Silver & Spice - Kentucky Monthly Article
Mamadou and Rachel Savané’s home in Lexington’s charming Kenwick neighborhood is filled with beautiful displays that tell their inspiring story of life in Guinea and America. At first, their story didn’t feel so inspiring, nor was it as well-decorated. It began in 1992 in a huge rainstorm, with a group of American and Guinean friends crowded into the back of a taxi outside of Kindia, Guinea, en route to go dancing.
“It was pouring rain, and I was in the process of buying a raincoat for $5,” Rachel recalled. “That’s when Savané approached. He and his friend made extraordinary efforts to get a taxi for us because of the rain. Everyone’s desperate. They went out into the pouring rain and engaged a taxi. We all get in and the first stop is a gas station, and Savané steps out and takes off his dancing shoes and socks and is wringing them out. He did this Sav smile, and I nudged my girlfriend ... For me, that was the moment I knew.”
Mamadou, better known by his friends as “Sav,” said he had no idea Rachel was smitten. Mutual friends of theirs were dating, and their paths continued to fortuitously weave together, without the benefit of the internet or cellphones. Twenty-five years later, they are living in Kentucky, raising three children and running three successful businesses.
Rachel at work on her exquisite silver jewelry creations [Abby Laub photo]
Rachel moved to Lexington, following her older sister from Chicago after attending the University of Illinois. She joined the Peace Corps when she was 25 and was stationed in the West African country of Guinea from 1990-93.
“I was a guy living with his mom,” Sav quipped. “I was the man of the house because my parents divorced when I was little. My mom had three boys, and my stepdad had passed away. My older brother was abroad in France, and I had three younger stepsisters.”
He said many of his peers went to Europe, Canada or the United States in search of a better life. He joked that when he and Rachel began dating, he became a local celebrity. Rachel speaks French, so the two could communicate. Their relationship began in a group of friends and involved a lot of dancing, going to movies and eating good food. On the dance floor is when Sav realized their relationship was special.
Rachel was in the “generalist” category during her Peace Corps service and joked, “Savané was my thesis,” when her time in Guinea was coming to a close. She extended her stay a few more months, and the pair almost married before her time was up.
“I had to give up my Peace Corps hut and would be homeless,” she said. “In his culture, you don’t live with a woman if you’re not married.”
He added, “She was homeless, so she could live with me or just go back to the States without me. I had to go and have a talk with my mom; she approved it.”
The couple examined their future. Both were jobless and had major cultural hurdles to overcome. Rachel said her family knew nothing of the relationship. “I said, ‘I’ve got nothing; you’ve got nothing, so what can we do?’ ” Rachel recalled. “So we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out how to get married. We had to go to Senegal to do immigration stuff and had no money. I freaked out.”
Getting married in Africa wouldn’t work, so they decided to get a U.S. visa for Sav and were shocked when they got it. A big party ensued in his village.
Rachel was then able to secure a three-month job with the United States Agency for International Development in the capital of Conakry. Sav was summoned to Kindia by his father, who had heard about the visa and admonished his son for not yet traveling to the U.S. So while Rachel worked her temporary job, Sav took a plane to Brooklyn and stayed with his brother. Six weeks later, a moping Rachel was heading to New York City to meet her love.
“It crossed my mind that he might not be there; I knew I had a 50-50 chance,” Rachel said, explaining how it’s not unheard of to be taken advantage of for the sake of a visa.
Sav smiled and said, “I was not a scam.”
“Absolute elation” is what Rachel said she felt. “All that I remember was that I saw him.”
Sav serves up a delicious meal at Sav's Grill [Abby Laub photo]
A chain of events that involved the couple being mostly penniless and nomadic—and Sav not knowing English— led the pair from New York to Cincinnati to Lexington, with a few stops in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest. Through odd jobs, a commitment to each other, and the graciousness of friends and family, they survived the first few years.
Their first apartment in Lexington was on High Street and Stone Avenue. The couple finally tied the knot by walking down to the old courthouse—he in overalls and she “at least in a skirt,” she recalled.
“The judge came out with his sandwich from his lunch break, [and] put his sandwich back in his office,” Sav laughed, admitting he couldn’t understand most of what the judge said. “A lawyer in an office next door spoke French. He said, ‘Sure, let’s go.’ ”
Rachel said, “I was definitely crying. It’s those words: ‘to have and to hold’ that applied to us.”
They were married on June 29, 1993, with no rings and no one else knowing.
Sav secured a job as a busboy at The Campbell House hotel restaurant. The couple moved to a less expensive apartment and, by November 1993, found out Rachel was expecting their first child.
In June 1994, their son, Bangaly, was born prematurely in Nebraska, while the couple was visiting family and friends. Before traveling, they had looked at homes and settled on a closing date on the same Victory Avenue house they live in today. They said it was miraculous they got a loan with no credit history.
“There was a good neighborhood housing loan program with Republic Bank, where you could write an essay about your potential,” Rachel said. “So we wrote our story, and it got us the dang loan.”
The closing date happened to fall when Rachel was in the Nebraska hospital with Bangaly, so Sav was charged with closing on the house without her.
“I still knew hardly any English,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Sign here; sign here,’ and we got the house.”
Rachel’s parents flew her back to Kentucky. “I walked through O’Hare with a baby in a basket,” she recalled and was finally home to be with her husband in their new, empty house.
