Review: Nanjala Nyabola – “Travelling While Black”

by J.R. Patterson
Nanjala Nyabola Travelling While Black

Nanjala Nyabola – Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by Life on the Move (Hurst & Co. 2020), Hardcover, pp 235.

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

The Agony of Other

From Joannes Leo Africanus through to Tété-Michel Kpomassie and Rajat Neogy, to Lola Akinmade Åkerström and Noo Saro-Wiwa, African travel writing extends far back into history as a thin, narrow ribbon of insight and discovery. That the ribbon is thin and narrow can be easily put down to factors far beyond, and far older than, the literary excellence that pervades the continent. To travel in a manner that befits the travel narrative—that is to say, the travel book narrative, is to inhabit a world made for a specific kind of person. Traditionally, that person has been well off and well educated, and free from social and moral obligations. They have also been white. The scrutiny of this last parameter is perhaps the one which the world of travel writing has managed to avoid the longest, although certain writers have been raising the flag for a long time (most notably, Edward Said and Binyavanga Wainaina). Travel writing has also existed as a kind of fatalistic, but ultimately circular, attraction for the majority of its history, the tale of “there and back again.” That changes markedly when your group’s, your ethnicity’s, your race’s, experience is disproportionately found within the “there and…” side of things. As Nanjala Nyabola writes in the introduction of her new book of essays, Travelling While Black, “Uprooting, dislocation, and restriction…it’s difficult to think of these things as abstract objects of fascination when your body is one of the millions onto which the violence of racism is projected daily.”

The intersection of travel with race is also the different between being the note-taking observer or the observed; someone whom newspapers, magazines, and television stations from around the world send their journalists to gawk at. With characteristic insight, Nyabola notes that “[People of color] don’t get to be expats—we are migrants, refugees, or just Other.”

Travelling While Black is not a counteractive collection about travelling the globe, or little ditties about vacations, secret getaways, “hidden treasures,” or any of the schlock that gums the ink of countless “travel” pages. No—the essays here are only comparable to traditional travel writing, as a walk can be compared to a run through a thornbush: they are tough, tearing, occasionally sprinkled with the sweetness of berries. Here, travel is used as the medium, and race the vehicle, to explore topics as varied as feminism, photography, visas, asylum, and literature. 

The first, and perhaps strongest, work of the book, M’Pa Blan: I Am Not White finds Nyabola in Haiti shortly after the 2010 earthquake. As it did to Nyabola, the essay’s title, from a phrase she found herself repeating over and over again to the residents of Port-au-Prince, seems at first nonsensical. But it was Nyabola’s proximity to the world of whiteness—of privilege, of wealth—and not her skin tone, that formed the locals’ comparison. How this proximity can be just as shaping as colour itself is a sentiment that is being considered throughout the writing world (see Rwandan writer Aurore Iradukunda’s essay I Am Not a Toubab). Perhaps none do it quite as well as Nyabola does here, in a steady voice of experience. 

Her background in law, migration, and political activism may place her in a domain predominantly held by white people, but the nature of her world largely pertains to the Global South, where her work has exposed her to a litany of different peoples who have accepted or rejected her on various parameters of her Otherness. The moment in Haiti marked a radical shift in Nyabola’s worldview, just as this collection marks a shift in what travel writing can be, and who it can be for. 

As much movement as there is in the book (and there is plenty, enough to assuage the comfiest armchair traveller), it is also about who gets to move, who doesn’t, and why. Migrancy is another way of travelling, and, today, Africans migrate in droves, driven by weak economies, violence, and persecution. It’s not hyperbole, in the essay The Sea That Eats Our Children, to call the Mediterranean “the largest mass burial site for Africans in the modern world.”

One needn’t be concerned that Nyabola has written these essays as a kind of moral score-settling between the Global North and South. As an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, she doesn’t outright condemn her alma mater, but makes pointed remarks about the structural teaching methods, and colonial overtones which sideline—or made a gimmick of—people of color. The Kenyan writer and Pan-Africanist Ali Mazrui said something similar, pointed to a western-centric education as one of many detrimental forces acting upon the continent’s post-colonial leaders. In The African Condition: A Political Diagnosis, Mazrui insinuates that those leaders’ proximity to whiteness—their British educations, their learning of political revolution through colonial books written in colonial languages—led, in part, to their seeing themselves as Other, and above the countrymen they purported to be saving. Dictatorships ensued, and the continent vacillated under the old vestments of independence that, although hard and justly won back, seemed to no longer fit. 

Nyabola certainly took something else from her Oxford experience. One, a love of the South African writer Bessie Head (a pilgrimage to her adoptive home in Botswana is here in Looking for Bessie), and a scepticism of Mazrui’s Pan-Africanism, which she calls, in The African is Not at Home, full of “empty platitudes.” Just as much of the inter-country dialogue remains superficial, movement within the continent is strained, with nations such as South Africa and Nigeria looking to the visa policies of the west for guidance about who should pass through their borders (The African Union report found that Africans can travel without a visa to just a fifth of other African countries). This, along with the requisite paperwork and proof of funds required by many countries, makes travelling within Africa “a middle-class endeavor” that works against the “Pan-African spirit of solidarity that characterized the struggle against apartheid.” Too many nations within the continent look outward, to richer, whiter countries for direction and support, a method which has created an “economic system [which] sees black foreigners as a threat, while white foreigners are seen as ‘investors.’”

