When Ghana declared 2019 the Year Of Return I knew that my decision to travel to Africa was right on time. Little did I know that when I left the US, I was leaving for good. But life is interesting that way, and I’m not complaining. I’ve decided to share some insights I gathered along the way. Here are ten lessons I learned traveling in Africa (Disclaimer: I’m speaking from my experience as a Nigerian-American).
It’s Ok to Belong to Yourself
I didn’t come here to get a husband. I came here to write. I didn’t come here to ‘taste’ the cuisine (an innuendo for travelers engaging in sexual tourism), I came here to heal. I didn’t come here because I want admiration from men while at the beach. I came here to swim. And I didn’t come here to validate your ego in some romantic tryst while ordering a drink; I literally came to this bar to eat food because I’m hungry. Now if there’s mutual attraction and we agree that a rendezvous would be right for our wellbeing, then great. But that’s not something that comes automatically on the menu. If you’re a woman traveling alone who seeks autonomy before anything else, then honoring your right to simply exist is a must. My values around being a woman who belongs first and foremost to herself clarified my values as a solo traveler.
I’m Blackity Black Black Black
I was born and raised in the US, which means I’ve spent years re-training my mind and heart to love Blackness. It’s been a part of my journey to embrace this part of myself without apology. I was thankful for every African American history course I took in college. I was grateful for traveling to Ghana to study abroad ten years ago when so many of my peers wanted to go to Europe or Asia. I was grateful for traveling in Africa and reclaiming a bit of paradise. Joy. That’s the only way I can describe the elation I felt stepping off the plane. While traveling, I claimed the entire continent as my home.
I wanted to go to Kenya because my people were there. I wanted to go to Ethiopia because my people were there. I wanted to go to Nigeria because my people were there. It was okay if there was no relation. Africa (and Blackness) was beautiful anywhere. Now, traveling in Africa is not a fairytale, at least not in my experience. I had to acknowledge the many differences between myself and the people I befriended. I’ve met people who identify more with their tribal, ethnic, or national identity while acknowledging that US racism is its own particular brand of chaos. And still, they maintained that a different context calls for a widening of perception. I had to keep an open mind and acknowledge that my experience with Blackness is not universal.
What I Thought I was Searching for Surprised Me
At first I thought I was leaving the US to write a book and find peace. By the seventh month, I realized the book was not going to get written, and that accessing peace is not dependent on anything outside myself. Theoretically. I understood the message behind the biblical scripture that says, “the peace that surpasses all understanding,” but when I was traveling I began to embody this message 24/7. I was faced with big decisions, a lot of changes, and it’s not like I had a big bank account to pursue my need to be free. There were days when I didn’t know where the next check was coming from. There were days when I failed miserably at speaking the local language and felt nostalgic for the US. And there were days when I felt stagnate, which made me wonder if I was failing at life. There were many days of chaos, and in that chaos I found the peace that surpasses all understanding. I was able to appreciate the moment for what it was and not fret over what I could not control. Nothing on the outside changed much, but at least I could breathe and keep a light heart. It was truly a surprising gift.
I Cut Out Distractions
If the power shuts off there’s not much you can do. Sometimes there’s no WiFi, sometimes there’s no hot water and sometimes there’s no toilet roll. When I traveled to Ethiopia, the internet was shut down for nearly a month. I went through stages of grief, denial and bargaining, but at the end of the day, the Internet wasn’t coming back anytime soon. When you’re traveling in places where having access to fast internet and a hot shower is not always a given, you learn about your entitlements, your pettiness and your breaking point. I would sit in my room and brood until I finally got the idea to get some fresh air. The more fresh air I got, the more I noticed how my life force was consumed by activities that weren’t for my highest good. I wasn’t only spending too much time on social media, I was spending too much time in self doubt and shame. When you have that much time to sit in stillness and take stalk of your habits, the truth reveals itself. It has taken me time to cultivate more productive ways to use my time. Every time I put down a distraction I got a bit of my life force back. Traveling for so long helped me prioritize those relationships, habits, values and goals that truly spoke to me.
I Became a Myth Buster
Africa is deeply misunderstood and ruled by so many single stories (shout out to Ms. Chimamanda Adichie). I understood this intuitively growing up. I had survived ignorant comments from teachers and students assuming Africa is an open zoo full of animals and people in loincloth (who aren’t very different from the animals). When I traveled to Africa as an adult, I saw how deep the miseducation went. There were myths to bust. Like Africa being a monolithic ‘country’ where it’s eternally hot and people are scantily clad. Actually, in parts of Kenya it can snow, the cold season is from May to September, and you had better pack rain boots and sweaters if you want to stay warm.
And then I realized I had more subtle myths to bust. Like assuming that Africa would be some romantic place — a Wakanda of sorts — where I would live my African dream. Or assuming that I should know everything because I am American (yeah, I said it). Or even assuming that I should know everything about Africa because I’m Black. No. Not always. Sometimes the learning comes directly from the people and the nuances their embodiment shows you. For example, continental Africans may have loved Black Panther, but Wakanda is an aspirational place for most of us on the continent and in the Diaspora. People are living, breathing, dreaming, thriving, failing and figuring it out, just like everywhere else. There was much talk about how to throw off the colonial yoke that made people neglect their history. I met a brilliant playwright hellbent on teaching children about the environmental activist Wangari Mathai through a play. Another group of educators wanted to teach the public about Kenyan’s battle with racial segregation and the need for more local history in the school curriculum. Colonization has touched all of us. And we’re all figuring out how to self actualize in a way that brings our humanity back, one creative endeavor at a time. Traveling let me see that people’s perceptions of Africa are many conversations waiting to happen. And they are happening. Humility. To bust a myth takes a large dose of humility.
