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Mike from Yonkers notified our group via email that he wanted to choose a place from his “old stomping ground.” Who knew that Mike from Yonkers’ old stomping ground was the area around 116th Street and Eighth Avenue known as Little Senegal? What we do know is that Mike from Yonkers has some sort of obsession or kinship with African food. In the past, he has directed us to the late, Treichville Treichville Tasting Menu, African American Marayway in the Bronx, and Salimata Eating Guinea Fowl in a Guinean Place in Little Senegal, just around the corner from his most recent pick, Africa Kine. And like 116th being his old stomping ground, this obsession has never been explained.
I never claimed the same area as my old stomping ground, but having lived just a couple of blocks from it, I could have been justified for doing so. I even spent a few months volunteering at the community food bank next door to Africa Kine, just after the economic meltdown of 2008.
I worked at the soup kitchen washing pots and pans, bagging garbage, prepping food, and even shoveling ice and snow so the food trucks could gain entry to the kitchen. I stopped soon after the chef of the kitchen, who caught on that I was a writer, had me read the beginnings of his autobiographical novel and when, local Mormon missionaries began to flood in to help out making the kitchen more populated than one you would find at a four-star restaurant.
Since my work at the food bank, a raucous, busy beer garden, called the Harlem Tavern has opened across the street, along with a meat market that specializes in local, organic beef and where the butchers wear pork pie hats while they work, and a cookie place where the cheapest, albeit, very good and very large cookie, is four dollars.
Those new establishments, among others made parking tough for the group, but Zio and I had no troubles getting to Africa Kine, which was enshrouded in dark netting along with scaffolding in front making it hard to distinguish. On the way in, we passed a legless beggar in a wheelchair and as we entered and started upstairs to the dining area, we both noticed a woman, face down, arms out on a prayer mat.
“Don’t take her picture,” Zio whispered to me. “It would be disrespectful. We don’t want an incident.”
Africa Kine is possibly the most notable Senegalese restaurant in Little Senegal. The dining area is spacious and modern, with high ceilings, comfortable booths, big tables and a number of flat screen televisions, and described in the restaurant’s elaborate website Africa Kine as “luxurious.” Either way, it was most definitely a far cry from what we experienced at either Salimata, Treichville or African American Marayway.
The others joined us soon after at a big table in the back of the “luxurious” dining room. While we sipped spicy homemade ginger beer, we perused what, by now was a familiar menu thanks to the African culinary education bestowed upon us courtesy of Mike from Yonkers. There was guinea fowl, chicken, lamb, goat, fish, grilled or fried, and steak. The entrées all came with a choice of one of an assortment of starches; cous cous, rice, plantains, yam, and a small chopped iceberg salad. Each dish came with onions, sliced, lightly grilled with a mustard-based sauce on them, and scattered over the meat and fish. Most of the entrées also included half a hard boiled egg.
I’m no expert on guinea fowl, but if I recall, the guinea fowl at Salimata was better, or maybe more distinguishable, than what we experienced at Africa Kine. The fish and lamb were also all solid, but there were no raves from our now very picky Senegalese aficionados. So, though the surroundings were comfortable, and yes, bordering on luxurious, the food was not as memorable as many of the more humble African places we have visited.
What there was at Africa Kine, however, was plenty of food; the portions more than generous.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: [email protected]_neckbones.
Little Senegal, the West African Community That Is Influencing New York City’s Food Scene
New York City is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. People from many different countries would immigrate to the city and bring their own unique culture with them. Some areas of the city have become dedicated to a specific culture, like Little Italy, where people will come across many Italian shops and restaurants. Similarly, one part of Harlem has been transformed into a cultural center for West Africans.
NYC’s Micro Neighborhoods: Little Senegal in Harlem, New York City
Little Senegal, or “Le Petit Senegal” to many of the Francophone locals, is home to African immigrants from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, and more. It is centered around 116th Street and Lenox Avenue right in the middle of Harlem. Over the past 30 years, the population of immigrants from West African countries has slowly grown and expressed its influence in the area.
This section of the city has a long and storied past, from being one of the hotbeds of the Harlem Renaissance to serving as a major site of the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements. While the vibrant African-American culture is still present and thriving, the influx of African immigrants has exerted itself. African restaurants like Le Baobab and Africa Kine have sprung around classics like Sylvia’s, while renowned Ethiopian born/Swedish raised chef Marcus Samuelson’s Red Rooster blends traditional soul and African food seamlessly. There is also a permanent outdoor market in the area called “Malcolm Shabazz.”
After chatting with some locals in The Red Rooster, this series of block has not always had the best reputation. However, the influx of Senegalese peoples has certainly introduced a residential element–as vice president of the Senegalese Association of America (located on 116th Street) El Hadji Fey told CNN, “We’re the ones who built Harlem.”
Businesses offer everything from traditional African clothing to cell phone plans with discount rates to Senegal or Ghana.
Little Senegal is not all just good restaurants and beautiful garments — according to Humanity in Action, a longing for home is the theme for many conversations in this neighborhood. Faced with the stagnant Senegalese economy, most West African immigrants, typical to the New York immigrant story, arrive to the city with hopes of taking their share of New York’s reportedly endlessly booming economy. Unfortunately, though, several immigrants are faced with a tension between the fast paced paperwork-filled New York lifestyle and the traditional West African family lifestyle.
