Nanjala Nyabola's new book "Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move" explores race and identity in people on the move.
I arrive in Haiti under the summer glare. It is hot—hotter than I imagined it would be, and possibly the hottest place that I’ve been thus far. It is the worst kind of heat, interwoven with a stifling humidity that envelopes you and presses against your nose and skin relentlessly. I am scared. Everything that I know about Haiti has been filtered through mainstream US media, and in the shadow of the recent earthquake, I am worried about chaos and upheaval. My mind spins as it tries to come up with a way to escape the weight of the air. I don’t know if I’m ready to be here.
I will be in Port-au-Prince for some months, working as a community organiser and law clerk for a local human rights non-profit group. The idea is to provide some support for the organisation while also developing my own skills as a legal and community advocate—something in between a lawyer and an activist, which is where I’ve settled on what comes next for me. On the flight from New York City to Port-au-Prince, I am one of a handful of black faces on the plane and, to my knowledge, the only one not returning home after a long stay lot bo—“over there”—in the United States.
I am sitting next to a missionary from Indiana who tells me that this is the first time he’s been on a plane. Not a plane to Haiti. A plane, ever. He doesn’t know what to do with his customs and immigration forms—he’s unsure how to answer some of the questions. For a few minutes I see him hesitate to reach out for help, before he finally concedes that I may be a more experienced traveller than he is, and he asks me. A vindictive elf on my shoulder smiles smugly: the American asking the African for help. Hundreds of years of history overturned in one interaction. I suppress my instinctive self-satisfied grin. A more rational elfin counterpart is alarmed—why is this man even here? What kind of person commits to Haiti as their first life adventure? Should Haiti be worried?
By this time, everything that I have read about Haiti has advised me to be afraid. My family warns me to be wary of voodoo, even though I have already survived a summer in Togo and Benin, birthplace of the religion they know there as voudoun. My childhood friends are worried that Haiti sounds dangerous. More so than our hometown Nairobi, which has the inglorious distinction of being one of the most dangerous cities in Africa. They warn me to be careful. Law school classmates think that I am being “brave” for choosing to spend a summer immersed in a new community instead of sifting through reams of legal jargon and paperwork as a summer associate. I don’t feel particularly brave. I feel like choosing to spend ten weeks in Haiti is a much better decision than being holed up in a windowless office in Manhattan, doing document review for another billion-dollar corporation, mortgaging my long-term happiness at a job I already know I will hate. I hear many “whys”, but I cannot offer a satisfying “because”. I’m just going to Haiti, mostly because it’s there.
I have tried to condense everything I will need for the next two and a half months of my life into a single suitcase. Normally, I would only take a backpack, but because I am travelling for work, I must pack many artefacts of the modern female existence. “Pack sanitary towels,” someone tells me, “they don’t really sell the good ones in Haiti.” “You’ll need a pair of heels. Haitian women dress up for work.” “You’ll never be able to find shampoo that works with your hair.” Even though most people’s hair in Haiti is presumably the same as mine? I don’t wear heels in my regular life—it seems unwise to start now? And no good sanitary towels … at all? When did being a woman get so complicated? What do men worry about when they pack for long trips away? Or do they just pick up their suitcases and go?
As soon as we land, I rush into the airport. Airports are my least favourite parts of travel. In Europe and North America, I am scrutinised intently—my dark skin held up against the bright surveillance lights, its secrets unpacked coarsely to determine if I am in fact a “good” immigrant, simply passing through or loaded with enough cash not to be a burden on the state. Sometimes, I get an unexpected layer of interrogation at the border because I am too tired to perform the gratitude-and-deference dance. In other parts of the world, I am more wary of the chaos. One blink too long and you lose three months of your life as an errant bag skips away into the crowd, or ends up in the wrong country. As I walk through the airport in Port-au-Prince, I am haunted by the memory of the week my luggage and I were separated in Togo: while I disembarked in Lomé, the airline thought my bag needed a quick tour of Benin. Besides, airports generally have too much nervous energy. The last thing I need when arriving in a foreign country I have been warned to be afraid of.
This time, though, my suitcase makes it, and there is no interrogation at the immigration desk. Quite the contrary—the immigration official is pleasantly surprised to see a Kenyan passport. He excitedly tells me that there are quite a few Kenyans in Haiti and I’m surprised but also not surprised: Kenyans tend to travel a lot. There’s a restlessness that comes with being Kenyan—a constant centrifugal energy spinning us out into the world at rates that are completely disproportionate to the size of our population. This man is excited that I’m in his country, and that’s something—a rare and unexpected reaction from an immigration officer. It does make me breathe a little easier.
My suitcase is heavy and bursting at the seams, yet the smallest one within our group. Porters, most in bright red shirts, bustle around the arrivals hall, looking for blans—white people—to help. Of course the “help” is not free, and because I am on a painfully tight budget and still don’t know how to negotiate, I am worried about accepting a service that I can’t pay for. I worry for a second that someone will grab my bag anyway, but I find I am too dark to pass for anything other than local.
I have been “raced”—my skin colour has created a box, and I am now shoved into it—although for the first time in a while, it actually works in my favour. The porters speak to me in Kreyol, and I have to confess I like it. If I remain silent, I can “pass”. There is power in invisibility. I smile dismissively—enough to feign comprehension and communicate that I’m fine. I don’t need help carrying my bag—m’pa blan. I am not white.
This extract is taken from Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola, published in November 2020 by Hurst Publishers.