Rachel's Savané Silver boutique is located in downtown Lexington [Abby Laub photo]
By 1995, Rachel was introduced to the art fair scene. Her degree was in metalsmithing, and she had been working mostly noncreative jobs. She wondered if she could make a living with her art. She secured a small art studio in 1996 and started making jewelry. Taking a leap to quit her job as a secretary, she dove into the art and held her first open house in 1997.
In the meantime, Sav went to work for the Hyatt Regency and finally became fluent in English. He also worked for 15 years at UPS and the Lexington Country Club.
When Bangaly was 3, Sav took him to Guinea to meet relatives, and while he was gone, Rachel discovered she was pregnant with their second child. Their daughter Diaka was born in 1998, followed by daughter Kanny in 2000.
By 2003, Rachel had opened a small jewelry gallery, Savané Silver, in downtown Lexington, and Sav was still employed by UPS. Sav’s mother spent extended time in Lexington to help with the children. “She helped a lot and did a lot of cooking; she’s a great cook, and I learned a lot,” Sav said. The wheels began to turn about opening his own restaurant.
At the time, the Savanés were involved in neighborhood block parties, and Sav’s food became popular. By 2008, at the height of the economic crash, he left UPS and opened Sav’s Grill, featuring West African cuisine, downtown.
“I asked Rachel, ‘Do you trust me?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ We trusted each other,” Sav said. “So we refinanced the house and started Sav’s. So this house funded the business. Besides having children, this house was the best thing we did.”
In 2012, they dove into the ice cream business, opening Sav’s Chill across the street from Sav’s Grill. Bangaly was charged with running that business to pay for his college and flight lessons.
Sav credits his mother with teaching him a lot about cooking [Abby Laub photo]
Tragedy struck in 2014, when Sav sustained second-degree burns on half of his body by spilling hot peanut oil in a kitchen accident. He was hospitalized and out of work for weeks. About a month before the accident, he had shared all of his recipes with Bangaly—recipes that for years he’d prepared from memory. Bangaly, along with a bevy of supportive friends and customers, stepped up to help with time and money. Rachel, in shock and grief, relied on friends to drive her around and manage daily tasks.
“He does so much for the community,” Rachel said, crying when discussing the accident. “We said, ‘How many people does it take to replace Sav?’ The answer is five to 10.”
She recalled a moment that felt nothing short of divine. Sav’s skin was peeled and half pink when she visited him on a Sunday night while he was still in the hospital. “I went home to be with the kids, and Monday I came back, and his skin was halfway brown; I was shocked!” she recalled. “His chest and half his head were pink, and that’s where I think the prayers of the people had healed him.”
Eventually, the pair was able to get back to work. Savané Silver, in its 22nd year and now at a prime downtown spot on the corner of North Broadway and Short, is going strong after a “slow, but very steady build.” Rachel creates exquisite handmade silver pendants, earrings and rings using Kentucky agate and gemstones from around the world, including Africa.
Over the years, Rachel and Sav have helped out in each other’s business, Rachel joking that Sav’s smile has gotten him far. Ten years later, Sav’s Grill is the only West African restaurant in Lexington.
Their story of grit and determination is one that Rachel likes to call “blind confidence.”
“You just have to try,” Sav said. “No one knows how it will end up; only by trying can you find out. We didn’t know what we were getting into, which is better. Knowing too much could stop you in your tracks. Jump in and take one day at a time.”
“A quote from my mother when I was a young adult: ‘No one tells Rachel what to do,’ and I, of course, don’t see it that way,” she said, adding that she was raised with an excellent work ethic and is proud of her kids for having the same drive. “In my mind, I am trying hard to accomplish my desires. I don’t think they always work out, but I do try hard.”
After 25 years, the Savanés remain happily married. The secret?
“No smile flashing; she’ll beat me up,” Sav joked. “The connection we have had since the beginning helps us a lot. Communication also. And compromise is the secret. Any long relationship requires it. No one is perfect.”
They respect each other and agree they never cared much about cultural differences. “For me, there was a wonderful discovery when Sav had his accident, and we were face-to-face in the house day-in and day-out for months; we like each other’s company,” Rachel said. “We had not had that much one-on-one time since our kids were born, and we had regular jobs—approximately 20 years at that point.”
The Savanés are trying to foster their adventurous spirit in their children, who keep them up to speed on “modern ways and racial issues,” Rachel said. Already, the kids have spent time overseas, learned to fly and tackled other big tasks.
“I am proud of them being adventurous,” Sav said. “The more adventurous, the more you understand life and the world. I think about my daughter in France every day. I wish she could call more often. But we are laying out a good example to them. About working hard. This will help them in the future. I am sure about that.”
“The day after Bangaly got his pilot’s license, I was in a plane with him,” Rachel added. “Diaka, the month after turning 16, was on a plane to France, not to return for 11 months. Kanny has enjoyed many things physical: color guard and lacrosse. In all cases, I support my children’s passions. I encourage them, even if I don’t facilitate them financially to a great extent. I believe in the value of working for the thing you desire.”
Now, Sav said he’s “looking forward to retirement. Too much work in this country!”
In the future, he hopes one of the children will take over his businesses, and they’d like to travel more often to Guinea.
“Double life—Lexington and Conakry,” Rachel said. “Two homes and other traveling ventures in between to see people we know who reside at many points on the globe. We will figure out how to do it all and keep the businesses running, I’m sure.”
So far, their ambitious plans have worked.
March 30th, 2018