Cultural events in African communities around the United States can introduce you to the Mother Continent right here at home.
With Africa lying on the other side of the Atlantic and being the world’s most under-served continent by the global airline industry, direct flights to the Mother Continent from the United States are both very few and very pricey, which puts the dream of connecting with Africa completely out of reach of most of us.
Or is it?
There are communities of African expats all over the country. What’s more, they hold festivals and other special events during the year that can serve as your gateway into a range of African cultures — without ever having to pack a bag and for a lot less money than you’d spend on a trip to Accra or Nairobi or Capetown.
I’m going to checking out one of them myself: the first annual African Restaurant Week in San Diego. It’s the first year that the event has been held in San Diego, home of the the largest East African community on the West Coast and the second largest in America.
For two decades, newcomers from Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea have made their way to San Diego to restart their lives. This week, they will be putting their cultures of their homeland on offer through food, drink, song and teaching.
Today through Oct. 28, six East African restaurants (and one Jamaican) in the City Heights neighborhood will be offering special $15 prix fixe meals, including an appetizer, main course and dessert. In addition, the various restaurants will be offering free cooking classes in Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali cuisine, traditional music and dance, and formal tea and coffee ceremonies of East Africa.
The seven restaurant taking part in African Restaurant Week are:
- Awash Ethiopian
- Flavors of East Africa
- Island Spice
- Leyla’s Patties & Jerk
- Red Sea
You won’t find City Heights in many San Diego travel guides. It has no beach. It’s nowhere near the Pacific Ocean or San Diego Bay. It has no purpose-built tourist venues like the San Diego Zoo or Sea World. Nor is it a pre-planned foodie hub/nightspot like the Gaslamp Quarter.
You come to City Heights to see a living, rainbow-colored slice of the world, growing, striving and thriving before your eyes. A dynamic mix of family-oriented, self-starting entrepreneurs from Africa, Asia and the Americas. At times, you may not be sure if you’re in Mexico City, Mombasa, Mogadishu or Macau — and it’s all good.
But you don’t have to come all the way to San Diego to get a taste of Africa — although the sponsors of African Restaurant Week wouldn’t mind a bit if you did.
There currently are roughly 1.5 million African immigrants in this country, with most having settled here only since 1990. Roughly half live in seven US states — New York, California, Texas, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts — but you can find them almost everywhere now, if you look.
The ten largest African communities in the US are in:
- Washington DC
- New York City
- Greater Los Angeles (defined as the city of Los Angeles and five surrounding counties)
As you can tell from that list, communities of African expats have sprung up more or less across the country. So unless you live in Alaska or Hawaii, odds are you’re no more than a day’s drive from one.
These newcomers come from nearly all of Africa’s 54 countries, but five countries account for nearly half of them — Nigeria, *Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya.
(*A lot of Egyptians take exception to being called Africans, despite the undeniable fact that Egypt is in Africa. The way I see it, that’s their problem.)
Both New York and Atlanta are home to large numbers of expats from Senegal. If you’re ever in Brooklyn’s “Bed-Stuy” neighborhood, check out the Yolele African Bistro, run by friend, Senegalese expat and super-chef Pierre Thiam. It’s pulling consistently high praise from diners.
A visit to one of these African communities during their special events can serve as your introduction to individual cultures of Afican nations and peoples. Sample the food and drink. Check out the music. Strike up conversations. Ask questions. You can learn a lot, and have a great time doing it.
And if you express some interest in traveling to Africa, you may find your new acquaintances sharing insights with you about their homelands that no travel guide can offer.
So check out the event calendar in your area for events being planned in the African expat communities near you. You just might find that Africa is a lot closer than you think.
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