Senegal native Alassane Gueye, 65, patiently helps a pair of ebullient young ladies scour the bracelet racks in Sandaga, a small Mt. Airy storefront crammed with African-style goods. Today, Sandaga is celebrating twenty years in Philadelphia with a Senegal-inspired party open to all.
One of the girls is wearing a silver-lettered t-shirt that reads, “When God made me, he was just showing off.” She weighs the choice between two yellow-beaded bracelets seriously.
Gueye, who has worked as a custom tailor for over fifteen years, wears a plaid shirt, navy-colored pants, brown flip-flops and a measuring tape around his neck, which occasionally slithers to the floor as he hurries around the shop, displaying items for curious clients.
Though his shop is crammed with a wide variety of beautifully colored and patterned custom-made clothes, including dashikis, mudcloth coats, kaftans, drum-bags, hats and grand boubous, Gueye came late to his tailoring career. He spent most of his working life as a French teacher, beginning in his coastal West African homeland, where, according to Gueye, business and government affairs are conducted in French, a remnant of the nation’s colonial history. Gueye belongs to West Africa’s Wolof tribe, but in addition to French, English, and a Portuguese creole, he also speaks several other tribal languages common in Senegal.
Gueye first came to the US when he met and married a New York native, who came to Senegal with the Peace Corps. He has lived in Mt. Airy, about three blocks from his current shop, for over twenty years.
Why did he settle in Mt. Airy? “Because of the neighborhood!” he says. “People are very nice here, and everything is good.”
He brought his French-teaching career with him to Philadelphia, teaching at Berlitz language school as well as at a West Philadelphia private school. But he soon grew dissatisfied.
“It didn’t feel like Senegal,” he says of teaching in Philadelphia. “The kids, they don’t care about anything. I wanted to change.”
As a youth in Senegal, he had spent countless hours with many friends who were tailors, but had never paid close attention to their work.
“What I did was very easy,” he says now of shifting to a career as a tailor in his own shop. He had thought back to his old friends’ work.
“I came here, and I said, you know what, what I saw them doing is not complicated. So I started trying.” While he gestures to his sober plaid button-down and says he can make anything, including American styles, his sartorial heart is still in Africa. “What I like best is African style,” he says with genial, resonant pride.
Under his attention, the bracelet-shoppers gain courage and begin to rove through the shop, testing the African instruments on display and examining cloth and leather handbags.
“Is that a dashiki?” one ventures, pointing to a jewel-toned pants and shirt set.
Gueye laughs and points her to the loose patterned shirts with the decorative v-necks. He knows that he hasn’t left the educational component of his career behind.
“People come here and they want to know things,” he says. “They ask me, and I am glad to tell them what it is.”
According to Gueye, most of the clothing Americans broadly associate with Africa actually comes from Senegal.
“Even people from Ivory Coast or from Ghana, they make their own clothes, but they love Senegalese style,” he explains. “The way women wear their clothes in Senegal, it’s wonderful. Élégance.”
The same goes for Senegalese food, he says.
“The food everybody talks about, when they say they like African food, is Senegalese food. Because it’s very good.”
Gueye opened his original shop on the corner of Lombard and 5th streets in 1992. But living in Mt. Airy, he was alert for the chance to bring his business closer to home. Walking on Germantown Avenue one day, he noticed a vacant storefront just as his former lease was ending.
“I said hey, let me try this. If it works it’s going to be wonderful.” He opened his current location at 7130 Germantown Avenue in 2001 with a party for all of his long-time clients, and since then, with a never-ending series of customer referrals, has kept his old client base while building a new one in the Northwest.
Now, in addition to all manner of custom orders from winter coats to outfits for newborns, he also does full wedding party wear. His clients include many from the Philadelphia-based West African community, but also local US natives, both black and white, who are interested in African styling.
Part of the enjoyment of running his shop is dispelling misconceptions about Africa.
“People ask me, do you really live with the lions and tigers?” he laughs.
“Africa is nice,” he insists. “The people are very friendly. But some people now think that it’s just war and starvation. And it’s not true. Senegal has been a peaceful country for years and years.”
Northwest residents have their own chance to get a taste of West African culture with Sandaga’s 20th anniversary party, planned at the shop from 2pm to 8pm on Saturday. There will be Senegalese music and dancing is encouraged. But the food is the main event – Gueye suggests that attendees who want to experience an authentic Senegalese chef should arrive at about 3:30. The menu will feature thiebou djeun, Senegal’s national dish (featuring rice, fish and vegetables) as well as yassa, made with rice, onions and either fish or chicken with special spices.
Saturday’s chef is the same one who pitched in over ten years ago, when Gueye first opened his Germantown Avenue location, and attendees never forgot the food.
“This year at the beginning of the year, people were asking me, when we can we get that food again?”