You have to eat it with your hands—it changes the taste if you use a spoon.”
We were sitting in Papaye, the premier restaurant in the center of what may be the largest enclave of the Ghanaian diaspora: a population of perhaps 20,000 that’s one of the biggest ethnic communities in the New York borough of the Bronx. And we were eating fufu.
Fufu is the pulp of cassava and plantain, traditionally pounded together with a giant mortar and pestle into a doughy mash and then plopped in the middle of a thick soup, this one made with spicy chicken. It wasn’t the only thing on the menu—around us at the long table people were eating spinach spiced with ground pumpkin seeds scooped up with hunks of boiled yam; or omo tuo—mashed rice balls—with dried fish; or the fermented corn called banku alongside an okra soup. But fufu is Ghanaian food, and everyone was watching carefully. “Dip in your hand, and tear off a little ball,” says Felix Sarpong, who had arranged this gathering of local community leaders. “Now roll it around in the soup, and then swallow—don’t chew, just swallow.” It goes down easy, with a spicy lingering burn. It’s utterly distinctive, with a texture unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. And chances are awfully good you’ve never heard of it either.
“We’re an invisible community,” says Sarpong, a dean at a local high school who’s also a music promoter—indeed, a promoter of anything that will bring attention to his fellow Ghanaians. “The American mainstream, they simply don’t recognize this culture. This culture needs more spotlight. Ghanaians are so loving, so helpful, so kind. They’re just invisible,” says Sarpong, also known by the stage name Phil Black.
Indeed, the Bronx itself is New York’s invisible borough—few visitors venture much beyond Yankee Stadium. And even if they did, they could drive the city’s streets without realizing that so much of the population hails from this one West African nation. But if they have a guide, it’s pretty obvious. Eric Okyere Darko, who moved to the United States after finishing law school and practicing law in Accra and who then passed the New York bar exam, piloted us one afternoon in his big Volvo SUV. (His immigration practice has prospered so much that he’s made the move to New Jersey, but comes back across the George Washington Bridge pretty much every day). “So, look over there at the Agogo Movie House,” he says. “Agogo is a town in the Ashanti region of Ghana—you know by the name that that’s where they’re from.” Down the block is a bustling storefront filled with people sending money home; next door, the Adum African Market, with piles of pungent smoked tilapia, jars of cured pork feet packed in brine and stacks of giant Ghana yams.
Later that same day, Sarpong takes us to another Ghanaian enclave in the borough, a warren of streets around 167th Street that he calls “Little Accra.” Two generations ago this was a Jewish neighborhood, just off the fashionable Grand Concourse. Then African-Americans moved here, followed by Dominicans; now instead of Spanish, it’s mostly Twi that comes wafting through the stereo speakers. “This is all Ghanaian,” says Sarpong. “Well, maybe a little Gambian. But you should have been here the day Ghana beat the U.S. in World Cup soccer. I mean, the streets were just full. The police wouldn’t even maneuver.”
Ghanaians have come in several waves to the United States, many arriving during the 1980s and ’90s when the country was ruled by a military regime led by an air force flight lieutenant, Jerry Rawlings. “Economic and political conditions were very harsh,” says Darko. “People could not speak their mind. And because of the unstable political situation, no companies were investing. When I was a student all we thought was, ‘How soon can I go?’” Those early arrivals were followed by others—family members, or other Ghanaians who signed up for the country’s annual immigration lottery. “Part of the reason that people kept coming is that Ghanaians abroad portray a certain image to those back home,” says Bronx resident Danso Abebrese. “When a request comes for money, we try to send it—even if you don’t really have any money to spare. And so people back home come to think, ‘If you have enough money to send some to us, you must really be rich.’”
It’s a culture with deep religious roots—most émigrés, like most Ghanaians back home, are Christian, but there’s a substantial Muslim population as well—and one that places a premium on education. As a result, many have done well. The highest-status jobs in Ghana are likely doctors and nurses; Darko estimates that two-thirds of Ghanaians in the Bronx are working in the health care field, often beginning as home health aides and working to earn a nursing license. For those who’ve made it, a career in the U.S. often concludes with a return to the native country, there to live out the Ghanaian dream.
“I’m grateful for the well-paid job I’ve had here,” says Abebrese, who gave up his career as a broadcaster on Ghana’s national radio to come to New York and now works as an emergency room technician at a Manhattan hospital. It is lunchtime and he brings us to one of his favorite haunts, a sliver of a restaurant called Accra in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, where plantains and chicken gizzards and turkey tail with yams and cowhoof soup and suya (deep-fried meat) are laid out on a steam table and doled out in big scoops, mostly to men getting off work. They eat silently, with focused determination.
“Back in Accra, then, I just lived in a rented room,” he tells us, dipping pieces of kenkey—fermented cornmeal wrapped in a corn husk—into a spicy chicken stew. “Now I own three houses in Ghana. In three years, when I’m 62 and have my pension, I’ll go home. I came here to work, and when the work is over I’ll go.” Felix Sarpong’s parents, who spent four decades in the U.S., have returned as well; Darko says he is considering moving back, to use his legal expertise to help his native country. (It takes him just seconds to rummage through his iPhone and find a picture of himself sporting the powdered wig of a Ghanaian barrister.)
But not everyone who comes does so well. Darko says he knows former law school classmates who are driving cabs or working in hotels. “Some, I feel, should go back home, but you come here, you have children, a wife. You feel you’re forced to battle it out.”