‘What I’ve learnt about Africa living in Marseilles’

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In our series of letters from African writers, Maher Mezahi writes about his enriching experiences in France compared to Algeria, where he had lived until a few months ago.

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In the wonderfully chaotic neighbourhood of Noailles in downtown Marseille, France, I came to the unfortunate realisation that it is much easier to learn about different African cultures when living abroad.

This paradox hit me in the face as I sat for dinner on a plastic folding chair at a Tunisian restaurant in Noailles.

Between large spoonfuls of merguez ojja (a dish made with sausages and eggs), I watched a retired Comorian couple strolling down the street hand-in-hand past a Senegalese shop selling beignets (doughnuts).

Like many Comorians I have observed in Marseille, the gentleman wore a rich golden cap with white Quranic verses embroidered on it.

Curiosity got the better of me, so I quickly searched “Comoros hat” on the internet and learned that he was wearing what is called a “kofia”, which some Comorians wear on daily basis as a status symbol.

A Comorian man in a kofia hat taking a photo

Kofias are popular in Comoros, with decorative pinholes allowing air to circulate

That arbitrary but enriching observation would have been virtually impossible in Algeria, where I had lived for the previous seven years and rarely interacted with people of other races or nationalities.

Sure, sometimes you can find Tunisians or Moroccans in Algeria, but, for the most part, we only know the culinary and sartorial delights of our own culture.

However, since I moved to Marseille last month, I have met more than a dozen Africans of different nationalities.

It is especially so in the working-class northern neighbourhoods – which tourist guide books tell you to avoid – that you find the most eclectic mix of African communities.

It is not uncommon to walk through a weekend market and speak to Comorian, Senegalese and Algerian vendors within metres of one another – and as a result, a strong pan-African sentiment has blossomed here.

A street scene in Marseille, France - June 2022

Marseille is France’s oldest city, and also has a reputation of being its most multicultural

On the metro I see adverts for an Africa Fete music festival that will take place at the end of the month.

The prestigious Maurice Revello football tournament is also under way and the three African nations – Algeria, Comoros and Ghana – have enjoyed raucous support when they play.

Algeria versus Comoros, in particular, was a fraternal affair. It meant so much to so many in Marseille who trace their origins back to these countries.

It made me think of how we treat one another back on the continent. We are often influenced by the conflicts our governments or political groups wage.

When visiting Abidjan in 2017, for instance, I was struck by how many Ivorians spoke to me about the religious divide between the north and south, and their fear of Burkinabè immigrants stealing work from “true Ivorians”.

The governments of Algeria and Morocco, Egypt and Sudan, Tanzania and Kenya, to name just a few, have rivalries to varying degrees, and this can affect how their citizens relate to each other.

Yet, when in neutral countries, I often observe that people are drawn to one another because of the proximity of their customs.

They intermarry, share places of worship, open restaurants and spend countless hours socialising with one another.

"The regrettable truth is that at the moment Africans can learn more about their continent from Europe than from any of the 54 countries we call home"", Source: Maher Mezahi, Source description: Journalist, Image: Maher Mezahi

“The regrettable truth is that at the moment Africans can learn more about their continent from Europe than from any of the 54 countries we call home””, Source: Maher Mezahi, Source description: Journalist, Image: Maher Mezahi

And many people find it is easier and cheaper to travel to African countries from Europe.

I experienced this last week. I was able to book a direct flight to Morocco to watch the African Champions League final between Wydad Casablanca and Egyptian giantsAl Ahly.

Had I still been living in Algeria, I would have had to pass through Europe, as there are currently no direct flights between Algeria and Morocco and the land borders have been closed since 1994.

The total price of my trip would have, therefore, been three or four times the price I paid.

To make things worse, many Africans also need visas to travel to another African country.

I find it scandalous that I can visit more African countries visa-free with my Canadian passport than with my Algerian passport.

In 2013, the African Union pledged borderless travel on the continent, but that seems to have been a pipe dream.

So, the regrettable truth is that at the moment Africans can learn more about their continent from Europe than from any of the 54 countries we call home.

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