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2000 Annual Meeting: August 12-16, 2000

National or International Capital? The African Immigrant Presence in Washington, DC

by Kinuthia Macharia, American University and the World Bank

Washington DC is the place to come to in the United States to look for all those exotic artifacts, art, music, food and people from all over the world who are attracted to the city by varying "pull factors."

African immigrants have come to mark their presence in the national capital, adding to its qualification as an international capital. The numbers and impact of African immigrants was not significant in this city about four decades ago. Almost all African countries were under the colonial yoke until the early 1960s which partly explains the non-existent presence of African immigrants. African diplomats were also unknown in Washington four decades ago. The diplomats' presence tends to open up the flow of immigrants to the Washington DC metro area.

For the last twenty years or so, the African immigrant to the USA has traditionally been a student or a diplomat, the latter being particularly specific to this city. After 1973, which marked the overthrow and assassination of Ethiopia's leader Haile Sellassie, Washington started receiving African political refugees, particularly Ethiopians. It is therefore not an accident that the majority of African immigrants in Washington DC are Ethiopians who have also clearly made their presence felt especially in the cuisine that has been served with the gracious traditional Ethiopian style and their strong aromatic coffee! The second largest group of Africans in the DC metropolitan are Nigerians, followed possibly by Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, Ugandans; virtually all the African countries are represented here. Political instability in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Eriteria has also been responsible for a further influx of African immigrants in the last ten years in the Washington area.

Today we see business enterprises run by Africans who are successful entrepreneurs. They came to the U.S. to finish a degree or a diploma. It is an interesting transition for these immigrants who previously had as their primary goals pursuit of higher education with an eye on white collar jobs back in their countries of origin to entrepreneurs who are now permanent residents and sometimes American citizens. Their cultural attachment and their hopes that their children will still identify themselves as Africans and that they will only take the "best of what is American" and always give the "best" to their newly adopted home are still very profound commitments for most of them. This comes out in a number of ways that I will describe below and which visitors to the city and particularly sociologists will find fascinating. The vibrant African immigrant community, I will argue, has established various businesses partly for economic gains and partly to maintain the cultural heritage and to build bridges between the African continent and the new home in America. In the course of that, they have also exposed new cultural ways of doing things to the American citizens and visitors in Washington DC.

Just a few blocks from where the ASA conference will be held, on 18th Street between Florida and Columbia Streets NW, is the culturally rich and vibrant area locally known as Adams Morgan. While this area is alive with Latino, Caribbean, African and American cultures, it is also the area that most people, locals and visitors alike will go for reasonably priced food and drink in an atmosphere that is friendly and welcoming. The pubs and the restaurants in Adams Morgan may not be as trendy as the ones in Georgetown, another comparable favorite outing place in DC. While Georgetown may have more Italian and French (generally European) cuisine, Adams Morgan is more culturally rich and diverse (generally Third world) where the restaurants are mostly African, Brazilian, Indian, Caribbean etc. Among the major African premises in the Adams Morgan area include a number of choices of quality Ethiopian restaurants and grocery stores specializing in Ethiopian foodstuffs, music and clothing; West African restaurants specializing in that cuisine; African art stores specializing in Makonde art, West African jewelry art and clothing (kente scarves and other wear!) This neighborhood also used to be the home of the most famous African club in North America in the 1980s until the early 90s, called the Kilimanjaro Club, You can still see the big white building at the corner of California St. and 18th St. NW. Unfortunately the club went under and has been closed for the last seven years. There are rumors that the Kenyan proprietor is seeking investors to revive it. Just in case it will be revived by the time of the ASA meetings, I would recommend it as a possible stopover one of the evenings for the graceful, vigorous, and yet romantic African dancing. I will however point out below other possible places that are currently operating for that kind of experience. If you are interested in a sociological study of the "boom and burst" of immigrant's businesses, this could be a prime one given its prominence for a period of over ten years. You may be lucky on the day you choose to visit this premise to find the owner who is now running an automobile repair shop on the lower level of the huge building. You may be lucky to have a one-on-one interview to find out what really went wrong and the problems African immigrant businesses are likely to be facing in their new adopted home. If you are into sampling culture and making interesting sociological observations regarding neighborhood specializations, Adams Morgan is a must, whether you do it during the day or in the evening. It is a nice walk and best when you do not have a car to worry about parking.

