A traveller’s quest to see the world

Brooklyn

Brooklyn in Santorini, Greece.

Photo credit: Pool

Brooklyn Vyolesa, a former radio presenter and deejay at a local radio station, wants to be the most travelled African woman. She has so far visited 112 countries in her quest to set foot on every nation in the world.

Born and raised in Nairobi, she remembers the first three years of her life spent in Kenya on Nairobi’s George Padmore Road and Marcus Garvey Road as being communal. Her aunts would step in and stop her when she was doing something wrong, and it was okay to eat at a neighbour’s. Her mother, Dr Mary Yuanita, had studied at University of California, Los Angeles, and her father at University of Washington, Seattle, and were living in the United States. But they decided that it was important to give birth to their first born child in Kenya.

Brooklyn Vyolesa

Brooklyn Vyolesa in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Photo credit: Pool

“Ugh! My parents ruined my life,” she says with a light touch. “They wanted to go back to their country (Kenya) and didn’t want to be part of the brain drain that was going on. They wanted to make their contribution at making a difference.

Her father is a medical doctor while her mother, who works for the United Nations, is a gender expert who focuses on development and public health. Her parents moved to the US for further studies in the 1990s. Her mother would later be based in Senegal for two years.

“It was weird to see sand everywhere and not just at the beach, the houses were massive and didn’t really have windows because of the heat, and the women were really tall, beautiful and dark skinned. We would also eat from one big plate. That was my introduction to West Africa,” says Brooklyn.

After that, her mother was posted to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

At the age of 10, she decided to move to Kenya and live with her father, but would still travel during the school holidays. Her father had built a maternal health centre in their village. She also wanted to solidify her roots and the convictions her parents had about Kenya despite being well-travelled. By the time she was 14, she had added South Africa, Canada, all of East Africa and Congo to the list.

The age of 13 was a transformative time for Brooklyn. Her mother was lecturing at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they were staying at The Charles Hotel. The first woman she bumped into at the hotel’s desk was a Kenyan and there were others on the night shift.

Soon after, she was back in Kenya and in boarding school, where she says her experience was not good. But she developed her basketball skills here and was a really good point guard. Having formed her game after Teresa Weatherspoon, then playing in the Women's National Basketball Association, and National Basketball Association superstar Kobe Bryant from the time she was eight, she was able to get a scholarship to St Austin’s Academy in Nairobi where she finished her high school education and later studied at Peninsula University, Washington. She was on a scholarship but then she seriously hurt her knee and recovery was a difficult process.

Justice and law

Brooklyn came back to Kenya to study law and even passed the bar. Being at the magistrate’s court in her home community, she found out that justice and law were not the same thing.

“It felt like someone just burst my bubble. I went into radio. I’m passionate about hip hop and I’m good at it. Kenyan hip hop wasn’t big then so I went in there and did my rebellious thing. I think I  was the first person to interview some of the local upcoming hip hop artistes. Other stations started picking that up but they would ask me to send them the music since I was getting it directly from the artistes,” she says.

Three years later, she moved to an all-female radio station . Two years into her time there, in 2014, she decided that she was going to travel.

She researched into places she wanted to visit and found out the costs were not as prohibitive as she initially thought. For some reason, she had never been to Nigeria yet she was always fascinated with the country’s food, culture, fashion, music and their drive to thrive. This was her first destination in this new phase of adventure across the world.

“Nigerians in Nigeria are nothing like the bad rap they get here (in Kenya),” she says about that trip.

Travelling is like therapy for Brooklyn. Seeing how other Africans live and the similarities stirred Brooklyn’s pan-Africanism. Seeing how it’s so expensive to travel to other African states compared to travelling off continent made her realise that the continent is missing out on the strength that comes from being and working together.

“People fear what they don’t understand, but we have different things to offer that we can help each other out. We don’t need border control and we should be able to spend our money anywhere in the continent. It’s the only way we can buy our seat at the table with the rest of the world. Tourism is the easiest way for us to be united,” she says.

No destination has tested her in her travel as getting to Brazil. The ticket was expensive, there were four connecting flights and it took her the longest travel time.

“It made me hard core and now I can book to go anywhere. The airport communications are not in English and they can change your gates and not announce it,” she says.

Brooklyn Vyolesa

Brooklyn Vyolesa in Monte Carlo, Monaco.

Photo credit: Pool

But she was surprised that Brazil has free healthcare for everyone. But there is deep seated racism against its black citizens, she noted. She also made a friend locally who took her into the favela (slums), including interacting with gun-wielding gangs.

Then there was an incident in Germany where being a dark-skinned, plus-size African woman attracted racist remarks from a group of people. But things went downhill when a man in the group threw pastry in her face. She calmly paid her bill and made for the exit.

“But on my way out, I picked up this bottle and cracked it on his head. And now it became a problem and I was arrested,” she says, adding that she was later released without charge after explaining the situation. “If I let that slide, who knows what else you would have hit me with?”

But during her trips, she says, most people are decent and the only questions she gets asked are about Kenya.

In order to keep herself safe, Brooklyn usually stays in places near Western embassies. For Airbnbs in some countries, she carries gadgets she uses to ensure she has safely locked the door from the inside. To ward off unwanted attention, she always wears a wedding ring and says she is travelling with a group or her husband or her father. She never gives out her information and also never agrees to carry anything for anyone.

