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At the Hill District's Ujamaa Collective, cultural connections are part of the bargain

Hill District's Ujamaa Collective, cultural connections are part of the bargain

A burly man walks out of a bright, sunny morning and into Ujamaa Collective, 1901 Centre Ave., in the Hill District. Facing a dazzling array of shapes and colors, he examines a cornucopia of arts, crafts, collectibles, edibles. He rustles through some of the 1,000 individual items — batiks and carvings, clothing and jewelry, ceramics and pottery — all of it fair-trade, from local artists as well as international artisans. Finally he settles on a large display piece: a traditional West African mask for which he says he has the perfect spot at home. He hoists the carved-wood eagle design, a stunning, fearsome piece in black and brown.

"Works like this, affirmational in both language and symbol, help reawaken the African in all of us," says Ujamaa Executive Director LaKeisha Wolf, who has been helping the man navigate the store. "There's so much that we've lost: the beauty of self, of community, of home in the diversity of Africana culture. What we have here" — she gestures around the boutique — "helps us to re-connect."

"There were always folks in touch with being African," Wolf adds. "But resources have come and gone. The visibility wasn't always there. Artwork like this helps capture the essence of who we are that we've carried with us: nuances in what we do, colors we put together in a particular way. The spirit that lives in us and manifests itself in how we talk, how we think, how we act."

Now in its fourth year, Ujamaa — a Swahili word that translates roughly as "unity" or "family" — represents some six dozen artists. They hail from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore — as well as from Tanzania, Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad and the Virgin Islands.

"Ujamaa products are handcrafted by women and artisans who need opportunities for self-sufficiency and wealth creation," Wolf says. "Many of the same impoverished conditions faced by women and families in developing countries can be found right here in Pittsburgh's own low-income communities."

To combat such challenges, Ujamaa also sponsors an entrepreneurship-preparation program and open-air marketplace, sells cut flowers and oversees herb gardens and urban agriculture. (Among other things, it manages the DeWayne Cooper Garden of Hope, on nearby Bedford Avenue.)

"We are not only growing things, we are also growing community," Wolf says. "We are growing increased wellness. We are growing a plan for economic stability."

The same could be said of the Hill itself, long the victim of destructive urban-renewal policies. More than 1,000 buildings were razed, and thousands of people displaced, to make way for the Civic Arena. Now, after more than five decades, the Hill is finally emerging from a moribund neighborhood economy. The Centre Avenue corridor, while perhaps not yet flourishing, is shaking off its sluggish past. With efforts spearheaded by Hill House, there is a new full-service grocery store, new office space and new housing, as well as branches of the Carnegie Library, YMCA and PNC.

"We're at a pivotal point in the neighborhood," offers Ujamaa's Frankie Harris. "It's not just about sales. It's about us. It's about the women that we're serving.

"It's a launch pad for people. This" — she gestures at the artwork in Ujamaa — "is an awakening."

"We believe in cooperation," Wolf adds. "We believe that we gain more when everybody does something together, and profits from it. That's an ancient concept that had to be re-introduced. We had to recognize who we are. Because if we forget who we are, we are constantly subject to others' definition of who we are. For far too long, we've bought into how other people have defined us. So Ujamaa is also very much about self-definition, a definition we're creating for ourselves.

"There's always been an African way of life," she adds. "That cooperation, that community — it's an essence that we've carried with us. There's very much an African mind, too. Our ancestors are pushing that in all of us."

Speaking of the obligations imposed by tradition, a tall, slender man walks into the boutique, mumbling about his wife's impending birthday. Stepping lightly through the store, he hefts note cards, rustles T-shirts, sniffs soaps — olive, green tea, coconut, papaya. Tapping a drum, he shakes his head.

"Wife," he says, "not Babatunde Olatunji."

Finally, he gravitates toward jewelry, necklaces and earrings, hand-carved stones, blues and greens, pastels that seem to glow from within. "Perfect," he says. "Gorgeous colors. Well made." The man flips them over, "Right price."

"I made them," LaKeisha Wolf says, and smiles.

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