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Food, culture and the heart of the city

Habesha African Market is at the centre of a drive
to show off 107th Avenue as a vibrant, safe community

Habesha African Market has a vibrant store front with a colourful mural and upbeat African music playing outside.  (Ethan LaPerle)

By Ethan LaPerle

A COLOURFUL graffiti-theme mural and upbeat African music greet you as you enter Habesha African Market on 107th Avenue near the LRT line. The owner, Nunu Desalgne, says the area has a bad reputation, but she wants to spread the vibrant welcoming atmosphere to the rest of the neighbourhood.

If you want to know a person or their culture, food is a great way to do it – and to start a conversation. And Habesha proudly displays its cultural identity in the store. The shelves are stocked with such grocery essentials as milk, produce and boxed goods, but they also carry plenty of African groceries you might be not find at larger grocery stores.

“It’s all about food,” Desalgne says. “And nowadays people are really excited to try new things. I would say the African culture is just kind of coming up. And I guess it all starts from the food and the music and those are the things that draw people.

“And if you want to explore culture, then this is the area that you need to be in because it’s very diversified, this different culture.”

Desalgne will show you around and answer any questions you might have about Ethiopian cuisine and culture. If you ask, she will share an Ethiopian recipe, such as lentils with sautéed onions, ginger and berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend similar to paprika. Grab some injera, an Ethiopian flatbread, to eat it with and you’ll have a simple yet delicious Ethiopian meal.

An employee at Habesha African Market rings up an order of Ethiopian specialties and typical North American groceries like milk and produce.  (Ethan LaPerle)

Desalgne’s helpful demeanour contrasts with 107th Avenue’s harsh image, and she’s doing all she can to change the area’s reputation. She says 107th Ave is marred by safety and social problems, and Habesha is working with other community members and organizations  to shift the identity of the area to one that is safer and more welcoming.

Desalgne is a board member of the 107th Avenue business association, and she wants the area to be seen as a vibrant community. People don’t come to 107th Avenue to spend their day, as they might on Whyte or Alberta Avenue, she says.

“There’s no reason for us not to become a cool place like Whyte Avenue, 124th Street, and Alberta Avenue.”

Last year, Habesha hosted an Africa Day festival in its parking lot, with vendors, food trucks, and African drummers. Desalgne says she would like to move it out onto the street this year, aiming to help make 107th Avenue a cultural destination.

“We want people to come to this neighbourhood, and you have to constantly create something to just draw people.”

Desalgne adds that the city isn’t doing enough to help the area, and locals feel forgotten. Though the city has instituted  programs to deal with vandalism – like one that helps pay to repair damaged windows – she says it’s not enough.

“It feels like they’re just segregating this neighbourhood. We put all these social services that are going on, dedicated within this neighbourhood.

“Not enough support for the people who live here or run businesses here. You’re doing all these things, but how are you planning on supporting us and for the people who are struggling, what is the permanent solution? Isn’t this Canada? Should we be better?”

Without much support from the city, Desalgne says, the people at Habesha are doing all they can to revitalize the area. They’ve cleaned up local parks. They connect people and newcomers with the services they need, such as Action for Healthy Communities and the All Nation Centre.

Before the pandemic, Habesha offered hot food and hosted Ethiopian coffee ceremonies on Sundays. Desalgne says she wants to start doing that again.

If 107th Ave is going to be revitalized, Desalgne says, food is going to play an important role. And that means ethnic grocery stores like Habesha African Market will be on the front lines of that change.

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