Podcast host and traveler Kia Natisse is not one to shy away from adventure – or the wild stories that make it worth it – so a trip to South Africa made sense. Natisse, a Buffalo native, went beyond the expat joys of living in Cape Town and discovered herself underwater. She found herself confronting her relationship with the ocean and connecting with herself in physically and mentally challenging environments. Working with Zandile Ndhlovu, South Africa’s first Black freediving specialist, a new experience was born, one which centered Black women.  

Freediving is not often an activity that is largely sung about across the Diaspora. In fact, the freediving space does not adequately represent Black freedivers. Even still, the decision came easily for one traveler. Inspired by a combination of intuitive callings, the freedom to work remotely, and the gentleness of a Black woman teacher, Kia Natisse embarked on the venture.

Kia Natisse tells Travel Noire about her life-changing experience freediving in South Africa and all the emotions that followed. Read on to find out more.

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Tell us about yourself

Hey! I’m Kia Miakka Natisse (she/her/they) and I’m the co-host of an NPR podcast called Invisibilia. We tell stories about the unseen forces in the world around us.

I’m also a multimedia artist and natural-born explorer. I love to wander, discover and create. I have lived and loved across the world – I once moved to Paris for a chef I met on Tinder. It didn’t work out, but my French got pretty decent and it was a good story. I’ll do a lot if it ends with a good story, lol. I currently live in my hometown, Buffalo, NY, where I moved in 2020. When I’m not working you can find me roller skating, DJing music at home, watering my plants, or trying to chase the sun.

What led you to South Africa?

Courtesy of Kia Matisse

I work remotely, and I knew I wanted to take advantage of that once things opened back up, especially to get out of Buffalo in the winter. The seasonal depression can be really hard on me. I started looking at places like Tulum or somewhere in Mexico, but I wanted to stay for a few weeks, and I don’t speak Spanish, so that didn’t feel like the best choice. Then one night I was at a kinda random Zoom dance party, and the DJ was only playing Afrobeat. The music reminded me that I had a good friend who moved to Cape Town with her family a few years back – they were disturbed by the Trump election and wanted to try living abroad. I had never been to South Africa, or even Africa before this trip. However, the fact that I had a friend there, English is spoken (among other languages), and February is summer, made it an easy choice.

And how did you come across Zandile Ndhlovu, South Africa's first Black freediving instructor?

Courtesy of Kia Matisse

I was working on a story about terrestrial bias, a term I learned in a book called Wild Blue Media by Melody Jue. The idea is that being land-dwelling creatures, biased of ways of knowing, and being in the ocean can teach us new perspectives. In the book, the author uses scuba diving as a means of getting in the water and addressing the bias. Problem was, I had done scuba once, and didn’t really like it – I found all the equipment and limited mobility overwhelming, hated the feeling of dry mouth that the oxygen tank gives. But, I knew that freediving was a way to get into the water with less equipment. So, I decided to search for a freediving instructor. I wanted the instructor to be Black – I was worried I would end up with an instructor who wouldn’t be sensitive to my culturally-specific anxieties. I love the water, but usually from the safety of the shore. I wanted to learn from someone who had the capacity to be gentle. Zandi met all those requirements and more! Her name was pretty much the first to show up in my search. Once I heard her talk about the ocean in her TedX Talk, where she acknowledged the trauma water has held for Black people, I knew I had found my guide.

How perfect that you were able to find Zandile and have a gentle and considerate transition back into the water. What was the experience like for you after months of being in routine and working from home?

Courtesy of Kia Natisse

I was excited and nervous! I entered the experience somewhat impulsively – I was looking for pretty much anything to wake me out of my routine and challenge my brain into something different. Freediving was definitely that! I was surprised by how much technical learning there was – the class was a certification course, so a quiz was involved. After my first day in the pool, I was really overwhelmed. Seeing how beautiful and graceful Zandi looks underwater betrays just how much work is involved to get down there! My body was not ready.

I also found myself confronting so many fears of the unknown, about what might be in the water, how I might survive there – even the idea that freediving “isn’t something that Black people do.” But working with Zandi kept me motivated. I had a trust for her that was greater than my fears. And the pride and joy of being a Black woman, in the ocean, learning from another Black woman, felt very special and sacred. She introduced me to the ocean as a spiritual entity that could be communed with, and for that I am forever grateful.

Do you have any future travel plans?

Nothing set yet, but with winter looming, I’m looking for another warm place to escape to – maybe Costa Rica?

Yes! Maybe even some future freediving activities while you're there. Our final question is about the advice you would offer anyone hoping to embark on a journey similar to yours?

I feel like my entire trip was guided by an intuition towards what my soul needed, so I’d encourage folks to look internally to what is calling their heart, and then have the courage to follow it. Maybe what you’re looking for is in the water, on a mountain, or in a tree – be willing to explore this world to find the things you need. Despite how humans might act at times, the Earth welcomes you. Journey with respect.

Listen to Kia speak about her freediving experience in the Invisibilia podcast episode here and follow Kia’s travels on Instagram.

Related: The Black Expat: Moving To Oaxaca, Mexico Provided Love And Grounding As A Black Woman Abroad