By Jazlyn Andrews
As we left the apartment this morning, it was clear to see that we were all still recovering from a long, jet-lagged journey. We struggled to keep our eyes open and our bodies upright on the U-Bahn, but luckily the fight to stay awake ended once we got the opportunity to meet our Stefanie-Lahya Ndeshipewa Aukongo. Preferring to use her second first name—taken from a missionary’s wife who worked with her grandfather—Lahya’s bountiful energy was infectious, and soon we were so enthralled by her life story that we couldn’t help but to stay engaged. A self-identified artist and author of her autobiography, Kalungas Kind, Lahya uses her professional experience and creativity to find low-budget marketing options for African entrepreneurs. First introducing herself by telling us the meaning of her names, one thing became very clear: Lahya’s personal narrative is very political. At one point in the conversation, she questioned, “If I’m so intersectional, where do I belong?” Perhaps the meaning of her last name can lead us to the answer. Aukongo means “we’re all together,” a belief that is a driving force behind her personal and professional life.
During the Namibian civil wars with South Africa, Lahya’s mother was so horribly injured during a bombing that killed between six hundred and one thousand people, that doctors flew her to Germany for critical medical attention. Born shortly thereafter on September 13, 1978 in Berlin, her delivery wasn’t without complications. Lahya suffered injuries while in the womb, and was unable to move one side of her body. Still thankful for the medical care she received at the German hospital, Lahya’s mother chose her first name to be Stefanie after one of the nurses who helped deliver her. Her third name, Ndeshipewa, means, “I appreciate others and others appreciate me.” Despite the short time for recuperation, Lahya’s mother was sent back to a refugee camp in Angola a mere sixteen months later. Lahya was taken in by a white German foster family that showered her with love, exclaiming, “It wouldn’t matter if you were purple! We’d still love you!” Still, she felt as though her Blackness offered her a wisdom that no one in her predominately white childhood could give her. Similarly Marion Kaplan’s, author of “The School Lives of Jewish Children and Youth in the Third Reich,” writes, “Jewish children who attended Jewish schools lived a dual existence: safety in school and danger outside.” Lahya, too, lived a double life: one scrawled out in her journal and another on the streets of East Berlin. Afraid that any sign of her discomfort would be reason enough for her to be sent back to Namibia, Lahya would always be smiling, but could only find consolation when letting her voice flow through her artistic expressions. Only through her writing could she find the freedom she desired to express her intersectional experiences in such a homogenous setting.
We spent much of the class discussing the ways in which her perceptions of Black identity were shaped by the white culture that engulfed her. Forced to view Namibia through the dominant white lens that constructed controlling images of Africans as primitive, Lahya had to navigate and create her own sense of belonging and home. While able to distance herself from the controlling images of her far-away relatives in Namibia, Lahya was unable to escape her markers of Blackness. She described to us the first time she realized that she was different from her white peers after having been suspected of stealing at her school. Even though she never stole anything, and even had witnesses vouch for her, her bag was searched every day after school from then on. As Sandrine Micosse-Aikins and Sharon Dodua Otoo argue in the introduction to The Little Book of Big Visions: How to be an Artist and Revolutionize the World, “In predominantly white contexts, Black artists need to take the dreams, needs and visions of our communities into account and, by doing so, we often develop strategies to disrupt dominant normalities inspired by racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic worldviews.” At the age of fourteen, her father in Namibia wrote to Lahya saying it was time for her to come “home.” Her return was welcomed with wide-open arms and joyful singing outside the airport doors. After meeting her family and experiencing her culture for the first time, Lahya decided to use the platform that writing gave her to resist such controlling images by sharing her story.
Her autobiography explores her nuanced, intersectional identity as a Black Queer disabled woman, forcing the reader to make connections they may never have had to consider and to see how they all come together. Autobiographical texts like this are imperative to subverting what Maureen Maisha Eggers describes in “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging” as “oppressive and paternalistic connotations of Blackness” and opening up “a field for creative critical positionings.” Through her book, Aukongo is able to assert her sense of belonging to multiple positions, embracing her differences while affirming her identities.
Jazlyn Andrews hails from Grinnell, IA, so she is a pro at navigating corn mazes, driving tractors, and tipping cows. When she isn’t out in the fields, she enjoys majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and minoring in Race & Ethnic Studies at Colorado College. On the weekends, she likes to binge watch House of Cards, obsess over her corgi, Biscuit, and be goofy with friends. When she’s less lazy, she likes to go for runs, have solo dance parties to “Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monae, and listen to music outside in the sun. Her future plans include finishing up her final two years at school, then hopefully either moving back out to Seattle, WA to pursue a writing career or attending graduate school to extend her studies.