Butterflies, Bigotry and the Right to Travel

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.

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,
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
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
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

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

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

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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