In the Highbridge area around 167th Street and Sheridan Avenue, we ran across many Mandinka, predominately Muslim people from West Africa. The Mandinka became famous around the world when Alex Haley wrote “Roots,” in which he traced his family back to a Kunta Kinte, the grandson of a holy man in a Mandinka village in Gambia.
The Mandika, also known as the Malinke or Mandinko, are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa with an estimated population of eleven million. The are a tributary of the Mande people who populate a large swath of north and west Africa. The Mandinka of the Bronx are mostly from Gambia and some from Senegal, Liberia and Sierra Leone. They also live in other parts of the Bronx, Harlem, Flatbush, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Bushwick and north Staten Island. Some estimate that there are about 2,500 - 5000 Mandinka in New York City.
During the great wars between Arabs, Black Africans and Europeans, many Mandinka prisoners of war and civilian non-combatants ended up as slaves transported to the Americas. Reputedly, the first Mandinka in NYC came from the West Indies. In the 19th Century Mandinkan Henry Highland Garnett was a Presbyterian pastor in New York City (Shiloh Presbyterian Church).
The rebellion of Mande/i Africans (probably Mandinka) on the ship Amistad ended up as a cause celebre in the city and the nation when New York City evangelical Christians led by Lewis Tappan, a prominent New York businessman and close friend of evangelist Charles Finney, Joshua Leavitt, a minister, lawyer and journalist (who edited The Emancipator of New York), and Simeon Jocelyn, a Congregational minister (in New Haven, Connecticut), publicized the plight of the Africans. Their faith-based arguments were critical in rallying support for the Africans. In Tappan’s view slavery was abhorrently immoral. Tappan feared that the immorality of slavery could overthrow the United States as “the worm at the root of the tree of Liberty. Unless killed the tree will die.” Mandinkan evangelical Christian James Covey translated for the Africans from the ship Amistad.
The current Mandinka immigration to the city started in the 1980s. Because most Mandinka are unregistered immigrants, they are having a harder time living in and coming to the city.
Those that are here are trapped between unemployment and a shame about going back to their village in Africa without money to support their relatives. The hometown people see their NYC relatives as the “Big Men” who will provide leadership and resources for the village.
The Bronx Mandinka work very hard and feel that it is shameful to ask for help when they are unemployed. Mandinka are very generous also, so they share with each other. But these times are very tough all around.
Feeling trapped in America, some Mandinka forget their wives back home and have affairs here. A few have multiple wives here, a situation that makes for an unpleasant atmosphere in a small apartment.
Most recent Mandinka immigrants are formally Muslim. Some claim that the oldest mosque in New York City, the State Street Mosque (now Masjid Daoud), included Mandinka people. The mosque was established at 143 State Street in Brooklyn as the progeny of the Islamic Propagation Center of America of the 1920s by Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and still exists. (Polish-speaking Tatars perhaps raised the first mosque building in Brooklyn, NY in 1926.)
However, Mandinka Islam usually includes an element of sorcery. One of our census takers, Chris Clayman, reported that one Mandinka man was passing out cards in the Bronx that proclaimed his profession, “The Grand Spiritual Healer.” We visited several of Mandinka stores and one mosque. There is one apartment building that various people said house a community of Mandinka with a number of Christians. This is remarkable as there are only about 50 Mandinka Christians known to exist in the world.
One of the great pleasures that Mandinka bring to New York City is their wisdom in the form of proverbs, riddles and stories.
Mandinka observe, Where an old man sitting down can see, a young person standing up cannot see at all (i.e., the value of experience).
However, the Africans don’t value knowledge for its own sake. They believe that the best knowledge is that which serves God and his values. Their proverb is,
“Obtaining knowledge is a benefit,
Lack of knowledge is trouble,
But knowledge which is not blessed is like a watch with no hands.”
Bronx Mandinka often interpret their interpersonal relations with such folk proverbs as “Before you refuse a war, you should refuse a quarrel.” Pretty good sense!
Their riddles are also a great contribution to the stock of joy of the city:
How many days are there in the world?
3 Days: Yesterday has passed; Today is here; and Tomorrow is coming!
What is the big cotton field which cannot be picked? The stars.
And there is one proverb that gets lots of laughter in the Bronx:
What has 4 legs standing on 4 legs, waiting for 4 legs? A cat on a table waiting for a mouse.
Thus, you have a happy cultural African brew from the Bronx: history; faith; and humor.