West Africa in Oslo
Travel and migration are part of life for many West Africans. A large number move to the nearest big city, to the capital or to neighbouring countries to find work.
Some travel to France or England to study, or to the USA to engage in trade. A very small minority of West Africans come to Norway, but still they manage to make their mark on trading activities in Oslo. Those who live here want to get, and use, products that resemble those with which they are familiar from their homelands. The goods they bring to Oslo also expand what is available to interested Norwegians.
Africans in Oslo
There are not more than 26,500 people of African origin in all of Norway. About half of these live in Oslo. Some have come with dreams of life in a peaceful country, far away from the fear and destruction of war. Others want more education, a better economy, and greater possibilities to consume goods. Some had family members in Oslo before they came, and these contacts led them to Norway instead of to another country.
There are not many West Africans who come to Norway as tourists or to take up a professional position. Poverty, visa requirements and, to some degree, language are limiting factors. A number of the education-seekers come from Ghana, where English is officially spoken, and these people constitute the largest group coming to Norway from a West African nation. Norwegian charter tourism to Gambia has given rise to networks and possibilities that have contributed to Gambians being another group of West Africans who are rather well represented in Norway. Altogether there are not more than one hundred persons in Norway from the former French colonies Senegal and Mali.
The travel activity is not very considerable in the opposite direction either. Only a few Norwegians travel to West Africa to study, work or as tourists. Indeed, it can be said that there is a very limited number of Norwegians who travel to Africa at all.
Migration and Consumption
West Africans in Norway continue to consume goods from their homelands. This is possible partly because people bring goods with them when they visit and travel their home countries, and partly because enterprising people establish and run shops with the sought-after selection of goods. There is a group of West African shops and hairdressers located in central Oslo, and in the summer there is a stall at Youngstorget. The shops offer a selection of special ingredients used in African cooking, and one can also choose among a rich selection of hair care and cosmetic products. A combined café and shop in Grønland sells music, books, and incense.
Products for skin and hair care are the same or similar to those one can buy in West Africa. To a great degree these are the same types of Afro-products, in original or copied versions, as are sold everywhere in the world, but they are intended for different markets, and the packages are printed in different languages. Most of what is for sale in Oslo is imported from England, the USA, or France, and the shop owners can choose to import products from different places at different times according to the price.
Shops in Oslo are partly to satisfy the needs of Africans living here, and partly to create an interest in the local Norwegian population. While the selection of cosmetics is mainly aimed to satisfy the Afro-European market, hair-braiding is something popular among both Africans and Norwegians. The goods at the market are produced primarily with West African customers in mind, but they are gradually being exported to new target groups in other parts of the world. The flow of goods across the globe means, for example, that Malian handwoven bogolan cloth is not only for sale in West Africa where it is produced but also sold in hip designer boutiques in Paris or in small street markets in Arendal.
West Africans in Oslo follow the trends of their home countries. Every year the city's Gambians arrange a culture week in Oslo. Extensive preparations get underway in the period leading up to the Gambian culture week, and the women create new damask gowns for themselves in the latest fashion with matching stylish shoes. Both men and women keep themselves up to date with the seasonal swings of fashion by means of, among other things, making visits home and reading West African fashion magazines that circulate in Oslo. Just as in West Africa, the Muslim festivals are also important occasions where women, in accordance with the dictates of fashion, dress in African gowns.
The shops in Oslo have some of the atmosphere and choice of products of their homeland. But at the same time it is very different to be one of eight or ten shops with these goods in a capital city in a faroff land like Norway than to be one of an enormous number of stalls in a market in one or another place in West Africa. West African markets have something to offer every consumer, between the extremes of bare survival for the poor and exotic experience for the tourist. In Oslo there is a much smaller clientele, and on the whole the African shops have a more specialized range of goods. Together with various African courses and cultural initiatives, the shops aim to contribute to giving a local response to globally influenced dreams.
Alieu - a Shopkeeper in Oslo
Alieu is in his early thirties and runs the Nubia Music and Book Café in Oslo's Grønland district. He came from Gambia thirteen years ago, after first having visited his two brothers in Oslo. Alieu has worked hard during the intervening years, among other things, as a dancer, actor, model and youth worker. He says it is important that African children and youths gain a positive self-image and belief in themselves, and he was one of the founders of the organization African Youth in Norway.
A year ago Alieu bought what at the time was an African shop. He made it over into a combination café and shop. Africans, Caribbeans, Norwegians and others come here, drink café au lait, have a chat, or buy music, books or incense. If someone has received a letter in an African language they do not understand, it is worth trying to get it translated in this highly varigated meeting place. The shop has a good selection of Latin American, African, and reggae music sought after in the African community. It is important for Alieu to be among the first to offer new CD releases, and he imports from France, England, the USA and South Africa. He knows that har
d work is necessary for success in Norway, and therefore he has several jobs. Together with a comrade, he operates a cleaning business, and it so happens that he himself sometimes has to take a washing job if an employee does not show up. He also works as a youth worker in the municipality and in a voluntary organization, in addition to which he is a member of a messenger service firm. Once a month Alieu arranges parties in the African and Caribbean milieu.
Alieu has two dreams. One is to start a restaurant. With one Ethiopian restaurant as the only African establishment in Oslo, it seems to him that the restaurant scene needs expanding. Alieu believes he can contribute with something that will appeal to both Africans and Norwegians and hopes that "integration will go in both directions". He thinks that his presence in Oslo can bring something to the city that it now lacks and, in this way, make it a better place to live. The other dream is to start a café in Gambia. Thus would he be able to spend the winter months in Gambia and the summer months in Norway.