Although Little Senegal offers a taste of home for West African immigrants, it is also sometimes viewed as a wall of separation for West Africans in New York — making more difficult the already onerous task of blending Senegalese and New York cultures. This speaks to the near universal issue of integration in New York: Honor cultural traditions, or blend into the hustle?
In all, Little Senegal offers a slice of not only Harlem’s incredible cultural past but also an incredible example of integration and acceptance of immigrant culture.
Unexpected Delights at a New Halal Thai Spot — and Other Cheap Eats
Three Great Cheap is a weekly series from critic Robert Sietsema that seeks to find and popularize New York City’s most interesting and inexpensive food in the five boroughs and beyond. Prices range because the term “cheap eats” is relative, but a meal can be obtained here for less than $20.Find the back catalog here. Also consultthe bigger cheap eats guide, with maps, walking tours, and other resources.
Look for the distinctive blue awning.
Ba Mee with red chicken curry
Named after the southern province of Narathiwat, Thai Nara reflects the cuisine of Thailand’s Muslim minority and its connections with nearby Malaysia. That means some surprising menu selections in addition to classics that are more ubiquitous at neighborhood Thai spots. This new cafe is located just off Broadway in Woodside’s northeastern quadrant, heralded by a bright blue awning, featuring plenty of sunny windows with tables aligned alongside, and pictures of a modernistic mosque and Mecca on the pleasantly spare walls.
Malaysian roti canai is here rendered in a chunkier vegetable-heavy rendition, with a beef version available in addition to the usual chicken, either almost a full meal. The roster of soups includes one called Thai soup, flavored with galangal, makrut lime leaves, and sambal oelek, a tart chile sauce. Some curries are served in big bowls with egg noodles rather than rice, some incorporating a peanut-thickened coconut sauce. For vegetarians, mock duck or tofu are available with curries, fried rices, and the multiple stir fries — two of which are cashew pineapple and garlic black pepper, in addition to the usual fresh basil and fresh ginger. Most entrees fall between $8 and $12 and the food is halal at this excellent addition to the city’s roster of Thai regional restaurants. 64-02 35th Ave., between Broadway and 35th Avenue, Woodside
Panino Mucho Giusto
Panino Guisto’s benches are a popular spot to relax.
Even in overpriced neighborhoods, hidden gems still persist — places where the food is reasonably priced and locals congregate. One example is Panino Mucho Giusto, a largely unsung coffee bar and sandwich shop where West Village locals hang, and not the ones living in townhouses with private lap pools in the basements, either. A couple of welcoming benches sit outside that fill up in sunny weather, and the inside, with its irregular floor plan, is comfortable, too. Cookbooks by local authors line the shelves, and the fare runs to breakfast pastries, cookies, panini, soups, salads, egg breakfasts, and a recently added hamburger. Yes, the food is predictable, and good but not spectacular. Just the thing you want in a neighborhood clubhouse that doesn’t attract much attention. 551 Hudson St., between Perry and West 11th streets, West Village
Driven from West 116th street by increasing rents a few years ago, Africa Kine was able to relocate to a new storefront just south of 135th Street, but still in Harlem. The premises is smaller now, but meticulously decorated, including a large map of Africa mural and just a handful of tables. The food is excellent and the menu, via chef Kine Mar and co-owner Samba Niang, is large for a West African eating establishment in New York. The usual Senegalese standards of mafe (lamb or chicken with peanut sauce), yassa (fish or chicken smothered in onions and mustard), and cheb (the national dish of fish and vegetables over red rice) are available, but also a number of rarely seen apps, including nems (spring rolls brought to Dakar by Vietnamese expatriates) and fataya (meat or fish turnovers something like empanadas). 2267 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd., between 33rd and 34th streets, Harlem
Harlem, the epicenter of Black culture in Manhattan, is home to at least 50 Black-owned eateries, representing everything from soul food to Senegalese to Nigerian. Harlem developed as a Jewish and Italian area in the 1800s, but after the Great Migration of the early 20th century, many African Americans from the south settled around Harlem to seek better jobs and education. Harlem soon after experienced its namesake cultural Renaissance, which saw figures like Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Duke Ellington rise to fame. However, Harlem was hit hard in the Great Depression, and soon after Harlem was the scene of rent strikes to improve housing. Despite efforts like the Model Cities Program, Harlem struggled throughout the 20th century to improve education for students, and many Harlem residents who found fruitful employment left the neighborhood.
Despite this, Harlem houses some of the best Black-owned restaurants in all of the city. Perhaps the most famous is Sylvia’s, a soul food restaurant founded in 1962 by Sylvia Woods whose diners have included Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Soul food like fried chicken, ribs, and shrimp and grits feature on the menu of Amy Ruth’s, another well known spot opened in 1999 named for founder Carl S. Redding’s talented grandmother. Other soul food eateries in Harlem include Melba’s, BLVD Bistro, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, and Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem whose founder Charles Gabriel has been the recipient of numerous James Beard Award nominations. Readers also recommend Londell’s, Tsion, Reverence, Jacob, Ruby’s, Chocolate, Les Ambassades, Lee Lee’s, Lolo’s, and 67 Orange. In addition, there is Harlem Hops, Manhattan’s only Black-owned craft beer bar.
