It’s a Friday night in a northern suburb of Beirut. West African music blares from the Playroom night club, tucked behind a highway. The first to arrive is a group of young Lebanese men wearing brightly colored African trousers. Fawzi, 19, flashes his Burkinabe passport to prove his age. He also holds Lebanese citizenship, but he’s proud of his ties to Burkina Faso, the landlocked country in West Africa where he grew up and where his family still lives. It’s his second time at Jungle Safari, a party thrown roughly once a month by a group of Lebanese students with close ties to West Africa. His friend Mario has never been to Africa but has learned to appreciate its music through Fawzi. “We like it here. There aren’t many places like this,” Mario told Al-Monitor.
At Jungle Safari, the mood of the music is set by Hassan Jammal, or DJ Ace. He grew up in Abidjan in Ivory Coast. “I see a lot of Lebanese coming that have never been to Africa. They love it, they’re slowly getting into it,” he said. The parties attract around 500 people who pay a $40 entrance fee that gives them access to the open bar.
The partygoers can buy West African-themed clothes and hair accessories from the stands at the club's entrance. One stand belongs to a young Lebanese woman, Diva Kalot, who also grew up in Ivory Coast. She came to Lebanon to study biochemistry and industrial technology in Lebanon, but her real passion was design, and she recently started her own brand of clothes. “I think the Lebanese are maybe a little shocked at first by the colors and the patterns. For them to accept it, you must show them different ways of wearing them, like mixing a brightly colored skirt with a simple white top,” she told Al-Monitor.
Next to her, a group of Ghanaian women are selling hair extensions. Their employer moved to Lebanon a few years ago, when she married a Lebanese man, and they followed to work in her hair salon. In Lebanon, African hairdressers cater to migrant workers, mostly from Ethiopia or Nigeria, employed as live-in maids.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are about 250,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, primarily from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Their living conditions are bleak and depend on the goodwill of the family they work for. Suicide is common. Should they have children in Lebanon, they can be deported to their home country. However, the ladies selling hair extensions at Jungle Safari prefer not to dwell on these thoughts. “Lebanon is hard, but it depends on how you live your life. You can meet some good people and some bad people. For me, that’s just how things are,” Nadine, 25, told Al-Monitor.
Others have not always been so lucky. Rita Udofia, a third-year student in business management who helps out at Jungle Safari, was born in Lebanon to Nigerian parents. At school, children would ostracize her or hurl insults based on her appearance. She told Al-Monitor, “I would cope by trying to make people love me more. I would say, 'You love chocolate, no? Well I’m chocolate, so you should love me too.' Or I would just run away and cry.”
Today, as a young adult, her quiet self-assurance discourages racist comments. “When I walk into a room and I am tall and confident, I don’t encounter negative attitudes,” she said. She volunteers with the Migrant Community Center (MCC), which advocates for the rights of migrant workers. Every year, they organize a march for Labor Day. Udofia walks at the front, chanting anti-racism slogans in Arabic through a megaphone.
“We advocate the well-being of migrant workers. We don’t want the kafala system,” she added, referring to the "sponsorship" system that puts migrant workers at risk of exploitation and makes it difficult for them to leave abusive employers, according to Human Rights Watch.
Sometimes, the MCC organizes cooking days where they serve food from the migrant workers’ home countries, such as Sri Lanka or Sudan.
For Udofia, parties like Jungle Safari are a “lighter” way of celebrating African culture. “Africa is not just about famine, poverty or sadness. Through our music and our rhythms, we want to convey happiness.” Lena Moarbes, a half-Nigerian, half-Lebanese woman who organizes the parties with DJ Ace, agrees. “When the Lebanese see an African woman, they think she’s here to clean and work. But that’s not true,” she argued. “Lebanese people make big money in Africa. We might as well embrace our culture here in Lebanon.” She started organizing parties three years ago, calling them “Lasgidi” at first — a nickname for Lagos, the Nigerian capital — but recently renamed them to be more inclusive.
The relationship between Lebanon and West Africa spans several centuries. As Andrew Arsan, a senior lecturer in modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Cambridge, explained to Al-Monitor, emigration from Lebanon started in the late 19th century from Mount Lebanon and south Lebanon to Senegal, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“These people were part of a broader migratory wave from present-day Lebanon that was trying to get to the United States or Latin America," he said. "But when they got to Marseille, a port in the south of France, they would be told by smugglers and shipping agents that it was easier to get to French West Africa.”
During the commodities boom in the 1940s and 1950s, many Lebanese moved to Ghana, working as traders. “In post-colonial times, they moved to other sectors of the economy. The Lebanese have become lawyers and engineers, or moved to industry. For example, in Senegal, one of the main sweet factories is called Noujaim,” a common Arabic name. According to the francophone magazine Jeune Afrique, there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Lebanese in Africa today.
Jungle Safari parties are a product of that shared history, a unique meeting point between West Africa and Lebanon. As they slowly attract newcomers, they spread the idea locally that Africa can be, as one partier put it, “fun.” Aleksandra Bajin, a half-Armenian, half-Lebanese 22-year-old, said, “I don’t know anything about Africa. I just like the music. This place is really unique, interesting and fun.”
The next party is Dec. 15.