Nanjala Nyabola on Travelling While Black : Rough Translation What happens when your guidebook isn't written with you in mind? Nanjala Nyabola on her new book: Travelling While Black.
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Rewriting The Travel Guidebook With Nanjala Nyabola

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Rewriting The Travel Guidebook With Nanjala Nyabola

Rewriting The Travel Guidebook With Nanjala Nyabola

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You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner.

OK. I'm going to admit this. I have felt so travel-starved at points of the pandemic that I've taken to flipping through guidebooks - Lonely Planet, Rough Guides. Maybe I'm dating myself here. But it is an odd experience to read a guidebook of a place that you are not planning to visit. You almost notice how casually prescriptive the advice can be. It tells you not just where to eat, but what to order, not just what to see, but how to feel about it and maybe who you'll meet along the way.

NANJALA NYABOLA: Let me find it. Togo - OK.

WARNER: Nanjala Nyabola is an academic and writer from Kenya. She read me from a guidebook she bought when she was a university student making her first trip to an African country outside her own. She was headed to Togo, the long, skinny country between Ghana and Benin, and she was excited to read passages like this one.

NYABOLA: OK. Here we go.

(Reading) Kpalime is surrounded by mountain villages and cascades reached by footpaths through the lush forests. The heartiest walk is up through Mt. Agou, 20 kilometers south of Kpalime. Catch a taxi from Kpalime to Nyogbo and get out at the Hospital Bethesda. The offer of a few cold drinks should tempt a local lad to guide you to the top.

Ha (laughter).

WARNER: Wait. The ha is yours?

NYABOLA: That ha is mine. That is me going ha. No, it does not tempt a few local lad to guide you to the top because they actually are just like, no, you have to pay me. Like, if you want my time, you have to pay me for my time.

WARNER: Right.

NYABOLA: Why do you assume that I'm going to do this for you?

WARNER: Because the assumption of the writer, I guess, is that the, quote-unquote, "local lad" would see a white person offering him some cold drinks and expect more payment after the trip. Right?

NYABOLA: Yeah, yeah.

WARNER: But they're not expecting that from you.

NYABOLA: And like - no.

WARNER: During that same trip, Nanjala went to see an 80-year-old French castle, which, as the guidebook promised, had one man guarding the entrance.

NYABOLA: The book suggests that if you give this guy 500 CFA...

WARNER: That's about one U.S. dollar.

NYABOLA: ...He'll let you into the castle, and you can look around. And actually, no, he didn't. He wouldn't let us in because you're not supposed to be in the castle (laughter). And you know, he's not supposed to allow you in there.

WARNER: And she didn't know, was the guidebook misguided, or was it just the wrong advice for her?

NYABOLA: I had read the guidebook in a very granular way, right? Like, this is what's going to happen, and then that's going to happen. And then if you do this, you know, cause and effect, consequences and things like that.

WARNER: Do you feel like the guidebook made you have a more negative experience than you would have otherwise had if you hadn't read it?

NYABOLA: I didn't have a great time in Togo. There's a lot of softness in places where the informality is important. Privilege is actually a big part of that softness.

WARNER: And by softness, you mean flexibility in the rules?

NYABOLA: Yeah. Flexibility, bending rules, leeways, rewards - and the people who don't have privilege are not privy to that softness. And that was my first lesson in that.

I could very easily have left with this idea that traveling in Africa or traveling in general is a hostile experience for Black women. But when I learned to let go of the guidebook, what I found was that you can still have a particular experience that isn't captured by the guidebook that is just as positive.


WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Nanjala's new book is called "Travelling While Black." In it, you will not find advice on tempting a local lad with offers of cold drinks. You will not find restaurant reviews. But reading it, maybe especially at a time when we are all not traveling as much as we'd like, it feels like the best kind of adventure. Coming up, the pitfalls and joys of travel and even how Nanjala found a space for softness. Our conversation continues after the break.