African night entertainment has continued to find a big following in Washington DC from both the African community within and Americans and others residents of this metropolitan as well visitors who enjoy it. The following places would be good for a combination of African cuisine, African beer, tea or coffee, and African music. Within the city boundaries, there is the relocated Zanzibar Club, which used to be situated just near the White House but has now moved to the waterfront at the corner of 7th St. and Water St. in SE. Washington DC. This club has two floors, one playing contemporary American popular music and the other floor dedicated to African Sokous, benga, rumba and the recent dobolo from Congo interchanging with Caribbean and Latino music. The new location is a bit further out than where it was before but for those really out for a good time, a cab ride may be worthwhile. There is also the Songhai Club named after one of the old African kingdoms in West Africa. This is not far from where the ASA conference will be held, at the corner of 14th St. and U St. NW. If you have recently visited East Africa and you feel like having some East African cuisine like "nyama choma na ugali" (roast meat and ugali) and some East African Tusker beer, then a visit to Safari Club on Georgia Avenue and Randolph, NW and also Serengeti Club on Georgia Avenue and will be worth your while.

In nearby Maryland, visit Langley Park to find African businesses specializing in clothing, hairdressing, music cassettes and CDs from Africa. The International Mall will expose to you a variety of businesses owned by West Africans as well as other parts of the continent. For the most recent CD hits and music videos from all parts of the continent, the place to go is Simba Music Inc., located at 1333 Holton Lane in Langley Park. This store is well equipped with past and current top of the charts African music. Another area that one may find African hairdressers, African cuisine is in a number of small business premises in the downtown Silver Spring Area, accessible by the Metro's Red Line. For example, besides the West African restaurants mentioned above in the Adams Morgan area of DC, the small comfortable and clean West African cuisine restaurant on Bonifant St., off Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring is worth a visit and gives one a broader picture of the Metropolitan Washington DC. It is only about twenty minutes metro ride from Dupont Circle Metro Station.

Back in the District, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art located just behind the Castle building at the National Mall hosts a spectacular collection, free of charge. Many interesting artifacts representing different African peoples are exhibited and will be helpful in filling in historical gaps that one may gather from the African immigrant community in the area. Last but not least, one of the main occupations of African immigrant male population in the Washington DC metropolitan area is cab driving. There is a high probability that most of you will be transported from the airport by an African cab driver. Most Africans are open and friendly and you should feel free to engage them in a sociological conversation in which you may learn more about where they are from, why they are still here and what they perceive as social change for themselves and their children if they have any and whether there has been a conflict of cultures or any other topic you may feel like exploring before and after the conference. If you drive and you will be parking in one of the many Washington garages, you will notice an overwhelming majority of Ethiopian parking attendants who apparently dominate this occupation in the area. Almost all the institutions of higher learning in the area have an African Studies program or committee or faculty teaching in areas with African interests which would be another source of those eager to learn more. Finally I should mention that most of the African countries have embassies in the city, a number of them along the so-called 'Embassy Row" along and near Massachusetts Avenue north of Dupont Circle. The yellow pages would be a good guide to various locations of the embassies and most of them are usually friendly to visitors and willing to tell more than you even want to know about their countries. Hope you will enjoy an African immigrant treat of the Washington DC metropolitan while attending the ASA in the year 2000!

Kinuthia Macharia is a professor in the Sociology Department at American University, Washington DC. He is himself an African immigrant and after staying in three other metropolitan areas of the U.S.--San Francisco Bay, Boston and currently Washington--he finds this area the most cosmopolitan and one with the most presence of African immigrants. He has made this his next research interest especially understanding the social networks (social capital) that the entrepreneurs are engaging in to ensure survival and growth. His e-mail: