Sometimes hospitality makes all the difference. For the Akinlana family, it has come from the people of the District and it softened some of the blow left by Hurricane Katrina. When the August 2005 storm ruptured the levees in New Orleans, they joined many who left their “chocolate city” for this one.
“It’s a gradual process,” said Fatou Akinlana, businesswoman and mother of six. “But it’s a process that has been made easier by all the generosity.”
When Katrina hit, she and husband Marcus, a fine artist and muralist, came to the District to stay with his ailing mother. Added to this displacement was the passing of Marcus’ uncle and brother and the destruction of the family home and businesses, neither of which were insured. “I believe that there’s balance in life … for everything you lose, you gain,” said Mrs. Akinlana.
“Very few of us know what it is to know what it is to lose everything,” said journalist Misty Brown, who organized the “God Bless the Child” Mardi Gras Youth Party and Parade Fundraiser series on the family’s behalf. “We must assist these families wherever they are; they don’t need clothes, they need money, building materials, assist them in rebuilding their lives.”
The February fundraisers were a way for Brown and collaborator Januaire Moza to raise money for the Akinlana family, one in a series of similar drives to provide the large clan with necessities such as blankets, electronics, clothing and shoes. According to Mrs. Akinlana, the family received such an outpouring that they were able to send surplus items to evacuees in Shreveport and New Orleans.
If the Akinlana’s position is serious, one might not know it from their children Dayo, 9 months; Aji, 3; Ayo, 5; Ojo, 6; Futon, 8; and Sola, 10. “Children are unbelievably resilient,” said their mother. “If anything, for them, it’s a new adventure.”
For Sola, that adventure has its ups and downs, but more the latter than former. “It was kind of tough getting to know everybody [at her new elementary school], but now I have lots of friends.” She spoke for the rest of the children in that “I’ve learned I have a lot of family I didn’t even know” here in the District.
The fundraisers held at the Sweet Mango Café consisted of youth themed activities such as face-painting, a juice bar, remote-controlled model car racing and a plate dinner of Caribbean dishes. All of the activities were presided over by Brown and her “team” of paid youth from the surrounding neighborhood drawn by the café’s complimentary Jamaican sodas and Brown’s belief in paying them “like adults.”
“I get them and teach them entrepreneurial skills … that they are as good as anyone,” said Brown. For LaPrekia Gilbert, 15, it’s a chance to see evacuees’ District life outside of McFarland Middle School. “Sometimes I feel sorry for them because I have a lot of things and they don’t … even though they might not always want the help, I know better,” said Gilbert.
While appreciating the generosity of the District, Sierra Leone native Mrs. Akinlana passionately longs to call New Orleans a permanent home. “If you’ve ever been to New Orleans or lived there, it gets in your blood,” she said. “Despite the racism and the poverty, it’s the closest thing in this country to an Africanized city.”
Like many, she reflects on the damage the hurricane wrought as a revelation on race and class. “There’s no question, all Hurricane Katrina did was highlight problems that were already there in New Orleans … what it has given is, maybe, the opportunity to do some things right.”
According to Misty Brown, her goal of endowing the family with at least $2,000 is far from being achieved. The next fundraising event is slated for June at an undecided church location.