Black woman abroad tells of a world that excludes her

Friday February 19 2021
'Travelling While Black' by Nanjala Nyabola.

'Travelling While Black' by Nanjala Nyabola. PHOTO | POOL


In her book Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move, Nanjala Nyabola says, "If the right book enters your life at the wrong moment, it can leave you cold and underwhelmed. But at the right moment, it can change everything." 

Nyabola’s book is a timely work which, centring on mobility, race, and media, invites us to pause and reflect on the state of the world and the human condition.

Drawing from her experiences travelling to and within more than 70 countries, she explores how race and racism have shaped the politics of mobility in recent history and led to an uneven landscape.

In the first chapter, she uses her experience while interning in Haiti to consider the "cultural construction of race" and the role of Western media in influencing racial constructs: "We each had our unique gazes, but they were both refracted through a lens shaped by Western fears and apprehensions about the black 'other'."
She analyses experiences peculiar to her as she explores regional histories and global policies concerning immigration and refugee rights.

After witnessing the arrival of a cargo ship ferrying migrants from African countries in Palermo, she wrote about the Schengen Convention of 1990, the overwhelming whiteness of humanitarian NGOs, and the role of the West in creating situations in African countries that lead to migration.

Nyabola's book "sits between the personal and the philosophical" urging readers, especially those from Western countries, to consider their complicity in the current state of affairs; to ask difficult questions of their governments even when they are shielded them from adverse political consequences.


While Nyabola highlights the racist bureaucratic hurdles and encounters that make travel for a black African woman, even one with privilege like herself, less pleasurable and violent, she also talks of times when peoples' capacity for empathy humbled her.

This is especially evident in the chapters about the hospitality and kindness she was shown in Burkina Faso, and the actions of Europeans and authorities who defy official policy to welcome African migrants to their cities.

Of Palermo she says, "Instead of a city ossified in anger and hatred, I find a community struggling to understand and honestly engage with its position in a complex historical moment, where Sicilians are living with the reality of decisions taken thousands of kilometres away in Rome and Brussels." 


Nyabola’s book is written within a landscape where Africans are often thought of as objects of studies about travel and migration; statistics and problems that require solving. And as she points out, most travel guidebooks imagine the traveller as a white man. Even within African countries, travel, especially for leisure, is imagined for a specific well-off, often white demographic.

She asserts that Africans not only move and desire to move, but do so as conscious beings, bringing parts of themselves to the places they visit, are transformed by their experiences of travel, and carry stories that are important to understanding humanity.

As I read Nyabola’s book, I thought about how other Kenyan travellers tell their stories on social media platforms, where they share about their trips and what those experiences meant to them.

As Nyabola mentions, African stories are often told through the literal and metaphoric lens of white narrators.

When academic spaces, policy-making conferences and NGO boardrooms, and summits for migration and refugees leave no room for Africans, their experiences, or ideas, Travelling While Black shows us that we can still find our voices. For as Nyabola says, "I refuse to remain paralysed with anger. Travel has taught me that a different world is possible and even attainable, and that, even though the beat is large and its tentacles are long, there are enough of us to do something meaningful towards destroying it."

This article was first published in The EastAfrican newspaper on February 6, 2021.