In 2015, I was an impressionable 20-year-old girl trying to build her Nigerian community in Paris. Because of colonization, England is the preferred destination for education, vacation and relocation for most Nigerians. There, it’s easier to for them to settle, having already dominated neighborhoods such as Peckham and Thamesmead (among others) and big universities like Hertfordshire and Coventry. Although Nigerians are very populous in London – constantly running into each other on Liverpool Street and exchanging unsolicited suggestions about which fabric would look nice on whom – their presence in Paris is somewhat nonexistent. With the exception of visiting my aunt in the banlieue and ‘The African Kitchen’ Nigerian restaurant that is always bustling with well-to-do Nigerians, I only interact with other Nigerians when my father is in town and I tag along when he’s invited to speak at UNESCO or Le Monde events. For me, building an African community in Paris is hard; it is a much simpler task for North Africans and Francophone Africans. However, life (as it is often said) is not a bed of roses, so while they are able to run into their natives on the streets of Paris, they have to carry with them the afflictions that come with the ability to do so.
When my Moroccan friend Sarah Maacha jumped into a taxi to drive her to an Economics exam for which she had spent the preceding days studying (and definitely cramming), she had no idea how enlightening the journey was going to be. Of course – because it’s Paris – the driver was also from Morocco. Their en route conversation was a relief of excitement to seeing a fellow-Moroccan in a different country outside their continent. When Sarah arrived at her exam, she was stuffed with knowledge that was not only of interest rates and the calculations of gross domestic products (GDP), but also of a fresh understanding of the liaison between two counties – France and hers, theirs.
“I almost cried, Khadija!” she said to me afterwards, recounting the events of her day. “It was an emotionally-draining day.” The taxi driver had shared with her personal anecdotes from his life. First, like many Moroccans, his father had moved to France for al kharig – the search of greener pastures outside the country. For Moroccans, going out ‘into the world’ in the pursuit of greener pastures does not mean Africa or Asia; it automatically means the west and more specifically, because of colonization, it means France.
Inspired by the drivers who were driving through red traffic lights, he said, “no one respects the law anymore. If you don’t impose yourself on the street, then the bus driver will think that he can overtake you.” His ranting evolved into a general discontentment with France. He contemplated whether being Moroccan – being charmed by the idea of al kharig – fed him an idealized image of France, concluding that the grass is not always greener on the other side. According to him, France had changed. Europe had changed. The world has become violent not just in relation to warfare, but also disunity within cultures, the rejection of identities – religions, races, and languages, among others.
When he visited Morocco after years of living in France, he was once again reminded of the illusion of al kharig. His friends who had been to or were living in France dressed in lavish ‘I-have-made-it-in-France’ outfits, selling the “if you I can make it in France, so can you” idea; whereas he and his wife dressed more modestly. Noticing this, his mother asked him why there was a disparity between them when after all, they had all gone in search of that kind of life – the lavish, the ‘I-have-made-it’ kind of life. “Why not you?” she asked him. After delivering his “the world has become violent” speech to her, he invited her to come and visit him so she could see how he lived. He explained to her that while in Morocco, there was chaleur (warmth) – both literally (because, duh, the sun) and metaphysically (warm-heartedness) – in France, it’s all hidden with the face of politeness and not genuine care for others (outsiders). Despite the already sold dream that when you move to France, you become part of the French community and be protected by sécurité sociale, he explained to his mother, the government really doesn’t care about you. You are all on your own.
My conversation with Sarah drifted into her own life in Paris. While in Morocco she is not frequently reminded of her nationality, it has become a very salient part of her identity here in Paris. When people here ask if she is Moroccan – instead of asking if she was born or raised there – they are really asking if she is French with a line of Moroccan ancestry. In a previous discussion, she had told me that prior to her arrival in Paris, she had been warned against Barbès, a Moroccan-dominated area in the 18th arrondissement. “Be careful,” she was told. “If they find out you’re Moroccan, they will harass you even more.” While I was yearning for my African community, she was detaching herself from hers.
