Roughly forty African artisans and restaurateurs gathered in October at the City College of New York’s Harlem location to celebrate the 2023 Africa Restaurant Week. After a brief delay due to rain, the bright African colors of yellow, turquoise and green mixed with smooth marimba beats and the smells of roasted lamb, chili and cinnamon as festival-goers meandered down the cobbled street, stopping to chat with vendors and admire displays.
This year marked the 10th anniversary of the first Africa Restaurant Week (AWR) held in New York City. AWR’s parent organization, a Taste of Africa USA, has since expanded the event to 15 states across the U.S., and has pushed up into Canada.
“We saw an opportunity to showcase a cuisine that was underrepresented,” said festival organizer Akin Akinsanya, 50, a sharp-talking, friendly Nigerian native. “And we wanted to give a platform to small businesses, African businesses.”
Since 2013, Akinsanya said the company has seen significant growth, something he attributes to the steady influx of African immigrants and the growing entrepreneurialism within the community.
“We started with 12 or so vendors. Today we will have 40,” he said.
Just then, a blast of smooth African beats began to pulse from the DJ booth behind him, Akinsanya took a small step back and began to move rhythmically side to side, his arms raised joyfully aside his grinning face.
“We’re happy, it’s great. We want people to come and see, to feel the community we have, to support each other,” he said.
The upbeat tunes came from Nigerian DJ BadBreakUp, 36, who lives in Queens and has been involved with AWR since they started.
“I feel the people need it. It’s a necessity,” he said, adding that he was excited to welcome the “old faces and the new.”
“Just like the Puerto Rican Day Parade, or St. Patrick’s Day, we need this, as Africans,” he said.
Among the new faces was the son and successor of the current Paramount Chief and King of Dagbon, a Kingdom in the northern region of Ghana. His spokesperson, Suleean Danladi, explained that the Kingdom’s party was at the festival to show support for Ghanaian businesses, while their trip to New York was focused on increasing exposure of and opportunities for North Ghanaian businesses, specifically.
“There are lots of different aspects of Ghanaian food and culture,” he said. “We want to show off what Northern Ghana has to offer.”
Another goal of the event was building community across the African diaspora and connectivity, not only to their specific homelands, but to each other and the broader Black community.
Busi Adewoyin, 39, the owner of “Busi by Olubesayo,” was born in Nigeria but emigrated to the United States when she was so young her mother “didn’t even have to pay for [her] plane ticket.” A family attorney by day, Adewoyin founded her African fashions company earlier this year as a creative outlet and passion project. Adewoyin credits the ARW New Jersey event with helping to launch her business.
“Growing up, it wasn’t cool to be African,” she said. “It makes me happy now to see our culture being seen and appreciated.”
Kwame Adjei, 32, is an artist from the Ghanaian Asanti tribe and has been in the U.S. for seven years. This year’s event was an opportunity to see what other Africans are doing and network within the community.
“I love African events. It’s important for us to express our culture,” he said.
Adjei’s prints go for about $250 and all feature African scenes that he witnessed while traveling through the continent with his grandmother. Adjei’s face lit up as the smell of salty meat and roasting plantains wafted through the air.
“The food! It’s hard to find good African food,” he said. “If you want it, most of the time you must cook it for yourself but it never looks right.”
He was especially excited to sample Fufu, a traditional west African dish made from cassava (or yuca), similar to sweet potatoes, rolled into doughy balls and served alongside a rich meaty soup.
The promise of delicious African food drew locals and out-of-towners alike. Ariane Margulies, 44, an event planner from Westchester, trekked in to cover the event for her company, though she was eager to eat. “I’ve tried some African food before,” she said. “But I’m excited to try new, and experience new, things.”
Food is where Alfred Atsunyo, 38, comes in. Atsunyo is the owner of the “Little Street Lounge,” a new Ghanaian Lounge located on E. 140th and 2nd Ave. Atsunyo moved to the U.S. in 2006, and over the years began to despair at the lack of space in the city dedicated to African entertainment and food.
Now, his business includes a full bar, fancy cocktails and Ghanaian dishes, in addition to a live DJ and a comedy show on Tuesdays. Atsunyo also wanted to connect with his community and other African vendors, but as he heard another rhythmic African beat, he raised his arms and his body began to sway. He added that his other vital reason for attendance was to “Have fun! We know how to do that.”