The House Next Door: Africa and America find a home in Edgewood, Pittsburgh


A war was raging, and the Mufukas had to find a way out of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). It was 1969.

“My parents had to figure out how to leave the country,” said Lois Mufuka Martin, who was only 18 months old at the time.

Today she and her husband, Derek Martin, live in a large, century-old home in Edgewood, Pittsburgh

“What we like the most in this little tiny borough of Edgewood is we know our neighbors, and they look out for us,” she said.  “It is a comfortable neighborhood. It’s an eclectic neighborhood.”

Edgewood has lots of apartments, which she likes for the diversity.

“Because I am a little bit of a social justice advocate, I like that we have mixed-use housing here, and people from all walks of life are living here.”

There were many stops along the way between Zimbabwe and Edgewood. Her parents call themselves “educational refugees” because college scholarships allowed them to leave their homeland. The family’s circuitous journey from Africa to America took them to several countries.

Scotland was the first stop. Her father got his master’s degree there. They then moved to Ontario, Canada, where he got his doctorate. Then it was on to Jamaica, where he had his first teaching position. His second teaching job was in Texas, and finally the family settled in Greenwood, S.C., where he taught at a local college.

In 1982, two years after Zimbabwe achieved its independence from Rhodesia, the family moved back. Mrs. Mufuka Martin spent her high school years in a boarding school in Zimbabwe, but her parents returned to South Carolina.

“We moved back because my father realized the promise of [Robert] Mugabe was a little bit shaky. We weren’t sure which way he was going, even though he started out very well,” she said.

After graduating from high school, Mrs. Mufuka Martin rejoined her family and earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Lander University in South Carolina. It was while pursuing a graduate degree in international affairs at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she met her future husband, a Pittsburgher.

They married in 1992 and tried to find an apartment in the North Side’s Deutschtown neighborhood. “We were denied the rental when they saw we were black, so we decided to focus on Manchester and other integrated neighborhoods,” she said. 

They ended up in Manchester, living within blocks of Mr. Martin’s maternal grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

“At that time I was so young. I was flustered because everybody was asking me, ‘Aren’t you so glad to not be in the South anymore?’

“That always puzzled me because the South Carolina I knew was the South of opportunity. They hired my father as the first black professor at the college. My favorite professor was a Jewish man from New York,” she said.

“In 1992 I realized I had landed in one of the whitest cities in the country per the 2010 census, I was shocked by what seemed like a lack of agency.”

They made the decision to move to South Carolina in 1994 and stayed for 14 years, raising two children.

In 2008, they came back to Pittsburgh to be close to his family. Mrs. Mufuka Martin found a revitalized city on her return.

“I was pleased to see a city thinking about: What does the city of the future look like? Who is involved with the city of the future? Are they coming from other countries?

“I felt welcomed in a way I had not felt the first time.”

She was CEO of Bethlehem Haven for seven years, then chief volunteer engagement officer at United Way for two years, and is now a vice president at CalWest Educators Placement, which recruits school administrators. She is also a board member for the Education Matters Africa Foundation, a Zimbabwe-based nonprofit that helps high school students get into international universities and find jobs in Africa afterward.

Their children are 21 and 23 years old and living on their own.

“We wanted a place that our adult children could feel comfortable when they come home,” she said.

The young contractor who sold them this house left an old upright piano that sits in the center hall. Original leaded- and stained-glass windows add to the charm of the home. The island in the updated kitchen includes dark paneling that was removed from the walls of the dining room, which is now the great room.  

“In American culture and African American culture, food is at the center of all our gatherings. So when we were looking for a house we wanted one that would fit at least an eight-person dining table,” Mrs. Mufuka Martin explained.

The living room became the dining room.

“When we saw the house, we thought the length, the big window, the fireplace and the way the room is framed would make a great dining room,” she said.

A built-in cabinet is filled with objects from her homeland and Pittsburgh. “Zimbabwe is known for soapstone and wood carvings, copper, diamonds and gold.”

One of Mrs. Mufuka Martin’s most cherished items is not what most consider traditional African art. It’s a tiny wire sculpture of a Volkswagen Beetle.

“When you go to Zimbabwe, there are a lot of street vendors who use scrap metal to make things,” she said. “You see a lot of children playing with these little cars.”

The wheels move and the doors open. “Why I like this the most is because it reminds me of the resiliency of the Zimbabwe people.”

Mrs. Mufuka Martin also has a framed wire wreath with cotton buds. It is a reminder of slavery.  

“My children don’t like it,” she admitted.  

To her it is part of the tapestry and rich heritage, good and bad, that make up the African American experience.  

Framed posters of paintings by Stephen Scott Young hang in the great room. 

“He seems to paint images of children thinking about the future, especially black children,” she said. “It is always striking to me when people paint images of darker-skinned black children because that is not what society says is beautiful.”

The finished basement contains an in-law suite with a kitchen, sitting room, bedroom and bathroom. “It’s good for when our parents come to visit or our children come back. 

“We have a deck for the first time and a yard in the city. Our plan is to grow old in this house except in the winters — if we are lucky,” she said, laughing.

Read more from source Pittsburgh Post Gazette