I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. I moved to Minnesota at 17, went to college in St. Cloud, and spent the last 6 years in Minneapolis. I have family scattered throughout the US and Kenya.
I’m an Afropolitan (Af-roh pol-i-tn).
First appearing in 2005 with Nigerian/Ghanaian writer Taiye Selasi’s article, “Bye-Bye Babar,” “Afropolitan” describes a new generation of African; the creative, politically aware, multicultural African emigrant with roots firmly on the African continent and bodies and minds in the world. Afropolitanism is more than a description of a sub-set of Africans who find their feet pounding pavements in Barcelona, Daegu, New York City or even Michigan. Instead, it is a state of mind that identifies Africans who straddle two or more distinct cultures, identities, continents, sets of friends, languages and levels of awareness.
As Afropolitans, we are chameleons, constantly adapting and finding new ways to be African. Yet, “ultimately, the Afropolitan must form an identity along at least three dimensions: national, racial, cultural — with subtle tensions in between,” and this is what typifies us. This undulating movement along nation, race and culture is what makes me Afropolitan. Here are the 5 reasons why:
1. “Where are you from?” is a complicated question.
An inevitable question in understanding the people we meet, whether on a date, your friend’s dining table, a bar, or even at work. But every time I hear this question directed at me, I take a deep breath, ready to offer a variety of interpretations on the meaning of where I am “from.” For the Afropolitan, we were either born in one place, moved to another, or spent 10 years in yet another, and our travel appetites stoked, have been on the move ever since. The question of where we are “from” becomes more complicated over time.
Where I’m “from” means multiple things; where I was born, where I currently live, where my family lives, or even where I identify the most with. I do not define myself by one city, or country, but by multiple geographies.
2. Time zones are sown into my daily fabric.
Forget Eastern Time versus Pacific Time zones, we’re talking longitudes and hemispheres; friends and family who are whole days ahead of, or behind me, in living, eating and breathing. I carry with me a constant knowledge of what time it is in a special place on that African continent, Nairobi. For others is it Dakar, Harare, Cairo, Brazzaville…
The World Clock, and weather on my phone is set to Nairobi, and all the other cities that hold my identity and the people I love in them; Minneapolis, New Orleans, Seattle, Dallas, Sydney, Cape Town, et cetera. As if by always knowing what time it is, and whether the sun is shining there too, I retain with me a sliver of these places. Or maybe even that I exist in them, if only for a few seconds a day.
I also know that a phone call “home,” to my country of origin, means staying up late or waking up too early. With 8 hrs and thousands more miles separating my brother and I, we have learned to find each other in those golden hours when his day is ending and mine is just beginning. Yet even then, after the numbers have been dialed and phones answered, we find that our conversations seem to hold in them entire time zones: the 1-2 seconds between my words and their reception on a phone halfway to the other side of the world. Over time, we’ve learned not to speak too fast, and that the white silence preceding a response, is our words carried over miles to be planted on a loved ones ear.
3. I am multilingual.
Afropolitans are a multilingual,ethnically mixed bunch who can speak, think, or write in more than one language at a time. We grew up speaking Igbo, Amharic, and Hindi as our parents ferried us between two worlds; the world of our grandparents, and the new countries and regions we found ourselves in. And so, I find my thoughts and ideas reflected through 2 different languages (Swahili & Kikuyu) and mirrored back to me in English.
My understanding of the world, and its people is framed by the boundaries these languages give me to speak about them. There are words in Kikuyu that hold in them an entire cultural universe, and words in Swahili for which there is no English equivalent. For instance how do I explain to you what a Ngurario is, because to call it a “traditional wedding” is to fail to paint you the rituals, performance, and tradition it holds. Likewise, I do not know how to say “there’s an app for that” in Kikuyu when my mother shares with me her latest tech dilemma.
The result is that as Afropolitans, we seamlessly move from one language to the other in our minds, and in conversation with others like us. When we find one language lacking the emotion, or oomph to describe what we’re trying to say, we simply find the one that does. I am adventurous in my speech and thoughts, refusing to be limited by the boundaries of a single dialect, and reinventing vernacular as I speak, think, and write it.
4. I belong to an African community.
No matter where we are, we create enclaves that give us a community to belong to, and fulfil that ever-present longing for people like us. As African emigrants, we engender them out of whole neighborhoods (Little Ethiopia in LA or Little Senegal in Harlem), and other times out of a shared group of friends. We congregate at weddings, backyard parties, African dance nights, churches, and mosques, opening the doors to our homes, and hearts, and carrying away into the night in tongues that are kept for the few. In this way, we give to each other something the world can’t.
For my African friends, the words fufu and injera, conjure up images of their mother’s kitchen, and we all hold within us “a coming to America” story that inspires laughter and surprise. I know also that a visit to their home comes with it the sort of hospitality I remember from those early years playing in and out of my neighbors and uncles’ houses; when friends were cousins, and all adults “aunties” or “uncles.” So you’ll find us in that corner booth at brunch, each of us fighting above the other to be heard in that excited way fellow Africans speak to each other. We come from different cities, countries and tribes but we are united in the African experience that shapes us all.
5. I am Afro-fusion.
Afropolitans are hard to define stylistically, blending traditional, modern, and global to create Afro-fusion. For instance, I grew up listening to Euro charts, American pop, and African hits. I watched blockbuster Hollywood flicks, intricately plotted Nigerian Nollywood movies, interspersed with scene-stealing Bollywood dance-offs (that I am yet to live out one day). All the while, I was borrowing fashion tips from Euro streets, South African magazines, my grandmother, and the American hip-hop scene. My fashion, my music, what movies I love, and even who and how I love is determined by all these things that I have seen, felt, and heard.
The only thing constant is that I give a nod to my roots in all my tastes, whether in the multicolored bracelets that populate my wrist, or the earrings carved out of and into African continents that dangle from my ears, or even the brightly patterned fabrics that find themselves as art on my walls. Sometimes it is the afro-pop music that blares into my ears as I maneuver the city dancing to a different beat, or the African writers and thinkers who occupy my bookshelf and reading list, stirring in me decolonized thought.
For me, jazz is not just Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, but also Fela Kuti and Hugh Masekela. The greats of literature aren’t limited to the Homers, Chaucers and the Twains, but also hold in them the Achebes, Thiong’os and Soyinkas. Likewise, the creativity that pours out of me, and into this world is defined by this fusion; my experience as a global citizen, and African of the world.
This article was originally published on the Matador Network.