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Reading Nanjala Nyabola’s Travelling While Black

by Amol Awuor
9 July 2021

 

As a child, the idea of travelling was exhilarating. On the eve of trips with my parents, my siblings and I always found it impossible to catch a wink of sleep, under the pretext of packing. The truth is that all there was on our minds was the upcoming long bus ride, marked by thrilling stopovers. Arrival in itself was a ceremony, what with our hosts pulling up dressed in their Sunday best. A welcoming feast would follow later on, as if it were Christmas all over again.

 

Let’s call it childhood nostalgia.

 

There is certainly a world of a difference between travelling to what one considers home – even if one is visiting the place for the first time, and travelling to places unknown to someone – even if one has visited the place before. Home, some say, is where the heart belongs. But one may want to ask again, where exactly is home? Is it a place, a feeling, an emotion, or a thing?

 

Whenever we travel away from home – whatever or wherever home is – we are almost always in pursuit of something. And no matter the reason for travel, whether it is by choice or circumstance, there is always an inevitable awareness that at one point or another, we shall be seen through other peoples’ lenses, no matter how we look at ourselves. One may therefore ask the question, what does it mean to travel as a Black person in today’s turbulent world? Kenyan writer, Nanjala Nyabola, interrogates this and other questions in her latest offering, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move (2020), an anthology of travel writing.

 

Comprising 17 essays, Nyabola opens the anthology with a question, “Who are we when we are not at home?” This comes against the backdrop of Nyabola’s maiden trip in the book, which is to Haiti, where she arrives “under the summer glare.” In M’Pa Blan: I Am Not White – which is the first essay in the collection – Nyabola enters the heart and soul of the first black republic with the knowledge about the place already “filtered through mainstream US media.”

 

In Haiti, Nyabola encounters an identity crisis, something like a fleeting double consciousness, because she is neither white nor Haitian. Haitians struggle, at first, to place her. However, as all travellers know, the culture shock gradually withers off, ushering in a feeling of comfort and curiosity. Nyabola begins learning Kreyol in order to adapt, but is haunted by the weight of history. She observes:

 

I still get goosebumps when I think about these and other palpable remnants of Africa identity that remain in Haitian culture. Language is a vector of a shared history, and a vessel for the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

 

The weight of history and questions of identity loom like an open wound in this marvelous anthology. How does privilege and power (of foreigners) influence how Haitians think of themselves? This is in relation to the various humanitarian organizations that constantly pitch tent in the island which has largely been a victim of historical forces as well as the vagaries of natural elements – the most recent being the 2010 earthquake that left nearly 160,000 dead.

 

Nyabola navigates these geopolitical complexities while offering searing commentary, turning introspective and philosophical. More importantly, however, it is the critical question of race that courses through the book’s veins as the fact of blackness often hangs ominously wherever she goes. Much as M’Pa Blan – which is the longest essay in the collection – pays homage to the fortitude and resilience of Haiti, it also opens a chapter into the discoveries that come with travel, emotionally satisfying rewards that the author encounters, for instance, in Burkina Faso.  

 

The second piece, which the book gets its title from, Travelling While Black, is stylistically different because Nyabola deploys novelistic techniques to bring alive what she sees and hears in the country formerly known as Upper Volta. Nyabola remembers how “the sky cracks fully open and turns brilliant blue” during sunrise and “twilight is split open by a convoy of traders from across the Sahara.” In my reading, Nyabola’s strength as an essayist comes from those measured moments when she simply describes her journeys and the subsequent tribulations as a Black African woman on the move. Through description, readers are often allowed to join in on her reflections of what it means to be Black in spaces that are hostile and unwelcoming.

 

Readers will not fail to notice that the anthology is grounded in Nyabola’s imaginative use of analysis, especially in essays such as A Thousand Words and Looking for Bessie. This is despite the occasional stumbling blocks of academic jargon and the penchant for trite identity politics which one is bound to encounter. In fact, identity politics becomes real and victims become killers as Nyabola demonstrates in The African is Not at Home.

 

Commenting on the brutality of xenophobic attacks which rocked South Africa in 2015, Nyabola forces us to rethink the tenets of Pan-Africanism that have over the years provided an illusion of solidarity among Africans. While Pan-Africanism achieved political goals in the run-up to independence for most African states, over the decades – because of factors that, to an extent, were accelerated by globalization – it failed to maintain its sense of ideological coherence, resulting in consequences such as xenophobia, tensions which cascade and manifest in ethnic tensions. To Nyabola, xenophobia is the highest mark of treachery. I concur.

 

Having lived in South Africa myself (as a graduate student at Rhodes University), I am familiar with the humiliations and tensions of constantly being a kwerekwere, a derogatory term used against Black African migrants. Nyabola does not simply view neo-apartheid as perpetuated by Black South Africans as an isolated incident, but as a symptom of the segregationist policies of the colonial state, particularly in settler colonies such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.

 

It is a case of history repeating itself.

 

The idea of history repeating itself similarly manifests in the migration crisis involving Black Africans risking their lives by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded vessels in order to access European shorelines. Already a sensitive topic that has ignited combustive debates across the breadths and lengths of Africa and Europe, Nyabola revisits the issue with great originality and empathy for the victims, whose only crime is to seek better livelihoods abroad.

 

In The Sea that Eats Our Children, Nyabola taps into her investigative prowess in her reportage of how Europe’s migration policies remain hypocritical. However, I believe Nyabola is more invested in what Europe is doing wrong regarding the migration crisis while sort of glossing over the governance failures of most African states after more than 50 years of independence.

 

To me, the postcolonial state carries greater guilt for forcing its citizens to risk drowning in the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Sicily, for example. It is out of this thinking – seeming to absolve African emperors while castigating Europe – that one encounters a sense of victimhood reverberating in the anthology, much as Europe may be the carrier of the original colonial sin.

 

With that being said, the anthology’s strength, apart from experiencing Nyabola’s intellectual stamina – including when you’re disagreeing with her views – is that it forces us to ask difficult and complicated questions about identity and mobility, concerns which could have otherwise been tweeted about and forgotten. Nyabola reminds us that we are living in a mean world where race determines how you are received and treated in certain destinations, home and away. 

 

 

Amol Awuor is a writer and freelance editor based in Nairobi, Kenya


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