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. And today, we are continuing our series on belonging or longing to just be with the Nanjala Nyabola, the author of the book of essays "Travelling While Black." It's about her experiences traveling in more than 70 countries. But she says that, really, she may not have become such a traveler if she hadn't gone through an early journey in her own country that began with a bus ride her last year of high school.

NYABOLA: So on this day, my school had basically gathered all of the senior students - so the students in the oldest class. They put you on a school bus. It's a hot day.

WARNER: The bus is taking them on this very bureaucratic excursion to get their Kenyan national ID cards.

NYABOLA: You know, you're kind of rolling your eyes and winking at it. But also, it's kind of exciting because you're - it's like you're becoming an adult. Suddenly, you can have your own bank account. You can do your own thing without your parents having to sign off on everything.


WARNER: So they get to the government office, and Nanjala is given a form to fill out - name, date of birth, home village.

NYABOLA: But it's not the village where I grew up 'cause I grew up in Nairobi. I was born in Nairobi. When I was a kid, we would ride our bicycles until you were so tired that you could barely walk. And I know my neighborhood in Nairobi like the back of my hand, but that's not what they want me to do because we still have this colonial idea that nobody can be from Nairobi. You have to be from the village where your father is from.

WARNER: Because when the Kenyan government is asking Nanjala for her home village, they're not asking for where she lives or even where she was born. What they're asking her to do is declare her ethnic group.

So just a quick note about terminology - I was a correspondent in Nairobi for years for NPR, and I've heard Kenyans use both the word ethnicity and tribe to refer to themselves. Nanjala prefers the phrase language network or language group, which she finds much less loaded than the word tribe or ethnicity. But this phrase is still not as common, so you'll hear us use all three of these words throughout the interview.

Anyway, Nanjala says that this thing that the government was doing, making her associate her ethnicity or her language group with a specific location in Kenya, it goes back to a colonial law of 1915.

NYABOLA: People were assigned reserves according to their ethnic identity. And so basically, you were allocated a homeland where you were quote-unquote, "normally resident." And so if you are outside your reserve or the place that the government ascribed to you as your home area, you had to have identity documents. And if you didn't have them with you, there was a system of arbitrary punishment and arbitrary detention. The ID system is a cornerstone of the system of control.

WARNER: And what did that registration system then - how did that change people's relationship to their tribe or language network?

NYABOLA: What the system does is it makes something solid that is actually very fluid. Historically, a lot of our communities are very itinerant, and there's a lot of intermarriage. And the idea of trying to bind up identity to place is actually inconsistent with how many of our ethnic communities, many of our language networks think about themselves.

WARNER: We think of IDs as claiming or belonging to a place. But you're saying the history of IDs in Kenya is about putting people in their place.

NYABOLA: Exactly.

WARNER: Nanjala's father passed away when she was small. She'd only been to his village a handful of times, and so she didn't know the answer to many of the questions that were asked her in the form. And when she shows her answers to the government official, he tells her no.


WARNER: He cannot approve her ID.

NYABOLA: You have to go to this village. You have to find the nearest chief, and you have to get vetted.

WARNER: And that chief is supposed to say what? That this person who I've maybe never seen, but who's - maybe I've seen but was not born here, I vouch that they exist?

NYABOLA: Yeah. That's precisely it. They're trying to verify that you're from the tribe or from the ethnicity that they say you are.


WARNER: Nairobi, she says, was not just her hometown. It was, to her, a melting pot of different languages and different backgrounds.

NYABOLA: I feel like the real Kenya is, you know, when a bus flips over and everybody runs to help and doesn't stop to ask, where is this person from? I feel like that real Kenya lurks underneath the surface. And you're just about to graduate high school, and here comes reality telling you, well, actually, all Kenyans are Kenyans, but some Kenyans are more Kenyan than others. That's a harsh thing to hear as a kid. So just feeling sad - it just feels sad, you know?

WARNER: In the book, you have this line. You say, it's the humiliation of being told you could not possibly belong to the only place you've ever called home.

NYABOLA: Yeah. I mean, it's - what - who are you if not the place that you've always identified yourself with? Nairobi has always been the center of my identity, so to be rejected from your hometown is not an easy thing.