West Harlem is home to a small ethnic enclave called Little Senegal, known for its West African restaurants and shops. Pikine, a Senegalese restaurant, serves dishes like Thiéboudienne, Senegal’s national dish consisting of grilled fish, broken rice, tomato sauce, and cabbage. A bit more uptown is Africa Kine, known for Senegalese dishes like chicken yassa, and nearby Chez Alain serves West African fare like peanut butter stew and fish and jollof rice. Also in the area is Safari Restaurant, one of the city’s only Somalian restaurants.
Room 623 Speakeasy sits below B2 Harlem, a Black-owned Caribbean restaurant
Harlem also prides itself on its modern approaches to cooking that fuse older recipes with culinary trends. Lee Lee’s Baked Goods is best known for its rugellach, a Jewish dish originating in Poland, and Ponty Bistro offers a mix of French, American, and West African fare. Teranga offers a play on fast food with its make-your-own West African grain bowls, and Uptown Veg and Juice Bar serves vegan options like curried chickpeas and collard greens. Contemporary approaches to seafood and Caribbean cooking can be found at restaurants like B2 Harlem and LoLo’s Seafood Shack.
Outside of Harlem, Manhattan is not particularly known for its Black-owned restaurants, but there are at least a dozen in Lower Manhattan serving up a diverse selection of cuisines like Nigerian, Berber, and Southern fare. After emancipation, African Americans settled in communities like Seneca Village in modern-day Central Park and Sandy Ground on Staten Island, but the Great Migration led to exponentially increasing Black populations in Hell’s Kitchen (which today houses a Haitian and an Ethiopian restaurant) and Greenwich Village. As Lower Manhattan became more expensive, many black residents either moved uptown to Harlem or towards the surrounding boroughs like Brooklyn in Bedford-Stuyvesant or Crown Heights. Lower Manhattan also saw a recent increase in Caribbean immigration to areas like the Lower East Side.
The Lower East Side houses a handful of Black-owned restaurants like Omar’s Kitchen & Rum Bar, a “nouveau Caribbean” eatery with dishes like breadfruit tacos and curry oxtail. Whipped – Urban Dessert Lab prides itself on its oat-milk soft serve with bases like chocolate and sweet creme. Also notable is Cheeky Sandwiches, which serves po’ boys and other New Orleans-inspired sandwiches, and Las Lap bar.
In West Village, Berber Street Food serves a variety of cuisines, from Kenyan to Tanzanian to Mozambican. Popular dishes range from Zanzibar vegetable curry to Djolof Fried Rice to Calypso grilled jerk wings with habanero mango salsa. Also in West Village is Urban Vegan Kitchen, known for veggie burgers, nachos, and sandwiches. Nearby Greenwich Village is home to Negril Village, serving “New York Savvy Caribbean cuisine” like Guava BBQ wings and collard green spring rolls.
There are also a number of Black-owned eateries in the East Village, like ice cream store Mikey Likes It, Southern comfort-food restaurant Sweet Chick, and Ethiopian eatery Haile. And in Hell’s Kitchen, Casa Del Toro, a Oaxacan eatery, serves up regional dishes like shrimp and steak tacos and tlayudas, as well as signature cocktails and wine. The eatery is owned by Sanjay Laforest, who also owns the nearby French bistro Le Privé
Eating Guinea Fowl in a Guinean Place in Little Senegal
I must have passed Salimata, the restaurant chosen by Mike from Yonkers, hundreds of times and really never noticed it there, not very far from where I reside. Maybe it was because it was located in the shadow of the Masjid Aqsa Mosque, kind of a community center for the areas West African Muslims who populate the area known as Little Senegal and always bustling with activity. Or maybe I was unaware of its presence because it just blended in with the many small, family-run African restaurants in the area.
Like Gerry who chooses based on how long it takes us to get to a place, or Eugene who looks for the untried, no matter if edible or not (see Arzu), Mike from Yonkers has an African thing going his last two picks Treichville and African American Marayway both featured the cuisine of the countries of West Africa. Salimata’s represented Guinea, though all of us would be hard pressed to distinguish the subtle differences between the food of Guinea with that, for example, of Ghana or even, Guinea-Bissau. But getting to Salimata couldn’t be any easier for me so I certainly wasn’t complaining about his choice.
Greeting us outside the restaurant was a burly man dressed in what looked like the sweat suit version of the traditional African buba. He had a big sack open and filled with a haphazard assortment of shoes he was selling. “Take a look at my shoes,” he asked, holding the bag open. “What size are you?”
We told him we were going in to eat at Salimata now. Maybe later, someone unwisely said thinking he might be gone by the time we finished. He nodded approvingly at our dining choice that, we soon found out, also served as his base of operations.
The only table big enough to handle our group of six was close to the front door and the constant commotion of take out customers and taxi and livery cab drivers moving in and out, had us keeping our jackets on to stay warm. All of us were pleased that now, after two absences, Rick had rejoined us, and taking a quick glance at the menu and without any hesitation he decided on the guinea fowl, a variation on either pigeon or chicken, depending on how you approached it.
Guinea fowl: The before picture.
The menu was ample, but as is the case with many of the small African restaurants, it’s hit or miss on what will be available when you happen to be at the restaurant. In our case, some of the West African classics like thu djeun (stewed fish), chicken yassa, and lafidi (rice with roasted goat meat) were done for the day.
