It takes a while to blink the light out of my eyes. I’m sitting in the back of a songthaew headed for a bus to Bangkok from Chiang Mai when suddenly the world goes white before returning as an old Italian woman grinning at me from across a pile of backpacks as she admires the picture she’s just taken without any fuss about ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.
Most people I’ve encountered in Thailand and Malaysia ask. They ask me to take photographs with them, they ask me if I’m from Nigeria and an alarming number of their male population ask me how much I charge per hour simply because there’s a little more soot in my skin, that spark of Africa in my eyes and something strange between my thighs.
As a black African travelling abroad you always come with more baggage than what you packed and stowed on the flight over.
And, whether you realise it or not, assumptions, connotations and stereotypes about your dark skin and your strange accent swing from your arm like an invisible bag regardless of your past, peppered with private schools and paid leave or your flight in from hard times preceded by even harder knocks.
Abroad, your passport but more often your skin speaks even when you are silent and navigating through people’s reactions to this quiet conversation. This is precisely what I’m doing when I realise an Indian man is following me home on his scooter in broad daylight.
Slowing down and speeding up as I start running down Penang Road in George Town, Malaysia.
To him a black African woman abroad is a prostitute. And he acts on this assumption in the street despite the looks of fear I throw over my shoulder as he catches up and hisses “One night! 500 Ringgit right now for one night! What’s your room number?” just as I slip inside my hotel and scamper past the staff who are staring.
Though I hope he is the last, he is only the first but I try to forget them all as I hunt for wall art on Armenian Street, explore the clan jetties in Weld Quay and when I’m distracted by a tuk-tuk driver who fakes a coughing fit as I walk by under the lanterns on Soi Rambuttri in Bangkok.
At first I chalk it up to the fumes from his exhaust pipe and I think I’ve imagined him saying “No Ebola!” in an almost incomprehensible Thai accent but then two Thai teenagers outside Starbucks do the same thing.
They cough, they catch my eye and they burst out laughing just a few hours after a cabbie has stared at me apprehensively when I correct his mistake of assuming I’m American during a talk radio insert about Ebola a mere day before a Turkish youth glares at me in an Emirates queue at Suvarnabhumi International Airport the same way a middle-aged Russian woman eyeballs me in a bathroom in Dubai.
That’s when I realise that some people equate disease with any or all Africans. And that they will make their amusement or discomfort known despite the fact that you seem to be in a state of health arguably superior or at least on par with their own.
When not being reduced to dark and diseased, travelling while black and African simply means a little annoyance.
Like when you’re crossing Sadao’s overland border from Thailand into Malaysia in a minibus full of Malaysians and they zip through immigration in five minutes flat only for them to have to wait 20 minutes in the sweltering heat while you’re directed to the health office where you stand in the doorway, announce your home continent and send the health inspectors running into the next room in search of masks.
Or when you take an overnight sleeper train and try to cross the Thai border at Padang Besar only to be led into a room where an official asks you for your plane ticket home and your address in Malaysia before insisting you prove you can afford the trip by presenting US$500 in cash while American and European backpackers looking far rattier than you do are allowed entry without a second glance – based purely on their country of birth.
Sometimes this is just the way it goes when you’re a black African who feels there is more than the privilege of a desk and a day job.
When you are a black African who works hard and saves the same because you have it in your head that the world’s sights are meant to be seen whether you are born below them or not and despite something as silly as someone else’s fear of your skin.
As a black African travelling abroad, your travel companions will certainly be ignorance, racism and assumption and there will always be slurs disguised as coughs and men who have watched far too many hip-hop videos in-between drooling over National Geographics.
But, in Thailand and Malaysia, all this irks only when you aren’t being called “Beautiful! So beautiful!” five, six and seven times a day.
When a trishaw driver, a man on the street or a women slicing mangoes at Somphet Market isn’t admiring the rich brown and silky smoothness of your skin, the pride in your gait and the way your hair curls in the midday rain with nothing more than curiosity and appreciation because the Africa you come from can’t be seen on television, in newspapers, in magazines or on cinema screens.
Mostly there will be days in which you spend an afternoon discussing weave techniques at a salon in Koh Samui as a Thai woman with far less hair than your own has hers extended to well below her belly button and you giggle about vanity, dry scalp and how men should never, ever touch your hair whether you’re black, Thai or pre-op.
There will be the warmth of an instant sense of community with other Africans abroad who will smile and wave at you in the street before snatching you up and spiriting you away to an African salon where tiny Thai women are using real black products to maintain afros just as easily as they blow out Asian hair.
And there’ll be those glorious days when you meet a Thai person with a good command of English who giggles at the idea that sometimes it is hotter in Thailand than it is in Namibia.
Because they can’t quite believe that a climate much like their own could have baked you to such a dark hue amidst your salt pans and your lions and in that impossible place where the desert meets the ocean.
Then there’ll be the days when people don’t think you are African at all. Because you’ve been given a chance and you have taken it.
Because you are standing right in front of them while the news tells them you are sick and poor, savage and dying.
So they ask: “But you speak English so well. Are you from Obama?”
This because we are only beginning to see the world and the world is only beginning to see us.
Black Africans who travel on their own steam, with real hopes for themselves and their countries and who are more than willing to tell their stories to anyone who can see past the clichéd narrative of their skin.
Black Africans who didn’t necessarily set out to change minds or perceptions but who have found themselves as an instant ambassador of their country and their continent at large in places where the sight of black people prompts fear and disdain as easily as it ignites compliments and curiosity.
Black Africans who are not drug dealers or prostitutes, destitute or diseased and who defy stereotypes each day that they remain respectful of their host countries laws, cultures and customs in the hopes that visitors to their own countries will do the same.
Black Africans who know that travelling while African is a privilege beyond the financial means of many and so fly out with hearts full of the tolerance they hope to find in foreign places and minds sharp enough to engage with this strange speech of their skin.
In all its vibrant and vexing ventriloquism.
* This article was first published in The Namibian newspaper. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the publisher.