Fofana, Lassana and Bandiougou Magassa
BRONX AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: Mark Naison
INTERVIEWEE: Lassana Fofana, Bandiougou Magassa
SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell
Keywords: Mali, Malian immigrants, cultural adjustments, custodial staff, Francophone Africa, Malian immigration trends, “American dream” stories, language barriers, LaGuardia high school, Martin Luther King high school, multiple job-holders
Lassana Fofana and Bandiougou Magassa are custodians at PS 140 in the Bronx. Both of them are immigrants from Mali. Fofana was born on September 6, 1956, and Magassa was born on November 2, 1964. Massaga came to the US to join his brother in 1978. He first lived in Manhattan before moving north to the Bronx. Fofana immigrated directly to the Bronx in 1992. Both men are Muslims, and both speak French, Soninke, and a number of other African dialects. To this day, both men speak Soninke at home with their American-born children. Neither Fofana nor Magassa knew any English when they came to the States, as their previous education had been in French. They were forced to pick up English as they went along. Magassa’s first job was at a car wash. He subsequently worked as a dishwasher for a short time before becoming a custodian at LaGuardia High School. By representing himself as younger than he actually was, he enrolled at Martin Luther King High School, where he received his education while simultaneously taking English classes and working as a custodian. He would go to school from 7 AM to 3:30, then go to his job from 3:30 to midnight.
Fofana’s first job was in a paper factory, although in Mali he was trained as a veterinarian. At first he tried to get a veterinary practice off the ground, but the language barrier was too much of an issue. He worked as a box-maker in the paper factory and subsequently entered the cab business—he got his license and drove a yellow cab for about 10 years. After this he held down two jobs at the same time, as the night custodian at PS 175 and as a bread deliverer in Rockland County. Adapting to American life was a challenge for both men. The food, the language barriers, the hard work, and the relative paucity of fellow countrymen and women made for a difficult and sometimes isolating experience. However, both have managed to carve out a way of life for themselves and now consider New York a kind of home.
Both men have managed to bring their wives to New York and have helped to raise several American-born children. Malian families tend to keep their cultural roots intact: Massaga and Fofana speak Soninke and French at home, and their children grow up speaking all three languages. They have high hopes for their children: they have worked hard to ensure that they have the opportunity to become doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, etc. The Malian community in New York is very close-knit, and families are always working to bring other Malians over to the States. The families look after one another’s children and make sure that they are doing well in school. Both men still send money back to their families in Mali. Money goes a very long way in Mali, so both men are able to send $100 or so each month to support their families. While the number of Malians in New York has increased over the last few decades, the most popular destinations for Malian emigrants are France and Spain. Massaga and Fofana do not have serious plans to return to live in Mali permanently. Because their families and children are here, they hope to stay in the United States. In the wake of September 11, it has become much harder for potential immigrants to obtain their visas from the US government. Neither Fofana nor Massaga has met a recently-arrived fellow countryman for at least three years.