My name is Karī and I am a writer and a storyteller. As a Pollenite, I’m interested in telling stories that illuminate our differences with beauty and grace and show our dissimilarities as a way to build connections. This column is an opportunity to tell you about who I am, while exploring race and identity in America and beyond from a cross cultural perspective.
Catching my breath
17 + 12 = 29
In a few months, I will be 30. If I stayed in Minnesota another five years I would be equal parts American and Kenyan. Although for my mother, the scales have already tipped and she fears that she has lost parts of her Kenyan daughter to the American soil that carried my feet in the days, months, and minutes between December 6th, 2004, when I first arrived, and July 13th, 2016 when I boarded an outbound plane at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The same airport I had first landed in those 12 years and winters ago.
As a child in Nairobi, the United States, as with many other immigrants, was an amorphous country defined by Hollywood and New York City. I wasn’t sure of what happened in the expanse of land between the two anchor cities, though I had heard of places like Chicago, and Boston, and Philadelphia. At age 17, a series of decisions and non-decisions on my part would land me in a Midwestern state roughly 1/2 the size of Kenya: Minnesota. This experience would be one of the most transformative things to ever happen to me, shining a light brightly on the things I took for granted and assumed to be universal.
Much like I hadn’t expected to find myself here, I never expected to fall in love with this state, or its people. But these things happen, life unfolds and suddenly you find that you have spent the last 12 years learning about yourself within new borders—growing, feeling, loving, losing, becoming, but ultimately thriving.
In that vein, something else happened this summer. A new journey that sent me in search of things I had lost along the way or could no longer locate. Funded in part by the Jerome Foundation, I spent five weeks collecting the stories of me and the people like me: the sons and daughters of Africa in the 21st century. There was much to be told and much to remember on this journey. There was also much to forget because the experience of living in foreign lands, particularly as a Black African in the U.S., can be painful, difficult, and also very lonely. Lonely because your experience of Blackness never quite matches the cultural setting it finds itself in, and you spend many minutes and days in search of the rooms filled with people like you.
As a writer, I fought this aloneness for years before embracing it for the gift that it is—the gift of altered perspective.
I left Minnesota in early July, my altered perspective in tow, drifted south to Texas then farther east than most have travelled, to the Nairobi of my birth. Eventually I traveled to that city that graces the Western Cape of South Africa: Cape Town. During this journey, I was reminded of the beauty of Global Blackness and of Ubuntu at a time when America’s wounds have sullied my existence. I am grateful for this brief respite. Appreciative of the privilege of turning my head away from the macabre and troubling existence of Black in America and towards a global celebration of its varied existence in other locales.
I am filling my lungs with the breath that feels so constricted lately and existing in another form of Blackness. Even if only for a time.
This is the first in a series of essays by Karī Mugo for Pollen. Karī is a 2016 Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Artist, former and current contributor to various outlets in the U.S., and a freelance writer and performer. Her words mainly live on the internet and have also appeared on the radio, and on stage.