In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Stanton Stephens. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here
Akwete and Bandele Tyehimba dove into their love affair and opened Pan-African Connection -- a shop known as much for its rich collection of cultural artifacts as its educational programming -- during their first year of courtship. That was 24 years ago, and it was immediately followed by marriage, kids and a union based on energizing a community to demand improved living conditions.
When Bandele died in February 2012, Akwete mourned him by discovering the power of her own strength. She now shoulders the entire load, continuing the work they began together.
Her mornings start early: Akwete works a full-time job at Delta before flipping Pan-African's sign to "Open." Then she works another full day as a community conduit, providing workshops, lectures, art, walls of literature and home goods in her South Dallas shop. "It's a beautiful thing, even in a struggle," she says, drawing from an incomprehensible depth of positivity while sorting through Bandele's personal belongings. "It's a beautiful struggle."
She blooms at Pan-African Connection, swinging children in the air while recounting the moral-rich tales that fuel the works of art piled up around her. She's exhausted, brave and unrelenting. Akwete says she questions how much longer she can keep it up: this life, this schedule. Each night she lies in bed wondering if she'll choose to do it all again the next day, but after almost a quarter century of public service through art, she can't comprehend the merits of easy surrender.
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"From Bandele I learned about taking the most difficult path," she says. "He died a poor man, but the wealth -- and just the breadth of the people that he touched -- it's the whole foundation. ... You have to make your contribution for humanity, for its forward movement."
Pan-African provides that. The downstairs is squeezed tight with sculptures, masks and paintings, hauls from buying trips to Africa. Initially Akwete will say she doesn't know the histories of the collection as well as Bandele did, but that's just her natural humility. Point at any work of art and ask Akwete its legacy. Her eyes illuminate as she dives in, feeding you literary bites of moral lessons, little stories that give meaning to each work.
Walk upstairs and you find other philosophical anchors. On one side is a video library, dedicated to political movements and African history. On the other is a large meeting room where Akwete schedules programs, like drumming nights, children's gardening or workshops that provide useful, empowering skills. She strives to offer side business ventures, classes to help put a little extra income into a family's wallet -- jewelry-making, T-shirt design and even a recent class on beekeeping.
For Akwete, providing these services to her neighbors is what stirs her from bed each morning. This is the reason why there, in her South Dallas retail space, she chooses to press forward.