Butterflies, Bigotry and the Right to Travel

Many people from Europe or America wouldn’t think twice about hopping on a plane to Marrakech, Cape Town or Zanzibar. Yet for many Africans, the freedom to travel is harder won – even within their own country.

The sensation I most commonly associate with travel is butterflies. Not one. Not two, but an entire congregation of them fluttering ebulliently in my stomach. They usually begin two days before my flight. They linger with me playfully as I prepare, pack and journey to the airport. They partially calm when I'm airborne only to resuscitate with vigour when I land at my destination.

On arrival, as I take in my new surroundings - be it walking over tarmac under the beating sun or from the gangway that lead to passport control - they accompany me, these butterflies, whispering of adventure to come. Yet as I approach the immigration queue designated for All Other Passports, they stop, suddenly paralysed, and morph into a knot.

The knot sits at the pit of my stomach and, like a black hole, engulfs every positive vibration I'd hitherto been feeling. When it's my turn to be screened, the immigration officer painstakingly flips through the pages of my Nigerian passport, inspecting each stamp with microscopic precision, occasionally staring blankly at my face, his own stoic with the infallibility of power. I sense the impatience of the person behind me, the suspicion of the people beside me… and I wait, forcefully subduing any facial articulations of fear, annoyance and shame. When I'm finally cleared 10 minutes later, I will the knot in my stomach to disappear and the butterflies to return. I plead with them. I tell myself that I will not allow a cold welcome to define my experience in a new part of the world.

Travel is no longer a privilege of the wealthy, yet it remains a luxury through the currency of access. Beyond the odd punitive policy ping-pong between disputing countries, citizens of many countries around the world - predominantly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East - who wish to travel are required to prove their credibility through a rigorous visa application process. It is not uncommon, due to the weeks it might take to obtain a visa appointment and the subsequent processing times, that purchases of flights and hotels in advance - a requirement of many countries on the receiving end of these non-Western tourists - are often unused and forfeited. It's a sunken cost that most of us have grown to accept, because the reality is that travel plans are dynamic and often change. We, the people of the emerging world, have become accustomed to this elaborate dance.

American and European citizens, beneficiaries of the flexibility and spontaneity denied to nationals of countries like mine, dip in and out of Earth's most dazzling beach towns and ancient cities, with Marrakech, Cape Town and Zanzibar among popular destinations. Indeed, these are remarkable places to visit on my continent, though inaccessible to me, an African, on impulse. You, an American or European, don't need a visa to visit them. I do.

I believe we all have the right to experience the world, with the exception of those who seek to do harm or impose their ideologies on others. So, in the spirit of Ubuntu, an African philosophy that hinges on our collective existence and compassion towards others, I invite you to come and discover Africa, one of the most majestic continents. I only ask that you come willing to see beyond the pyramids, the mountains, the rapturous waterfalls and the often-oblivious cocoon of resorts. If you do this, you will leave with a richer understanding of humanity, and your state of equilibrium permanently offset - as it should be.

Resplendent images of Tanzania's Serengeti come to mind when many picture Africa. Against a purple-pinkish sunset, the silhouette of a giraffe elegantly extends its neck to feed from an acacia tree. This is what dreams are made of. About 500km from the Serengeti in neighbouring Kenya sits Karen, an idyllic suburban neighbourhood commonly believed to have been named after the Danish "Out of Africa" author Karen Blixen. Many Nairobi locals and tourists hardly explore the plush suburb, but may take in its tree-lined periphery on the way to Giraffe Manor, a popular tourist stop where one can feed and play with giraffes while having lunch on the terrace. Charming indeed.

But, when your eyes adjust focus and observe where you are, you realise that the vast stretch of land in this community is predominantly populated by White people. The mansions are pristine, the driveways expansive and the lawns manicured to perfection. You'll see smiling happy white faces of Scandinavians, Americans, Brits and Germans, all of whom call this place home. But you'll struggle to find a single Black Kenyan native in this environment, other than the maids who, in their freshly pressed uniforms, work diligently in the houses to maintain its picture-perfect condition. After the work for the day is done and the children are tended to, you may find them huddled together on the public bus which takes them back to Dagoretti, Langata or Kawangware where, if it isn't too late, they just might be able to put their own children to sleep.

The Chinese population has been growing in Africa since many of the continent's presidents agreed that partnerships and deals with Chinese farmers, investors and construction workers, unlike those with the Americans, were efficient and didn't come with a morality clause. Yet as Chinese people have strategically gained a footing on the continent, they've assumed positions of authority and, in some cases, have succumbed to neo-colonialist tactics.

In 2015 Zhao Yang, a Chinese restaurant owner in Nairobi was arrested for not allowing Kenyans into his restaurant after 7pm to mingle with non-Black patrons. This incident, like many more undocumented but of which are widely spoken, echoes the afternoon when the prominent Chuma family of Uganda had a lovely lunch at a restaurant on Bulago Island in Lake Victoria and were subsequently told not to return because the restaurant "doesn't accept locals". The only difference here is that the restaurant owner is White, the incident occurred in 2013, and the restaurant is still open.

Anti-African racism is not a new concept and is most freely expressed in the city of Guangzhou in the Guangdong Province of China. I've been there. I've seen it myself. In an effort to quell the resurgence of a second COVID-19 wave, the Chinese government introduced surveillance and mandatory testing of African migrants in the province, followed by a 14-day quarantine for all Africans, regardless of previous negative tests. The image of many Africans, in the Yuexiu district, evicted by landlords, sleeping in the streets sparked an outcry among Africans and African diplomats resulting in the hashtag #chinamustexplain. These African migrants were subsequently refused entry to hospitals, hotels and supermarkets. McDonald's has since apologised for displaying a sign at one of its stores stating "…black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant."

The death of George Floyd unleashed a primal outcry across the world over the senseless slaughter of an innocent Black man, a satisfying sound for so many. So long overdue. The result has been the open declarations by brands, corporations and people to wilfully rehabilitate their privileges in an effort to establish an anti-racist society.

So what does this mean for global travellers, particularly those who have and will continue to benefit from privileged passports and skin tones? Firstly, it means going beyond the willingness to see and listen, to the commitment to not remaining silent. As human beings, we can feel when something isn't right. We owe it to ourselves to sharpen that sense of perception in our native countries as well as on other continents. Familiarise yourself with the beliefs and social practices of the people in the places you choose to visit. Support businesses and establishments that cater to all. When I opt for cafés, restaurants and hotels that embrace their local community as much as they do foreigners, I always leave with a richer sense of the city's character, history and hospitality.

On 9 June 2020, No White Saviours, a Uganda-based advocacy group for better practices in development work, staged a peaceful protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement during which its co-founders Olivia Alaso (Black) and Kelsey Nielsen (White) were arrested alongside many foreign nationals protesting with them. Earlier that morning Olivia had told the White people among them that "they really need to be willing to stand in front of Black people when it comes to police encounters like this. The police, globally see your white body and will treat it with more care and respect than they will if you are Black."

This is in Uganda where 100 per cent of the police force is Black.

We are not yet where we need to be. We all have work to do and each person has a role to play in this global reformation. But we will get there one day, to a time and place when we can all explore the wonders of this world with curiosity, fearlessness and uninterrupted butterflies.

The Lowdown

Ooooota Adepo is tech and social entrepreneur, and also a food lover. She is the Founder and Creative Director of Dynein, a platform that explores global restaurants virtually.

Listen to Ooooota's TED Talk here.

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