The year was 1984, and a young student from a remote region in the heart of Africa walked out of a small Jesuit mission in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Makim Mputubwele was leaving a torn country to study applied linguistics in the sprawling, peaceful landscapes of Indiana. Having grown up in a country with an education system tightly overseen by colonial Belgium, Makim was among the first generation of Congolese to have the option of pursuing education outside of a country that continues to suffer from the lingering impact of destabilizing influence as well as decades of extreme poverty and violent internal conflict.
A PhD, a young family, and a relocation later, Makim walked his son Ngofeen to the doors of Isaac Burton Tigrett Middle School. An incoming seventh grader at a diverse public school in the center of an interstate town, Ngofeen struggled to resolve competing narratives of who he should be.
“I was a French-speaking African-American who was the son of immigrants from a country that no one had heard of,” he said. “I had strong social and cultural ties to Congo, loved singing, and enjoyed cooking with my mom in the kitchen. In many ways it was hard to relate to other teenagers in West Tennessee. Needless to say, I felt different.”
In Jackson, as everywhere, youth dive headfirst into pre-set moulds, styles, and identities that are easy to wrap themselves into. Though it’s a natural defense mechanism to help cope with the awkward teenage years, this often sets and hardens by early adulthood. Soon we lose our ability to shed ideas of who we think we are supposed to be.
“It didn’t seem like I could step into an off-the-shelf identity like a lot of other kids could,” Ngofeen said. “To survive I tried to crouch unassumingly in the background of social settings or stack accomplishments in school that made me feel worthy of people’s time of day. The reality was that the shyness and overachieving were my crutches for not knowing who I was.”
The Mputubweles were one of the only Congolese families within a 100-mile radius of Jackson. The concept of diversity in the schools, churches, and groups in which Ngofeen took part took on a different meaning. Complex questions about race and what it meant to be a Congolese-American in the South were difficult to reconcile. Traditional, easy-to-identify lines we have drawn across our communities—whether it is black versus white, public school versus private, white collar versus blue, Baptist versus Methodist, UT versus Ole Miss—are easy to spot, align with, and embrace.
“Looking back on it, for better or worse, my identity became helping other people discover theirs,” Ngofeen recalls.
It was, however, Ngofeen’s unique background and continual reflection about his identity mixed with his genuine desire to understand the personal, social, and cultural architecture of people’s lives that laid the foundation for a burgeoning career in a new, frictionless form of media that is sharpening the imagination and curiosity of a generation.
Over the past few years, millennials appear not to have tired from their endless pursuit of information. Perhaps they’re not as TV-obsessed as their parents’ generation, but they are dedicated to seeking alternative ways to consume content.
Though it’s nothing entirely new, podcasting is a blend of radio, publications, and audio books exploring a nearly infinite variety of topics. At its core, the art of podcasting is grounded on producing, packaging, and distributing audio storytelling on newer channels like iTunes and Spotify. Serving as a break from the up to five hours a day we spend on our screens every day, more than a quarter of Americans every month—seventy-three million people—have turned to podcasts as a way to fit more information into the dwindling white spaces of their lives.
It is in these stretches of time as we drive, exercise, and clean where many millennials are increasingly discovering themselves and the world around them. In a sense, it is the anti-Snapchat, in which the attraction rests not on fluffy, fleeting interactions with acquaintances but rather on crafting meaningful, digestible, audible portraits of topics that both inform and inspire us.
It is here in this booming market for bite-sized understanding, depth, and authenticity that Ngofeen has jumped headfirst.
“Storytelling has always been part of my identity,” he said. “It’s been a way for me to relate to the world around me and hopefully a way that I can contribute to helping others do the same.”
Though the destination is now clear, the path was winding. Stepping off of the graduation stage at Jackson Central-Merry High School in 2004, the following ten years of Ngofeen’s education reflected his desire to understand and serve. Earning a master’s in international development and a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh, Ngofeen initially began working on topics related to human rights and immigration at the International Justice Mission and the U.S. Department of Justice before wading into a law career.
“After a few years working at a law firm, I came to a point where it just wasn’t enough,” he explained. “I had been practicing podcasting through my own series The Power Is Out. By doing that after work and on the weekends, I knew I wanted to explore life outside of practicing law. Once I realized that, I moved to Brooklyn to pursue this growing dream I had to tell stories through podcasting.”
Landing a job at Gimlet Media, one of the country’s top podcasting companies, Ngofeen began applying his unique background, exceptional creativity, and talent for softly uncovering the layers of stories. He dug into the history of apartheid in South Africa for the series Twice Removed and researched how music in TV news influences viewers for Every Little Thing.
This April, the strands of Ngofeen’s own personal story cinched ever so slightly tighter. In the run up to the 2018 World Cup, Gimlet Media launched a podcast series exploring legendary World Cup games that helped define the world’s largest sporting event. As a producer of the series We Came to Win, Ngofeen focused on an episode highlighting the 1974 game between Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazil. Referred to as one of the strangest games in World Cup history, Ngofeen uncovered the fascinating history behind a play in the eighty-fourth minute that represented the intersection of ruthless political power, humanity, and sport.
“Studying this one soccer match was one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever done,” he said. “Of course I enjoyed it because it was a story about Zaire but also because it is rare to have so much history, so much soul, and so much misunderstanding around one seemingly insignificant action. It was one kick, one protest, and one yellow card at the end of one otherwise forgettable blowout game. And that’s where the story starts.”
It is often in moments of seeming insignificance like these that, after reflection, solidify as cornerstones of our identity. Whether it is public jab at a dictator at the end of forgotten World Cup game or a walk to the red doors of a middle school in early August, there is power through storytelling as it uncovers and explains the mechanics of what makes us tick.
Ngofeen is a young master of this trade. In the case of Jackson, he has seen the uniqueness of a wide space along I-40 where many would only see a patch of chain restaurants and a Walmart. He has understood that the DNA of America is embedded in the crossroads that Jackson embodies. As a rooted local with sky-touching, acre-covering branches of perspective, Ngofeen has become comfortable in the briar patch of navigating one’s personal identity and has found meaning in inviting people to join him to discover theirs.
Learn more about The Power Is Out on their website.
A native of Jackson, Jon Mark Walls is a social entrepreneur, lecturer, and speechwriter who is driven by the idea that better communication can lead to better politics. Having worked for the United Nations as well as various governments and NGOs, he co-founded GovFaces which aimed to improve interactive communication between citizens and representatives. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Jon Mark has sought to blend traditional communications approaches with new technologies and develop ways of delivering ideas across all levels of society.
Photography provided by Ngofeen Mputubwele.