PHILADELPHIA — In Southwest Philadelphia, along the stretch of Woodland Avenue, from around 45th to 67th St., there is a bustling and diverse community of immigrants from West Africa who have made this city their home.
Walking down Woodland Avenue, one cannot help but notice the flags hanging from every street light, representing every country of Africa.
Likewise, this community in Southwest Philly is especially diverse and is home to immigrants from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Sénégal, Mali, Guinea, Nigeria, and other countries in West and North Africa.
Many Liberians immigrated to Philadelphia during the Liberian Civil War, an internal armed conflict that took place during the 1990s and forced many people to leave the country.
Kosh Quisiah, the owner of ECOWAS Restaurant located on 65th and Woodland Ave., said Africans feel at home in Southwest Philly.
“We are all happy to be here right now; I’ve never seen it like that before anywhere, but in Philly, here,” Quisiah said. “It’s not like this, even in Africa.”
ECOWAS is an acronym for the Economic Community of West African States and, although Kosh is Liberian, his restaurant’s menu is tailored to meet the tastes and preferences of all people, not just Liberians.
His wife, the head chef at the restaurant, is actually Sierra Leonean.
Diup Abdaarahmane, the owner of African Small Pot, a restaurant about a block away from ECOWAS Restaurant, said the Southwest community is closely knit.
“Everybody comes here, not just Africans — American, black, white — everybody comes here,” Abdaarahmane said. “We are all family here.”
Abdaarahmane is Mauritanian and, like ECOWAS and other restaurants in the neighborhood, his food reflects a diverse customer base including Senegalese, Nigerian, Congolese, Mauritanians, and Liberians. He also makes a lot of Italian food, since he worked in Italy for two years before moving to the U.S.
In order to make West African cuisine authentically, many ingredients have to be imported to the U.S. from Africa. The restaurants in this neighborhood rely on the many small African groceries which specialize in stocking ingredients such as dried fish, spices, red palm oil, among others.
Some popular dishes found on menus throughout the neighborhood include jollof rice, a one pot rice dish which varies from country to country, cassava leaf, fufu, a dough made from cassava or plantain, and attieke, which is similar to couscous in texture and is made from cassava.
While the neighborhood is on the rise, with new people and businesses coming into the area, some feel there isstill more to be done.
According to the locals, West African culture has not yet been fully assimilated into the American mainstream, in the same way that Chinese, Mexican, or Italian food has been over the past 100 years.
Restaurant owners like Quisiah want to bring the smells and flavors of West Africa to the mainstream American public to raise awareness of the growth his community has experienced.
“The ideal situation for me […] is when somebody comes here, you see, instead of the little African stores, you see a big African store where the mainstream American is aware of what we are doing, and then we are becoming contributive members of Philadelphia,” Quisiah said.
Quisiah said as the weather warms up, more people will be out on the street in Southwest, roasting meat, eating and drinking outside, listening to music, and enjoying each other’s company.
“They [The African Cultural Center] came up with a plan the other day to beautify Woodland in a way that anybody can just get on the bus and ride over here and feel invited,” Quisiah said.
This hub of West African culture is accessible to everyone in the city and the surrounding suburbs via SEPTA trolleys and busses.
Text, images, and video by Jared Johnson and Dave Mattera
***Edit: In the video there is a statement that claims populations in SouthWest Philadelphia are rising. According to the Census, this is not the case. Populations of the two zip codes in question have actually decreased slightly in the past decade.***