People newly settled into Harlem between 110th and 116th Street intermingle on neighbourhood sidewalks; gentrifiers are easily spotted at expensive sidewalk cafés; the Wolof people are harder to find.
I was drawn into one of their cafés accidentally, out of curiosity. On 116th Street, under a black awning shouting ‘African Food’ and through its glass-walled frontage, I could see people shoulder to shoulder, socially engaged, sharing broad communal plates of colourful food.
Feeling peckish, I joined them.
Lunchtime it was and Wolof, the language spoken. Sokhna, the lone server told me the sixteen or so fellow diners stuffed into the few tables and one long banquette was a typical size lunchtime crowd.
On the lunch menu were four types of Thiebou (a stew of cassava, carrots, eggplants, cabbage and cauliflower mixed with fish, chicken, lamb or guinea fowl crowning a mountain of red, brown or white rice), Sulukh (fish and okra in peanut sauce), and Maffe (lamb and vegetables in peanut sauce on white rice), and more.
The Wolof people are the largest ethnic group in (roughly) the northwestern area of Senegal. Their recorded history is known mainly from the 15th century (as written by the Portuguese) though their traditions of culture and caste have dominated north-central Senegal for much of the past 800 years.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that Colonial rulers effectively halted the slave trade in which Wolofs had played a facilitatory role, slaves having frequently passed through Wolof lands before arriving at the coast.