But this doesn’t make her any less patriotic. As my friend Rokhaya Wade explains, “the sense of being African – of being Senegalese, Malian or Gambian – doesn’t go away when you’re in another country. Sometimes, it gets even stronger.” Rokhaya is a student at The American University of Paris, who is double majoring in Finance and Economics. As she begins her third year of living in Paris, she reflects upon being Senegalese in a country that’s far from home. Like Sarah, it not only emphasizes on her identity – who she is, where she’s coming from, what language she speaks back home – but it also makes her patriotic. During Senegal’s recent legislative elections, she visited the embassy for a voting card. Being connected by her country’s politics and being able to vote even while outside the continent made her feel connected to the realities of her motherland. As important as it is for her to absorb Parisian culture – visiting museums, taking long walks in the park, eating baguettes and cheese on a regular basis – preserving her African culture is much more important to her.
While in Senegal, she took a lot of things for granted – local movies, TV shows and music – she has become even more mesmerized by them now that she lives in Paris; eighty percent of her playlist is made up of songs sung in her mother tongue, Wolof. And she has become a regular watcher of some TV shows in Wolof. In addition to that, interacts with numerous compatriots to make her feel close to home. More specifically, when walking past the Eiffel Tower, she would often overhear the (souvenir) vendors speaking in Wolof. If she could spare some time, she would stop to chat with them and they would share basic information with each other – what parts (of the country) they are from, what cities they were raised in, and what neighborhoods in the cities. According to her, meeting people from your is great because “there’s gonna be no judgment, racism and you just talk about home together. Most of time, you even leave with gifts; they give you something to take home with you.” Another advantage of having a relatively large Senegalese population is that there’s always someone she can count on to – literally – give her a shoulder to cry on. This said person is not necessarily a friend or a family member, but according to her, “the fact that you are both from Senegal makes you feel safe and protected around them.”
But living far from home is not always ideal; homesickness can’t always be cured by Wolof lyrics. Being far from home, Rokhaya is constantly reminded of her innate otherness – her “Africanness” – especially at the hair salons. It is extremely hard to find hair salons that cater to the kinkiness of authentic African hair. Rokhaya explained that unless you have previously texturized your hair (and it is now a little less kinky and a little softer and straighter), you need more than luck to find an fitting salon. And when you do find such salons, they are ridiculously expensive – up to 50, 60 or even 80 euros (or even higher) for braids that are loosened and lack in quality. Back in Senegal, decent braids are priced at 5,000 francs, which loosely translates to 7-10 euros. She has long-since leaned towards watching YouTube African hair tutorials and making her own hair, after shopping for hair products at African kiosks in Château Rouge (18th arrondissement) and Indian shops in Barbès (18th arrondissement).
There are greater threats to the Senegalese communities than there are to Rokhaya personally. Immigration, for example. There are many Senegalese people in Paris without legal documentations. They usually work “under the table” and on the streets of predominately African black markets like Château Rouge (18th arrondissement), selling fake designer bags. At the sight of police, they pick up as many things as they can from their merchandise and run. In very extreme immigration cases, the Senegalese embassy gets involved and helps out its citizens, filing and issues papers on their behalf. It is very easy to question whether coming to Paris – and probably leaving their families back in Africa – is worth having to run from the police frequently and shouting at the top of their voice trying to promote their products. However, it should be noted that the diaspora constitutes a huge part in the Senegalese economy. These hard-workers endure hardships so that their families back home can have food on the table three times a day, and perhaps go to school.
On the surface, there are two types of Africans in Paris: the ones who would rather come here and risk being jailed or deported than stay in their countries; and the ones who go back home during holidays and sell Paris to their friends and families (a Paris that may even be made-up). Either way, Nigerians are but a tiny fraction among them and this has become an issue I am no longer concerned with. While sometimes being surrounded by people who share your values and language brings you chaleur and comfort, I’ve come to learn that sometimes it is the discomfort that helps you grow and adapt into new cultures. In a weird, twisty way, being away (and somewhat disconnected from home) has helped me understand and identify myself in a way that I never would have been able to, if I had followed in the footsteps of the mainstream Nigerian.