West Africa is home to many Lebanese immigrants and their descendants, most of whom are shopkeepers and small business owners. The first Lebanese arrived in the region in the late 1800s, and many of those who came later were following relatives. Lebanese immigration increased sharply between World Wars I and II. Many of the immigrants settled in SENEGAL and other French territories because France ruled Lebanon at the time. For the most part, the early arrivals were Maronite or Greek Orthodox Christians, but after 1920 the majority were Muslims from southern Lebanon. Today IVORY COAST boasts the largest Lebanese community, consisting of perhaps 100,000 people.
Many Lebanese became entrepreneurs in Africa, buying crops from farmers and selling them to European merchants. After World War II, they expanded into other areas of activity, such as trading in gold and diamonds and importing foreign goods. Wealthier Lebanese invested in firms making building materials, plastics, and cosmetics. Others owned hotels, pharmacies, restaurants, gas stations, and insurance companies. However, most Lebanese businesses are small and family-owned.
The Lebanese have a complex relationship with African peoples. They often learn the local languages and contribute to local schools and hospitals. Yet many go back to Lebanon, Europe, or the Americas when they retire instead of remaining in Africa. Some Africans resent the Lebanese immigrants' financial success and political influence and their reluctance to integrate or intermarry with local populations. (See also European Communities, Indian Communities.)