Fabrics that dance in colors, vibrant drum beats and skillfully handmade jewelry – a little taste of Mali greets you when you walk through the doors of Bebenoir, a boutique on 116th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem. Bold, traditional hoops, known as Fulani earrings, are original to Mali and one of Famita Dououre’s top sellers. They come in sizes as small as a quarter to as large as a headband. Doukoure moved to New York from Mali 22 years ago and opened the African-inspired shop with her husband, Ibrahima Doukoure. “When you see those, you know Mali,” she says.
An influx of Malian immigrants to New York began in the late 1980s, during the height and aftermath of Mali’s dictatorship. Famine, school closings and a failing economy sent many Malians in search of economic and educational opportunities, said Fatoumata Diarra, a Malian accountant at the United Nations. Because Mali is a former French colony, many Malians migrated to France to avoid language barriers. But France couldn’t accommodate all those who wanted to immigrate, so some Malians found it easier to get an American visa. Harlem became an ideal destination, Diarra says, with its low rents and large African-American population. Malians who could speak English often found jobs as cabdrivers.
State Sen. Bill Perkins says the people of Mali have played an important role in the economic, spiritual and cultural growth of Harlem. “The Malian people were moving into Harlem when everyone else was moving out,” Perkins said at the 2011 Mali Music Festival earlier this fall. “They set up shops, had faith to raise their families and represent their culture here.”
African vendors and shops at West 116th Street and Lenox Avenue form a business area commonly known as Little Senegal. To the uninitiated, differentiating between multiple West African influences can be challenging. Mali, Senegal and Guinea share borders along with many customs and foods. Mafe, a Senegalese peanut butter sauce, is called tiguadegue in Mali. Common dishes include debe (grilled lamb), bissap and gnamkou (hibiscus and ginger drink), and fried tilapia with salad and plantain. Harlem’s only Malian restaurant, Maliba, shut down about two years ago, but Les Ambassades, a Senegalese restaurant on Eighth Avenue and 119th Street, serves many of the same dishes.
Mali’s signature fabric, bazin, can be easily recognized by the tie-dye patterns that craftspeople apply. The fabric is white in its original state, but after dye, Doukoure describes the colors as “out of this world and different.” Before a wash, the fabric is shiny and stiff and looks waxy; afterwards it feels softer, like cotton. The most common long dress style, Grand Boubou, is made from bazin. For textiles shoppers, Yara African Fabrics on West 125th Street, owned by Mali native Moctar Yara, offers more than 200 prints.
Along with jewelry, head wraps accessorize Malian fashions. Doukoure says modern girls sometimes wear hats, but traditional women use a single piece of cloth folded into various styles. For hair, Mali Hair Braiding on Eighth Avenue is a popular choice.
The influences of Malian heritage stretch beyond food, fashion and even the boundaries of Harlem’s West African communities. Uptown residents of all ethnicities joined the Mali Music Festival in September, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street.
The Union of Women of Mali combined this year’s celebration with Malian Independence Day. For four years, musicians from Mali have traveled to Harlem to promote their culture at the festival. This year, the community had an additional reason to dance: Prime Minster Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé was in town. Mali’s first female head of state addressed the crowd in French, saying she was happy to celebrate her first Independence Day as prime minster with the Union of Women of Mali.
Djoumel Diallo, general secretary for the union, calls Sidibé proof of change. “We are 99 percent Muslim and never thought we’d have a woman prime minister,” said Diallo, who manages a West 139th Street pharmacy. Youma Diarra, a Harlem mother of three, said: “In Africa things are different than here. Women feel they stay in the house and take care of the kids. Now, we have the power like men.”
The Union of Women of Mali, Youma Diarra says, serves as a support system for Malian women uptown. The group formed in 2007 after a Bronx fire killed more than a dozen members of a Malian family. Doussou Traoré, the group’s president, decided women needed to “do something as a group to stick together.” Today they attend one another’s baby showers, share cooking techniques and raise money to send back to Mali. Each July, they hold the Mali USA pageant. Other Malian groups include an association for cabdrivers and the New York chapter of the High Council for Malians Living Abroad.
Fatoumata Diarra actively works to keep her children connected to her home country. She speaks to them in her native language of Bambara, cooks Malian food for them and dresses them in traditional garments for ceremonies. It’s the same for most Malian families living in the United States, she says. “Harlem is home, but so is Mali.”