What you need to know:
- Travelling While Black urges the reader to travel – to leave home or the familiar, and risk encounter with strangers and new places.
- These essays insist that the individual has a duty and should make a choice to stand up to what is wrong in their society, all the time.
There is a claim among academics that when an essay is reviewed by one’s peers, then it is intellectually rigorous. Not many academics would be able to define what they mean by academic rigour, though.
Probably what they mean is that those peers agree with much of what the writer has said. But endorsing someone’s views, which is what academic essays really are, doesn’t mean that such an essay is even worth reading.
It may just be that the reviewers are members of the in-group or that it is in their long-term interest to support the views in the paper, and have them published in a journal where the group has material interest in.
When they want to make it sound clever, academics will argue that a peer-reviewed essay has been tested for subjectivity and found to be objective.
Well, it doesn’t take one long working with academics to know that much of what passes for objective analysis and academic rigor is just clever jargon that impresses a few (often a select few) who follow the topic and mean nothing really to non-specialists. Which is why reading a personal essay can be refreshing.
Personal essays are not restricted by the academic pretense of reference to sources. They often flow from the heart. Which is why to read Nanjala Nyabola’s Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move (Hurst, 2020) is to listen to a storyteller inviting you to travel with her to wherever she has gone or is going.
Yet as she warns, ‘this is not a memoir.’ It is not a ‘factual’ description of the places she visited and the persons she met and the experiences she had.
No. It is a conversation about what she saw, felt, heard, smelt, and sensed, and how those sensations affected her personally.
Travelling While Black urges the reader to travel – to leave home or the familiar, and risk encounter with strangers and new places. They contest the received wisdom about race, gender, culture etc.
They upbraid the failure of societies and governments to critically think through how they treat racial, gender, class, generational differences etc. They question the authority of the global narratives on justice, equality and privilege, among other topics.
Black Lives Matter
They celebrate the spirit of humanity, found in all societies in the world. They mourn the uncalled-for loss of human life in wars, in efforts to migrate to the West or due to bad government policies. These essays insist that the individual has a duty and should make a choice to stand up to what is wrong in their society, all the time, in order to protect their dignity.
Why is race still one of the key human problems of the 21st Century? Why does race matter? Why should we even be declaring that ‘Black lives matter’ today? Haven’t Black lives mattered through human history? If anthropologists claim that Africa is the cradle of humankind, then black lives matter.
If African soil carries most minerals needed for industrial advancement in the world, then Black lives matter. Considering Africa is touted as the continent of the future because it has a significant population of young people, thus the potential for labour and market for goods and services, then Black lives matter.
But shouldn’t Black lives matter wherever Black people are in the world. In her travels. Nanjala discovers that her race is still the most significant point of reference to her rather than her person. Whether it is in America, Europe or Africa, Nanjala notes that people easily race and consequently judge her based on the skin colour (and whatever other connotations that carries).
But does racial prejudice differ from profiling based on tribe or ethnic group or speech community? Nanjala wonders why Africans have never bothered to rework the category of the ethnic identity or tribe. Why do we still find these words, which carry a heavy history of pain, injustice, oppression and dehumanisation useful today? Is it intellectual laziness that has made us lump together tens of different speech and cultural communities and called them Luhya or Kalenjin tribe?
Politics of identification
Why, Nanjala poses, for example, do we have to carry with us an ‘identity card’, a tag that in its previous form was worn like a dog tag? And why does one have to declare her ancestry, which is supposedly traceable somewhere in some village, in order to get this document?
What if one was born and raised in some town; born of parents who had themselves been born and raised in another town, which parents didn’t have any affiliation with anyone in any village, and who don’t or didn’t speak some language by which they could be identified as belonging to some tribe?
How do the hundreds of children and young people today who call the street their home get official government documents such as birth certificate, national identity card, or passport?
This politics of identification can become quite troublesome for someone if you are travelling and suddenly some policeman arbitrarily decides that you should produce your identity card.
But why is travelling important today? People have always travelled in the past. Travel takes us to new places, where we meet new people, experience new ways of life, see different worlds, encounter unfamiliar tongues, eat food we had never heard of.
Travel may sometimes be demanding – being on the road, in the air or at sea for hours or days – but it enriches the traveller’s world, experience and thoughts. The unfamiliarity of the places we travel to also conditions us to deal with strangers, take risks, and learn (or even unlearn) how to read, interpret and understand other worlds and their people.
Elements of travel
Travelling While Black highlights all these elements of travel through anecdotes of her sojourns in Nepal, Botswana, the DRC, Haiti and Italy, among other places.
However, even though travelling has been made easier by technological innovation, it is increasingly difficult to cross borders or even move from one town to the another.
Transnational travel is now subject to too many restrictions. Travellers, especially Blacks (more so Africans) are seen in many parts of the world as risky.
They are stereotyped as economic migrants; as people who want to unfairly benefit from societies that they haven’t contributed to economically; as carriers of diseases; as criminals; as troublemakers, and so on etc.
If a Black person is seeking travel documents to Europe, America or some parts of Asia these days, they will be subject to so many constraints, which are seemingly set to discourage one from travelling. Nanjala describes her own nasty experience at an Embassy in Nairobi where she was seeking a visa. Yet, she notes, these barriers are very recent and are largely due to racism and prejudice.
One worries that as the global economy goes into recession and ethno-nationalism rises in some parts of the world, travel enthusiasts, and even those who may wish to travel for other reasons such as students, people seeking medical treatment and business people, will increasingly find it difficult to convince the immigration officer to give them entry visas.
Although it is possible to travel on the cheap to many places these days, travelling can have many hidden costs, such as falling sick in far-off places, being injured or suddenly running out of money. But where possible, very few travellers ever regret the journeys they made to new places.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.email@example.com