Culture by Association—Makeshift
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The Pulaar Speaking Association is experimenting with younger programming to engage a new generation of West African immigrants

— Culture by Association

It’s 3 a.m., and the party at the Ghanaian Taxi Driver’s Hall in the Bronx in New York City is still in full swing. Demba Tandia, a Soninke rock star, has been flown in from Paris, and women in the crowd are lined up to ceremoniously shower him with cash, which assistants scoop into large plastic bags. Chiek Fall soon joins from the VIP section, slipping bills to Demba’s assistants.

Chiek, a tall, middle-aged man, is there to represent the Pulaar Speaking Association, an organization of US-based Fulanis—the English name for people who speak Pulaar. Earlier that evening, he presided over a meeting of Mauritanian anti-slavery activists at the group’s headquarters, a small space in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, on a block lined with second-floor mosques and halal buffets. Among the crowd were many exiles (including former slaves), as well as activists. Chiek is both, having had to flee Mauritania because of his civil rights work.

Chiek has a courtly demeanor; chatting with him feels like talking to a seasoned teacher, which it turns out he was in Mauritania. As the group’s recently elected president, his main task is to take the 25-year-old association—originally founded to help return member’s bodies to Africa after they died—and transform it into a sustainable cultural organization. To do this, he needs to raise more money and attract the next generation of Pulaar-speaking immigrants to the group.

“The association is getting old,” he later explains, sitting inside the flashy banquet hall he runs in Brooklyn. “The number of active members is going to be decreasing. It means very fast we need to seek other means of making money.”

Chiek has long been the driving force behind the organization’s cultural offerings. The previous spring, he launched a program to teach Pulaar to children through song; he hopes to eventually hold public performances. The Fulani have a rich musical heritage, and it’s not unusual for a griot, or traditional singer, to stop in for an impromptu recital.

“Because it’s songs,” Chiek says, “they haven’t realized they’re reading, and the best way of teaching is to make people think they’re not learning, especially kids.”

Chiek’s mandate of community-based cultural revitalization isn’t too different from what he did back home. Djibril Ngawa-Ba, a Mauritanian visual artist in Brooklyn, remembers organizing music festivals with Chiek. They would book everything from traditional sounds to desert rock as part of the small but vibrant music scene in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s largest city.

Now Djibril works with Chiek in New York, staging art classes and exhibitions in the organization’s ground-level space. They’ve also offered children’s Koran classes for the last five years. With all this activity, Chiek hopes to start getting grant money, though he’s not sure exactly how that process works.

Pulaar speakers are part of a vast ethnolinguistic diaspora of 40 million people spread across 19 African countries, where they are almost always the minority. In different places, they can be nomadic livestock herders or urban merchants. Fulanis are known as Peul in French; Pël in Wolof; and Ful6e in Pulaar itself.The earliest Fulanis in America were brought as slaves. The most famous was Omar Ibn Said, an Islamic legal scholar, who was enslaved and brought to North Carolina where, despite his captivity, he produced 14 manuscripts in Arabic. Chiek says it’s the ultimate story of perseverance under adversity, one that he teaches to his son.

Chairs are stacked inside the Pulaar Speaking Association’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.

Chairs are stacked inside the Pulaar Speaking Association’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.

“If you can write and read, you can write hiding,” Chiek says, reflecting on the dedication to produce such work. “You don’t forget where you come from. You will never forget.”

Today some Fulani arrive in America, like Chiek, as refugees from an oppressive government, but many more come as economic migrants, merchants, and shopkeepers.

While the cultural Pulaar programs are cheap to run, significant funding is needed to sustain the group’s original mission of returning deceased immigrants to their ancestral villages. For members, this promise of going home is what makes living in the U.S. bearable. “Just to have this insurance makes people stay and be members,” Chiek says. “It’s a peace of mind. It’s very motivating.”

Each of the group’s 6,000 members pays USD 5 in monthly fees, or around USD 360,000 in total for the year. But as more members die, the group is struggling to cover the costs of repatriation, which can total as much as USD 15,000 per person. The last two presidents oversaw the return of 14 to 18 bodies, and Chiek says he worries his term could see an even higher mortality rate.

American-born youth aren’t pitching in cash, he explains, because they’re less interested in having their bodies buried in a place they’ve probably never seen. As the first generation of members near their eventual repatriation, the second generation is moving further away from its West African identity. “The mentality is completely different. The realities are different, the needs are different,” he says of younger Pulaar speakers.

For Chiek, the mission of reviving the financial health of the organization is tied closely to the cultural health of his community. As such, the Pulaar Speaking Association joins a long list of immigrant organizations attempting to stay relevant and keep up with their traditions through generations of Americanization.

As he leaves the taxi driver’s hall in the Bronx, it’s well into the morning, and the party, a family affair, is still going strong. Younger fans of the singer crowd the entrance, eager to get in, but Chiek is too beat to notice. It’s been a day of crisscrossing New York, Mauritanian politics, and rock music. There is little time for rest in the life of a president.

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