In her native Kenya, Ashley Njoroge never experienced prejudice because of the color of her skin. It wasn’t until she arrived in Berkeley for undergraduate studies that she began to feel acutely aware of her Blackness.
“I knew I was Black but it wasn’t something that I consciously thought about,” she said. “It didn’t change the way I had to behave (in Kenya), but here it does.”
Njoroge, a sophomore, tells me this over coffee at Caffe Strada, an establishment almost 10,000 miles from her home in Nairobi. She’s wearing a tank top now, but she tells me that last year I would’ve found her in a hoodie — she wore one almost everyday as she adjusted to the Berkeley weather. For Njoroge, California is a few too many miles away from the equator and 70 degrees is a couple degrees too few. But when she came to Berkeley, the weather wasn’t a problem compared to the other differences she needed to acclimate to.
Njoroge’s race has never put her in a minority category. Although Nairobi’s people have myriad racial backgrounds, the population there is predominantly Black. Now attending UC Berkeley, a school with an only 3 percent Black population, she is, for the first time, experiencing life as part of a minority group. Njoroge tells me that during her first year, she struggled with the tension-filled American idea of racial identity. She felt Berkeley students were obsessed with “putting people in boxes.” Her box was her racial label. She said she can’t go a day without being the inadvertent butt of a racist joke or being asked what her experience with different situations has been as a Black person.
Although she is Black, she struggles with how to relate to the Black Lives Matter movement in the way people expect her to. Her own experience, as a Kenyan, feels removed from the issues raised by the movement.
“I can’t really relate to African-American people, because they grew up in a context where they’ve been racially discriminated against their whole lives, and I haven’t been,” she said.
Aside from the emphasis on racial identity, Njoroge was also surprised by UC Berkeley students’ ignorance about her home country. “Honestly, I didn’t know people knew so little about Africa,” she said. “Now I say I’m from Africa instead of Kenya.”
Njoroge, whose dark, braided hair goes a little past her shoulders, tells me she’s been asked if she had her braids at birth, if she owns pet giraffes and if Africa is a country in South America.
Yet Njoroge is determined not to let her time at UC Berkeley be defined by race. She is pursuing a double major in computer science and cognitive science. She wants to return to Kenya permanently at some point in the next 10 years and dreams of instilling a start-up culture in Nairobi similar to that of the Bay Area’s. “I speak to a ton of people (in Kenya) who are young and have good ideas, but there are no mechanisms in place to channel that,” she said. “So we are hindered in our development as a country.”
Her box was her racial label. She said she can’t go a day without being the inadvertent butt of a racist joke or being asked what her experience with different situations has been as a Black person.
Her interest in technology is what originally pulled her to the Bay and is what compels her to remain. Although it takes $900 and 41 hours via plane, train and car to reach her parents and little brother, her cousin, a LinkedIn employee, is just a BART ride away. She has also found a family in Berkeley Model United Nations, where she relishes the ability to speak in Swahili to a Kenyan student she has befriended.
She is happy with her choice to leave Kenya — but suspects that after she briefly returns to get her visa renewed this summer, she won’t be back for a very long time. “There won’t be time (to go back),” she tells me: “When you have that visa for x amount of years you need to use it.” For Njoroge, this means five to 10 more years without regular dirt biking and fishing in the stream in her backyard, without seeing elephants and lions on regular day trips to animal reserves, without chapati — a type of flatbread reminiscent of naan that she fills with butternut squash and sugar. This, most of all, means years without seeing her family. All of this is sacrificed for the ability to learn as much as possible during her time here, what she tells me is her main goal at UC Berkeley and in the Bay Area.
Njoroge has a home here: She may not be doing motocross on Kenyan tracks, but she loves going to San Francisco’s art galleries and relishes the opportunity to go see Beyoncé in concert. Though she is farther away than most students, she tells me when she must return to the U.S. after renewing her visa, she will be fine, it will be nothing exceptional. “It’s true for everyone: You’re always leaving home to go home.”
Kate Wolffe is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]