Mohamed’s parents told him never to hang around with the American kids who gathered outside. In the afternoon, his mother made sure he and his sister did their homework and read the Koran. For a Fulani kid like Mohamed, who knew no English, those early days were especially lonely: sitting in class with no idea what the teacher was saying, having nobody to ask for help, feeling like an alien, spending every afternoon in the apartment. At least his cousin Amadou was around. The two boys were the same age, and Amadou lived nearby.
Four and a half years later, on his first day of high school, Mohamed wore an American Eagle shirt, Buffalo jeans, and a pair of Nikes. “I thought he must be the only American person here,” says his classmate Mamadou Diallo, who’d just arrived from Guinea. It wasn’t until Mohamed spoke to him in Fulani—Ko a Pullo? Are you Fulani?—that he realized they were from the same part of the world. The two teenagers were enrolled in a new school for immigrant kids: International Community High School.
Over the last two decades, so many people have migrated from West Africa to the Bronx that the borough is now home to one of the largest concentrations of African immigrants in the U.S. While the latest Census estimate put the Bronx’s African-born population at 44,484, the group’s true size is likely much higher. Nobody knows for certain how many are Fulani, but community leaders estimate there are about 5,000 or 6,000. The borough’s Fulani mosque, known as the Futa Islamic Center, is one of the largest in the Bronx.
Today, Fulani surnames pop up again and again in the Bronx phone book: Jalloh, Diallo (the French version of Jalloh), Barry, Bah, Sow, Tall, etc. With so many parents giving their kids similar first names, like Mohamed or Mamadou or Amadou, it isn’t easy keeping everyone straight. In one social circle, there could be five Amadou Diallos. (Of course, the best-known Amadou Diallo is still the 23-year-old from Guinea killed by the NYPD in 1999.) One solution: nicknames. Eventually Mohamed Jalloh became known by his initials: M.J.
In his ninth-grade class, there were seven Fulani kids at the start, mostly from Guinea, with more joining through the year. The new kids spoke French, Fulani, and maybe a few tribal languages, but no English, so Mohamed would translate the teachers’ words for them. Within this group, Mohamed was a leader, albeit a quiet one. When a new girl from Guinea got frustrated or upset, he sidled up to her: “Just keep your head up. Everything will be fine.” And when a boy new to America came to school with a red bandanna tied around his head, Mohamed informed him that red was the color of the Bloods: “You better take that off before they shoot you.”
At lunchtime, the Fulani kids sat together in the cafeteria. Whenever the girls brought in food they’d cooked at home—cassava, fufu, couscous, peanut sauce, rice with red oil—the boys would hurry over, spoons in hand, everyone digging into everyone else’s plate. The other students thought they were weird, but no matter. Everybody missed home. They missed their grandmothers, their cousins, their friends. And they missed the storytelling sessions, too, when they would go outside after dinner, sit under the moon, and listen to their elders tell tales about the family’s past.
“I want to go back to Africa,” they’d say.
“I want to go back, too,” Mohamed would reply. “But we have to stay and learn as much as we can.”
The other students considered Mohamed lucky. Not just because he could speak English, but because he’d been living with both parents for years. (One schoolmate had grown up alone on the streets of Guinea; another had listened as both parents were shot to death.) Mohamed’s family appeared to be relatively affluent, too. He seemed to have no trouble persuading his parents to buy him the latest gadgets and brand-name clothes. And now the family was out of River Park Towers and living in a quiet part of Highbridge.
To be an African boy growing up in the Bronx is to endure every prejudice and insult your fellow teens can dream up. In recent years, the rise of Akon, the Senegalese hip-hop star, has helped tamp down some of the xenophobia, but every Fulani boy still has stories of being harassed, taunted, and, more often than not, attacked.
“You’re coming to our land and taking everything!”
In the fall of 2008, International Community High School moved to Brook Avenue in Mott Haven, across the street from three bodegas. Not too long afterward, African students began coming to school with stories—and scars—from run-ins they’d had with the young men who hung out across the street. “Once we get out at 3:55, they’re there,” says Habi Balde, a former student. “It’s like their territory.”
At lunchtime, a frequent topic of conversation among the Fulani boys was what to do if you got jumped. Was it better to run or to stay and fight? Nobody wanted to look like a wimp. But, at the same time, the African kids were usually so outnumbered that running seemed the only sane option. As for Mohamed, his friend Mamadou Diallo recalls: “He never started a fight. But whenever a fight started, he’d never run.”