Joe Shmoe may not be able to drop over Lomé over anything other than the clothes on his back; you probably can not.
When I first started backpacking, I had a long list of requirements that had to be met before I could consider going anywhere. Today I have more or less three – and even that is more than most people on the move can afford to allow themselves.
Today I just ask for a clean and safe hotel. An easy visa process. And a way to get there and back. This list has been lifted over years of travel in nearly seventy countries after finding myself in situations I would never have considered before. Sleep on an airport floor in Madrid if your hotel excludes you. Run to the Ghanaian border when your Togolese employer proves to be abusive. There is no money in Burkina Faso and should depend on the kindness of foreigners. Fight against altitude sickness on the slopes of Mount Everest.
After finding yourself in a situation that depended on the hospitality of a foreign society to survive, your list of non-negotiable issues changes rapidly.
Mobility rubs away from so many things we think are necessary for life. When we move not out of choice but out of necessity, we encounter other societies at their best or at their worst. If you are looking for air in a foreign language for a mountain, let yourself think about what really matters in life. If you have an influx of people from different backgrounds bordering you, it shows the truth about the societies in which we live.
Travel is not migration. Travel is only a small dose of what those who leave experience, knowing that they can never go back. But it gave me a lot of time and opportunity to think about these things. I first left Kenya for the first time until I was almost 20 years old. Up until that point, the trip in my family had been with our grandparents in the village every year or two. We were not even one of the families going on holiday to Mombasa – it was a luxury that exceeded our imagination. I think this is partly why I became such an avid reader and writer: as a child I had to imagine all these experiences that I could not experience in my real life, and everything I knew about the world was through the newspapers filtered and books I read so greedily. Without travel, I would simply have believed in them.
Travel forced my mind open in a way that books alone could not. I am not aware of the fact that my ability to travel as I do is very privileged. Besides money, I can physically go to most places. I had access to language teaching. I have a passport. (I also admit that the world would be a much worse place if even 10% more of the world population traveled as much as I did; it would be catastrophic for the environment.)
My academic life has opened up the world to me in a way that it absolutely does not have for other people of the same age and a similar background as mine. As we speak, millions of people around the world – mostly young and many in Africa – are moving in search of the space and opportunities that life has offered me. Many will die along the way. Some will lose everything. So I do not take for granted that I can travel without that fear.
Seeing myself in the eyes of others has nevertheless taught me a great deal about the nature of race and gender and other lines we draw in our societies. Something about a lone African woman traveling elicits interesting reactions from people. Retailers are watching me as I browse the corridors of American and Western European pharmacies and display hostility in Central Europe. Unbridled curiosity in Asia, and utter indifference or comic enthusiasm in Africa.
To be inappropriately suggested by men who think that travel alone is a statement of sexual availability. I learned that by just showing up, you force people to fight with their own prejudice about what blackness and womanhood can be. To travel like me – often alone, with nothing more than a backpack and a vague itinerary – is to completely surrender yourself to another society and its prejudices. It challenges you to continue to be fearless and to show up, or to walk away and return to your comfort zone. I learned to choose fearlessness.
Travel has systematically enforced and undermined my faith in human nature. Race, age, and gender are lenses through which other people see you and measure your ability to navigate through space. This is the difference between someone calling you a taxi because “Accra is dangerous” or letting you walk the 10 meters because they think you can handle it; this is the way people open doors for white men, but not for other people. Joe Shmoe may not be able to drop over Lomé over anything other than the clothes on his back; you probably can not.
But I also experienced the reverse. In Burkina Faso, I experienced so much hospitality that I was ashamed. I never ate in my restaurant once for the entire duration of my stay. Strangers welcomed me into their homes and gave me too much food because they had never seen a Kenyan before. They were bowled by my broken French. They could not wait to show me to their friends. While lying under the stars in the Danakil region of Ethiopia, I had a deep conversation about the future of Africa as my young guide saw it. I was the same welcome in Madagascar and again in Egypt. My Africanness has given me an opening in the lives of my hosts that other travelers – white, Western or wealthy – may never be able to experience. And I learned that the guidebook writers who proclaim people to be afraid of Africa may not experience the same Africa as I do.
Many of the ideas I have about migration were forged from my work, but refined by my own life as a traveler. It’s hard to be abstract across hostile borders if you know what it feels like to be pulled out of the immigration line and sent ‘for further investigation’ because you are the only black person in the group. It’s hard to theorize boundary walls when people in thin boats waving on the open water look like it’s your high school classmates or a neighbor of your child. It’s hard to believe in the idea of one correct way to manage human movement when you know firsthand that there are so many exceptions to all the apparent rules; exceptions based on nothing but a feeling that the person seeking it is ‘one of us’.
The speed with which so many corners of the world have collapsed in the racism and hatred surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that racism is the original sin of mankind – as gross violence, yes, but also as bureaucratic exclusion. And until the people who claim to be able to help those who experience racism give themselves a name, I do not see how the system can change. Migrants and refugees were the canaries in the coal mine of a system that could no longer hold. This global outbreak has robbed so many of our societies of their safety nets. Illusions of modernity and of what remains can be encouraging – networks of mutual aid and community support – but also horrific – people who will waste their anxious breath on the promotion and spread of hate. This is who we are when we are concerned about our worries, stripped of our pretense of progress and face to face with ourselves.
Excerpt taken from While you travel black: essays inspired by a life on the go by Nanjala Nyabola (Hurst), published on 19 November 2020.
Nanjala Nyabola is the author of the upcoming “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya” (ZED books / African Arguments, 2018). She is a Kenyan writer, humanitarian lawyer and political analyst, currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow her on Twitter at @ Nanjala1.