Author Nanjala Nyabola reflects on what it means to travel the world while Black
'When you have relative privilege in many places in the world, people process you as other,' she says
The first sentence of Nanjala Nyabola's book Travelling While Black reads, "This is not a travel memoir."
Instead, the Kenyan writer, political analyst and activist wants people to connect travel and mobility to the bigger themes of human movement around the world.
"I'm trying to get people out of the mindset where they expect this long, open-ended confessional about myself," she told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay.
Travelling solo for over a decade, Nyabola has directly moved through a world that can be limiting and exclusionary. The African and Western narratives about the African continent she has encountered in her travels have shaped her.
Nyabola first left Kenya to study at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
"I remember my first week at university distinctly because there were race riots in the city where I was studying," Nyabola told Chattopadhyay.
"That's part of the reason why ... these issues of identity, belonging and place have always been intersecting with my own experience with travel."
Here is part of their conversation.
You wrote about a sense of fear and the different forms it can take in a number of the essays in the book, including one about your time in Haiti. How did those fears play out once you were there?
When I went to Haiti, I had a story in my head that had been filtered primarily through American media. The story was really framed around fear and strife — that the constant theme in Haiti is strife. The media as an international construct doesn't necessarily pay attention to poor countries until something is broken … so I went to Haiti with a story in my mind.
I especially went there with a significant amount of privilege because I was going as a lawyer. And the nature of the study of law is to invite you to soak up the privilege, and wield and remind people that you have this fancy education.… And I'm not the first lawyer who's ever made that observation.
What I had in Haiti was a process of unlearning that was so thorough and so all-consuming that at some point in the middle of the whole experience ... I definitely had to stop and reassess because I was being confronted by the limits of the stories that I had consumed about this other place in the world, and the stories that they had consumed about me.
If that other is someone who they imagine has more opportunity, power and space than you, then we ascribe that it usually goes into closer proximity to whiteness, basically.- Nanjala Nyabola
The title of your essay about your time in Haiti is "M'Pa Blan," which translates to "I am not white." What is the meaning of that expression as it's used in Haiti?
One of the things that happens — not just Haiti, this has also happened to me in India — [is] people would come up to me and say, American. And I'm like, I'm not American. I'm just different.
When you have relative privilege in many places in the world, people process you as other. Then, if that other is someone who they imagine has more opportunity, power and space than you, then we ascribe that it usually goes into closer proximity to whiteness, basically.
This happens even here in Kenya. The word mzungu — the literal translation is white. But you will find people who are mixed race, who are Indian. [There are] people who leave the city, have an accent and go to a village somewhere and will be called mzungu, which is not really referring to race. It's referring to privilege, to the fact that people see you in a certain way.
It was a jarring experience to be so absolutely African in every sense of the word and to constantly have to remind people that I'm not white, I'm not the container of privilege that you're projecting on me. I don't have that — I'm different.
It made me think: what is it that we say when we mean whiteness? Increasingly, people are starting to see that. But it's not just about biological markers. It's really about societies, sociological factors, privilege — who has more than others, who has opportunities that others just don't get simply because of who we think they are rather than who they actually are. It was a very interesting experience.
Why is it that the terms of engagement are being defined in Brussels, Berlin and Rome when the people who are actually dying are nowhere near those capitals?- Nanjala Nyabola
In 2017, you went to Sicily, to Palermo — one of the main points of entry into Europe for people fleeing conflict in Africa and the Middle East. They were crossing the Mediterranean by boat, risking their lives doing it. Why was it important for you to be in Palermo, at that moment?
I was in a professional flux. I had been trying to work in refugee protection since I left Haiti. I couldn't stay in Europe or North America because of the way in which visas and work laws are constructed … I had to go home. But when I came home, because I'm Kenyan, I wasn't eligible for any of the policy level jobs. I had to start as a junior staff member at 40 to 50 per cent of the salaries that were available to people who came to Africa as an outsider.
So I was witnessing this unspoken hierarchy that was happening in the humanitarian space. Anybody who has worked in the humanitarian space will tell you that being hired as local staff necessarily means poor working conditions, more risk, less salary, all of that. So that was one thing that was happening.
I was also reading all of these stories about this crisis that was happening in the Mediterranean Sea and wanting to be helpful and useful. I kept seeing European politicians and policymakers shuttling around different capitals, having these conversations and asking myself — if the thousands and thousands of people who have died so far are from the Middle East, Africa, and a small but significant percentage from Asia, where are the policymakers from those countries in this conversation?
Why is it that the terms of engagement are being defined in Brussels, Berlin and Rome when the people who are actually dying are nowhere near those capitals? So I wanted to see if I could understand better so that I could articulate better to and for the public what was happening in the Mediterranean Sea.
Just because a person is from a place doesn't mean that they don't experience othering, rejection and violence in that [same] place.- Nanjala Nyabola
In the book you say, Africans are "just as unhomed and othered here [in Africa] as migrants, refugees, internally-displaced persons, as we are anywhere else. What do you mean by that?
The debate is polarized and tied to specific locations. You have people in Europe saying things like, "Why don't they just fix those countries and people can stay there?" And [there are] people and Africans saying that the Europeans are at fault because they're doing XYZ.
What I've tried to do is to get people to see that all of these things can be true at the same time and need our attention. Just because a person is from a place doesn't mean that they don't experience othering, rejection and violence in that [same] place. What we need is to have conversations about home and belonging that start with the person and not necessarily with just their identity.
A lot of these things are not just about policy and bureaucracy. It's also about who we believe is a threat and why we believe that person, that society, that community is a threat.- Nanjala Nyabola
You have said that [the COVID-19 pandemic] has laid bare the realities of privilege and race and travel. How has it done that?
For the first three months of 2020, it was Europe that was the epicenter of the pandemic. I remember this moment because in 2014, when the Ebola outbreak happened in West Africa, borders were closed to all Africans. There were a number of days where all Africans were being told, "You can't come here."
Africa is the second-largest continent in the world. So that is the most sweeping statement that can be made. And so here we are with a highly contagious disease outbreak that is devastating Europe. And we're being told that we cannot close the borders.
I had a split mind about this because my instinct, political and philosophical orientation is always towards open borders. But I'm not oblivious to the double standards, and I'm not oblivious to the differences in the ways in which Europe — and even North America — struggling with disease is treated compared to Africa or Asia struggling with disease.
A lot of these things are not just about policy and bureaucracy. It's also about who we believe is a threat and why we believe that person, that society, that community is a threat. Those beliefs are subjective and are shaped by our own ideas about race, identity and privilege.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Jessica Linzey.