Our waitress who was scuttling back and forth between taking table orders and returning to the take out counter in the back of the slim restaurant, instead just recited the few items that remained such as grilled chicken, grilled fish, and steak. That didn’t satisfy either Gerry or Zio who persisted, pressing her with some of the other menu items forcing her to squint at the menu.
Zio was adamant about the “bouillon avec fonio” also known as cow feet soup while Gerry was intrigued by the “suppa kandja” a mix of lamb and fish in an okra sauce. Keeping it simple for our harried waitress, Eugene and I opted for the grilled fish while Mike from Yonkers ordered the grilled chicken.
There were two television monitors at either end of the restaurant where the only decoration was a poster endorsing “Boubacar Bah for President.” The televisions were tuned to CNN and after our enormous platters arrived at our table, President Obama was shown making a speech. The volume on the televisions were turned up and all the Africans either eating or waiting for their take out orders, including the shoe salesman who was leaning against a wall gnawing on a chicken leg, watched raptly.
Guinea Fowl: The after picture
We, on the other hand, did not show as much respect, loudly commenting on how Rick’s guinea fowl looked pretty much identical to Mike from Yonkers’ grilled chicken and both just as dry, while the fish Eugene and I ordered, which we later learned was tilapia looked like they had spent their early years swimming in what probably was a tank in a Bronx farm, consuming a steroid-rich diet, they were both that big. Despite their enormous size, the fish, unlike the chicken, was moist, smothered in a light tomato sauce and served with a mound of cous cous and mustard-flavored grilled onions. Gerry’s dark green mashed okra concoction had a gamey, overly salted taste that one most definitely would need to acquire to appreciate and the hard gelatinous cow feet anchored in Zio’s soup had him throwing up his hands. “I just can’t eat it,” he said shaking his head in defeat.
Impenetrable cow foot soup.
The ridiculously inexpensive check for all the food consumed softened the few misses and by the time our platters were cleared and we made our way out of the restaurant, the shoe salesman had returned to his position. He looked at us hopefully and gestured to his sack of shoes with one hand while holding the half-eaten chicken leg in the other. “So, are you ready to buy some shoes now?”
New York City has a huge Korean population, so Koreatown doesn’t disappoint. And even though few people actually live here, the neighborhood is densely packed with businesses — from spas to stores, and from bars to Korean barbecue joints. Ktown is tucked in the shadow of the Empire State Building and, after sunset, it lights up in bright neon signs, with almost every business open 24/7. Swing by anytime for a taste of Seoul in New York City!
Some of Koreatown’s highlights include Gagopa Karaoke (with a BYOB policy and more than 30,000 songs in its repertoire), deluxe spas dotted throughout the neighborhood, and Gaonnori (a fancy Korean barbecue restaurant offering panoramic views of Manhattan).
You can find Koreatown between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, with 32nd Street running down the center. The most convenient subway stop is 34 Street – Herald Square on the B, D, F, M, N, Q, R, and W trains.
Africa Kine: Africa Kine: A Senegalese Stomping Ground on 116th Street - Recipes
Named in tribute for the address of the 19th century’s Almack’s, one of New York City’s first black-owned bars, this stylish lounge defines the Harlem cocktail. Try its signature Legrand’s Old Fashioned or the knowledge-dropping Emancipation. Some pretty wicked bar food too!
Experience the bold and robust flavors of African cuisine. If are unsure of what to order, our friendly staff are always ready to help you find just the perfect thing. Our buffet style allows you to try many different options so you can indulge in many different flavors.
We take pride in serving quality and authentic African cuisine. Our roots come from Ghana and we enjoy getting to share the delightful flavors of our culture with you. Join us for lunch or dinner and remember we are also open late!
This eatery welcomes you to Senegal. One of the original restaurants on 116th St, the hub of Harlem’s West African community, Kine has moved further uptown for more space. Your first bite? Try the national dish, Thiebou Djeun, “fish and rice.” Be ready to eat!
Ajoy helps small business owners and entrepreneurs who need their bookkeeping handled and taxes filed. They work privately, systematically, and on schedule, and have great success with helping clients plan for growth and stay out of tax trouble. It’s Ajoy… To Get it Done.
Built by movie mogul William Fox in 1912 for large events, the Audubon Ballroom became best known as the place Black Muslim leader, Malcolm X, was assassinated while giving a speech to the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Today, in his honor, the building houses the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. A life-sized statue of Malcolm X stands in the lobby.
The former Billie’s Black, recreated as a seafood restaurant, still offers a casual, convivial neighborhood experience. Step in for some east and west coast oysters and a craft cocktail at the speakeasy-esque bar area or dine on their new menu.
Tara Simone creates spectacular floral designs and event experiences that have won her an enviable client list of corporate giants like CBS, CNN and now you.
Tara Simone creates spectacular floral designs and event experiences that have won her an enviable client list of corporate giants like CBS, CNN and now you.
Benjamin Optical has served the men and women with exemplary optometric care and eyewear. They offer affordable soft and hard contact lenses, as well as a variety of designer sunglasses and frames. No matter your budget, Benjamin Optical offers an enviable selection of fashionable frames.
