In Conversation: Lulu Kitololo – Yes! I’m An Afropolitan & Afro-Optimist
What does it mean to be African or an African living in the diaspora? What about the daughter or son of African migrants born outside the continent, many of whom feel a strong sense of affinity to their motherland? It is a complex and complicated process even to assert the exact number of Africans living outside the continent. The World Bank estimates that over 30 million Africans fit into the category. It is no wonder, then, that at a time when we live in a world of instant global media reach on a 24-hour basis, with Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms readily at our fingertips, the discourse about African identities continues to evolve and be reconstructed. Hence, terms like Afropolitan, Afro-Optimist, Afro-Klectic, Afro-Phile, Afro-Centric, and Afri-Capitalist – if Afro is a noun, then all you need do is type it into Twitter search – AFRO – and an array of adjectives that extend beyond the above list will gladly welcome you to a world of identity creators in a cluttered space of online chaos. The Afros are growing (pun intended), aided by a savvy generation living in a new-media village.
Meet Lulu Vanessa Kitololo, 30, designer and creative director of Asilia, a company that offers design and digital products and services to empower people. A Kenya-Tanzanian, Kitololo was born in Kenya, currently based in the UK, and has created a blended identity for herself as an Afropolitan and Afro-optimist to give her a positive outlook about Africa’s potential.
Why describe yourself as Afropolitan and Afro-Optimist and how did you arrive at this definition of self and identity, given your heritage as a Kenyan-Tanzanian within a British space?
I describe myself as an Afropolitan and Afro-optimist because it’s great to have these aspirational words that bring like-minded people together, towards a positive end. Especially when you live in a space where there are few people like you and perceptions about you and where you come from is often skewed. In this day and age it’s really sad to see how beaten down our African psyches are – by non-Africans yes, but even by each other. For me, “Afropolitan” and “Afro-optimist” are labels to rally behind in terms of rediscovering our worth and asserting it. I believe that everything starts with the self. You cannot change the world if your house is not in order. And it starts from the innermost chamber – you the individual, then your community, your country and so on. Sometimes I think that leaving Kenya (where I was born and raised) and living in the US and UK have brought me to this definition of self and identity quicker than if I had never left Kenya. Becoming “the other” has forced me to reflect about why I’m the other, what it all means and how I can respond to it.
When you say Afropolitan, what do you mean and likewise Afro-Optimist?
By Afropolitan I mean a person of African heritage who has a cosmopolitan outlook and an active desire to make a positive impact in their community, country and continent. Therefore, for me, an Afropolitan is automatically an Afro-optimist. Is an Afro-optimist automatically an Afropolitan? If they consider themselves as such!
As a Kenyan-Tanzanian, why is identity and in particular your African identity important to you?
This is the most difficult of these questions to answer! My African identity colours everything about me and it flavours everything I do. My experiences, as a Kenyan-Tanzania, have shaped my life – I’m the unique individual I’m today because of them. When I went to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to do a Masters in African Studies, one common reaction that amused me was: “African studies? But you’re an African?” It was one of the best years of my life. I learned so many interesting things about culture, politics and creative production pertaining to various parts of the continent. I’m proud to identify with such a beautiful, exciting, complicated, fascinating place. I’m proud to identify with such resilient, ingenious, joyous people. I want the association. I guess on a level, I also want to prove a point. I want people to know that Africans can be smart, creative, eloquent, ambitious, and entrepreneurial. Things that I aspire to exude myself. I want people to rethink their assumptions.
Is this form of identity (Afropolitan and Afro-Optimist) exclusive to the cosmopolitan African Diaspora, especially when class comes into play or is it inclusive of Africans on the continent, who in all likelihood have never had the opportunity to travel outside the continent?
I’m not an Afropolitan because I have lived in various cities and continents. Even though many Africans on the continent haven’t had the opportunity to travel outside the continent, many of them do live in cosmopolitan areas where similar sensibilities to the ones you’ll find in people in cities in the West, apply. There’s a certain open-mindedness, savviness, drive, ingenuity and hustle that is associated with living in urban spaces. In my view, this is part of what it means to be an Afropolitan. Add how media and the internet brings the world to Africa, to the point where sometimes people on the continent know more about what is going on where you are abroad, than you do! Also, with technology, there is a sort of democratisation that happens that starts to blur the class divide ever so slightly. If you can access an internet cafe or an internet-enabled mobile phone, you can access the world, whether you physically travel abroad or not. When we talk of Afro-optimism, this is something I’ve felt since before I left the continent. I grew up with my father who is such a patriot and I think it rubbed off on us kids. These identities do not only exist in reaction to something. That’s to say, I’m not an Afro-optimist because of all the Afro-pessimism that’s daily beamed around the globe, although this gives me more conviction. I’m an Afro-optimist because I believe in our continent’s great capacity for creativity, innovation and heart, despite the growing pains that we, as relatively very young nations, experience.
Does being an Afropolitan and an Afro-Optimist involve being politically astute, economically balanced and culturally aware or is it simply a cultural movement, if it is a movement at all?
