Women Taking Their Place in African Immigration

Sunday, August 4, 2002

Confronted by often desperate circumstances back home, West African women are bucking their traditional roles and seeking better lives in the United States--often without their husbands.

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Dr. Sylviane Diouf

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Khadija Sow is in the kitchen of her six-table restaurant in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The smell of simmering vegetables fills the air as she prepares Thiebu Djeun, a rich fish stew cooked with rice that is the national dish of Senegal. Her busy and successful restaurant, with a large carry-out business, is one of many examples of transplanted Senegalese women creating independent lives here.

Sow left Senegal nearly a decade ago to join her husband in New York. With the freedom and opportunity available in her new home, she quickly found a job as a cook and was able to open her own restaurant in three years.

Women like her are significantly changing the face of African immigration in the United Sates.

Other West Africans, such as Nigerians, Liberians and Ghanaians, have been coming to America since the 1970s, while their counterparts in French-speaking countries on the continent went to France. Language and historical ties with their former colonizer were the main reason for the choice of French destination. But when France tightened its immigration policies, making it harder for foreigners to go there, French-speaking West Africans began to turn to the United States.

They come from Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast. But for the most part they come from Senegal. And they are now female as well as male.

Many Women Have Little Choice But to Strike Out on Their Own

Over the last 10 years, more and more West African women decided to stop waiting for their men to mail checks home from the United States and to join them and earn their own income. Others have been coming alone, leaving husbands and children behind. The switch is a dramatic departure from the region's strong gender roles.

"It was women's traditional role to stay at home and patiently wait for men to send money to feed the family," said Sylviane Diouf, a writer and researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. But in January 1994, when 14 countries in Africa's "Franc Zone" saw their common currency, the CFA franc, lose 50 percent of its value, the region's people were forced to look for economic opportunity elsewhere. By then, many of the male earners had left the drought-stricken region for Europe or the United States.

"The devaluation gave women no choice but go out and make money on their own," Diouf said.

The Senegalese, though not the only group of Francophone West African immigrants in America, comprise the largest and the oldest. Because many of them are still undocumented aliens, it is virtually impossible to get an accurate picture of their numbers in the U.S., but officials agree that the population has reached into the thousands. New York-based Senegalese journalist Dame Babou, who has extensively researched the community, claims that at least 30,000 of his compatriots live in the city alone, though the Department of City Planning estimates only about 2,000.

Although some have settled in the Midwest--in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois--where employment opportunities seemed to be better, New York is the main destination, housing probably two-thirds of the U.S. population, says Yaya Ly, president of the Association of Senegalese in America.

Enterprising Senegalese Women Exploit Their Culture's Biases

When women first arrive here, their main focus is to find a job and make an income of their own. And like Sow, it is generally in African-owned restaurants that they have the best chance of being hired.

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