The practice handles a vast array of eye health issues. Areas of specialty include dry-eye, infections, glaucoma, visual field testing, and corneal disorders. The expertly trained team also treats conditions arising from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Chicken in peanut sauce
East Africa is characterized by a limited set of products, the influence of Indians (consumption of rice and tea) and European colonizers (a buffet with cold snacks) is traced. On the other hand, some local specialties, such as stuffed ham cariba ham, have taken their place in the international cuisine. Very popular mixtures of spices of Indian origin – masala, both dry and in the form of pastes. Finely chopped meat, fried in oil with onions, served with a thick spicy sauce. The most common side dish is rice with curry spices and millet porridge, tapioca, cassava or cassava. The cassava root, cooked with grated coconut and onions, is also offered as an independent dish.
Porridge is eaten and with spinach, lettuce or other greens. The local population loves meat dishes, – first of all, beef and goat meat. The indigenous people know how to cook gazelles and other four-legged game. On the coast is popular and fish, stewed with coconut milk and a lot of tarragon, dressed with eggs. This food is called giram, it is also popular with Europeans. Nigeria and the coastal parts of East Africa prefer chili. Coastal recipes include fish marinated in ginger, tomatoes and cayenne pepper, cooked in peanut butter. Senegalese cuisine was strongly influenced by France there is widely used lime juice, finely chopped vegetables, onions, garlic and marinades. Popular peanut, palm and coconut oil. The Okra is used in goulash and for thickening soups. Tropical fruits, especially bananas and coconut are important ingredients.
T he writer Ousmane Sembène launched his cinematic career in the 1960s on a bicycle, trundling 35mm film cans from village to village for makeshift screenings in his native Senegal. Now 82, the "father of African cinema" this week became the first African director to give the director's lesson at Cannes. But although Sembène, in the footsteps of Bertrand Tavernier, Milos Forman and Wim Wenders, is glad of the accolade, he measures his worth as a filmmaker by his ability to touch audiences in Africa - even if he now travels by truck. "Europe is not my reference," he says.
A fisherman, soldier, Marseilles dockworker and communist trade unionist before he turned to fiction in the mid-1950s, Sembène has published 10 books, mainly in French. Most have been translated into English. The epic novel that made his name in 1960, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood), on the landmark railway workers' strike of 1947-48 in French West Africa, is taught as a classic across the African continent, and is still in print in the Heinemann African Writers Series.
He turned to filmmaking after Senegalese independence from France in 1960, appalled by how little impact literature in colonial languages had on fellow Africans. Even today, only 40% of Senegalese are literate. As screenwriter, producer, director and cameo actor, often adapting his own fiction, he has made a dozen features, and more documentaries. Chronicling the lives of the dispossessed, they expose, often with mordant comedy, the inequalities of wealth and power in postcolonial Africa. The artist, he says, must be the "mouth and ears of his people", though he favours artistry and open-endedness over didacticism: "I'm against making poster films."
"It's his peripatetic life and eclectic learning that make his work so interesting," says the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, a friend based in Cape Town. His fiction is "very simple on the surface, but there's a depth he uses the novel for a political and social end." For the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who co-directed the documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema (1994), his main concern is the "imperative of social and mental liberation, and of Africa decolonising itself if it's to survive".
Sembène's idea of cinema as "night school", and his decision in the late 1960s to make films in indigenous languages rather than French, sparked a revolution in African filmmaking. Filmmakers including Souleymane Cissé of Mali and Haile Gerima of Ethiopia cite him as an inspiration. Françoise Pfaff, professor of French at Howard University, Washington DC, says "his realist style and politically oriented storylines have left a mark on three generations of filmmakers though his own style has evolved".
For Samba Gadjigo, professor of French at Mount Holyoke college in Massachusetts, who is completing a biography of Sembène, his aim is "not just to 'see Africa though African eyes', but to create restorative images and a new cinematic language that's rooted in his knowledge of African cultures - not in an African past. We're neither Westerners nor Arabs. His work makes people understand that we need bread and shelter, but without culture there can be no development."
His latest feature, Moolaadé, which won last year's Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes film festival and was reviewed in the New York Times as Sembène's "autumnal masterpiece", will be released in the UK next month. It coincides with a June retrospective of his work at the National Film Theatre in London, as part of Africa 05. "For an 82-year-old to continue to make films, particularly in the African environment, is phenomenal," says Keith Shiri, director of Africa at the Pictures, a UK promoter. "His films express shortcomings in African society he hasn't lost his focus or his passion."
Filmed in a remote village in the west African state of Burkina Faso, Moolaadé traces the ripples of one woman's rebellion against ritual "purification" - genital mutilation that is yet to be outlawed in some African countries and, according to the UN, still threatens two million girls each year.
"I was born in a milieu where excision is practised daily and accepted," says Sembène. "But I was also born into an evolving culture, one, like all African cultures, that's acquiring new knowledge."
Partly from seeing mothers die in childbirth, and Aids infection from dirty knives used in excisions, "I came to understand that excision was outdated and outmoded".
