#WhyWeWork Evelyn Ngugi
Jason Nicco-Annan, Content Executive 20 April 2018
If there’s one word that accurately describes the digital gathering of YouTube creators and their millions of devoted fans, it would be 'community’. As a writer, filmmaker and social media manager, Evelyn Ngugi – a first-generation American born to Kenyan immigrants – couldn’t have found a better platform to express herself. “I've always wanted to tell stories,” she says over the phone from her apartment in Austin, Texas. “There’s even a picture of me in fifth grade dressed up as a film director for Career Day!”
She was 19 when she began to use YouTube as a digital diary, sharing stories about life in college and afterwards. Today, over 160,000 subscribers find joy in her popular YouTube channel, Evelyn From The Internets. Raking in over 12 million views, her hilarious commentary on cultural identity, race, popular culture is enjoyed by adoring fans around the globe – and she’s just getting started....
We caught up with Evelyn to talk more about her Dallas upbringing, the importance of identity in her projects – and her first trip to Kenya in a decade.
Tell us about yourself – who you are, where you're from, and what you do.
My name is Evelyn and I am a digital storyteller. My main platform is YouTube, but I strive to tell stories everywhere online. I get in where I can fit in! I consider myself to be from Texas – although I also grew up in Louisiana – and my family is from Kenya on both sides.
What was it like growing up in Texas?
I grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It was pretty diverse when I look back. It was a lot different to Louisiana, which was much smaller. When we moved to Texas our house was bigger and we didn’t talk to neighbours that much [laughs]. Texas was just big in general, and that took some getting used to. Over time I grew to love it and now I consider myself to be from Texas.
Is there a huge Kenyan community in Dallas?
Oh yeah! We have so many diverse communities – I don’t know if it’s because of the airport [laughs]. There is definitely a huge Kenyan community. I remember on Sundays when I was growing up we attended our regular "American" church and then we also went to our Kenyan church. But there are also lots of Liberian people and Congolese people.
There are also a lot of people from Tonga...lots of Vietnamese people; my best friend is Vietnamese and we basically grew up together. It wasn’t until I moved to Austin – that isn’t as diverse – that I realized how lucky I was to be surrounded by so many different cultures. I think it exposes you to different people and bigger possibilities. It’s so important that when you’re growing up to have different types of friends.
What was it like living in a Kenyan household in the States?
I feel like it was very Kenyan, in that my parents spoke their language in the house. But it wasn’t so Kenyan that I would...never have spaghetti. [laughs] There are some people that I grew up with whose parents wouldn’t serve them anything besides the traditional food, so they would discover American food outside of home, like in a restaurant or at school or something. But my mum was always big on trying to make different things, so we would have our traditional dishes of ugali and beans but we would also have American meals as well.
I feel like there are different categories of first-generation Kenyan kids you meet growing up: there are the kids who came to the US when they were five years old and there are the kids who were born here. There are the kids who only speak English and then there are those who speak all their mother tongues. Each category has a different experience and outlook. Sometimes I didn’t always feel like I fitted in because I only spoke English and my household wasn’t, like, 170 trillion per cent Kenyan all the time. To a certain extent I still don’t, but my journey has just been about being OK with the fact that you are the way you are!
How did you get started making videos?
I wanted to be a written journalist, but I still had a desire to play with visual media. So, all of my internships and side projects would always either be on the internet or had to do with video. Those skills helped me figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to tell stories.
I started YouTubing around 2008 or 2009. But prior to that I was already uploading videos to Facebook because it was more established at the time and that was how I was keeping in touch with all of my friends. I started experimenting with YouTube because it was this relatively new thing; it functioned in the same way as a social media network in that you could find friends and make friends with people that you'd never met before.
There was this natural hair movement that started on YouTube. I was going natural myself. Even though I was essentially making videos that were on-trend at the time, I guess it stood out because it was through a lens of comedy. So when I got bored with talking about my hair, I carried on uploading videos that were just personal stories about life in college and after college. That’s basically how I started!
Besides YouTube, you’ve worked on a lot of other projects outside of your YouTube channel: you do a lot of freelance writing, fundraising, and you co-founded and co-produce the non-fiction web series Austin While Black. What is the most important part of being a writer and communicator to you?
I’m very big on documentation. There are a lot of things in black American history that are forgotten, but they’ve been documented and so they can be unearthed and rediscovered by anyone with the time and resources to do so. And then there are some parts of history which have pretty much gone forever. So, whether it’s through humour, journalism, fiction or non-fiction, all my projects are driven by the need to leave a piece of myself behind, so someone knows that I existed. That’s a very powerful thing to want for yourself and it’s a very powerful thing to want for other people.
What benefits do you think your cultural identity offers?
I feel like my cultural identity gives me a home-base as far as who I’m speaking to. Even though anybody can watch me, it’s very clear that certain cultural references are for a certain group of people, and those are my people. But my cultural identity has also helped me connect to so many other people, even first-generation Americans who aren’t from the continent.
For instance, I once posted a video about what it’s like to be a first-gen American who can’t speak their mother tongue and an Indian viewer was like, “Oh my gosh, me too!” I can identify with so many different people, as we share the same general cultural experiences, which I think is cool. I think I bring a fresh and funny perspective that is always looking outward.
If you could give any advice to young Kenyans living abroad or back home, what would it be?
My advice would be to never stop. I think we get so consumed with wanting a five-year plan and making sure that everything that we do has some sense of purpose or conviction. I deal with this constantly. I think you end up getting stuck and you never actually take action. So instead, you should always do something and it’ll make sense later.
Why does sending money matter?
Do you or your family send money to Kenya?
I sent money recently while I was in Kenya. I was with my aunt who I grew up with in the States. We did a mission trip to Masai land and she strong-armed me into sponsoring the church there, so I had to send her some money. My parents send money frequently, usually to help with someone's school fees. A lot of the extended family members here in the States are at the stage where they are planning for the future and building houses back home. So sending money to maintain the construction sites is important.
Customers can save $100 a year by sending with WorldRemit vs Western Union. How far would $100 go in Kenya?
Well, I definitely had a hundred dollars on me at one point during my trip to Kenya and I can tell you for a fact that it disappeared very quickly! Between spending money on transportation to different places and shopping in the market – and getting the “foreigner tax” because of my accent [laughs] – it went pretty fast! I spent half of my time with my family and the other half with a travel group, and most of my money ran out when I was with the travel group.
Why do you believe sending money is so important?
Since most of my family lives back in Kenya, I would say that sending money is a way of maintaining a connection. Helping people out when you can, whether it’s in a time of celebration or in a time of loss, is a really special act. I think being able to contribute even though you’re not physically there is very important.