It’s this same ideation that allows guidebook writers (always an overconfident, white washing bunch) to label Nyabola’s hometown of Nairobi “Africa for beginners,” and maintain the tourism paradigm that “preserves the best for outsiders, but treats [locals] like garbage.” The slums, as Nyabola has it, are then perceived as “Nairobi for experts,” the domain of researchers “more fascinated by how other people’s poverty makes them feel than they are interested in whether their research has any real utility.”

Nyabola reserves some of the harshest criticism for her native Kenya. Both her essays This is For the Community and The African is Not at Home shine a light on two problems within that country that are given little, if any, attention in western media: racial within the Nairobi housing market, and the subjugation, internment, and genocide of ethnic Somalis in Kenya. Reading of the Wagalla and Garissa massacres is startling—not only for the brutality, but because they are as ignored as much by ongoing Kenyan governments as they are by the Global North. And while Nyabola lays a substantial portion of blame for these happenings on colonialist ideals and arbitrary borders, she too looks at the failing of Kenya’s political and intellectual establishment to create an equal and just society. For instance, Kenya’s modern-day Native Registration Ordinance, which derives from South Africa’s apartheid-era Pass Law, which itself “gave any white person in the territory the authority to summarily arrest, detain and punish any [black] person in breach of the law.”

In a book this far-reaching and edgy, some of Nyabola’s claims feel less developed than others. In A Thousand Words, for instance, she states that photographs of crises (she focuses on Kevin Carter’s “Starving Child and Vulture”, and Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl”), are largely a detriment to their subjects. Her point is more debatable than the space given, and oddly suffers for its focus on racial undertones—any mention of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” Dmitri Baltermants’s “Grief,” or Ron Haviv’s images of Bosnia, which feel relevant, are absent. Ultimately, her thoughts on photography are more summarily made by W.J.T. Mitchell, who said “the relation of photography and language is a principal site for struggle for value and power in contemporary representations of reality; it is the place where images and words find and lose their conscience, their aesthetic and ethical identity.”

Two essays of the bunch—Sagarmatha, and the unfortunately named Oh, The Places You’ll Pee!—stand out as aimed at the kind of privileged traveller Nyabola spends much of the book decrying. As little more than personal revelations, these two don’t measure up to the universalism and insight of the other essays. For one, Nyabola’s description in Sagamartha of a near-disastrous hiking trip in Nepal feels hasty and impulsive. 

On a trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, Nyabola begins to experience the ill effects of altitude sickness. Because of a perceived slight from her Sherpa, she seeks no extra attention. She continues on, and, despite struggling to walk, she is, rather hubristically, the first of her hiking group to arrive at that night’s chalet. A medical drama ensues. However real it was, or felt, at the time, the scene becomes, in print, histrionic. When, in her analysis of the event, Nyabola, undoubtedly correctly, describes herself as “Insanely driven. Single-minded. Achievement-oriented,” she instead comes across as overbearing and ill-prepared (“there are things that can be done to help such people manage the challenge of mountain-climbing”), in a petty battle to gain acceptance (“to be seen”) from her (no doubt) overworked guide. Surprisingly, Nyabola’s bad experience doesn’t lead to an understanding of her Sherpa’s life or circumstances, but a conclusion that she has been “raced,” and her personality defined by her (supposedly) unexcepted—one can almost see the word unprecedented rubbed out—appearance on a Himalayan hiking trail. As well, her glossing over the effects of mass tourism on the lives of Sherpas, Nepalese, and the natural environment on that trip is at odds with the care she takes to measure out the effects of tunnel-visioned tourism elsewhere. 

But this, too, is another takeaway from Nyabola’s book: we all have a thing, a soapbox, a cause we wish to see furthered. No matter how worthy and honorable—and Nyabola’s is certainly that—we all at some point find ourselves at a place where, to make one aspect clear, we either willfully or absentmindedly muddle another. 

The intersections of race and religion with travel is one topic unfortunately not touched upon in the book, though the truth religion and race are in no way parallel may be the reason for the omission. Still, it would have been interesting to hear Nyabola’s thoughts on travelling in regions where religion forms a gauntlet through which a traveller must navigate. Her single mention of the topic leaves one yearning for more, as she correctly notes that “ethnic identities that are supposed to be a source of belonging and orientation become conduits for accumulation and even violence, particularly where all other systems fail. When everything else becomes random and unpredictable, religion and ethnicity become the North Star for communities all over the world.”

Nyabola is speaking universally when she says that “reactions to events in modern times are loaded with collective memories shrouded in silence and unspoken fears, historical angers and vengefulness that are difficult to work against because the initial slights underlying them have never been acknowledged or discussed.” One cannot read that and not be moved with memories of their own experiences. Yet, Travelling While Black constantly urges us to look beyond the self, to larger historical acts, to contextualize our, and other’s, lives. All this without losing sight of our humanity. It’s difficult; and will be a tall order for many, too tall for some. But that is the nature of good writing, and the nature of this book. It forces us to check our thoughts, rather than letting them drift by unseen. 

Nanjala Nyabola – Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by Life on the Move (Hurst & Co. 2020), Hardcover, pp 235.

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

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Last Updated on 23 March 2021 by Travel Writing World

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