How the decision to share her story eventually led to the publication of Before the Butterfly Wakes.
I catch Ngozi Kemjika on a Thursday morning in late March. The UK is in the midst of their third COVID lockdown, and while this British-born writer, poet, speaker, and life coach is usually based in NYC, she’s been riding out the pandemic back home. But she’s not one to complain, especially since it’s allowed her the time and space to focus on building Simply Ngo, a platform and community to inspire confidence, encourage self-love, and remind women — particularly Black women and women of color — of their worth.
Below, Kemjika opens up about the series of events that led her to where she is today. She talks about the bullying and racism she experienced growing up in England as a Black girl, what it was like to spend almost a decade in and out of modeling, and how her decision to share her story about self-love, self-confidence, and healing eventually led to the publication of Before the Butterfly Wakes.
Tell me more about the inspiration behind Simply Ngo. Was there a specific moment when you decided to shift careers? Or was it something that slowly developed over time?
It was slowly building over time, for sure. However, in my mid-20s, I kind of had this breakdown or, rather, breakthrough. For a bit of back story, I grew up in a city that was quite racist and has a lot of history in the Atlantic slave trade. It has a dark past. So for me, growing up as a dark-skinned girl was very difficult. I was bullied for the way that I looked — for having dark skin and for being slim and small. It got to a stage where I couldn’t really cope with the bullying and started to self-harm. I didn’t want to die per se, but I definitely wanted to be accepted and validated. I later went into the modeling industry, which obviously is based predominantly on your looks — so not the easiest on my self-esteem. That heightened those issues as well. When I got to my 20s, I realized that there were a lot of patterns in my life where I sought validation, where I sought acceptance, where I really started to look and see that I really didn’t value myself or think highly of myself at all.
What came next? How did you process this breakdown into a breakthrough?
I started to question my beliefs, question my values, and look at the source of why those patterns were showing up in my life. And the source was that I needed to begin to value myself, begin to build my self-esteem, and begin to know that I was enough.
My mother worked in the library for 20 years, so I’ve always had a love of books, words, and writing. So during this healing period, I began to write. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and writing really saved me. I already had a collection of writings and poetry that I had been storing in my phone and journals from before, not necessarily realizing that this was going to turn into my book, Before the Butterfly Wakes. So the book really became a way to tell my story and to help other young girls dealing with self-esteem issues and lack of confidence. To tell them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
The book became the catalyst of the work that I do today. I began speaking on different panels and workshops focused on helping women build their self-love. And then I decided that I wanted to take it one step further and actually coach women who struggle with these issues. And that’s how The Butterfly Project came about.
Speaking of writing, over the past year — around the world but especially in the United States — we’ve witnessed the power of words to divide us and to unite us. How do you view the power of language to affect change both within yourself and your community?
There’s a quote that I love by C.S. Lewis that says, “We do not write to be understood; we write in order to understand.” Writing is such a healing tool that allows you to see on paper how you feel. And if you don’t want to necessarily see or read it back, it allows you to at least get those emotions out. Language is important for our healing. It’s important to pass on to others. It’s important to share. A story has the ability to do that. It has the ability to connect with people from all walks of life.
So much of your work is centered in the concept of self-love, which is such a loaded term. Break it down for us. When you say “self-love,” what specifically are you referring to?
Self-love is a dedication and a practice. It’s not one and done. It’s something that we are continually growing in…and sometimes we get things wrong. But it’s important to allow ourselves the room to make those mistakes so we can evolve and we can grow and we can learn from our mistakes. There’s definitely no right way to do this life, but I definitely believe that self-love is the foundation of all living practice. And once we begin that foundation, we are able to love others. We’re able to understand others and have empathy for others.
If self-love is a practice, what are some tangible, actionable tips that you would recommend to help people start strengthening that muscle. What’s something I can do today, tomorrow, this week?
A great place to start would be to begin recognizing how you feel in certain scenarios or when you’re around certain people. And to think…is the situation I’m in edifying me? Is it making me feel a certain way? Because when we start to question and have that awareness, it allows us to start building that self-esteem and self-love.
Something as simple as resting is also a great place to start. During these months in particular, we have a lot of time to reconnect with ourselves. By resting, we’re giving ourselves the space to ask those questions and really discover who we are — past our job, past our family, or past any external thing that we own. “Who do I actually believe that I am?” We can start thinking about that when we allow ourselves time to rest and reconnect.
Earlier you described the city you grew up in as predominantly racist, so I can’t help but pick your brain on the elephant in the room: Meghan Markle’s recent interview with Oprah. Being from the UK, I’m curious what your perspective is.
I was definitely not surprised by the story…I thought it was only a matter of time before something like this came out. Although I wasn’t in the UK when all the media stuff was going on with Meghan in the beginning of their marriage; I did see a lot of the articles. They portrayed her in a light that would not have been done to Kate or any of the other royal women. So I do not think that it’s shocking — although I’m not a massive royalist in the sense that I don’t think there necessarily needs to be a royal family. I don’t believe anybody’s better than anybody else, by blood or any other way, so I’m doubtful of the message that it sends out. I don’t think that the structure is needed in the modern day.
In the UK, racism is often hid or shot “under the covers,” which may be a product of the way that British people tend to be. So the interview was great in the sense that it pushed to the forefront the fact that racism CAN be a thing and it CAN affect your mental health in ways that are unimaginable — something I know from firsthand experience.
Shifting gears a bit, how does your sense of style impact your sense of self and self-love?
I’ve always had my own spin to my style and my own fashion. I wear what I want to wear. I have an understanding of what fits my shape, my style, and my mood. So I would also say that style relates to my personality and that it’s just authentically me. I wouldn’t say I have a style icon per se. I love the 70s and so sometimes you’ll see me in bell bottoms or certain prints, but I’m definitely someone who marches to the beat of my own drum. And my style reflects that.
How (if at all) does your style differ when you’re in New York vs the UK?
New York has had a huge impact on my life. For one, it’s given me the space to dress up or down (sometimes you want to rock a sneaker and not walk around with a heel, you know?). But beyond that, one of the beautiful things I love about the city is that you have the capacity to really just be yourself without anyone judging you or pointing fingers. I don’t necessarily need to fill any box and that’s allowed me to embrace both my style and myself.