Travelling While Black, and A Woman: Experiences from China, Turkey and Nigeria

By Onke Madikizela (@Mangutyan)

I have been to some of the most beautiful and lavish places in the world. But I admit that at times, I missed the beauty of it because I was focused on the racism I was being exposed to. And I may have also missed the opportunity to get to know some wonderful people, because I was so aware of my race. I think the reason I enjoyed Nigeria, Mozambique and Mauritius so much is not just because there were black people like me, but because I was not so aware of myself as a black woman.

Photo credit: www.travelnoire.com

The day before I was to take my first overseas trip, my aunts and uncles gathered at my parent’s house to wish me a safe trip. I was congratulated on doing so well at work that I was now being trusted to take a trip alone to…”where again?” my aunt asked.

“I am going to China, dabs” I told her. All the excitement that had pulled her eyes wide before, was replaced with a look of shock. The following morning on my way to the airport she called me to tell me she had not slept all night thinking about me going to China: a place where people eat dogs and snakes and maybe, black people.

My dad, being the more well travelled of my family, laughed it off.

Since my trip to China, I have been on many other trips and I can say that there are three kinds of experiences a black woman may have outside of familiar South Africa.

And I call them China, Nigeria and Turkey.

China: Racist curiosity

During my China experience, I saw one other black person for more than a week of me being shown around Hainan Province, an island in the South East of China.

When I arrived at the hotel I would be staying at, the woman handling my baggage said to me “Do you know my friend Vincent, he’s from South Sudan”

“No, I don’t, I am from South Africa. South Sudan is a whole other country and it’s very far away.”

“I know, but its all Africa. So, do you know him?”

At this point I was delirious with the excitement of being in a new country so I laughed her ignorance off. But as the excitement wore off, I began to notice more eyes staring at me when I walked in the corridors or at the beach.

It was not the kind of look that had unsolicited loathing, but curiosity. Some Chinese men almost looked at me with lustful eyes, and when I caught them, they would quickly look away ashamed. I knew it was not because they had offended me, but offended themselves for finding me attractive.

I then experienced the hallmarks of a black person’s holiday abroad. At the airport, a bunch of Chinese girls ran to me, patting my braids and screaming in Chinese. While visiting the 108m Buda statue on the province, an older Chinese couple tried to steal pictures of me when I was not looking. I did not feel like a celebrity, I felt like an animal in a zoo.

It took me some time to understand why I was uncomfortable with what was seemingly harmless fun and curiosity. It was because by all standards, I was human amongst other humans, and yet I was being viewed as an oddity because my skin was darker. Ignorance and curiosity has often been the root of racist acts.

Turkey: Outright Racism

When I came back from my trip to Istanbul, I had had such a bad experience that I lodged a complaint with the airline that flew me there. They offered me a trip back there to make up for my experience, and I refused.

The city was beautiful and had a bit of romance with its tiny streets and history and the shopping was fun too.

But in the few days I spent there I experienced the kind of racism experienced by African soccer stars during the European Championships. And as a black woman, I felt a real fear of being away from my group. I took a walk alone on the beach, and a man was following me. From the corner of my eye, I could see his shadow moving and the people he was walking to, sitting on a blanket ahead of me laughing. When I turned around to see why they were laughing, I saw him making monkey movements behind me. He didn’t even stop when I looked at him.

I was thrown out of a line for complaining about not being assisted, after a number of people of all kinds of races and gender were called to the front of the line each time it was my turn.

And the stares in Istanbul were different. They were threatening and they were scared. I could see people feared I might be carrying Ebola into their country.

Nigeria: Black on Black racism

Of the all the international trips I made this year, I don’t think any of them could top Nigeria for me. I felt like a kid in a culture store, and I wanted to take everything home with me until I decided that at some stage in my life, I have to live in Lagos for at least half a year. Okay, the Victoria Island part of Lagos.

When I told my editor this, he said to me “You only enjoyed it more because there were more people who looked like you.” He was partly right.

Every time I see D’Banj, I get feeling of nostalgia because I watched him perform at an MTV concert in Lagos and not only was he a hot chocolate man but he encompasses what I loved most about Nigeria. Arrogance.

It would be a gross generalisation for me, as a tourist who spent just a week in the country, to claim to know all there is about Nigerians. But when I was there, I noticed that there was a general air of arrogance and hustling about Nigerians.

One of the white women I was with on the trip said to me “That Nigerian arrogance scares me. It will get them in trouble” and I said to her “It’s a confidence that comes from people who believe they are equals, and maybe even smarter. You’re not used to it, because in South Africa, black people are still reeling from Apartheid.”

But I loved it also for the hair I saw on the women in Lagos. Big, beautiful silky and afro weaves I had not seen in South Africa in beautiful colours. I spent the time being the annoying tourists who kept asking women where they got their hairpiece and where they bought their printed dresses. A lot of the clothes had been purchased online or on overseas trips.

I did experience a different kind of racism in Nigeria. I was in a hotel elevator with a man who would not stop staring at me until he said “Are you South African?”

“Yes, I am. Good guess”

“No, South Africans are beautiful, unlike us dark Nigerians”

He may have been just trying to run game, but I was uncomfortable with what he said especially given the many beautiful women I had seen.

After my trip to Nigeria I started to heed my editor’s unsolicited and hidden advice. I no longer expect to be accepted where I am a minority race. But I don’t expect to be accepted where I am in the majority either.

I have been to some of the most beautiful and lavish places in the world. But I admit that at times, I missed the beauty of it because I was focused on the racism I was being exposed to. And I may have also missed the opportunity to get to know some wonderful people, because I was so aware of my race. I think the reason I enjoyed Nigeria, Mozambique and Mauritius so much is not just because there were black people like me, but because I was not so aware of myself as a black woman.

 

FURTHER READING:

READ: Andiswa’s short story on travelling while black in her book ‘Black Women Be Like’

VISIT: Travelnoire – A website featuring insights from a global community of black travelers

 

1 Comment
  1. I simply want to mention I am just beginner to blogs and absolutely savored you’re web site. Almost certainly I’m likely to bookmark your website . You definitely come with beneficial well written articles. Many thanks for sharing with us your web-site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>