Popping up from the subway, visitors in Central Harlem are immediately hit with an explosion of color unmatched anywhere else in the city. For that, Moctar Yara is partially to thank. The 47-year-old Mali native is the owner of Yara African Fabrics, near the corner of 125th Street and 5th Avenue, where he supplies many of the vibrant, rainbow textiles that women in the neighborhood use to make their dresses.
Yara was born in a tiny, 30-family Soninke village called Djema, in Mali. The oldest of seven siblings, he was the one with the most responsibility. As a young boy Yara had always imagined he’d stay in the village his whole life. But as he got a little older, he started to notice that many of the older boys were beginning to go abroad, to send money back to their families. Talk in the town soon centered around tales of opportunity and promises of success. “In two days, right from the airport, somebody’s gonna hire you,” Yara remembers community members saying. “In one year you’re gonna be a millionaire.”
In particular, Yara remembers listening to a famous griot, or traditional singer/storyteller, named Ganda Fadiga. His stories encouraged the young men of Mali to work hard, and the music influenced many of the young men with whom he grew up to have aspirations beyond village life.
Yara was 25 years old the day in January of 1992, when a taxi driver dropped him off on the corner of 125th Street and Lenox. He was wearing only a light jacket.
“I never would have imagined it would be that cold,” he remembers of his first few hours in New York. “I actually sent a letter to my father saying, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna make it.’” He didn’t speak a word of English. But as a native of Mali, where playing soccer with kids from a neighboring village means learning a whole new language, he’d already mastered five before setting foot on American soil. English eventually became his sixth.
Yara’s original plan had been to come to the States to raise cows. At home, he’d heard of giant American cows that gave 10 times as much milk. Here, he’d planned to learn as much as he could about taking care of them, and then begin exporting them back to his village. But landing in Harlem’s concrete jungle quickly shook him of his farming aspirations. “They said, ‘You’re crazy, nobody has a cow in the city,’” remembers Yara. “So the plan changed.”
Fortunately for Yara, there was a backup plan. He’d sold textiles in his village at home, and easily fell right into the line of fabric and jewelry vendors along 125th Street. The small business gradually turned into a neighborhood staple, and Yara opened the doors of an actual shop in 1999.
These days, Yara runs the Harlem shop with his wife, Fatou. Their six children, who range in age from 8-22, live back in the village in Mali. “For $600 a year, they can go to the top, top schools,” he explains about the family’s separation. “I want them to have a better time than I had, because I’ve been through a lot.”
Kristen Elise Clark is a multimedia journalist and student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.