The Storyteller: Kaylan Shipanga [Namibia]

A trip to Barbados changed Kaylan Shipanga’s life. And after both personal reflection and some major life events, she decided to live abroad. Kaylan shares with us what it means to reside in predominately black countries, integrate into Namibian society and developing a storytelling platform for other Black Americans moving to the continent of Africa.

Tell us about your background.

I am originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, which is a suburb of New York City. Growing up, most of the traveling we did was to Barbados, which is where my mother’s side of the family is from. We didn’t do that much, but that was my international exposure.

I graduated with a degree in Broadcast Journalism from Howard University and worked in broadcast news from the time I left  the university. It was while I was working at the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC that my mother passed away. But two months later a friend and I decided to go ahead with an already planned and life changing trip to the Caribbean.

I was hooked. It really opened my eyes to how amazing it is and the different energy that came with life in a black country. I returned to the U.S. and started focusing on returning back to Barbados. By the end of the year, I’d made up my mind. I wanted to go back to Barbados. I was twenty-three.

I just fell in love with the country and the lifestyle and being around blackness. So I went to Barbados in December and stayed for a [little] over a year. I did some volunteering, dated a guy, just really had a blast and lived it up. In hindsight it was really just what I needed. I really think my mom had something to do with that from above – giving me just what I needed to have a little bit of healing from the shock of losing her suddenly.

What were the differences you noticed between being in a predominantly black American city and a predominantly black country?

The thing that immediately stuck out in Barbados was that there was just a different walk, a different confidence that black people have in many black countries outside of the U.S., Canada, the U.K. Especially with black men. It just seemed like they walked with their heads held a little bit higher. That’s not to insult or speak down to African-American [men], but there was a major difference that came from being raised in a predominantly black society. There’s even an outward physical confidence that you can notice in people.  

Here in Namibia, where I live now, in terms of dating, marriages and relationships – all black body types, all skin colors are appreciated a lot more than sometimes in the U.S. Blackness in and of itself really is accepted. 

Not to say that the Caribbean or the African continent is perfect – there are definitely colorism issues there as well. But there are just some different energies, different vibes that come with the fact that as black people, we are just around each other all the time, whereas in the U.S., we’re a bit watered down. We have to assimilate a lot of the time. Even working – when you go to a company in the Caribbean or across Africa and the CEO is black – that’s the norm in so many African countries. They’re seemingly little things but they have a major impact on the overall energy and atmosphere of a country and what it feels like for a black person to live in a space.

How did you end up in Namibia?  Did you deliberately seek out a black nation?

I definitely deliberately sought out a black nation. I ended up having to return from Barbados because my grandmother developed pancreatic cancer and someone was needed to be her at-home caregiver until she passed away in 2010. Throughout that entire time I was still very disenchanted with the U.S. I wasn’t interested in corporate America anymore. It just did not appeal to me at all. While I was taking care of my grandmother, I always thought about how to get back abroad into a warm, black nation. I do not like winter, I do not like cold weather. So I did a lot of Googling: “how to get a job in Africa, how to move to Africa.” Through that, it became apparent to me that a big way was for me to teach abroad. Since I had  lived in Barbados, to me the next step was to do something a little bit bigger, which is how the idea of Africa popped into my mind.

I  was drawn to the continent. I applied to World Teach‘s year-long program, and I thought that a year was a good amount of time for me to get my feet wet in a country. They only had three programs on the African continent – Tanzania, Rwanda, and Namibia. I missed the deadline for Tanzania and I had misconceptions about Rwanda, given their history. I applied to Namibia because it borders South Africa (with which I was familiar), was accepted to their program, and that’s how I ended up here.

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Image: Kaylan Shipanga

You were not married when you first arrived, but you are now married to a Namibian. Can you tell us briefly about you and your husband met?

I was assigned with World Teach to teach at a high school in northern Namibia. I arrived at the school in January of 2011 and my husband joined the school staff in June of the same year. He joined the school staff as a relief teacher because the school was experiencing a teacher shortage. He had also studied media, but the school needed teachers so he was brought in to teach.