He chose the village of Djerisso for its unique mosque, which rises like a spiky anthill. Though he says the procedure itself, aimed at subjugating women, predates Islam and is "as old as humanity", the film partly satirises elders who trumpet tradition but speak French and worship Allah. New ideas do arrive from outside - men make a bonfire of the rebellious women's radios. But the main force for change is the local tradition of moolaadé, or sanctuary for the weak. As four little girls seek refuge from the matriarchs' knives in the heroine Collé's compound, a traditional cord keeps out both masked women in blood-red cloaks, and male elders in white Islamic robes. "At a moral level, I don't think we have any lesson to learn from Europe," says Sembène, who believes tradition is merely a "set of habits", and that "conservative forces are carried by both men and women". But there can be no progress in Africa, he has said, "if women are left out of account".
"This isn't just entertainment: I call it 'movie school'," says Sembène, for whom cinema is a "mirror - so my people can take reponsibility and solve their own problems". When he showed Moolaadé in Burkina Faso, Gabon and Cameroon, "the debate afterwards was longer than the movie. The taboo is fading." Yet the lead actress from Mali, Fatoumata Coulibaly, has had death threats, only partly because of nude scenes deemed contrary to Islam.
Though the film was shot in a present-day village of pink mud walls and thatched roofs, with "no running water or electricity, just mosquitoes", there is nothing timeless in Sembène's view of Africa, as the film hints at underlying social change. "When one fruit ripens, others follow suit," he says. "Collé refuses to have her daughter excised but doesn't beat a drum about it. In her silent reaction, like an ocean wave, she carries others with her."
Sembène lives alone in the Senegalese capital Dakar in a house overlooking the Atlantic that has, he says with satisfaction, no phone. He does business in the city centre offices of his production company, Domirev. According to Breyten Breytenbach, the South African writer who lives on Senegal's Gorée Island, he has "remained unconditionally on the left, and is known to be impervious to patronage". He travels incessantly, fundraising, scouting for locations, shooting, editing in Tunisia or Morocco and screening. Recently in Manhattan, he had an ovation for Moolaadé at the Lincoln Center. In Harlem's "Little Senegal" he is recognisable to the francophone clientele of the bistro Les Ambassades with his trademark cap, scarf and pipe. Relaxing over seafood and wine in a friend's apartment, he tunes in religiously to French radio bulletins about Togo's presidential poll.
"He keeps up with everything," says Daniel Talbot, president of New Yorker Films, his longtime distributor in the US. "He's wonderfully well read and very smart." In Pfaff's view, he has a "caustic sense of humour and tremendous vitality: he appears so youthful in body and soul" - a sprightliness he puts down to yoga. He speaks little English, but Senegalese-accented French, as well as Wolof, Diola, Fulani, Bambara and some Russian. "Whatever you say, he'll contradict you, even if he agrees," says Mahen Bonetti, founding director of New York's African Film Festival. "He's sly, cunning, playful, witty - he pushes you to think."
He was born in 1923 in Ziguinchor, on the Casamance river in southern Senegal - then part of French West Africa. His father, Mousse, a fisherman, had migrated from Dakar. His maternal uncle was an Islamic scholar literate in Arabic and French, but he spent most time with his two grandmothers, one a midwife, who "wielded great authority". He says, "I benefited from a synthesis of values - in the house, the compound, the country and Koranic and French schools. We conserved our own culture we had nightly gatherings with tales. Now I call it my own theatre."
Aged 13, he was expelled from a colonial school in Casamance for retaliating against a French teacher who had hit him. "After I slapped the school director on the face, my father said, 'Did you make sure he bled?'" His father, who vowed never to work for a white man but sold them fish, took him canoe fishing. "I learned a lot about silence. And the images were important: dawn, and how the river birds make their nests, so you can predict the tides." He loved to read. "Bread came wrapped in French newspapers. Each time my father unwrapped a bagette, he asked me to read to him."
He left French school in Dakar at 14, and as an apprentice mechanic and bricklayer he indulged his love of cinema. "When we had a good catch, my father would reward me with change for the movies. I saw and memorised the silent classics - all the films of Charlos [Chaplin]." Films critical of the colonial presence were banned, says Pfaff, "but Chaplin was considered harmless". Yet as Sembène realised, "Charlos lets no one get away with anything he returns blow for blow." It was Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, that inspired him with Jesse Owens' track victories and the power of cinema. "Riefenstahl always fascinated me - not the content but the frames," he says.
Cinemas were segregated. "Whites sat at the back in armchairs, and natives at the front some came with their own stools." Yet he had no idea of colonialism till the second world war. "The humiliations had been there on a daily basis. I saw elders with white hair having to doff their hats to white men. I saw it all as a child, but didn't understand."
Then in 1944 he was called up to serve in the Free French army, as a truck driver in Niger, and in a colonial infantry unit. With his generation, he discovered the irony of helping Nazi-occupied France fight for liberation when that freedom was denied his own people. "In the army we saw those who considered themselves our masters naked, in tears, some cowardly or ignorant. When a white soldier asked me to write a letter for him, it was a revelation - I thought all Europeans knew how to write. The war demystified the coloniser the veil fell."
Demobbed in 1946, he joined a construction union in Dakar, and witnessed the general strike that paralysed the colonial economy for a month and ushered in the fight for independence. "I learned everything from that human experience," he says, noting that "African strikers sometimes got help from European unions".
