Ear to the Ground: Kabuika Kamunga

Ear to the Ground: Kabuika Kamunga

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As part of Chicago Matters series Beyond Borders, we have another story from our Ear to the Ground mentorship program. In Chicago, many immigrants form a close-knit community with people from their home country. They actively attend church and the same social functions. Living with others from the same country can provide a sense of safety and security, and cultural tradition. But for Ear to the Ground’s Kabuika Kamunga, that’s not always a good thing.

My name is Kabuika. I came to the U.S. 21 years ago. I left my family in Congo and came on my own. Back then, my Congolese identity was shaped by the community.

ambi: Ok now we’re gonna pray…

I went to church every Sunday. I went to Congolese parties. But as the years passed, my Congolese friends all got married and pregnant. And every celebration seemed geared around that. At first, I loved any reason to socialize. But I remember one day I was at this Congolese baby shower.

ambi: women conversation at church social hall

It was in the basement of a church in Evanston. Every woman was introduced formally. “This is so and so. She is this man’s wife. She is also that boy’s mother.” And everybody in the room will nod in recognition. Then came my turn.

“And this is Kabuika.” Silence.

My name seemed to hang in the air. There was a clear expectation from the other women that I had not fulfilled. That was the last time I went to an African baby shower.

Next year, I’ll be 40. I’m not married and I don’t have children. I‘ve come to the realization that I really don’t fit in the norms of my Congolese community.

My Nigerian friend Ayo Ashiru took me out to dinner to cheer me up.

ASHIRU: I’m eating like a true African. You eat the bone, you suck the marrow, it’s nutritious, lot of protein.

Ayo spend a lot of time at the normal community functions. He has 5 children. He says he enjoys spending time in the “daddies corner” at kids’ birthday parties. I told Ayo that there was no space for me in these mommies and daddies corners. But he disagreed.

ASHIRU: Of course, you’re single and you come there, you actually might come and be looking at your future wife there. There are single women there, too. So you know it’s for everybody. It’s not just for kids, not just for mommies and daddies. It’s for singles, too. There will be single women and single men there too.

But I am no longer sure that I want to get married. I love children, but I don’t know about having my own.

Plus, I was raised Catholic, but a couple of years ago, I converted to Judaism. So now I don’t want to go to church. When I told an African pastor I am not Christian, he said, “It doesn’t matter, come anyway.” But I don’t share those beliefs anymore. And so I don’t see Congolese every Sunday. Instead I go to the synagogue.

That’s where I met Sadiyah. She didn’t want to use her real name. She has been getting the same kind of criticism from the Nigerian community.

SADIYAH: Most of my friends don’t talk to me no more because they didn’t like me to convert to Jewish. And I think I stay away a little bit from Nigerian society.

Sadiyah is having problems with her husband. He doesn’t like her new faith. He wants her to be a Christian again and threatens to divorce her. This would further isolate her from the Nigerian community.

KIKAMA: In Africa we believe that there is no life outside of the community.

This is Pastor Kividi Kikama, the head of the New Community Church of Chicago, which serves African immigrants.

KIKAMA: We’re coming from a community life oriented, but we are here in a more individualistic society. And that has some effect on us as Africans.

So what if you do integrate into American society? And what if you’re not Christian, not married, and don’t have kids? Does that make you less Congolese?

KIKAMA: I’m not saying they’re less Congolese. They’re not really proud to be Congolese. If I’m proud of being Congolese, I would identify with other Congolese. But if I distance myself, I would lose my pride.

But other Africans I know say you can maintain your culture without the community.

OGETO: It’s an individual obligation as opposed to something which is an external force.

Symon Ogeto reassures me. Symon is Kenyan. He has lived in the U.S. for 23 years. He is very active in the African community, married with a child on the way. But he says culture is what you make of it.

OGETO: Culture, just like people, we’re moving targets. You can have Kenyan attributes with an American twist.

ambi: music and conversation at African dance party

I got invited to an African evening of dance and music. When I got to the nightclub, I was surprised to see so many of my African friends. It felt like a reunion, a celebration outside of the conventional box.

PARTY GOERS: Once I come here, I hear the music, I feel I’m at home. I have my people. Finally I have the opportunity to hang out with fellow Africans.

When I left the dance club, I felt energized to have partied as if I were back home. I may not fit at weddings and christenings, but at least I can go dancing and have a good time with my fellow Africans.

And when I’m at home by myself, I express my culture through cooking. 

When I cook a Shabbat meal, I cook a Congolese Shabbat meal. It’s basically I meal that I prepare every Friday. So through the cooking, I get to mix the two heritages: my jewishness as well as my Congolese heritage.

I mix the whole thing and put it into the oven. In a lot of ways, the meal is like my experience: mixing cultures and adapting to the situation at hand. Yes, I use aluminum foil instead of banana leaves to wrap the fish. But it’s still a Congolese dish, a Liboke de Poisson. I don’t know if this meal, or my life here in the U.S., is a perfect cultural blend, but I have to say it tastes pretty good.

I am Kabuika Kamunga for Chicago Public Radio.