I Discovered the Bliss of Blending In
Walking down the street in my bathroom sandals to run a quick errand became something I relished every single day. Why? Because I’m a Black woman from America, and walking down the street and knowing you won’t lose your life is not always guaranteed. I was elated to watch children playing freely in the streets. I wanted to send out a PSA to some folks I knew in the US. “Bring your hoodies, your headphones, your glitter, your magic wands and your drums. We gonna twirl down these streets!” This simple act would heal a couple people I know. It did for me.
At risk of romanticizing this whole idea of blending in, it’s not a one size fits all situation. I made some Somali friends (in Kenya) who often told me about having to show ID when they were stopped for no reason at all. Perspective. This time allowed me to address my internalized oppression. For example, if I wanted to go out in the US and had to decide between wearing a worn sweatshirt or a nicer coat, I’d wear the coat (even though I’d prefer the sweatshirt), and swallow the bitter taste in my mouth. While I was on the continent I felt safer in my body. Safe enough to interrogate some deep wounding I didn’t even know was there. I even felt enough ease to start popping off at people and telling the truth about where I stood much more. This leads me to my next point.
I Discovered The Bliss of Popping Off and Only Somewhat Fearing for Your Life
I’m not a pop off queen, but traveling in the continent made me wonder if I had been conditioned to bite back my daily frustrations because of the particular body and space I inhabited in the US. When I was at the Rwandan airport arguing with the agent about a miscommunication we had I wasn’t afraid for my safety. I was so unafraid that I told her how I felt, “This is wrong!” I said, with my fists in the air. “You’ll be hearing from my people!”
Obviously I didn’t have an entourage or any real influence to impact the situation, but I felt compelled to turn up the dramatics. The very fact that I could plead my case and not have a looming fear that something disastrous would happen let me see my imbalance in relating to people in America. A simple disagreement could mean a simple disagreement, not severe injury because of my race or culture. That felt like a tiny victory. I do sincerely apologize to my fellow Africans who were just trying to do their jobs though. Thank you for allowing me the dramatics. I chilled out considerably after my first few months of travel.
For those of us coming from America, we can have so many notions about how racism and xenophobia will play out. We are coming from the most racially charged nation on earth, so we learn how to sniff out racism and call it for what it is. Usually we’re right, but when we travel back to the continent, race relations look and feel different. In Kenya, I noticed that many Black people weren’t that bothered with white folks. Of course, they expressed irritation of white folks coming and buying all the land. Just like any other Black person I know, there was definite irritation with white entitlement. But many Black folks spoke of the less than desirable encounters they had endured with Indian people practicing anti-blackness (Kenya has a huge Indian diaspora). Different.
This is not to make the unwise assertion that, “we’re all racist” or to minimize the impact of white supremacy. It’s to highlight that white supremacy wears different faces depending on your cultural context. Sometimes it’s someone who you think would know better but chooses to co-sign with the ruling ideology. Sometimes it’s two people fighting over tribal differences and not realizing they’re pawns in a larger structure that could care less who they are. I had to humble myself and learn from what I was experiencing, rather than what had been my conditioning. My perspective wasn’t completely wrong but after awhile I had to admit that it wasn’t completely right.
I Embraced Cultural Ambiguity
The way I relate is more Western than anything else, there’s no hiding this. I had to accept that my cultural positioning was a phenomenon I’d have to explain, often. Most people assumed that I was born in Africa and had gone to live in America. Confusion emerged when I said I had only visited Nigeria twice and that I was born in America. This ambiguity doesn’t mean I haven’t done the hard work of knowing and embracing who I am, it simply means that at times I must do the work of explaining who I am to those I wish to connect with. It also means that I may have to navigate many perspectives about who I am and how I should act because of my personal history.
At this juncture, I accept that I may have to fill in the gaps for a while. I have many friends born and raised outside their ancestral homelands facing a similar conundrum. Some of us will have to learn (or relearn) our mother tongue, some of us will have to have hard conversations with those relatives who never got to travel with us, some of us will have to eat from the plate of humility while we explain why on earth we’ve decided to leave the West (the most coveted place to supposedly be, [insert eye roll here]) to try our luck in Africa. It’s OK. It has to be, or how else will we do the work of becoming whole?
Kindness is Everything
For every time a plan fell through, an insult was hurled, or I had to deal with apathy, someone was there to offer kindness and support. When I was in Ethiopia hoping to get my visa renewed, I didn’t realize that because I was an American citizen, I needed dollars. I had used all my dollars and the only currency the ATM dispersed was the local currency (birr). The agent didn’t care much about my plight and it seemed like I’d have to go to a commercial bank and find a way to get dollars. But then an angel stepped up. He was a lawyer traveling from Sudan with his family and he simply said, “Wait here. I’ll help you.” He gave me the dollars I needed that day. No strings attached. Yes, kindness of this caliber does exist. Traveling in Africa was a reminder that a life spent in service and love is a life well lived. Soon, I began to find little ways to give and make someone’s day brighter too. Kindness is everything.
The original version of this article appeared in Medium.