Unemployed, he stowed away to Marseilles in 1947, where he worked at the docks and joined France's General Workers' Union. As a French Communist party member from 1950, he travelled widely, and protested against the war in Indochina and French rule in Algeria. He sought to improve the appalling conditions of black workers in Marseilles, but also recalls the warmth of Sunday lunches with French families. His party membership lapsed in 1960, though he claims an affiliation to Marxism "until my last breath".
After fracturing his spine unloading a ship, and getting a less arduous post, he spent more time in the union library, discovering writers such as Richard Wright, Jack London, Claude McKay of Jamaica and Jacques Roumain of Haiti. Marseilles was then the gateway to France, and like-minded intellectuals would contact him - among them WEB DuBois, James Baldwin, Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore. "There weren't disagreements because the only thing that mattered was struggling for independence," he says.
He wrote poetry for French workers' periodicals. "It was then mostly Europeans writing about their Africa," he recalls. "It was time for Africa to speak for itself." His first novel, Black Docker (1956), about an African dock worker convicted of killing a Frenchwoman after she has passed off his novel manuscript as her own, was partly an allegory of exploitation. But it met with rejections. According to Gadjigo, "he paid to have it published his communist friends helped him." There were also moves to sideline him, says Gadjigo, "because he wasn't a typical African writer - he hadn't been to university. There was snobbery, but he never talks about it. He says, 'I don't look back.'"
God's Bits of Wood was his breakthrough. In a strike the French bosses try to starve the railwaymen back to work but women lead a decisive march. It was adapted for the stage in Dakar in 2002, and the Hollywood actor and producer Danny Glover is negotiating for film rights. Sembène returned to independent Senegal in 1960 and sailed up the Congo. "I wanted to know my continent," he says. It was then that he decided to make films, at a time when cold war adversaries were competing with scholarships. He studied at the Gorky Studios in Moscow, returning to Senegal a year later with an old Soviet camera.
His short black-and-white film Borom Sarret (1963), the first film made in the region by a sub-Saharan African, followed a day in the life of a Dakar cart driver. Niaye (1964), based on a short story, broached the taboo of incest, while La Noire de . (Black Girl, 1966), the region's first full-length feature, was sparked by a news story about a Senegalese maid brought to the French Riviera who kills herself. Her voiceover reveals that, though her country is supposedly free, she remains a possession.
Talbot, who met Sembène in Paris in the late 1960s, says, "I was devastated -I'd never seen that kind of cinema before. The stories are simple but artistic and powerful, and suffused with humanity. They're classics." They coincided with independence, says Shiri, "showing there were still problems that needed to be addressed, and that cinema was the best medium for it."
Sembène admits influences ranging from Italian 1940s neo-realism - notably Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves - and Eisenstein, to the French 1950s Nouvelle Vague and cinéma vérité. He also drew on African oral tales, and used folkloric types, such as tricksters. He sees the African artist as a modern-day griot, a bard who is also a licensed fool. "The griot was an honest eye witness and messenger the only one able to speak the truth and to humiliate the leader. He was immune to power. But now we have a new breed of griot who's a mouthpiece for the powerful he's just there to sing their praises and get paid."
Sembène co-founded Kaddu, a newspaper in Wolof in the 1970s, and began to make films in Wolof or Diola. "No language is better than any other," he says. In Mandabi (1968), based on his 1966 novel Le Mandat (The Money Order), an illiterate Dakar resident receives a windfall from his nephew, a street-sweeper in Paris, but in trying to cash the order becomes entangled with the callous bureaucracy of Senegal's new elite. Another of his best-known films, Xala (1974), satirises a new bourgeoisie who wash their Mercedes in Evian, through the tale of a polygamous businessman struck down by impotence, and the procession of beggars who spit on him to end the curse. No African director, the Guardian's film critic Derek Malcolm wrote, "has criticised the pretensions and corruption of its rulers more severely, or with such quiet hilarity".
His films put him at loggerheads with Senegal's government. One actor in Xala was chosen for his resemblance to President Léopold Senghor, a poet and exponent of Negritude, the francophone-led movement for black cultural pride, with which Sembène took issue. For Sembène, says Gadjigo, "the main issue was not skin colour but class. He thinks cultural alienation is a problem only for African intellectuals, and that the real problem is Africa's economic exploitation." For Sembène, Negritude was a "stage in the history of Africa, but all the fuss was a fuss between intellectuals." When the authorities made a dozen cuts to Xala before it was screened in Dakar, he distributed leaflets in protest. "All ideologies practise censorship one way or another," he says. "But I don't know how to be oblique - I say things the way I see them."
His work often lampoons polygamists, and he says his own father was "never polygamous he divorced and remarried". Though reticent about his own relationships with women, Sembène is twice divorced. According to his biographer, he was married in 1962 to a cousin, a midwife, and divorced in 1974. That year he began a 12-year marriage to an African-American doctoral student who had come to interview him. Though Gadjigo says Sembène has no children from his marriages, he has a son Alain, aged 48, a civil engineer in Marseilles, from a relationship in France in the 1950s, and two younger sons: Moussa, aged 32, a department store worker and aspiring DJ in New Orleans and Matar, aged 16, who is still at school in Dakar. He has one granddaughter. Breytenbach describes him as a "very good father, with a very natural relationship with his sons". Sembène says they all visit during holidays, though none has followed in his footsteps: "They're not crazy."