WARNER: Nanjala refused to make the trip back to the village. She wasn't going to find a chief to vet her identity.

NYABOLA: Why should I have to do something based on someone else's idea of who I am? Why should I have to jump through hoops to affirm what is apparent? I think it's a way of resisting.

WARNER: Nanjala could afford this act of resistance. After graduating high school, she went to college in the U.K., where no one asked her for her Kenyan ID. Even when she went back to Kenya, her passport was usually enough. But she did not stop looking for the sense of belonging in Kenya. And she told me a story about finding it in an unlikely place.

Just a warning for listeners - in this part of the interview, Nanjala makes reference to an act of gender-based violence that took place in Nairobi in 2014. So to set up the story, a vendor in downtown Nairobi, it sold some eggs and salad to a man on credit.

NYABOLA: The idea was that he would pay the debt at the end of the day. And at the end of the day, she came up to him. And instead of paying the money, what the man did is he started to call her names.

Now, you have to understand that Nairobi is a city. It's a colonial city whereby women were not allowed to live - legally allowed to live in the central business district of Nairobi until independence. And any woman who lived in the city was given the label of a prostitute. I use the word prostitute because it was - the word in Kiswahili is even more vulgar than the way it sounds in English. And that's what he started to call her. And he started to hit her. And instead of helping her, people start to join in, and they beat her until she passes out. And he stripped her. He stripped her naked.


WARNER: This was not the first time that a woman in Kenya was attacked for wearing what a crowd of men deemed indecent clothing. But this attack was recorded and shared on social media.


WARNER: And social media was exploding in Kenya at the time. In fact, Kenya is and has been the most online country in Africa. These days, nearly 90% of Kenyans have access to the Internet. And so a lot of people saw this video. And soon, there pops up another video of another woman being stripped in public...


WARNER: ...And then another video after that. And then, a counter movement began with a Facebook post on a Kenyan moms group.

NYABOLA: A woman posted about it and said, hey, are we going to let this slide? This is violence against women. We will not tolerate it. And that group sort of grew into a conversation, first on Facebook and then on Twitter. And it coalesced around a hashtag called #MyDressMyChoice. And it spiraled and became an offline protest.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) My dress, my choice. My dress, my choice. My dress, my choice.

NYABOLA: Thousands of women gathered in the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. Many dressed in miniskirts. Many dressed in what would be called, quote-unquote, "provocative fashion," saying actually women have a right to inhabit this city and to occupy this city on their own terms.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Indecent dressing is not a defense in rape or sexual assault.




WARNER: What is the legacy of the #MyDressMyChoice campaign?

NYABOLA: Man, sometimes I walk through Nairobi cen (ph) - and I love the central business district of Nairobi. And I see young women especially walking through the city taking photographs. And I'm like, when I was your age - and that makes me sound really old. NPR listeners, I'm not that old.


NYABOLA: But it makes you think, if I had been 17 and I had been able to walk through the city that I call home dressed comfortably and still feel safe, how different would my relationship with this place be?


NYABOLA: That moment, that shift that #MyDressMyChoice caused, it brought me back to that moment in childhood where it didn't matter where you were from. It didn't matter what groups you belonged to. And finding movements and finding that momentum gave me back my city, gave me back my hometown.


WARNER: What if home, she says, wasn't just the place where you can navigate the streets without a map. Maybe home was also the feeling of blending in, going unnoticed, just as Nanjala felt when she rode her bike with her friends around Nairobi and never once thought about what village their fathers were from.

When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns, leaving home and rewriting the guidebook to travel - that's after this break.


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner, today in conversation with Nanjala Nyabola, the author of "Travelling While Black."

NYABOLA: I do have a complicated relationship with guidebooks.

WARNER: She loves collecting them.

NYABOLA: Yeah, I have about 20 guidebooks. I think they're beautiful when they're on the shelf together.

WARNER: But she's learned to read them with care.

NYABOLA: I'll give you a really practical example. A lot of the places that are prescribed as budget travel end up being brothels. And there is an expectation of sexual availability when you show up as an African woman in some of these places that, you know, as a white man, you're not going to get.

