Women Taking Their Place in African Immigration

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.

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.

"Our traditional cuisine is in high demand among single African males who were brought up with the idea that a man's place is not in a kitchen. They don't even know how to cook an egg, and therefore order daily from places like mine," Sow said, adding that her clientele is 70 percent male.

Others find work in hair-braiding salons. Braids have become very popular among African Americans since the 1980s and Senegalese are known as the experts in this art.

Aminata Dia was taught how to make braids when she was a little girl-a skill she used to her advantage when she left the Senegalese capital of Dakar in 1993 to come to New York. She was single and lucky enough to obtain an entry visa to the United States.

"Twenty years ago, this would have been a major scandal," said Consul Tinder Bocoum, the Consulate-general of New York for the Republic of Senegal.

In Senegal, Mali and Guinea, where more than 90 percent of the populations are Muslim, society does not approve of unmarried women wandering alone in foreign lands, Bocoum said. "But in time of economic crisis, nobody cares whether it's a man or a woman who brings money home," he added.

"Men venture to different parts of the globe all the time," said Dia, now 34 and a mother of three. "There was no reason why I couldn't do it, too." And many more single women followed the same path, gradually gaining the community's approval to become the breadwinner for their extended families.

Dia quickly found a job in a hair salon in Harlem and worked there for about a year, thinking all along about opening her own place. In 1994, she joined a group of self-employed African women who had launched their own business. With an average price of $100 per hairdo, a salon's annual profit can reach $150,000. Depending on their experience, some employees make up to $20,000 a year-a huge sum compared to what they would earn in Senegal.

African Women a Strong Market for Travel Industry

With their new economic power, African women have become a valuable clientele for many businesses, such as the travel industry. "They represent about 40 percent of my customers," said Habi Bah, a Malian travel agent in New York. These women are extremely mobile, both on a national and international level, she says.

"They fly to places like Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans and California, where they sell African arts and crafts during seasonal fairs or they travel back to Africa for vacations-or sometimes business," Bah said.

Bah, who came to New York in 1989 with a degree in English from the University of Reims in France, witnessed the changes in her fellow female immigrants and praises them for what they have achieved here. Although she primarily came to New York to pursue her education, she experienced many of the same difficulties, working full time for a fabric retailer and attending one of the city's public colleges as a part-time student.

She earned an undergraduate degree in communication and took post-graduate courses in travel and tourism. Today, Bah's diplomas and graduation pictures proudly hang on the walls of her Midtown office. She opened her agency, Abby Travel, in 1999.

Women Immigrants Quickly Learn How to Dial 911

The economic independence of African women has reverberated throughout the Senegalese communities within the U.S. with varying results.

While Bah, Dia and Sow say they are happily married, some believe the independence is dramatically altering family relations within the communities. According to Mamadou Kane, a leading figure in the Senegalese community in New York and the host of the tri-state area's weekly radio program "Voice of Africa," women's financial independence-as well as American laws-has changed the dynamic in Senegalese households.

"Physical abuse on women and children is a common thing in our societies. But here, these women are not willing to accept it anymore," Kane said. "They know that with a simple 911 call they could have their husband arrested for domestic violence-and men know that too."

Women are not afraid anymore to ask for a divorce if they are unhappy in their marriage, Kane says. They can financially support themselves-and, he adds-candidates for a second marriage are usually fighting on their doorstep.

In most African-immigrant homes here, children are absent. Discouraged by the high cost of child care in the United States, as well as by difficult work schedules, many parents send their infants back home to be raised by relatives.

"And we believe it is also a much healthier environment for children to grow up in," said 32-year-old Fatou Diallo, who sent her first-born to Dakar when he was 6 months old. "My mom and sisters will take good care of him and, when he's old enough, I'll send for him."

Men React to Women's Newfound Independence in Myriad Ways

Frightened by such tales of women speaking their own minds and making their own decisions, some men, who had arranged for their young wives to join them in America, decided not to take a chance.

"We've had accounts of men who wouldn't let their wives get jobs for fear that they might take a liking in this newly found independence and possibly leave them," Diouf said. "Some even go as far as locking them in when they leave for work every day."

But that experience is not universal. Kane said many men have accepted the changes with grace, even though the women "often make more than their husbands." He added that he believed women's economic independence has benefited Senegalese, who tend to think conservatively about women's place in society.

"Some men have overcome some strong taboos, like cooking and cleaning, for example," Kane said. "They seem to have acquired common sense and realized that they can't expect their wife to come home after 12 or 14 hours of work and then cook dinner. So they have learned to take their part in the daily chores."

Marieme Daff is a Women's eNews summer intern.

For more information:

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture:

The Voices of New York:

The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies: