NGOWO - NOVEMBER 16, 2019
Ngowo: Growing up as a little girl in Cameroon, where I’m originally from, there were clear expectations of what a girl grew up to be, what a boy grew up to be. I never saw reflections of myself. But it was something that I felt is something that was real. And it was something that I just knew existed deep down inside of me. But I kept it a secret from everyone because you don’t see people that look like you, and you don’t see reflections of what you’re feeling. It’s hard to express that to the larger community. And I think [that fear] is all Christianity-based.
Going back with my wife, there are Africans in their 60s and 70s, who are so cool with how I present myself to the world with my Queerness. My great aunts are so welcoming to my wife and myself. And they’re like, ‘thank you for coming back home’ because it was a time when I stayed away. When I came here, I stayed away for fear of just, you know, the homophobia that can exist in the [African] continent. And not everyone is. But I’m so glad that I got to go back. Because I wanted to experience the continent as a Queer African boi. And there’s plenty [of us], and we do exist, and we do live in the continent. We’re not out and proud about it, but we’re there. And I mean, just this past summer when we were there, I ran into people and, you know, you make that little like eye contact and it’s just like, ‘Hey, I see you. I see you.’ You know what I’m saying? So, yeah.
Nancy: So, one, you know, who am I sitting across from? Can you tell everyone your name, pronouns, where you’re from and what brought you your family to The West?
Ngowo: Yeah. So my name is Ngowo Nessa and originally from Cameroon, born and raised til I was 18. Pronouns she/her/hers. What brought me here was my parents felt, I grew up in Cameroon until I was 18. Because my dad wanted us to have that African upbringing. But he also felt like he wanted us to experience another side of the world. So, I came here for college. And that’s what brought me here. But what brought me to Minneapolis is work.
Nancy: And what do you do [in life]?
Ngowo: I am a senior web designer for Best Buy corporate. And I’m also on the Pride Leadership Team. So, outside of my daily responsibilities of being creative and coding, I’m also a part of a team that is really invested in creating a culture that’s inclusive for the LGBTQ community on campus.
Nancy: And have you returned back home?
Ngowo: I’m going to give you a quick history. So, I knew I liked women in Cameroon, but I never— I did act on it, but I didn’t tell anyone. And so when I came here, I reignited a relationship with an old friend of mine. And then it— because I didn’t know what these feelings were I knew, ‘okay, I liked women,’ but it’s not talked about I don’t see other relationships like mine. So when I came here, I figured, ‘oh, okay, you’re a lesbian, and you like women, and it’s a taboo in Africa. Therefore, if you go back, you’re going to get killed or you’re going to get in trouble.’ So, I stayed away for like, 10 years. I did go back like after college in my late 20s. But I concealed my identity, you know, I’m masculine presenting, but I tone it down and I just— I was there for three weeks and spent time with my family. That time away was very difficult for me.
It was a period in my life where you can’t deny where you’re from. I felt like I was running away from the core essence of who I was as an African. I told myself— I’ve just felt a pull to go back home. And I said, ‘You know what, you just have to face it. Go back and see it for yourself. And if something happens, oh well.’ So, I went back, I came here, and then I went back five years later, and then I need to go back for like 10 years. And then — yes, that was a huge gap, a really huge gap.
And then when I finally went back, I had all these feelings inside of me —nervousness, excitement. I was already living into my, you know, masculine-presenting self. And so I didn’t tone it down completely, but I just did t-shirts and pants. It was the most transformative journey I’ve been on because you hear the stories of, ‘Oh, don’t go back. It’s illegal. You’re going to get killed. You know, folks are going to know that you look different. You’ll stand out.’ None of that happened. None of it happened. And it just really affirmed who I was to the core, you know, I got to walk the streets of Cameroon as an African queer Boi, you know what I’m saying? I interacted with the population. I had folks who we would just strike up a conversation, I walk in somewhere and I haven’t forgotten the language, it’s just something that you don’t forget.
Ngowo: So, I would just have conversations with random folks on the street. And honestly, I had to re-learn what it is to be African. Africans are just trying to exist. Folks aren’t looking out to see who’s Queer or who isn’t. And I happen to know a lot of Queer Africans who live in the continent. And so, I think that the homophobia that exists feels, to me — speaking from my experience — feels fear-based. I mean, you’re going to get I did get a few looks here and there. But that happens here. It happens anywhere, right? But I never felt unsafe at any point while I was there.
And so I actually have visions of going back and living longer than just a vacation. You know, even if it’s like a dual kind of thing where I live there part time — like this time of the year was really cold. Run out and get some heat. I mean, like it’s something that’s in the works where I can go back, you know, in the winter months here and then come back. When you go back, it’s like such an eye-opening experience. Like, I’m kind of mad at myself that I took the continent for granted. You know, when you’re in college, you’re like,’ Oh, it’s just home. Yeah, who cares?’ But now that I’m much older, it’s like, ‘oh my god, you could have capitalized on way more than you did’. And your dad is right: the quality of life there [is better]. And when you talk about the quality of life, and you talk about just walking around and being seen and not feeling like you’re constantly on guard of this feeling of being watched, you know, it’s so freeing, you know, like, the minute we land is just like this deep breath of ‘I can finally breathe. I’m home.’ I’m home, right? It’s funny, cuz when we were just there this summer, we were out. We drove like four hours out to this beach resort area. And my brothers had the music playing really loud. And we’re at this cabin, and it’s like midnight, and Junauda, my sister and I, we’re visiting and we’re like, oh my god, it’s funny how we’re all kind of waiting for the cops to pull up and say, ‘Who are these [queer people]? You know, who are these?’ And none of that happened. But that was in our subconscious. You know what I’m saying? And it’s not a good place to be in constantly. You know, it’s not a good mind frame to be in and I find myself doing that. I find myself shifting, like shifting. You know what I’m saying? I don’t want to have to shift. I just want to be my whole self. All the time. Every single minute of the day. That never happens there. It just never happens. Yeah, I have visions. I have dreams of also of doing the dual living thing.
"I DON'T WANT TO HAVE TO SHIFT. I JUST WANT TO BE MY WHOLE SELF. ALL THE TIME. EVER SINGLE MINUTE OF THE DAY."
Nancy: Do you know what it takes to be a dual citizen? Are you allowed to be a dual citizen to Cameroon?
Ngowo: I’m gonna get a Cameroonian ID so pretty much I’m not gonna present my American passport. But because I was born there, I just need an ID and my birth certificate and I’m fine. So yeah, I’m like, you know what? We’re doing that, it’s going down.
Nancy: You already talked about this. I’m really excited that you framed it in this way. So, I want to talk a little bit about borders and how it can change your definitions of home, identity and belonging. Can you describe a what would a world without borders looks like?
Ngowo: Hmm, that’s a good question. By borders, do you mean in terms of expressing all facets of who I am? Or are you talking about the borders of, say, immigration where you’re not allowed to maybe transplant to this country because of who you are? Any of it, both?
Nancy: How we are bordered and contained but also stifled from moving
"I FEEL LIKE BORDERS WERE PUT IN PLACE TO KEEP US APART. DEFINITELY TO KEEP US APART."
Ngowo: I think that’s a colonial mastermind. Personally, because I just feel like if all Black people in the Diaspora were allowed to move back onto the continent, we would be one big, massive force to be reckoned with. Do you know what I’m saying? I feel like borders were put in place to keep us apart. Definitely to keep us apart. Because when I go to New Orleans, when I go to the South, even here [in the Midwest], like, we’re the same people. We are the same people. My wife and I actually went on the slave trade path in Cameroon. Mind you, I didn’t know about that [history about Cameroon]. Like, we never learned about the slave trade in Cameroon as a kid in our educational system. You know what I’m saying? So I personally feel like as Black people, we have to do our own research and really figure out ways of [traveling to Africa]. Even if you don’t plan on moving back to the continent, at least go back to visit. Right? Because I feel like borders are limiting. It limits us and we’re limit-less folks. You know what I’m saying? Even if you look at the way Africa was divided, there’s no rhyme or reason. I’m really curious around what would happen if all the African countries just like the Europeans did become one union. The AU, right. Like, we will be so powerful. Nobody can touch us. No one. And that’s where I lament about the borders that have been created. And how we have bought into that idea that ‘Oh, you’re from Uganda. Therefore, we can’t be cool.’ You know, we’re not family. It’s like no, my African-Americans folks here, that’s my family. You’re my family. We’re all one Africa. Right? And I live for the day where we can see through that lie. I know that we were born to be great. And that’s why there’s a consistent policy to keep us down. Right? I mean, we don’t see that. Call me crazy, but I have visions of being a president in some African country and just being like, ‘Get rid of these borders. Get rid of it. Now.’ Nigerians, you can move into Cameroon.
"BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE BORDERS ARE LIMITING. IT LIMITS US AND WE'RE LIMIT-LESS FOLKS."
Nancy: Intercontinental traveling is impossible. Even crossing our own borders is impossible. And even talking about that, how that distorts our collective identity and history and knowledge of self. Separating, segregating ourselves has taken us all further away from our innate wisdom.
Ngowo: It really has. It really, really has. I feel like it’s our duty as Africans to figure out a way to get out of that. Get out of whatever it is because it’s our duty to go back to the continent and figure out a way to invest in the continent. And that’s a problem. Some of these companies are not owned by Africans, and that’s another problem. Ghanaians are going back. The British Ghanaians are going back. But I implore every Black person in the [African] Diaspora to [go back]. Like, your dollar will go way further in the continent than it would go here [in the West]. Your quality of life will improve. There’s community there. And don’t be afraid of this narrative around, oh, ‘Africans don’t like Black Americans and vice versa.’
Nancy: Colonial mastermind? I love that word.
Ngowo: Yes. That is just meant to keep us apart. Same with Queerness. Like, when my parents found out that I was queer, my dad was like, ‘Oh, it’s just a phase’. Or he went ‘Oh, I know people who were.’ And it’s just like, ‘oh, so you know [Queer] people, you’re 80 something and how long ago was that? You know what I’m saying? And so it’s a dual thing where I think Africans are okay with you being Queer if you’re not public about it. Which can be problematic, right? Because you’re okay with me being this person, but I can’t show PDA. Right? Or I can’t bring my girlfriend around, or if I bring her around, then that’s just my friend. So, I still struggle with that. But again, a lot of that [logic] is Christian-based. Because my dad would tell you that one of his late cousins used to be a pastor. And he said when the colonial masters came to Cameroon, they threw out a lot of the whatever they practiced, and were told to ‘respect this Bible.’ You’re no longer practicing — they call it witchcraft — which, I don’t know what to call it, so I’m not gonna give it a name. But I know that we weren’t raised on it because my parents weren’t raised Christian, you know?
Nancy: Oh, interesting. they never shared it with anybody?
Ngowo: They never shared it because he wouldn’t share with me because his great uncle didn’t grow up Christian. He grew up on something else. Even as a kid, long time ago, he didn’t have a name for the religion because my uncle didn’t wanna impart that wisdom onto my dad. But he said that my uncle was like a clairvoyant in the village. And his gift got stifled by the Bible. They were like ‘you’re no longer going to practice this. Whatever you’re doing, and we’re now following the Bible.’ And so all of his stuff got thrown out. All of it. Yes. And that’s how Christianity — on my dad’s side — he said that’s how Christianity came into his family.
Nancy: Wow. My parents said the first thing that happens in war is they destroy your museums, your literature, your art, all your religion, then have it replaced with theirs. Yes. I don’t hear the personal narrative of what that looks like, and undoing your prior self and then, someone giving you a mask and saying this is your flesh.
"MY PARENTS SAID THE FIRST THING THAT HAPPENS IN WAR IS THEY DESTROY YOUR MUSEUMS, YOUR LITERATURE, YOUR ART, ALL YOUR RELIGION, THEN HAVE IT REPLACED WITH THEIRS."
Ngowo: I remember as a kid, I was like eight, [my family] had this tradition long time ago where when somebody dies, you’d have a pot to represent that our ancestors are always with us, even though they might be gone physically or spiritually, they’re always with us. And I just remember this ceremony where there’s a wooden bowl with dirt representing all the ancestors that have passed away. It is really cool. But it’s just sad that none of that was recorded. We do know that stuff was destroyed, we don’t know what they practiced but we knew that Christianity was imposed upon them.
Nancy: There was a question here that will expand on what you just said. So borders like we were talking about before, they can change who you are the moment we cross them. So, by definition, our identities are inherently fluid. We’re all inherently Queer. You know, most times we don’t have the agency to define ourselves against power dynamics and outer struggles. And this false sense of security in the West, ‘you leave home to find safety elsewhere,’ even though you find even more subjugation and unsafe conditions where you leave. Which is kind of this myth around immigration and US foreign policy, how it’s influencing our experiences everywhere on the planet. So, I think now my question is can you talk a little bit about what essentially keeps us [Queer/Trans immigrants] away from home? And what prevents people from being safe in the world? Being with their families and living independent, full lives. What are these kind of elements at play you talk about in Christianity? I’m more interested about the complexity around neocolonialism and how it still festers the world today.
Ngowo: I like what you’re saying, because the goal was that I would come here for higher education and then go back, right? But it didn’t quite happen that way. And the reason is — I hate to say this — but I think that speaking, especially for Cameroon, the economy, some of our heads of states in the continent aren’t really ‘there’. They’re really puppets. And therefore, that translates into an infrastructure that is non-existent, is not beneficial, is not lucrative to the citizens of that country. The reason I didn’t go back is because twofold; I’m Queer, and also finding a job where I felt would be sustainable was not there. But my Queerness is what really kept me away. So I think there’s ways that we could move away from whatever political agenda that the West [has in store]. Like I said, we could create our own Africa. And for me, that’s my focus right now. Like, I’m not thinking barriers. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, I’m Queer, therefore, I can’t exist.’ I’m thinking it needs to happen now. The future is Africa. If I don’t step in, as an Africa or even anybody from the diaspora, if we don’t step in to the continent and create what we want to see in the world, someone else is going to do it. And that someone else is not going to look like us. And they’re already doing it. So, yeah, China is doing it. Belgium is doing it. The French are doing it. It’s sad that we’re so rich in so many natural resources. I just found out Cameroon was one of the largest timber exporting countries. Oh, you knew that? I couldn’t believe that. I’m like, oh my god, and where does that money go? It doesn’t get funneled back into the economy. It doesn’t. So, I don’t know if I answered your question.
"IF I DON'T STEP IN, AS AN AFRICA OR EVEN ANYBODY FROM THE DIASPORA, IF WE DON'T STEP IN THE CONTINENT AND CREATE WHAT WE WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD, SOMEONE ELSE IS GOING TO DO IT. AND THAT SOMEONE ELSE IS NOT GOING TO LOOK LIKE US."
Nancy: You did. You’re talking about all these conditions and all the things that don’t create the necessary environments for us to live fully.
Ngowo: Yeah, that’s what I was saying. I was afraid of being my true self as a Queer immigrant in the continent. And for some reason, that’s changing. I think that a lot of it was built on fear. The minute I stepped into the continent, with full ownership of myself, and just being like, ‘here I am, in all my glory, coming in peace and in love.’ I got nothing but love from the people. So like, that used to be my excuse, ‘oh, I can never go back because I could never live into my fullness, I could never live into my queerness.’ And all of that is fear. And I’ve overcome. It was hard, mentally, more so than actually living [physically] in the continent. So yeah, I think I’m saying that to say just go see for yourself.
