03
Jun
06

Connections

I am sitting in one of my favorite sundresses, a $5 purchase in Dar that fit me and the steamy weather perfectly.  Two years later in New Orleans, the dress is equally suitable.  I have spent the morning in my pj’s going thru my TZ photos, to get them ready for a much belated album.  Probably not a coincidence to finally go thru this process as I get reaquainted with NOLA and its people and all of the thoughts it stirs up each time. 

Last night some MIT and Harvard-KSG folks sat around in my living room drinking Abita and eating pork ribs and red fish.  Good times.  Talking to one of them for awhile, we compared notes on his stint in Uganda and mine in Dar (Uganda, with Kenya and TZ, is one of the main countries comprising E. Africa).  His work in Uganda was disaster-related, so we shared that in common as well.  We talked about how much our experiences here reminds us of our experience overseas.  One of his more astute comments was how while the contents of the trash heaps differed in E. Africa from here, there were nonetheless trash heaps in both places unlike we’ve seen elsewhere.  I laughed and described to him how Kristina and I used to say, “turn left at the trash heap” to guide visitors to our apartment in the Upanga section of Dar.   

One friday afternoon in Dar Kristina and I gave our co-worker Limbe a ride to a “bar,” where he joined other men for “happy hour.”  It was essentially a wall-less thatched hut on the side of the road with a bartender and some stools to which men pulled up and drank beer.  Yesterday afternoon – Friday around 5pm – I rode my bike through Central City and passed a group of black men seated around a plastic table with cups and bottles of beer in front of them.  Though the house structure behind them was sturdier than Dar’s roadside bar, it nonetheless served as some sort of commercial establishment where these men probably gathered regularly.  There are many many informal small businesses here that operate out of people’s homes – living rooms converted to restaurants such that you almost don’t notice it’s also a residence until you pass through a non-commercial kitchen to use the bathroom in a back hall stacked with buckets, brooms, shoes, etc.  Like Dar, and low-income, often minority communities in the U.S., informal entrepreneurship abounds as people disconnected from or lagging in the mainstream economy figure out ways to support themselves and their families.  Touching this is one of my favorite aspects of my work.

There are other means of connecting and bridging the many worlds I’ve moved through down here.  Ironically, it was a 2 hour conversation with a white, male community leader last night that brought me back around to my a) Lower Manhattan mostly immigrant SB owner stint and b) low-income, minority business development work around the Southeastern U.S.  Last night I heard from the co-chair of the Broadmoor Improvement Association about the community’s plan to rebuild.  Though I have worked with other CDCs here, I rarely experience the vitality and intimacy of working closely with community representatives who work to change what they live through on a daily basis – be it a sudden disaster like 9/11 or Katrina, or the chronic trauma of disinvested inner-city neighborhoods – like I used to in these other communities and as I did last night.  Either because they are recent transplants to NOLA, disconnected executives from national intermediaries, or New Orleanians who lack leadership and energy, most of the folks I’ve interacted with in other neighborhoods have lacked this all-consuming, personal fighting spirit that is so inspiring. 

On Friday, the other member of the M.A.S arrives for his third visit to one of our favorite stops on our emerging world tour (NYC and Boston being the 2 other destinations so far).  With this white man on Monday night I sat in a parked car in Mattapan (one of Boston’s black and reputedly roughest neighborhoods, along with Roxbury and parts of Dorchester), while we consulted a map to figure out how to get to a new restaurant in Dorchester.  Through my open window I looked around while he figured out where we were, and since I’ve been thinking about his practiced ease at moving through not only black communities but new and unfamiliar environments.  Like me, he appears to put down roots in each city that becomes his host for however long a period of time.  This, along with his ability to consume large quantities of alcohol, his appreciation for my Masshole roots, and his need to analyze everything, is one of the many shared aspects that led to our establishment of the Mutual Admiration Society over lunch at NOLA’s Marigny Brasserie back in January. (The M.A.S. currently is headquartered in Boston, MA.)

Now friends from this winter and spring in NOLA are leaving as the summer sets in, and a new group is arriving.  Just as in Dar, with the constant welcome and good bye parties, there is a never ending stream of people to get to know and drink with here.  And with each visit, New Orleans becomes a new node in a network of friends – old and new – and memories that stretches from Boston/NY/DC to the Gulf Coast and abroad. 

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