Strauss-Kahn's Accuser: A Visit With Those Who Know Her Best, In NYC's French-Speaking African Milieu
The alleged victim is an immigrant from northern Guinea, and her ethnicity is Fulani, who are known as pious, hardworking Muslims
NEW YORK – The alleged sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now former head of the International Monetary Fund, has been major worldwide news. But it has hit especially hard in New York's French-speaking African community, home to the Guinean woman employed as a maid at the Sofitel Hotel where she says the 62-year-old French politician sexually assaulted her.
In the heart of Harlem, a small grocery store offers a flavor of Africa. The plump 45-year-old woman owner, Ms. A, who gives her customers a warm welcome in impeccable French, wears a long traditional green-colored African dress, and a turban made out of the same fabric is wrapped round her hair. Born in Guinea, she is a Muslim woman who belongs to the Mandinka ethnic group. The alleged victim is from northern Guinea, and her ethnicity is Fulani.
Julien Baba Sylla, a telecommunications engineer who introduces himself to us as the leader of New York's Guinean community, which counts some 5000 people in total, gives us a lift in his Ford Expedition. He says the grocery owner had become like a big sister to the alleged victim. The two woman talked to each other in a mixture of Bambara and French.
Ms. A loses her composure when we enter, appearing like a lady who needs to think before telling what she knows. Maybe she acts in this way because she is a smart shopkeeper, and knows she is sitting on a pile of gold: someone will pay for her secrets. But she has already told some important information to Julien Sylla, which contradicts one point about the alleged victim: she is married, not a widow as has been widely reported. Her husband is still living in the U.S., but not with her, and may have had trouble with the law.
Journalists investigating this case come up against a wall of silence, imposed both by investigators and defense attorneys for DSK (as Strauss-Kahn is referred to in France), and followed by the Sofitel Hotel's management, and the victim's attorney. Reporters have no other choice but to glean information from the accuser's family and friends. Are these people speaking because truth is their sole concern, or because they want to show off in front of the television cameras? Because after all, not every day do journalists from around the world go poking around Harlem and the Bronx.
The African Restaurant 2115, located on the corner of 119th street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Eighth Avenue in Harlem), is another place where the Sofitel maid often went to eat. The owner is a Senegalese man who belongs to the Fulani ethnic group. His name is Blake Diallo, a friend of the alleged victim and regular customer, who liked lamb stew and fried plantains. In Restaurant 2115, most of the customers are French-speaking Africans: from Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast or Mali. In this restaurant people don't drink alcohol and they don't swear. Soccer matches are aired on TV, world events are discussed. In the evening, many men get up and go out for about 10 minutes, to cross the boulevard and go to the Islamic center al Aqsa to pray. Al Aqsa is a mosque without a minaret run by people from northern Ivory Coast called the Dioula.
When we talked to Senegalese people who often go to Restaurant 2115, we learned that the alleged victim was a serious and hardworking young woman. In no way was she wild or provocative. "Her family is very pious, because it is Maraboutic, in other words, religion means everything to them and money nothing," explains Amadou N'Diaye, the owner's childhood friend from Senegal. "You must understand that in the Fulani community, love is not to be treated lightly. Fulani people try to marry off their daughters very early, when they are still teenagers. For them, if someone from their family has sexual relations before marriage, it brings shame upon the whole family."
Like many Fulani people, who could not occupy key positions during the reign of Sekou Toure, the first President of Guinea from 1958 to 1984, the accuser's family emigrated to Casamance, in southern Senegal. Then, the young woman went to Dakar to get a US visa. "Make no mistake, this affair brings shame upon her family. In Africa, the parties involved would have solved this problem in secret," says N'Diaye. "From now on, two lives have been unnecessarily ruined, (the victim's) life and DSK's life. DSK is a man who the French-speaking African community appreciates a lot."
At Restaurant 2115, people show solidarity with the alleged victim, but nobody is eager to condemn DSK. Africans who live in New York think that the charges "will not hold up." "How could a 62-year-old man, who is not athletic at all, have forced a 32-year-old woman, who is tall and muscular from her manual work, to have sexual relations with him?" one wondered.
Amadou imagines a scenario in which "three very different cultures clash." The French culture of DSK, who made an extremely inappropriate move in suite 2806, but who called the hotel while heading for the airport, unaware that he had committed a crime. The culture of modesty of a pious Funali woman, who did not expose the crime and who did not confide her shame to the Sofitel Hotel's management, but was rather found sobbing by her coworkers, who then called the police. The "Prussian" culture of the American police in which things are either black or white, with no gray areas.
Read the original article in French.
Photo – DennisInAmsterdam