We immediately clicked even though he’s born and bred in the rural, northern Namibian village environment. We really have never had that much of a cultural adjustment. Surprisingly, it’s been very seamless. The stereotype about someone raised in a very rural environment – especially a man – might be that he wants me to be in the kitchen cooking all the time or completely domesticated, but he’s not like that. He’s just a really easy going person so we’ve always gelled.

How did your family react? Were there any cultural challenges?

The first time my husband met my family and friends was about two weeks before the wedding. My dad, my best friend and her mother came down and my husband and I took them around Namibia. My dad could see that my husband is a really thoughtful. Also, my dad grew up in the rural South [in the United States] on a farm with no running water so I think he could identify with my husband a lot. My mother-in-law found out way earlier that we were dating. I’m sure she was a bit guarded about the fact that I was an American and not Namibian. I think people were gossiping; the community is very small, so she was taken aback by how visible [our courtship] was. She just didn’t have that much experience with Americans.

We decided we were getting married around September 2013. During the Christmas holiday he took me to his village to spend about two weeks in his mother’s home. That was my formal introduction and was awkward in the beginning. We made a couple of subsequent visits and she welcomed me with open arms. She always goes out of her way to make sure that I’m comfortable. She could see that it is difficult for me when I’m with their family in the village. T My husband and mother-in-law can welcome someone in who’s from a different place very well. Other people don’t always put it together that I’m not Namibian. They know that, but the reaction isn’t always what it should be.

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Image: Kaylan Shipanga

You have a fifteen-month-old son. Have you and your husband decided what cultural influences you want to use in raising him?

[We decided] I should speak to him in English and [my husband] should speak to him in Oshiwambo, his mother tongue. We do want him to spend some time with his grandmother in the village [when he gets older]. I definitely want my son and husband to visit Barbados so they can experience the Caribbean and my son will know that he has this connection as well. I would love for him to go to Howard, an HBCU, like I did. We want him to spend time with his grandfather in Manhattan so that he has a balanced experience from both sides of his family.

At what point, did you decide to launch your website, African-American in Africa?

I had been blogging since about 2009, writing about interests in black international living, dating West Indian men, my experiences.But nobody knew who I was. When I moved to Namibia, I was still blogging, I love writing and I think I get that [gene] from my mother because she was a writer as well. I thought that a lot of African-Americans living in Africa must not have been sharing their experiences or there maybe weren’t that many of us here; I’m not sure which one it was.

Right before I moved here I was looking for information on the Internet from the perspective of African-Americans living on the African continent and found little information.

When I arrived,  I realized I had a unique perspective and people started responding well to it. I posted some YouTube videos about my experience living here. I started connecting with other African-Americans living on the continent. A young woman living in Rwanda  commented on one of my videos and I reached out and asked if I could interview her. It just expanded from there and I decided to make an official website. I’ve received really amazing feedback from people around the world: “Thank you for posting these interviews, for sharing your story. You’ve inspired me to visit the continent.” So that’s how my little web platform came to be.

What would you say is the most valuable or life-affirming experiences you’ve had since living on the continent of Africa that you don’t think you could have had in the US?

I would say being married and raising a child here [has been valuable] because it’s really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I live in a smaller town and this has been probably the most challenging location for me the entire time I’ve lived in Namibia. There’s a different vibe here. There is a significant white population in [this] town and with that comes a lot more disenfranchisement and social problems. It can be challenging being in a town where the white population pretty much has control over a lot of things here, including businesses. There can be racist undertones, so it’s been an interesting experience for me as a foreigner. There are also days when I get street harassed. It has been very challenging but eye-opening.

I’ve been very comfortable in other parts of Namibia, but this new family dynamic, geographically has… [given me] daily reminders that I cannot just write Namibia off based on my daily interactions with people in the town or my frustrations with how small the town is and how little there is to do. It’s been trying, but it’s forced me to find creative ways to remember the blessing and the unique opportunity that I have living here. If I was in the U.S. where things were comfortable, I wouldn’t have had this experience.

 

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