Interview: Abimisola And Malik On The Search For Identity As Young African Immigrants And Finding Community Through Their ‘Japa Diaries Podcast’

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Community. A word that comes up over five times in the span of our 45-minute conversation. For much of the 20th century, if you asked someone to define the word “community”, their response would most likely involve a physical location. One’s community is derived from one’s literal place in the world: one’s school or town or household. “A body of people or things viewed collectively,” the Oxford English Dictionary simply says. But perhaps it is Gwendolyn Brooks, that timeless American poet, that captured the true vastness and essence of the word as a collective term when she wrote: “we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” Varying definitions notwithstanding, the primary notion of “community” has clearly evolved with the times. In the 21st century, the word has stretched to include something both farther from and more intimate than one’s home: one’s own sense of identity. This, of course, makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that for many of us, it is the very act of leaving home that takes us on a journey of redefining and rediscovering community. This brings us back to that 45-minute conversation, featuring Abimisola and Malik, the two voices behind the Japa Diaries Podcast. 

The interview begins with that special type of lighthearted, poking banter that only those with siblings can truly understand, and the wholesome, easygoing energy that exists between them — much like in every episode of the podcast — is immediately clear. Discovering that they are siblings is a revelation, but one that puts a lot into context. They are punctual. Polite. Each displays an understated gravitas that is both grounded and endearing. We begin at the beginning, at the start of two lives lived mostly in Lagos (although both admit to having fond memories of other parts of Nigeria, having traveled a little with their parents as children). The boarding school education is quickly mentioned, and then, of course, the calculated emigration to further their studies in a faraway country, or to “japa”, as we like to say in Nigeria. And because this mass exodus has become more of an expectation than an option, a rite of passage for many young Nigerians trying to escape this prison cell of a country; something to aspire to rather than to consider… We often fail to consider how alienating and lonely leaving one’s country can truly be. But Abimisola reminds us, as she pushes her medicated glasses up the bridge of her nose, and recounts those first few months in America. “I found myself grasping for community, struggling to acclimatize, and in a desperate search for who I was,” she says.

It is this age-old chant of the immigrant, this human desire to share one’s personal experiences and possibly find one’s own tribe (both literally and figuratively) that birthed the idea of the podcast, and as a journalist, a natural born storyteller that she is, it’s easy to see why creating this sort of platform would appeal to Abimisola. “There’s something satisfying about being able to relate and validate one’s feelings and experiences. I wanted other people with a similar experience feeling like they were being seen and heard,” she says, explaining how she pitched the idea to her brother and got him on board. “It’s like yelling into a void to see who yells back, while also creating a sense of community”. On his part, Malik, having experienced his own share of wonder, disillusionment, and culture shock, liked the idea of the podcast, but was drawn, not only to the shared experiences of those he had encountered in the African diaspora but also to the disparities in people’s stories. “I had thought that many of our experiences as diasporans would be the same,” he explains with a small smile. “But it was interesting to find that although our experiences were similar, the stories were all very different. I felt the podcast would be a great way to grow a community and tell these stories. And besides,” he adds fondly, “my sister and I love working together.”

Podcasts have undoubtedly taken the world by storm, becoming a regular part of worldwide media consumption. As it stands (according to Insider Intelligence), there are over 2 million podcasts and 424.2 million podcast listeners worldwide in 2022, a 10.6% hike compared to 2021. Although it would seem that just about anybody can start a podcast these days, providing listeners with a unique, quality experience is another story entirely — making relatable, nuanced, and niche content all the more appealing.

While no one can say that the Japa trend is a brand new phenomenon (Nigerians have been leaving the country in search of greener pastures for decades), the number of yearly migrants does appear to be on a steady rise. “I wouldn’t say this Japa wave is unique to Nigerians,” Abimisola says when asked about it. “Ours is just trending now.” Interestingly, in spite of this trend, many of our diasporan brothers and sisters have argued that they don’t feel adequately represented in the media — a sentiment that Abimisola and Malika both share. “More representation would be nice,” Malik states, quite frankly. “Although there are some characters in Nollywood films that traveled abroad, the experience is often not captured. We hear a lot about ‘just got back from America’, but there’s more work to be done when it comes to telling the African immigrant story.” His sister readily agrees, citing a recent experience at an academic fellowship where none of the fellows were black, much less African: “We’re not represented enough. When people think about immigrants here, they often think about the Hispanic/Latino community. When they think about Africans, it’s always in terms of that same generic accent they think we all have and the fact that a lot of people move here to further their education. But there’s more to the story, and we’re more than that narrative.” This is where the Japa Diaries Podcast comes in; the gap in information that they hope to fill.

Just one season and nine episodes in, they’ve managed to cover an array of interesting topics including accents and code-switching, dating abroad, beauty standards, and depression — topics chosen for their relatability, timeliness, and timelessness. When I ask them to recommend just one episode that best captures their vibe, the question is tossed back and forth amidst laughter, each sibling just as curious as I am to hear what the other will say. “I enjoyed the Being Black and Dating episodes,” says Abimisola, to which Malik responds, “I liked the Accents episode, but I also think our first episode (Intro) is great because it sets the tone for the podcast.” While the podcast seems to look at the African immigrant experience from a more American lens, its guest list is not limited to Nigerians. I wonder aloud if there are any peculiarities they’ve observed from talking to people across the different demographics and nationalities they’ve interviewed thus far. Malik offers his response, tinged with a little sadness: “One thing that has been consistent in every one we’ve spoken to is a sense of identity crisis when they leave Africa. Everyone can relate to that identity crisis, and it always comes up.” It is this shared African experience and a candid yet vulnerable sense of collective understanding that the duo seems to carry into every episode. To borrow Abimisola’s words, it’s “kind of like a group therapy session.”

Of course, like most creative pursuits, podcasting often comes with its own fair share of trials and tribulations, and when I ask about theirs, the answer comes quickly, and almost in unison: “quality audio” has remained a challenge, they both agree, but one that leaves the necessary room for improvement. While in the long run, they hope for more sponsorships, endorsements, and hosting opportunities, they are content, for now, with taking the required baby steps to ensure that each season is better (and crisper) than the last. “The responses we’ve received have been really good so far. Listeners can expect a few more amazing episodes this season, and then hopefully we’ll be back for season two next Spring! We’re just getting started,” Abimisola assures us.

By the time we get to my final question about what they would want listeners to take away or learn from their podcast, I already have a pretty good idea of what it is they will say. It’s the answer, which in retrospect, has been at the heart of all of their answers:

“We want people to feel seen, heard and eager to engage. To feel like they are not alone, and like they have people.” 

In the end, as we say our goodbyes, I can’t help but think to myself that maybe this… this simple statement… is really what community is all about.

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