I think it’s more about open-mindedness, willingness to learn, being interested, proactiveness and a desire to improve your lot, whatever your lot is. That could be to improve your finances, to expand your knowledge, to live healthier, to participate more within your community and to participate in politics. Everybody has a different background, goals and interests and that does not exclude them from identifying as Afropolitans and Afro-optimists. In fact, the beauty of the term “Afropolitan” to me is that it’s all about a mix of experiences and interests. I don’t know if I would call it a movement because that implies conscious movement towards a singular aim and end goal. Because of the diversity of goals and interests I mentioned, every Afropolitan may have a different agenda. However, I do think that what unites us is that we complicate the idea of what it is to be African (and we have a bit of that ambassador syndrome going on).
Why was it important to you to identify as Afropolitan and Afro-Optimist, was there any particular incident or travel experience that evoked this way of thinking about who you are and made it intrinsic to your identity?
I left Kenya (and Africa) 12 years ago and have since lived in the US and UK. It’s leaving home that made me truly think about where I come from and truly become interested in learning more about that. While in university in the US, perhaps out of homesickness, perhaps just familiarity, I found that I sought the company of other Africans. We were all from different countries and different backgrounds and had different life experiences but there is a certain commonality that I observed. Furthermore, this mix was exciting. I had gone to international schools in Kenya but that mix did not include many Africans from different parts of the continent and diaspora. This was a whole new experience. I didn’t know about the word “Afropolitan” then but when I heard about it, it seemed the ideal word to describe this eclectic global African that I resonated with.
How long has it been since you started identifying as Afropolitan and Afro-optimist?
I have not actively referred to myself as an “Afropolitan”. What I mean is, even though I feel that it’s a useful adjective to describe my experience, I had never felt the need or desire to label myself such. After speaking at a panel at the V&A Friday Late – Afropolitans session in 2011, I did think more about referring to myself as one. I accepted that yes, perhaps there is a use to subscribing to this label. It’s a similar thing with “Afro-optimist”, I never introduce myself in this manner but I think that when you get to know me, it’s clear – from my interests to my ‘causes’ and my work.
What purpose do you feel the term and identifying as Afropolitan and Afro-Optimist serves if it is an umbrella for your identity as an individual?
It’s about confidence, self-worth, solidarity and belonging and unity. We are a diverse continent and there are many who would rather not be associated with their neighbours. But what does that serve? With Afropolitans, it’s not about what specific clan, tribe or country that you come from. Those differences are, in this instance, celebrated in terms of the beauty of diversity rather than used as weapons to divide and hurt.
What actions and steps have you taken to establish this identity and in what ways have people responded to you and it?
It feels strange to talk in terms of establishing an identity as that seems to imply that there is a plan with action steps. For me, it’s simply being who I am (and learning more about all the different pieces that make me who I am). I guess my blog, Afri-love, would be the best way to answer this. I consider the blog as a love letter to my continent and to myself. It’s quite self-indulgent in terms of being a place for me to share all the things that I love; my opinions, observations and experiences. So in that way it’s a good reflection of who I’m. The response has been great in terms of meeting, conversing with and getting to know a lot of like-minded people.
What is the most encouraging and awkward response that you get based on all you have said above about your identity?
I get emails from quite a few people, all over the world, who share with me how the blog gives them something useful – be it entertainment, inspiration or ideas. A couple of emails come to mind – One from a lady in Kenya, who said that the blog was encouraging her to think about supporting more local producers – it was introducing her to brands and organisations, in Kenya, that she didn’t know about. Another was from a woman of African descent living in Canada. She was quite despondent about the situation for black youth who are involved in gangs and criminal activity. She said that she looked forward to blog posts because they uplift her by bringing a fresh and positive perspective of African experiences. For me, these are examples of the supportive and collaborative spirit that I feel is part and parcel of these Afropolitan and Afro-optimist identities. With that, so much is possible.
The most awkward response?
Well, the most discouraging response is from people who assume it’s just all about style and looking good. That it’s like a fashion trend.
Are there others who identity with you and what is the connecting strand?
There are several others who identify with being Afropolitans. The proliferation of the name itself and online spaces such as MsAfropolitan.com (UK-based), The Afropolitan Experience (US-based) and so on. At the 2011, V&A Afropolitans Friday Late, the renowned London museum was packed with over 5,000 people! That’s 5,000 people who came to explore and enjoy Afropolitan culture. The connecting strand as I see is African heritage, cosmopolitan outlook and a desire to see positive change in our communities, countries and continent as a whole. Also, I think a desire to help make that change happen, in some way, however small, rather than sit around and wait for somebody else to do it.
What was growing up in Kenya/Tanzania like for you and when you compare that to the other countries you have travel lived in, how has your African identity shaped your outlook on life and global view as well as reaffirm your love for your heritage?
