In a younger, richer, gentrifying District, greasy spoons give way to swank new restaurants. Music shops morph into yoga studios. Liquor stores become wine bars and microbreweries.
But for two Nigerian American sisters who grew up in the Washington area, an essential ingredient is missing from the new urban recipe.
“We say D.C. doesn’t have Maggi cube,” said Chidinma “Chi Chi” Dureke, 27.
Maggi is the brand name of a seasoning cube widely used in West African cooking.
“It’s like mumbo sauce,” said Chuckwunonso “Nonso” Dureke, 25. “It adds flavor.”
The Dureke sisters want to add cultural flavor to the city. They want to make the District a cultural cornerstone of the African diaspora — a place where black people embrace and celebrate their African heritage and not just pay lip service to the name, African American.
“There are a lot of people like us, in our generation, that are searching for self, trying to discover who we are and where we can feel at home in the world,” Chidinma said. “D.C. ought to be a place where people are encouraged to take that journey. We believe that our dual identity as Nigerian and American allows us to help guide people along the way.”
Their efforts include discussing African culture — including food, fabric and family traditions — in a blog called “Nkem Life.” They also serve as the D.C. partners on a sociopolitical website aimed primarily at black urban millennial women, called “I Don’t Do Clubs.”
The site, founder Genese Jamilah said, is for women “who are looking for social events beyond the typical nightclub scene” and who want to avoid “the random men grabbing . . . as you and your friends hold hands just to make it to the restroom.”
The Dureke sisters are from the Igbo tribe, in eastern Nigeria. Both were born in the Washington area and went to live in Nigeria for several years before returning to the region. Chidinma, a graduate of Frostburg State University in Maryland, is a visual artist who owns a graphic design business called CHDesignz.
Chuckwunonso is also a visual artist and is a MFA student at Howard University studying cinematography and film production.
Both can recall the days when African culture was a ubiquitous part of D.C. life. African and Caribbean music pulsated from bookstores and carryouts along Georgia Avenue and Columbia Road.
Wood carvers from Ghana whittled away while sitting on storefront steps. Authentic African foods were served at street festivals and even dished out to strangers at impromptu family picnics in Rock Creek Park.
It was not unusual to see women wearing traditional African dresses.
“You didn’t have to go to the Smithsonian to see authentic African fabric,” Chuckwunonso said. “There were shops where you could buy it, and people weren’t afraid to wear the most colorful designs.”
But the African culture was taken for granted, neglected, not nurtured. Even kente cloth, the iconic link to the Ashanti kingdom, ended up as little more than a fad.
The sisters wore dresses that they had designed and made from fabrics bought in Nigeria. Similar African-inspired dresses can be found at the Nubian Hueman boutique in Southeast Washington.
The Dureke sisters also have an email newsletter that includes listings of black-owned stores in the Washington area, such as the boutique.
“We might not be able to do much for the black-owned businesses that couldn’t hold on because of gentrification, but we can give a shout-out to those that are hanging on,” Chidinma said.
Of course, such flair is not for everyone. In the District, look-alike shoe-box condos proliferate like kudzu. Rows of sidewalk cafes cater to look-alike, mostly nonblack clientele. Some “ethnic” restaurants are so Americanized that they might as well have golden arches over the entrance.
I’d interviewed the Dureke sisters at the Bukom Cafe on 18th Street near Columbia Road NW, in Adams Morgan. They had recommended it.
“Bukom to us has a great balance of American and West African culture with Afro-Caribbean flair,” Chidinma said.
We noticed while dining that some African American pedestrians walked past without so much as glancing at the place. Some ended up going to an Italian restaurant and a popular fast-food joint nearby.
“A lot of that kind of decision-making has to do with lack of exposure and conditioning,” Chuckwunonso said. “We want people to celebrate their ancestral homeland, not be ashamed of where they came from.”
That may not be enough for the District to get its Maggi cube back. But just having the Dureke sisters around certainly adds flavor to an otherwise bland town.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.