So here’s the thing, Paris has every characteristic of the international city you want to live in – the efficient metro, the hipster enclaves, the stunning architecture, the nightlife – with just one crucial difference: here, there's a lot more melanin.
I came to Paris expecting to eat croissants beside the Eiffel Tower. Instead, I found skaapkop and plantains on the streets of a proxy motherland.
I spent a week in Paris touring its African neighbourhoods. What I discovered was a renaissance of African culture, a portal to home and a mirror holding up infinite possibilities of what could be.
Strasbourg Saint-Denis is dubbed “the coolest neighbourhood in Paris”. It’s not hard to see why: with a lively music scene, eclectic bistros, old kebab shops – really, any place to satisfy any taste – the streets are a vibrant mish-mash of old meets new.
My fascination with this neighbourhood, however, has nothing to do with its hipster attractions. Strasbourg Saint-Denis is one of the many Parisian meccas of African hair care. You can’t make it out of the subway without a brother shoving a pamphlet in your face, offering the latest hairstyle at an affordable price. After the struggles I’d had in Berlin trying to find a place to do my hair, I was thrilled to get braided at an establishment just a stone’s throw from the subway station.
“Am I really still in Paris?” I thought as I stepped into a slightly stuffy salon packed with stoic mothers, flailing babies and young men sporting architectural edges. The place was abuzz, with half the room singing along to “We are the World”. At the back, a group of men sitting sardine style on a torn leather couch tucked into greasy chicken with what looked like ugali, swallowed down with sips from a communal whiskey bottle. One of the Nigerian hairdressers, clearly in a bad mood, demanded to the throng in her pidgin accent, “Who take my scissor from de table, o?”
As I observed the hubbub, the harsh lighting, the dusty white tiles, the toddler being passed from mother to colleague to client, I realized why this felt so much like home. I grew up in Mthatha, the former capital of an apartheid homeland, a city defined by a kind of orderly chaos. My childhood memories are of weaving in and out of thick crowds, tightly grasping my mother’s hand, darting strangers reaching out to touch. I remember being enthralled by a sense that everywhere around me was life: people calling, greeting, embracing, yelling out indignantly and laughing uproariously with strangers in the bank queue.
My hometown is emblematic of every modern African city – sprawling, chaotic and teeming with life. And here I was, hidden from the Paris most visitors see, inside a salon that could easily have been in the heart of Cape Town, Lagos or Kigali. It felt like home.
Not far from the hair salon, my friends and I discovered Le Djassa, an Ivorian restaurant that offered everything from sweet bissap, Guinness and homemade ginger beer to fufu, fish and chicken with atieke. Halfway through our meal, a man walked in selling flowers, followed by another peddling fake Nikes. The brilliant white sample shoe was passed from table to table between greasy fingers and nods of approval. Zouglou beats blasted from the tiny DJ booth decorated with cheap LEDs. Save for the ancient stone walls and the live Bundesliga on the flat-screen TV, this place was a capsule of Abidjan.
Château Rouge, the “Little Africa” of Paris, evokes a similar sense of being transported across time and place. If it weren’t for the distinctly European design of the buildings and the occasional out-of-place-looking vegan cafe, you’d swear you were in a district of Johannesburg or Nairobi.
The people, their voices, the products lining the shelves, even the fonts of store signs – everything sang, “This is Africa!” I came to Paris expecting to eat croissants beside the Eiffel Tower. Instead, I found skaapkop and plantains on the streets of a proxy motherland.
During a tour with African Fashion in the City, I learned about the history of fabrics in Château Rouge. On just about every street, you’ll find colourful stores laden from floor to ceiling with wax print, bazin and kente. Designers like Youssouf Fofana of Maison de Château Rouge and Dyenaa Diaw of Peulh Vagabond are dazzling the world with creations that make use of these same fabrics. These young creatives join a global cohort of African designers rebirthing traditional styles with a modern twist.
Everywhere in Paris, I found Africans thriving. I discovered a diaspora community that has overcome a multitude of barriers by finding strength in its diversity; drawing on a unity, boldness and camaraderie forged out of hardship.
The irony is inescapable: When we’re in France or the States we’re welcoming, supportive and generous with one another. Yet closer to home, we treat each other like foreigners and sometimes, enemies. Immigrants who relocate within the borders of the continent are often met with distrust and disdain by their fellow Africans. Where I come from, we know this only too well.
In Paris I found beauty, strength and an extravagant love of life amongst my own people. I found warmth, confidence and that generous spirit for which we’re known – and it was entirely borderless. In Paris, you are African before you are Nigerian, Ivorian, Kenyan or South African. Yet we seem incapable of expressing this unitive consciousness to the ‘foreigner’ within our own continent.
In the final seconds of Burna Boy’s “Spiritual”, his mother’s words ring out: “Every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else.”
Could anyone say it better? Perhaps it is time we applied that principle where it matters most. In my own case, I've witnessed African people – sometimes strangers – open their hearts and homes to me. Now it's our turn as South Africans to do the same, regardless of where we are in the world.