

Although the issues raised are not always those of life or death, it is this kind of informal networking that characterizes the African immigrant experience both within and across ethnicities and nationalities. The South Side is rife with similar gatherings, some more visible than others. A clubhouse in Englewood hosts Nigeria’s Akugbe-Oretin tribal community, and Tabernacle Baptist Church in Washington Park has a basement sanctuary for Ghanaian Presbyterians. Touba Dahira congregates in Bronzeville, while a burgeoning mosque in South Shore has expanded from a basement operation run by African Muslims. A restaurant in Greater Grand Crossing serves food from a West African kitchen, while immigrants navigate between pining for home and adapting to American culture. As Diop put it: “You identify yourself with your culture and your religion.”

While the African community on the South Side often exists beneath the urban surface, it also has piecemeal connections with more visible city institutions. Masjid Al-Farooq on 90th and Stony Island provides perhaps the largest gathering place for African Muslims on the South Side, and is one of the fastest-growing mosques in Chicago. The mosque has followed along the same grooves as many immigrants–the first prayers were uttered in an old basement by a more informal group before moving up to a storefront in 2002. But, just as immigrants face death in their communities, Al-Farooq faced disaster in the form of a destructive fire in 2004.

In some ways, Al-Farooq’s brush with death deepend the tones of its community life. At first, Al-Farooq was run and attended only by African immigrants. Over the years, however, the mosque began marketing itself as a place of worship for non-denominational Muslims. The current Imam is a Malian man named Ousmane Drame. Imam Ousmane exudes placidity and speaks with the measured humility and devotion of an old believer. He has been with the mosque for over a decade. After the fire, the mosque was without a home, and almost without a congregation. To survive, Drame used the same networking methods that other immigrant organizations used to face death: “I went around to different Masjids to try to collect some funds to rent another place before the congregation go away.” In spite of these efforts, however, the coffers turned up short. The mosque was on the verge of congregational collapse, but saving grace came in the form of larger formal help: “Three days later I got introduced to the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and they gave us 11,000 dollars.”


photo by Temple Shipley

photo by Temple Shipley


Community in this sense takes on a less ethnically charged tone than in the less formal organizations. Although Friday prayers showcase many West African tongues and styles of dress, the leadership of the mosque sees its role as connecting people through a common faith. Rilwan Martins, a Nigerian-American and Executive Director of Al-Farooq, told me that, “one of the good things about this mosque is that it takes the cultural out of religion…when you first come to Masjid Al-Farooq as an immigrant, it’s a little bit intimidating because you’re used to how religion is practiced back home.” At Masjid Al-Farooq the connections that accentuate local traditions are subsumed into the larger concept of Islam itself. Humaira Basith, an executive director at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, the organization that helped fund Al-Farooq, put it this way: “many immigrants look towards their faith…what you hold close to your heart helps you smooth over rough waters.”

In addition to organizations of the faithful, Africans have also begun to create home via more concrete means. There is talk of constructing an African Community Center on the corner of 79th and Cottage Grove, where a number of African-owned businesses have recently set up shop. A couple of the African hair braiding places that dot the South Side have popped up; as well as Mandela’s, an Afrocentric grocery store; a tailor called Keba Design; and Yassa, a Senegalese restaurant. The area serves as a testament to the different ways that Africans make Chicago home.

Take Yassa, for example. While some African immigrants look to the structure of religious practice or national borders to give them a sense of home, Awa Gueye, the owner, looks more towards smell and taste. Gueye is a mother of three, and has the culinary chops to garnish the South Side with the cuisine of a nation. The inspiration for her restaurant came from her first years as an immigrant. “I used to cook for my friends every Sunday…then all my friends would eat my food and say, why don’t you open a restaurant?”

The food she serves is heavily sublime and sublimely heavy, while portions are massive and prices low. When I asked her what she missed the most about Africa, Gueye told me, “I miss the food!” Gueye’s very presence exudes the idea of home: her motherly demeanor, side comments praising her children, and the delicious food that her restaurant produces throw one into a feeling of comfort that welcomes not only her West African patrons, but also anyone who stops by.