"THAT USED TO BE MY EXCUSE, 'OH, I CAN NEVER GO BACK BECAUSE I COULD NEVER LIVE INTO MY FULLNESS, I COULD NEVER LIVE INTO MY QUEERNESS.' AND ALL OF THAT IS FEAR."
Nancy: Okay, we’re gonna pivot at something a little less heavy. How do you define Queerness?
Ngowo: Um, for me, I think Queerness is just a way of being. It’s about being politically conscious, for me, being respectful to myself and others and also creating space with people that may not look like you. Giving room for that, right?
Nancy: And how you define community and what do you think people need it?
Ngowo: Well, I think community is anyone that rides for me, for you, you know, folks that are able to celebrate you and have you in their circles but can also give you the hardcore constructive criticism on certain things. It’s like family. Community for me is family and family is unconditional love. So, people that will love you no matter what, and they will be truly honest with you about anything and would also celebrate you no matter what. That’s community and you need that.
Nancy: You do need it.
Ngowo: You do. I mean, like nobody is an island. I can be an introvert sometimes but you still need community. It’s uplifting right to feel seen and heard and celebrated and loved.
"IT'S UPLIFTING RIGHT TO FEEL SEEN AND HEARD AND CELEBRATED AND LOVED."
Nancy: And why do you think immigrants, especially Queer[and Trans] immigrants now need community more than ever?
Ngowo: When I tell you folks are not happy that we’re out here and we’re loud and proud. They’re not! The people that I think invested in this whole [idea of] there are no gay people in Africa, church-based folks and it’s like, nah, that’s not the Africa I know. And that’s not an Africa I want to be a part of, you know what I’m saying? And so immigrants I think sometimes might feel like they’re the only ones, or might feel like, there’s no one they can confide in, like there’s nobody else that would understand these feelings that they’re having. So, finding that immigrant community to share those feelings with is so important. And so I’m noticing a lot of Queer immigrant communities and little groups here sprouting out right now. And I think that we’re on the verge of impacting the continent.
Nancy: Yeah. Two more questions for you. Next question is what gives you joy?
Ngowo: I think living my authentic self brings me joy. I wasn’t always comfortable in my skin. And now I get to put my middle finger up and I’m like this is who I am. Take it or leave it. And that brings me a lot of joy and it’s taken a lot of work for me to get here. But I’m glad I’m in this space right now. Family and community gives me love. My wife and my little daughter, they bring me joy. And my immediate family, we went through it. When I tell you we went through, we went through it! But they’ve come around. So, all of that brings me a lot of joy. But I truly will not feel joyful until all my Queer immigrants and Queer folks in the world can live into the same kind of, you know, their authentic selves, their realness, like I’m doing. It eats me up. It does. Yeah.
Nancy: And to wrap this up, final question. So this is about cultural shifts and structural change. So If you could address the most influential public figures and decision makers in the state, what would you say about elevating the standards for LGBTQIA+ immigrants of color in the [Twin] Cities?
Ngowo: Man, my goal is to provide housing at some point down the road for Queer immigrants in Minneapolis. Even if it means renting out a room in our house. It’s not going to happen now but think that I’m working on something in the near future. And no one should have to experience homelessness just by way of who they are. Especially not in a state where we know that housing can be made available to folks. Right. But I would like to have a program where people could maybe offer up their homes for these Queer immigrant youth that may be homeless. Offer their homes for like three months at a time where they can live with you. How do we create spaces for Queer immigrant youth that could be experiencing homelessness? I don’t play the lottery, but if I came up on some money, hey, I would want to buy up a whole block. And just be like, let’s Queer it up! You know what I mean? I’m just saying that to say, yeah, I think that we need to take care of our youth. Our youth is the future.
Nancy: Anything else you want to add? I that’s all I have.
Ngowo: Thank you for this interview. Yeah, I appreciate you. Really. I’m glad I was able to lend my voice some way, shape or form.