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UMKC’s Chiluba Musonda on Changing Names and Continents

For several years when he was a student at UMKC, Chiluba Musonda went by a different name: John. Today he is one of UMKC’s international student advisors, but until 2009, he was an international student from Zambia, “a minority, within a minority, within a minority.”

“It was a very lonely position,” Musonda said. “I looked different, dressed different, and sounded different. So I thought the best way to try to adjust and to fit in was to go by an English name.”

In his new book, Home Away from Home: the Story of an International Student’s Journey from Africa to America, Musonda tells how his mother came to visit in 2008, listened to everyone on campus call him by this more “American” name, and said nothing — until he went back home for Christmas when she sat him down to dish out some tough love.

“She looked at me,” Musonda recalls, “and [she] said, ‘You’ve got self-confidence issues. You don’t have to go by John. You don’t have to sell yourself out. Remember, people must be able to identify who you are, where you’re from. You must be able to carry every part of your identity. You trying to blend in benefits nobody. Do you feel better about yourself? People calling you a name that’s not yours?’”

Musonda
Musonda

Musonda left out the more explicit language his mother used, saving the full impact for his book. When he returned from that 2009 trip, he went back to his given name, Chiluba. He realized he could be an American while acknowledging and accepting the Zambia in him. He reveals more about this whole process in Home Away from Home.

“This book is really a self-discovery journey,” he said. “I talk about how I found myself -– it’s crazy. Born and raised in Zambia, I discovered myself in Kansas City at UMKC.”

As a young boy in Zambia, Musonda grew up dreaming of an America which was more of a picture-perfect, gigantic Hollywood.

“Growing up,” he said, “I listened to all of the music that every young child in America listens to. I used to watch MTV’s Cribs, I used to watch CNN, every now and then I would watch BET. That’s where all my heroes were. The thing that led me to America, other than the fact that my mother wanted me to study abroad, was that when I came here, in my heart, I thought I was going to drive a Cadillac with the big rims, and I would have ten thousand girlfriends.”

He never imagined he would ever see America, much less study and eventually live there. In 2004, shortly after he graduated high school, he and his mother sat down at their computer. Musonda typed “mid-sized American universities” into the Yahoo! search engine and found himself staring at a list of very unfamiliar places.

“UMKC happened to be on that list on that search page,” Musonda said. “So I applied randomly to UMKC –- random, I had no idea what KC was like, I had no idea what UMKC stood for.”

Musonda’s book tells more about his coming to UMKC: how his family managed to pool their resources to meet the UMKC financial admission requirements, how his mother ended up paying for his school, and how his tuition bill went from $7,129 the first semester to, after his scholarships and assistance, only $0.84 in his final semester as a graduate student. Perhaps most importantly, Home Away from Home details the full experience of Musonda’s path as that hopeful boy from Zambia who discovers himself at UMKC, something he hopes will serve to educate each side of the ocean about the other.

“Americans have this concept of Africa that it’s one big village,” Musonda said. “Everyone there has AIDS, there’s war and desert, there’s a lion called Cecil that got shot. That’s the concept that everyone has about Africa. And then back in Africa, everyone thinks I’m in Hollywood, hanging out with Taylor Swift and Kanye West. And that’s not the case. There’s gotta be education on both sides.”

The cover of Chiluba Musonda’s book embodies his story. The top half of the blue and yellow scheme is the downtown Kansas City skyline, but in the bottom half towards the foreground is a grass-lined road in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Musonda’s silhouette, from behind, walks toward the horizon.

Musonda’s book is self-published, the first book by his own Light a Candle Publishing Company.

“‘Light a Candle’ comes from one of my favorite quotes,” Musonda said, “which is that ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark.’ So focus on positivity. That spoke to me. When I wrote my book, I figured I was lighting a candle, I was bringing attention to issues that people are not aware of on both sides of the planet.”

It’s been quite a decade for Musonda. At age 25, he completed his Master’s in Public Administration with an emphasis in Nonprofit Management. In 2013, he married his college sweetheart. He works at the UMKC International Student Affairs Office advising international students, using his experiences to help ensure they follow the complex array of policies and to help them handle the cultural shock. Now, at age 29, he finished his first book.

“For me, my role was to bridge the gap between Africa and America,” Musonda said. “Am I bridging the gap in huge ways? No, I’m not. I’d be a fool to think that. But I like to think of someone throwing a pebble or stone in the big ocean. That small pebble still creates a ripple effect. And if everyone starts throwing rocks, like Robert F. Kennedy once said, maybe we can create a wave of change. These small pebbles all have small ripple effects. So that’s what drives me… This is my way of leaving my mark.”

Home Away From Home is available at the UMKC Bookstore and on Amazon.

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