Sembène turned to history, making Emitaï (1971), about a Senegalese rebellion against forced conscription in the second world war. Ceddo (1976), set partly in the 19th century, shows a people trying to preserve its culture from the onslaught of Islam, Christianity and the slave trade - in which Africans are seen to be complicit. Sembène, says Gadjigo, was "not attacking Islam but the way it was used by the ruling powers". Senghor banned the film on the pretext that the title misspelled the word for commoners. It was not screened in Senegal until after his resignation in 1980. Now Senegalese rap musicians sample the Cameroonian Manu Dibango's music from the film, "and they're even more stinging in their criticisms of the ruling powers than me", Sembène says approvingly.
Camp de Thiaroye (1988) exposed a French massacre of African soldiers, who were returning from the second world war, to quell a 1944 mutiny sparked by attempts to cheat veterans out of severance pay. "Months before the end of the war, the French army was killing people who'd participated in France's liberation," says Sembène. "That's part of my legacy I shouldn't forget. I have to erect a monument to it." But in Gadjigo's view, "it's a hidden page of history the French would rather bury. Camp de Thiaroye wasn't seen in France till the late 1990s."
Sembène has always been uncomfortable with French sponsorship and patronage, though what is known as African cinema, Shiri points out, "was born out of France's desire to retain cultural influence in the continent", through subsidies to officially approved films. Sembène increasingly taps EU coffers. "I go everywhere, knock on all doors," he says.
According to Talbot, he has "always been in total financial control of his work he has all his negatives." For Sembène, "Africa is my audience the west and the rest are markets." But he feels the chronic distribution problem in Africa (where many commercial cinemas offer a diet of Bollywood and kung fu) has "gone backwards not forwards, especially in francophone countries". Outside festivals, Gadjigo says, "it is hard to see African films in Africa. African leaderships don't see the role cinema can play in development," and 90% of Senegalese cinemas have closed in the past 10 years. Shiri notes that under IMF belt-tightening in the 1980s and 90s, "governments weren't given any leeway to support culture".
Though Sembène tries to premiere his films in Senegal through private screenings, he rejects the fleapit urban cinemas. Mamadou Niang, a Senegalese friend and producer for France Television in New York, says "his refusal to have his movies shown in towns since the nineties is a slap in the face of the political elite, who he thinks don't care about culture". He has rarely allowed his films to be released on video. But next month New Yorker Films releases his first DVDs, Xala and Mandabi, with the rest to follow. "I'm confident one day we'll be able to see our films in Africa," he says.
Sembène is proud that Moolaadé was "born on the continent and from the continent". In Gadjigo's view, "by making films with Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Côte D'Ivoire, he's symbolically creating a unity that political leaders haven't been able to achieve".
The pernicious effect of dependence on outside aid is a theme of Guelwaar (1992), a film based on a true story, in which a Christian leader's erroneous burial in a Muslim cemetery creates chaos as fellow Christians try to recover the corpse. Faat Kiné (2000), the first of a trilogy on "daily heroism" of which Moolaadé forms the second part, follows the life of a single mother running a petrol station in Dakar. He tries to alternate rural with urban settings. "I see people surviving from day to day in my country in a very honest way that inspires me," Sembène says.
Senghor died in 2001, and Sembène pronounces him a "great poet in the French language, but a poor politician". In 2000 presidential elections, Abdoulaye Wade finally ended the 20-year rule of Senghor's successor, Abdou Diouf. Yet for Sembène, "I don't think liberalism is a way to govern Africa, because we're going to continue being the beggars of Europe." Last year's screening at Cannes was attended by Senegal's first lady, Viviane Wade. "It would be a very courageous act for this government to participate in the development of cinema," says Sembène with a sigh. He had hoped to shoot the last film of his trilogy, Brotherhood of Rats, in the presidential palace, but the authorities were rumoured to have refused after learning that its target is corruption.
Many of his screenplays are based on anecdotes of everyday life. "I'm almost a patriarch: I have a lot of nephews and nieces, who serve me as an observatory, telling me lots of stories." Now, he adds, "There's a new Africa being born that will only materialise through struggle. That will depend on Africans taking responsibility."
According to Farah, Sembène has a "long view of history, and the patience to wait for things to mature". He has aspirations to make a film on Samori, the 19th-century leader who resisted French rule and was portrayed by the colonisers as a barbarian. "Every country creates its images," he has said. "We don't have to erase them. History will do it for us."
Born: January 1 1923 Casamance, Senegal, French West Africa.
Education: Koranic and French schools in Ziguinchor and Dakar trade union adult education in Marseilles.
Some fiction in English: 1956 Black Docker '60 God's Bits of Wood '62 Tribal Scars (stories) '66 The Money Order, with White Genesis '73 Xala '81 The Last of the Empire '87Niiwam, with Taaw '96 Guelwaar.
Some films: 1963 Borrom Sarret '64 Niaye '66 Black Girl '68 Mandabi '70 Tauw '71 Emitaï '74 Xala '76 Ceddo '89 Camp de Thiaroye '92 Guelwaar 2000 Faat Kiné '04 Moolaadé.
Some awards: 1968 Special jury prize, Venice film festival for Mandabi 2004 Cannes, Un Certain Regard best film.
· Moolaadé is released on June 3. The NFT retrospective runs throughout June. There is a NFT Guardian interview with Sembène on Sunday June 5 at 3.50.