Despite her success, Gueye echoed almost every other immigrant I met by telling me, “I wish I could just go back [to Africa]!” Regardless of the extent to which each immigrant had enmeshed themselves in their community–from Mouride brother to Islamic scholar to restaurateur–each left Africa thinking that they would surely return. As Falou Diop of Touba Dahira told me, “We never stop thinking about going back home…When people leave Africa, they always aspire to go back.”


photo by Temple Shipley

photo by Temple Shipley


The South Side’s African immigrants discuss home often, and questions about what they miss are inevitably met with a bittersweet delight. Before the Mourides sat down to chant from the Qur’an, a discussion of what home really meant broke out. Diop argued that immigrants have to “take the good with the good.” In his mind, in order to adapt and find home, they must find the best in both cultures. However, he also argued that the home culture should be preserved as much as possible, saying that, “the first home is Africa, the second America.” Another man named Modou Seck  proclaimed through a thick accent that Chicago was his home, and that, “home is just where you settle down.”

The splintering of views crystallizes the complicated emotions that underlie the African experience of finding home in Chicago. Much of this comes from the massive gap between the immigrants’ expectations of what life will be like in the United States and the hardship they face upon arrival. It’s worth remembering that the success stories above–the Mourides, Al-Farooq, Yassa–all took many years to establish. The Mourides were founded as a small community in 1986, Al-Farooq started out in a basement in the late ‘90s, and Gueye was in the United States for twenty years before opening Yassa.

However, some remain alienated in the face of these successes. Across the street from Yassa is a shop called Keba Design. When I went to pay a Monday morning visit, I found a taciturn tailor and his friend, Omar, who was less reluctant to speak with me. A middle-aged Senegalese man who owns a limo service, Omar came to the United States after working at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar for seventeen years. He gave by far the frankest assessment of the situation of African immigrants on the South Side. Through a raspy lilt, he told me, “When people come here, they think that you can work the same as in home, and make twice as much…When they come, many spend all their money in the first few months….Some people think their hosts [Americans] don’t like them very much.”

Similarly, Gueye told me that the most unexpected thing she encountered upon arrival to America was rejection by the locals. “The first time when you come it’s very difficult to adapt yourself…and for them to understand you is very hard, and sometimes you feel rejected by people…You might feel like you done something wrong.”

Cultural barriers even find their way into places of worship. Rilwan Martins from Al-Farooq told me that for the important holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, certain things are verboten, and the community feels much more scattered. “Eid al-Adha is the [holiday of] sacrificing of the ram. Back home… everyone can slaughter, here, if the inspector is not there, you cannot slaughter…Back home…you can walk to your friend’s house to say happy Eid, but here you have to drive across town!”

All of the Africans I spoke with left Africa with the intention of returning in the near future, and told me that all the Africans they knew felt the same way. However, many find that they lack the money to return. One Mouride brother explained, “Everyone expects to go back, but reality is too hard.” According to Omar, “Maybe 60 out of 100 families come here and spend all their money immediately, and then realize that they have to work hard.”

In spite of the financial hardship and profound homesickness that accompany the communities, most people come to enjoy American life. Moudou Seck, a Mouride brother, told me, “This life is cool…it’s better to make a living here.” Another brother told me that he spent almost a decade driving a cab before gaining exponential financial independence as a banker at JPMorgan. As Gueye said, in spite of the difficulties of adjustment, “I love America so much! I want peace and happiness for all the American people!”

As to the future of the Mourides, they recently bought a clubhouse in Bronzeville. Using collections, they are planning on refurbishing the building and turning it into a proper meeting place. Al-Farooq remains one of the fastest-growing mosques in Chicago, and Imam Ousmane is achieving recognition in the region for his measured sermons and unvarnished readings of the Qur’an. Gueye was less optimistic about the future of Yassa: “Business used to be wonderful, I hope it gets back to what it was…A lot of families cannot afford to come spend and eat here.”

The children of the immigrants place this story in in striking relief. Their families face hardship: as Omar told me, “Very few families can make more money than they can back home.” In spite of the warm sentiments of the Mouride brothers, Diop told me, “I want my son to feel that Senegal is his home.” When I asked him what would happen if his son felt more American, another Mouride brother jumped in, and told me, “We can’t really control it. We want the child to be more African, but this is just destiny.”

The South Side’s African immigrants have a vivid memory of their home, but one that fades with years and generations. Although African cultural roots may persist, the immigrant aspect will fade away as the elders pass on, either back to Africa or deeper into American life. Around halfway through the Mouride meeting, the warm chaos was interrupted by the arrival of a teenage boy, the son of one of the brothers, bringing us dinner. One of them called to him, “I remember the day you were born!” Another brother told me, “We’re all as a family here.” The kid gave an awkward smile and, with a perfect American accent, said goodbye.


*Cyril Wilson, coor., African Immigrants & Refugees in Illinois (Chicago: United African Organization, 2012), 5-6