I had a great experience growing up in Kenya and spending a lot of my childhood in Tanzania. I fondly remember Christmas time in Tanzania – all my cousins and I would be shipped off to our grandparent’s house for a month. They lived on a small farm which was a great playground for 15 or so kids. It was very different from the city – which is where I lived, in Nairobi – and thus fascinating. We spent our days outside, exploring the outdoors, making up games, eating fruit off the trees when we were hungry, disobeying our parents and going to play in the cold stream. It sounds so idyllic and I feel so blessed that I actually experienced that. Evenings were all about singing and dancing and now, around 20 years later, every time I get together with these cousins – even though most of us don’t see each other for years at a time – there’s a special bond we have and it’s like we saw each other last week. And there’s again, plenty of dancing – anywhere and everywhere! This is something that I know a lot of my other African friends can relate to and it’s something that I have not observed much of in the other countries I’ve travelled to and lived in. Not in the same way. It’s the sense of community and propensity for joy and celebration that reaffirm my love for my heritage. I think these traits are part of what make me a passionate person and an unconditional optimist in general.
What are the challenges of being an African with an identity you have created for yourself, which came out of the space of being in a different environment to your African heritage and is that a reflection that you see yourself as a global citizen?
On some level, it does distance you from people at home (in Africa) who have not had the same experiences as you have. I think this is the case for a lot of people, whether they call themselves “Afropolitans” and “Afro-optimists” or not. Going abroad introduces you to different people and different cultures and your interests may change and evolve as a result. This to me is exactly what being an Afropolitan is about. Being a mixing pot, if you like. So yes, it’s about being a global citizen. You become very adaptable and find a way to be at ease in almost any circumstance, almost anywhere. You deal with this challenge by finding other people like you. It’s easier to find them when we have this term that describes our experience. A term that is an umbrella to such a diverse group of people. A term that unites despite those differences. Nowadays, going abroad is not one of the only means of exposure to different people and cultures. As a result of the internet, you can experience a lot of things without leaving your street! Which is another reason this issue of distance is slowly disappearing. I mean, a few years ago I was so surprised to find a goth shop in Nairobi! I observe that more people are becoming curious and pursuing their interests, however idiosyncratic, without feeling like they have to subscribe to a dominant popular culture.
What is it about Africa that you want to bring to people’s awareness in the age of social media with the work you do as as a creative person and through your website – Afri-love?
I want to complicate Africa. I want people to realise how multidimensional the continent and the experiences of its people are. As with any other continent and people. We don’t refer to “North America” and “Asia” and “Europe” in such blanket terms as much as we do “Africa”. So let’s break Africa down. Let’s not talk about African design, let’s talk about African product design and African graphic design. Let’s not talk about Africa at all. Let’s talk about Eastern Kenya and Western Cape … There is such a wealth of diversity on our continent, more so than in many parts of the world. The fact that one country can have more than 100 languages actively being spoken – let’s talk about that. Or about the hundreds of varieties of fruit that most of us have never even heard of. And let’s also put things in perspective. Let’s give proper context to all the negative things happening in various parts of Africa. Let’s encourage empathy over sympathy. Let’s show people that we’re struggling with a lot of the same things they are struggling with, just in a different environment.
Why do you think your generation of young Africans are now more willing to identify as Africans and come up with these very interesting names to describe themselves than in previous years?
The somewhat cynical answer: as the West pays more attention to, and in some cases even appropriates, African design and innovation, perhaps we feel more comfortable to say “yes, that’s where I’m from”! Some sort of glory by association. Sometimes it’s easier to appreciate what you have when somebody else wants it. Then there’s the issue of combating all the negative portrayals of our continent. Afropolitans consider themselves to be intelligent and creative and so they’re happy to stand up and say, “there is more to us Africans than what you see on TV”. I think that it’s a coming-of-age so to speak. Unlike my father’s generation, we have not lived under colonial rule and been overtly told that we are inferior. A lot of us have had opportunities that our parents perhaps couldn’t have imagined they’d ever live to see. We have also seen these same parents go from nothing to achieve a great deal. They have become the example that they themselves never had. Our countries are changing dramatically in short periods of time and there is a lot of hope in the air. I think all of these factors have a part to play in my generation feeling confident and proud to claim their heritage.
What are the challenges that come with identifying with being an Afropolitan like you do and how do you respond to any criticism that it is not needed or further divides?
Some people think that subscribing as an Afropolitan is elitist as they feel it’s a term that only applies to people living in the Diaspora. The Afropolitan term originated from diaspora experiences and as such, it has gained tremendous traction within the diaspora. Many in Africa assume that being in the diaspora means that you have a better life but being in the diaspora does not necessarily mean opportunity, wealth, comfort, privilege etc. It’s not that straightforward. However, some of us in the diaspora are happy to perpetuate this myth and that’s a problem. We risk falling into the same kind of thinking as those who don’t know better and those who would rather see the continent as a forsaken place in need of enlightenment from outside. There are others who just don’t like labels. I can understand that. I don’t go around introducing myself as an “Afropolitan” and “Afro-optimist” but as, Lulu. However, if you have to describe me, I’m more than happy for you to use those words. Throw in “African”, “Kenyan”, “Tanzanian”, “woman”, “designer” and “entrepreneur” while you’re at it.
Image credit: Jonathan Perugia Photography (Please do not use without permission)
Lulu Kitololo was interviewed as part of a series on African Identities. Read full feature: African Identities