By Alex Mold, seen here with shopkeeper Jalloh
Near 116th street and Malcolm X Boulevard in New York City exists a market, Malcolm Shabazz’s Harlem Market, full of goods and people from West Africa. I toured this open-air market, which gegan as individual tables on 125th street but was moved to the current location about 10 years ago, to meet the shopkeepers.
The first store I wandered into was full of blankets, all hand made by the Senegalese man who came to the US about six months before the day I visited. The handmade blankets were beautiful with patterns weaved in multiple shades of brown, blue, white, and black. He heard about this market from his friend who worked in another store.
Nearby was another shop filled with clothing of vibrant colors that another Senegalese man made. His clothing was made by hand in the same shop he sold all his merchandise from and while we talked he was making a blue boubou, a traditional Senegalese garb. He spoke Wolof at home and told me Nangedef means hello.
I was drawn to a shop run by a man named Jalloh by the variety of soaps and abundance of shea butter stacked outside. Inside his store was a large collection of blankets, bags, and clothes mostly brown but with vibrant colors on each article. Jalloh finished with a customer and asked me if I needed help with anything. He was a vibrant man who wore a white hat on his head from Guinea. He came to the US a long time ago though he does not remember how long ago it was, though it seems to be about 20 years ago.
His entire family, except his cousin, lived in Guinea and he travels there every two years for one to six months and occasionally for an entire year. He vacationed to Germany where he acquired the camera that he and his cousin used to take pictures of me with both of them. The strangest aspect of this encounter was he had never taken the picture off of his camera, so I could not acquire them, and he did not he have an email address. When his cousin, Omar, stopped by, I greeted him saying yarram tanada to which he replied tandada yarram. I convinced him to take a picture of Jalloh and me. Jalloh then returned the favor and took a picture of Omar and me. This process, though easy to describe, took a long time as they learned how to use the camera on my phone for the first time and they had to make the picture perfect.
I walked around until I came to a store with a musical instrument outside. This musical instrument, I learned for the woman from Benin who worked there, is called a kalimba and was made in Burkina Faso from the shell of a nut. This instrument has seven keys that look something like a piano’s inside and to play notes you pluck each key with the tip of your thumb. She came to the U.S. about 10 years ago and has worked in the same market for almost all that time. To greet someone in Benin I learned she would say afron.