Life. It can be really funny sometimes, bringing you people and experiences you never imagined — beautiful surprises that make you laugh, cry and grow.
For Kaylan Reid Shipanga, creator of the website, African American in Africa, her life journey has brought her from a life of privilege in the cozy suburbs of New York to Namibia. “During my years growing up, throughout college [Howard University] and my immediate post graduate years, I never imagined I would be living in Africa,” said Reid Shipanga. “It wasn’t until a trip to Barbados at the age of twenty-three that the thought of living abroad even crossed my mind.”
That trip to Barbados — the nation of her matrilineal lineage — happened just a few months after her mother’s sudden death. She had visited Barbados before as a child on family vacations. But on her first trip to the country as a young adult, something was different.
“What stood out the most to me was the energy and spirit of Bajans and how different life in a black-governed nation felt,” Reid Shipanga recalled. “The weather, the vibes of the people and the sense of community was infectious, and I knew I couldn’t go back to life as I knew it, in my cubicle in corporate America.”
Six months later, she decided to move to Barbados, where she lived for a year. Then, life brought her — or rather, returned her — to Africa, through a nonprofit called WorldTeach.
“WorldTeach offered programs in Namibia, Rwanda and Tanzania. I’ll be honest and admit that at the time I was hesitant to work in Rwanda based on the imagery from the media,” she said, adding that she would jump at the opportunity to visit Rwanda now. “So for me it came down to either Tanzania or Namibia. I had already missed the deadline for the Tanzania program and so after doing a little research on Namibia I decided that was where I was going.”
While preparing for the move, Reid Shipanga searched online for blogs or videos by other people like her — anything that could give her advice and perspectives on being someone of African descent who was living in Africa for the first time. She couldn’t find anything, so when she arrived, she decided to document her own story and upload it for the world to see.
“For the most part, my website [African American in Africa] and videos have been received extremely positively, by Americans and Namibians alike, as well as by people all over the world. Most African Americans say they’ve been tirelessly searching for a long time for information about the experience of African Americans living in Africa and were elated to come across my various web platforms. Most Namibians are thankful to me for showcasing their country in a positive light.”
In addition to her own story, Reid Shipanga now publishes interviews of other African Americans in Africa, featuring new profiles each month.
Namibia has been a life-changing experience for Reid Shipanga in many ways. She states that one of her favorite things about Namibia is the exposure to the African diaspora, particularly if you’re living in Windhoek. “By default you end up meeting people from Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Cameroon… from all over the continent. These experiences lead to the most fascinating conversations and networking. I also love how close you are to other nations, which makes it much easier to visit the rest of the continent as opposed to having to fly from all the way in from the U.S.”.
She has grown professionally, moving from an English teacher to an editor and graphic designer, and just last month, she got married to a Namibian! “My husband is the most caring, considerate, confident, intelligent and grounded man who I have ever dated,” gushed the newlywed.
She was very clear about her thoughts on the dating scene in Namibia. “Overall though it warms my heart to watch the Namibian marriages and relationships here. Weddings are a very big deal to most Namibian families and it’s just so the norm to see black couples here thriving regardless of a person’s weight, complexion or other physical attributes that it seems the West is so focused on – your blackness in and of itself is just fine the way it is”.
Her mantra has always been to stay away from the stereotypes and to keep her yourself open to new experiences and new people, and to see who or what life brought her way. “If I had been closed off to the dating scene in Namibia and fallen prey to all the stereotypes about African men I would have missed out on my husband”.
“Now that I am married and my presence here is a bit more solidified, I plan on doing a lot of traveling around the Continent.” In Reid Shipanga’s words, “some little African American/Namibian babies” will probably be on the way soon. She also plans to give birth to a book chronicling her experiences.
So, we were curious to find out if the Namibian transplant even missed anything about the United States. “I miss the 24/7-ness of the States – the shopping hours, the fact that you can find a good meal anytime of the day and I miss the attitude of accountability, particularly in customer service. For example, if your internet goes out in the States, you can count on the fact that calling the company will get you assistance by or at a certain time”.
When it comes to the issue of race relations, she admits that Namibia still has a long way to go. She misses the sense of Black consciousness and progressiveness in the U.S., and now realizes that she took so much of African American advancement for granted while growing up Black in America. “In Namibia it’s unfortunately not uncommon to come across racism from many White Namibians. Depending on the neighborhood or town you’re in you can easily find yourself receiving why are you sitting/shopping in here stares or simply being followed around by a White shopkeeper who assumes that you are a potential thief or couldn’t possibly afford what they’re selling. Sometimes it’s just an aggressive and condescending tone that’s used and you just know – okay, this person is a racist”.
While she often receives looks from Black Namibians who think she may be crazy for speaking up so loudly against racist behavior, she reminds herself that, “Black Namibians did fight for and obtain their liberation not too long ago (Namibia gained its independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990) and so their way of dealing with racial oppression right now is just that – their way of dealing with it”. In spite of this though, she wouldn’t change anything about her life in the country.
“To me, it’s fascinating to compare my experience living in New York, to living in Barbados to living in Namibia, to meeting Zimbabweans and Angolans in Namibia and to seeing first hand just how alike Black people around the world are despite colonialism and slavery. Yes, we are an extremely diverse and complex people, but when you move through these various sects, in hair salons or family gatherings or nightclubs, it’s like deja-vu and it’s simply phenomenal.”
If you are considering making the move to Africa, Reid Shipanga, has this advice: Be open to taking an opportunity out of your field. Remember, what is the norm where you are from is not the norm in your new country. And perhaps most importantly, “beware of who you discuss your desires of visiting or living on the Continent with. Too many people are extremely misinformed about life in Africa and will try to discourage you.”
For more advice from Kaylan Reid Shipanga, or to be featured on the website, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit AAIA. You can also follow her life in Namibia on her Youtube channel: African American in Africa