In today’s Madison, coming upon a restaurant offering distinct food from a diversity of global cuisines can be difficult. This is especially true for African dishes that offer a wide range of options from diverse cultures around the continent. Ten years ago, where to go to fulfill that need was even more finite.
That is where Awa Sibi’s story starts. Coming to Madison from Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast, in 2013, Sibi became immediately aware of the diet changes she would have to undergo if she wanted to eat in Madison. She instead decided to take upon the task of bringing West African dishes to Madison first for herself, then for her community as well.
“I love to say we, because I have people that support me,” Sibi told Madison365, recalling how she used to start early mornings delivering from Verona. “In 2018 it was a small thing. I was selling plates, and there was a need for West African food. I’m even talking about people like me first before the bigger picture. Thinking people like me eat the food but do not get access to it, because there’s no food from home. They’re in their offices, they want something for lunch break, but it’s the regular stuff. It’s not representative of what we eat.”
From then, Sibi has tried her best to fulfill that gap in Madison while also focusing on survival, especially in the face of recently leaving an abusive relationship while also raising a special needs child. Sibi started Les délices de Awa as a catering company, but also has a food truck and makes snacks and sauces. Her experience so far has seen plenty of support from the community she serves, but she struggles to get structural support in moving her business forward.
“What is it that you don’t have?” questioned Sibi. “When you are actually working very hard, you’re making sure you have your licenses, you have a permit, you have a kitchen you work out of, and you do everything by the book, but you still don’t get that support? You do get the support from your community, because those customers, they are your support. They need you, and they let you know that they need you because there’s a void to fill. We’re not represented enough.”
Madison’s slow growth in diversity and creating welcoming spaces for communities of color has spurred more activity and push from the Black community to claim space in the city. However, Sibi says that while that growth has helped, the identity of being African and also an immigrant has made the struggle unique by shrinking the size of comparable experiences even smaller.
For Sibi, the community support given by a spectrum of Black people in Madison has helped her stay afloat, but it is the special connection to the West African culture many West Africans living in Madison miss that businesses such as Les délices de Awa provide.
“At the end of the day, what makes home feel like home?” Sibi asked. “For us, it’s sitting and sharing a meal. It’s sitting around a big thing of rice, a nice dinner, grilled chicken, grilled lamb, and it’s a whole thing. My mom would sleep, wake up and make sure everything in the kitchen is ready to go because that’s what she does. I grew up seeing that. You come here and we’re already living in silos because there’s not that sense of community. That’s big, because at home, you always have something and someone to fall back on, no matter what’s going on.”
Sibi stressed how personally important it was to her to make Madison into home, especially in building connections between the African and African American communities to build a stronger support system of diverse Black cultures. While community support goes far, it also takes getting a break through more systemic means, and Sibi hopes to continue to prove why she is worth investing in.
“My thing is, we’re going to need help and support,” said Sibi in closing. “We’ve already started a loan process. Even with that, I have to cross my fingers. I’m scared because I’m not sure if I’m gonna get granted that loan. That’s a lot of money on the line. I want to ask the customers and the people that support us or care to come out to what I’m doing and our events. It’s not freebies, it’s not donation, I’m selling food so come buy it. Come and know that this will be in support of my business, come just as much as possible, because I’m going to have a lot out there to make sure that we can raise as much money as possible”
You can catch Les délices de Awa at the Sessions at McPike Park, Africa Fest, Taste of Madison, and then at the Northside Farmers Market from mid-September until the build-out for a physical location begins.