But during her trips, Brooklyn also forms long time friendships with people in the countries she visits. She says travel doesn’t have to be expensive or classist as most people perceive it to be. Even coming together with your friends and getting on a bus ride to a neighbouring country is a great travel experience.

“Start with the visa free countries, and then work your way up,” she says.

When planning a trip, she looks at the country and the ones neighbouring it — the aim is to visit as many countries neighbouring each other as possible when visiting a region. So she can be away from anywhere between a week to nine months.

“My cousin was telling me I spend money on the number of times I change ticket dates. I’ll go somewhere and fall in love. Some cities will speak to you and everywhere is different. I always look for a comic book store. I visit public hospitals and the courts because I feel like those reflect a nation. I like talking to the hip hop heads there to see what they are doing, go watch a high profile game and catch up on rest,” she says.

Brooklyn adds: “In Europe, everything is a train ride away. In Burma, people are so healthy. They don’t sleep on beds and they squat a lot rather than sit. There are so many centennials there. In Cameroon, there are more than 200 tribes and you won’t eat the same food if you stayed there a month.”

Brooklyn

Brooklyn and her mother petting cheetahs in Lusaka, Zambia.

Photo credit: Pool

She says she can work from anywhere. Her logistics, talent management, media publishing and fashion retail companies can be run remotely and she has a team that helps make it easy for her money to work for her. She used to think people are needy but all she’s known is long distance love with her parents, siblings and even friends. In January, she tried to travel with her five friends to Denmark but it ended up not being as adventorous as her solo travels.

“I would rather come to Nairobi and chill with Mau Mau (hip hop group) in Dandora, or go into interior Lamu and see the man go up the coconut tree, cut the fruit and come sit with me as he tells me about the culture and way of life there. I’m not one to do touristy stuff like seeing sites,” she says.

The farthest Brooklyn has travelled was the Polynesian islands of Fiji, Kiribati and Tuvalu. She felt so tiny because the indigenous folk have massive frames.

Of the famous people she’s met, she fondly recalls former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda during a UN Women’s conference and being at his house. She also met Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio, whom she shares a birthday with.

When people talk about everywhere in the world, they talk about the 195 countries, but she’s looking to do every place that has a flag, including those not officially recognised. It doesn’t make sense to her that an island in the Caribbean should have currecncy and be ruled by the leader of a country in Europe. Her mother has visited 194 countries, except for Japan, but on official capacity.

So far, her experiences have been interesting. Brooklyn was surprised to see people in bikinis on a beach in Sudan and to find the South Sudanese speaking Sheng in Juba.

Human beings will eat anything. In Gabon, they eat porcupines. In Thailand, they have a mishkaki made of crawlers like caterpillars and millipedes. They also eat roaches, beetles and spiders.

Her favourite place to visit was Antigua and the Caribbean islands due to how friendly the inhabitants are.

The most beautiful country she has visited is Gabon because the city is on one side of the road while the beach is on the other side of the road. There’s no traffic and life feels optional.

She never travels without her Swiss Army knife and pepper spray. Her Google Translate subscription is always paid so that she can be able to translate signs by holding up her phone to it. And she always has a snack or sim sims, crossword puzzles or comic books when travelling.

Brooklyn also prefers buying local mobile phone SIM cards at the airport and you can load it locally to stay in communication. She says it’s safer when apps think you’re local, when calls show local numbers, so that people don’t plan to harm you thinking you’re from a rich family.

Thailand is the cheapest place she’s visited. A five-star hotel charged Sh8,000 a night. Luxemborg was the most expensive but it’s the safest and transport,school and healthcare are  free. She was also intrigued to visit a tiny country in Asia that had one jail but no prisoner in it.

Her last trip was actually courtesy of South African Tourism for 10 days.

Put up in five-star The Maslow Hotel in Johannesburg, she bungee jumped and quad biked in Soweto as well as visiting the decommissioned coal-fired Orlando Power Station. They even got VIP experience at a Burna Boy concert after spending a whole day with BET and Channel O crew. She also got to skydive in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) and meet up with singer Sho Madjozi, the South African tourism ambassador. “And that is (by)the government!” she says.

Brooklyn feels like the Kenyan tourism authorities do not realise Tanzania is becoming a more popular destination in the region. “My friends from the United States are going to Zanzibar for the beaches, going to Serengeti or Kruger Park for wildlife as opposed to the Mara. They should have really picked Lupita (Nyong’o) as the face of tourism because soon, our tourism will just be ours (domestic). I hope Kenya can learn from that, we’re taking a hit regionally. We’re not aggressively marketing our tourism. We are arrogant and wajuaji (know-it-alls) and we are not growing, even in governance,” she says.

Brooklyn hopes to end up in politics or possibly become attorney-general in future. The other thing pushing her into politics is her high school experience, “I loved the language and people when I came back to Kenya. There was definitely classism, where people took my upbringing and characteristics as patronising and tried to stop that. I no longer had the desire to serve my nation. I was captain and led my team to the nationals (games), but my principal (she doesn’t like mentioning her other schools in Kenya by name besides St Austin’s) decided I would not go. She didn’t like that I questioned things, believing I would influence the others into doing the same, and wanted to break me in front of them. The education system kills Kenyans before their time; all hopes and dreams are drilled out. But we’re brilliant.”

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