Chiponda Chimbelu’s international perspective began early, but it clearly has had an impact on how he has navigated the world. This Berlin-based journalist discusses why he doesn’t quite fit the American mold, the need for code-switching and why underrepresented communities need to speak up for each other.
Where does your international story begin?
I call myself Zambian-American because I was born in the US while my father was studying there. I didn’t really live in the US as a child because I was a year old when my family returned to Zambia when my father was done with his Ph.D. My father was on a scholarship paid for by the Zambian government so we had to go back or pay back the money they used to fund his studies.
The reason I use Zambian-American is because I travel with a US passport and I studied in the U.S. I can’t just say I’m Zambian, knowing full well that my experiences travelling on an American passport put me in a different category, in terms of the doors that the [passport] opens.
Where in Zambia did you grow up?
I grew up on the Copperbelt, as it’s called. When I was growing up it was one of Africa’s most modernized regions. Every town in the province had a copper mine. That is where the wealth of Zambia pretty much comes from, even until today. I didn’t go to international schools but I went to private schools. It was an interesting and fascinating place to grow up because it had people from different parts of the country but also all these foreigners. I live in a place where I was used to seeing people from other places all the time. Language diversity, ethnic diversity, racial diversity were part of my childhood. For me, people from other places were something to be curious about but not suspicious about.
Did you complete all of your schooling in Zambia?
Actually, no. While I was in high school my brother moved to the US for university. In Zambia, we have five years of secondary [high school], which was different from the American system. At that time, I took my SATs and applied just before my final year of high school, and was admitted to university at the institution my brother was at in [Illinois]. I started university at sixteen.
At this point, you’re a teenager and now living in the US as a college student. What was that experience like for you?
Because my [older] brother had a lot of friends, mostly international friends, I was always the youngest so everyone was nice to me. I had a community of people supporting me so I got lucky. I wasn’t really in American culture in the strictest sense – I was on a college campus. And I was mostly spending time with the international students. I was still in a bubble – a bubble within a bubble. I was meeting people from everywhere – Saudi Arabia, Germany and Russia – which until then had just been places on a map. Now I was meeting actual people from there and having exchanges with them. And it was interesting to find the things that make us similar and also different. It was like a United Nations experience to some degree.
I wasn’t seeking to be anything in America. I just found people who were like me.
Following university, you eventually moved to Europe. Where did you initially go?
When I completed my degree, I went to Manchester [UK], with the intention of doing an additional Masters degree but I didn’t finish it. I ended up with a postgraduate certificate in translation studies instead. Manchester was an interesting experience. I had been to London before to visit a cousin of mine, and I found London really cool. But Manchester was different from London. It was wet and cold, and the summers were awful. It rained a lot. I did get to meet a lot of international students and have that experience again [similar to undergraduate]. But I was older now and more importantly I could drink. <laughs>
It was one year, but the city wasn’t what I was looking for. Then I moved to London and tried to get a job, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have a British passport. I did get an offer from a good company, but was told that I would have to organize getting a [work] permit myself. And I couldn’t do that because I needed the job offer to be able to apply for the permit, so I returned to the US while I figured out my next steps.
The UK didn’t work out but you were still able to relocate to Belgium and then Germany. How did this come about?
I got an opportunity in Brussels. It wasn’t what I was looking for but I got it as a first stint. After a few months, I found something else. I didn’t stay in Brussels long. I was there for eight months but it is an interesting place to be. It is literally the capital of Europe with the European Union being headquartered there. While in Brussels, I applied for a job with a small publishing company in Germany.
I got the job and I landed in a place called Saarbrucken, a city along the German-French border. I was hoping I would learn German in two years and move on. When I was in Brussels, one of the things that struck me was that everyone I met worked for the EU Commission, or the Embassies or NATO. All these people spoke three or four European languages and I only had French and English. Of course, I had African languages. But in those days, nobody would’ve cared. People spoke all these languages and if I was going to end up in a communications role, I needed to speak more languages.
I thought I would be in Germany for three years but here I am. I’ve been lucky enough to live in four different cities in Germany. I’m in Berlin now. Becoming a journalist wasn’t planned, but I ended up in it. I’m a freelance journalist now but I’ve worked as a translator, taught English and done other roles that have taken me to different places within the country.
The death of George Floyd sparked discussion and protests both in the US but globally. What have been your observations about racism and prejudice living in Germany?
