Updated February 21, 2019 - 10:42 pm
Africa Love, the gift and decor shop owned by Serigne “Mara” Diakhate, is filled with jewelry, clothing, handbags, backpacks, musical instruments and artwork made by artisans from villages throughout Africa.
But look more deeply into the items — the sandals and baskets from Senegal, the woven handbags from Madagascar, the drums from Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal — and you might also be able to see the love Diakhate has for Africa. His mission for the funky little shop is to offer patrons the best of African culture while educating them about that culture and even earning a few dollars for the African artisans who handcrafted the goods.
Africa Love opened in November 2017 at Town Square. Diakhate (pronounced as in ja-ka-TAY), who hopes to open more stores and even take the brand into such areas as an African restaurant, says he chose Las Vegas for the store after having become acquainted with our city during regular business trips for music and cultural festivals and the MAGIC convention.
Business here always “was good,” he says. But over the past five years or so, Diakhate noticed Vegas changing from the heavy emphasis on casinos. “Now, I see a lot of people of the city changing the game. That’s why you see the Raiders come into town.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I just want to be part of that change.’ ”
Diakhate, 45, was born in Senegal. During college, he started to work regularly as a tour guide, introducing tourists — most of them American — to his country. Through that, and them, he learned about both African history and Americans.
“I was able to travel with Americans and see what they need, what they wanted and appreciated,” says Diakhate, who used to joke to friends that he was living in America 10 years before he actually came here, “because I was surrounded by Americans.”
Diakhate did make it to America at age 26 via an invitation to speak about Africa at a Senegalese church in Washington, D.C. That led to more speaking engagements “always educating people about Africa,” he says, and to more tour groups, some of them involving high-profile people.
Diakhate found that African-American travelers were among his most interested clients. For them, visiting Africa was “more like a pilgrimage, going to the motherland,” because their own ancestors had “left (their) name, their language, their tradition and, now, to go back there (was to) restore themselves.”
In 2010, Diakhate opened his first Africa Love store in Southern California featuring goods made by African craftspeople and artisans who lived in African villages that Diakhate had come to know over the years.
Diakhate says 10 percent of money from sales of the goods goes back to the artisans or villages that created them. In 2014, he created an organization called Da’ African Village (daafricanvillage.org) to promote tourism, cross-cultural exchange and understanding between Africa and the U.S. He continues to organize tours to Africa and promotes African culture through such activities as drum lessons for young people at his store.
Diakhate says African gifts and collectibles have a broad appeal across cultural and demographic lines. “I always say, in North America, everybody loves Africa,” he says.
“People love Africa because of how Africa is,” he says. “You talk about (African) people and culture, and you have to remember Africa is not just one country. We talk about over 3,000 languages, over 3,000 ways of living.
“But the greatest thing of all is, these 54 countries they all have something in common, which is their social life, (the) community that exists. Go to Africa and it’s easy to see an African smile. That smile is there. Also, we have this social living, and that’s important to the Western side (and) what’s most missing here.”
The store isn’t named Africa Love for nothing, and Diakhate says he sees it among patrons.
“I see them come in. ‘Wow,’ of course, is the first response. But when they come inside, they say how the energy is so good.”