If you live in Germany, or most of Europe, and have been here for an extended amount of time, with the exception of the UK, they just don’t want to talk about race. They don’t want to have a conversation about race because they would like to think that everyone’s the same. But the reality is that brown and Black people have been excluded from certain opportunities or isolated in different ways.
When I came in 2007, and right around 2010, 2012, it almost felt like Germany was becoming more progressive. In 2010, Germany placed third in the World Cup and the team was racially diverse with various backgrounds and it felt like a very open place. Then came more migration as a result of the Arab Spring, and the conversation around that also affected what was happening in terms of race and racism in the country. People who were already racist felt empowered to speak up. They felt like they could speak up, finally.
There was a time from 2007 to 2012, when people who were racist didn’t feel like they could speak up. There was a book by a politician (Thilo Sarazzin) who said that Germany was doing itself in by allowing all these people in and he came under widespread criticism. But let’s say he published the same book post-2014 or 2015, especially when there was a huge number of migrants coming in from the Middle East and North Africa, I think it would have been received differently. He wouldn’t have come under so much criticism. You can see now that people feel they can speak out about how they feel about different skin colors, and especially about Muslims. There’s a lot of Islamophobia, and of course anti-Black sentiment.
Images courtesy of André Looft
Have you faced some of this prejudice?
I was travelling yesterday with my boyfriend from Warsaw [Poland]. We were on a train and we had a cabin to ourselves. I was checked and he wasn’t initially checked. He was sitting with me and he’s white. We had seen the border control walk past us. But then when he saw there was a Black person sitting there, he decided to come back and ask for my papers. Something I have to expect in Germany that as a Black person here, my presence is always going to be questioned.
Are there instances where you feel your Americanism insulates you in a way that maybe other Black groups don’t have?
Of course, I took out my passport. I already told the guy, “English, please” because I’m not going to speak German in this situation. I speak German well enough to go to the doctor, to go to the bank. I do it in German. There was no reason for me to be speaking English with this man.
But why should I bother? I want to throw him off as much as I can so I spoke in English. Then, of course, he says haughtily, “Papers, please” in English. So I opened my passport to the page with my resident permit. He looked at it and was of course more surprised that it was a US passport. Because he was probably expecting something else. The policewoman who was with him then looked at my boyfriend’s passport and then they gave our papers back. But you can tell they were a little unsettled, surprised and didn’t know what to do.
It’s not the first time that’s happened.
Basically, you were code switching, right?
You have to. Language is one way you do it. If he’s a German policeman, chances are he’s not going to speak English as well I do. I have to unsettle him. And by unsettling him, I have a chance to gain some of the ground I’ve lost, by him trying to assert his own authority.
I always have to negotiate these experiences, which you do too, if you’re a Black person, or a woman or Asian or whatever. But we all have to do it, especially if you’re not seen as white, straight and normal.
What are the challenges you’ve seen with allyship, particularly as a Black, gay man in Europe?
As a Black, gay person, I’m unsure about being in the Black community elsewhere. I mean, I have Black friends, I have a Black family. I’m okay among Black people. But as a gay person, at least when we talk about racism, we rarely have discussions about gays, or Muslims, or other groups. We’re so consumed, that we forget about other forms of discrimination and we also don’t try to be allies.
At the same time, Black groups need to make it clear that we want to be allies with other communities. I think that’s something that’s maybe unsure about Black communities elsewhere. Even though I’m as vested as any other Black person in fighting anti-Black racism, the lack of embracing of underrepresented groups is problematic. I mean, we can afford to do that in the US, where Black numbers are so big. But in Europe, if anti-Black racism activists were more willing to fight people fighting against Islamophobia, against homophobia and really create a coalition and they need to work together [with other groups] and that would be more successful. Because in terms of numbers Black people are just not enough [here].
And at the end of the day, we’re all fighting discrimination.
What should you know if you’re moving to Germany?
It is important to consider language. It takes Germans a long time to warm up, at least more than Americans. But if you get a couple of friends, that will really be for you. Speaking German helps. There’s a difference to your friendship or value when you can interact with a person in their own language, even though many Germans speak English well.
Another thing is, Berlin is such a historical city. There’s so much to see. I think walking around the city and seeing the different monuments – memorials to where a Jewish person lived and a record of the Holocaust. I feel like over time, there’s different places I pass which have some sort of significant historical significance. Just walk the city as much as you can. It’s not like London or New York that have centers. Berlin doesn’t really have a center. Each part of Berlin has its own flair. People look different. Every major part of Berlin is like it’s own town. And that’s really fascinating.