WARNER: You mean you're saying that I could stay there, never even realize it was a brothel...

NYABOLA: Never even realize it was a brothel.

WARNER: But you were immediately...

NYABOLA: Easily.

WARNER: Right.

NYABOLA: And as an African woman, there is an element of safety involved in that. You know, I've had - I've stayed in one budget hotel. It was two women; we were traveling together. And we didn't realize that the two rooms shared a bathroom. And in the middle of the night, you sort of hear someone in your bathroom. And you're like, there's a man in the bathroom. He was minding his own business, but nobody thought to tell us that the man in the room on the other side of the bathroom could actually access our room if we didn't lock the door.

WARNER: Well, yeah - so what is your advice for people in your position who are trying to figure out how to travel on a budget, but the guidebook might lead them into danger?

NYABOLA: I don't know what the solution would be until we diversify who gets to write travel books. Like, I don't see how people who it never has to occur to them will start to think about the world in this way. Right? So yeah, I don't know that there's a hard and fast rule except keep your wits about you and don't use the sheets.

WARNER: (Laughter) "Travelling While Black" is not just a meditation on how one's race affects travel, but how travel has changed how Nanjala sees her own identity. In Haiti, where she spent a few months working as a law clerk for a local human rights group, she was often called white.

NYABOLA: In Haiti, people would say, oh, this is a blanc thing. And blanc literally translates as white. And we do this in Kenya, as well. When a person enters a space with a position of relative privilege, the word mzungu in Kiswahili or Sheng, the common use translation is a white person.

WARNER: But the root of this word mzungu, it has no reference to color. The root comes from the word to roam or to move around, used in reference to traders who used to travel from one area to another.

NYABOLA: If I go to a village and I speak the local language with an inflection - you know, with an American or U.K. or whatever inflection, people will say, ah, (speaking Swahili). You know, you're...

WARNER: You're an outsider.

NYABOLA: ...See yourself - you're an outsider. So it doesn't necessarily mean race. It means an outsider with privilege.

WARNER: Was Haiti the first country where you were consistently perceived as a privileged outsider?


WARNER: And how did that feel?

NYABOLA: It was weird. It was weird, and I didn't want it because I, you know, like being an observer. And an observer is necessarily someone who can disappear into the background. And it made me visible in a way that also made me feel vulnerable in a way that I didn't like.

WARNER: She wanted to blend in and go unnoticed, but either she'd stick out as privileged or sometimes assumed to be underprivileged just because of where she was from.

NYABOLA: That's one thing that I encounter a lot in travel, is that people think they know what it means to be an African woman. They think that we have these long histories of survival and every day is a struggle.

WARNER: But you say those stereotypes about Africa actually managed to give you an access that you wouldn't have had.

NYABOLA: Yeah, 'cause it cuts both ways. You know, like, when people don't see you coming (laughter), you can move a little bit freer. My favorite story that sort of captures that was going to Carnival.

WARNER: Carnival is Haiti's biggest festival of the year. It's a multiweek celebration leading up to Mardi Gras.

NYABOLA: A lot of the Western embassies prohibit their nationals from going to Carnival. And I wasn't going to go to Carnival because everybody had said it was not safe. And then I had just thought, you know, let's just go for an hour. I had at this point taken up photography - amateur photography. Let's just go take some interesting photographs, and then we'll leave. And I went in, and I think my camera attracted more attention than me.


WARNER: But, she says, most people just assumed she was local. They left her alone. And that's how she was able to make her way undisturbed through the crowd until she got to one of these invite-only corporate stands that have the best view of the action. There, she talked her way onto the stand using her status as blanc.

NYABOLA: If I hadn't been an outsider, I wouldn't have been able to talk my way into that stand. Right? I wouldn't have been able to use that privilege to sort of say, hey, I'm a foreigner, and I'm really curious about this Carnival culture.


NYABOLA: And the president showed up, and there was dancing. And we danced in the thunderstorm, and the bands were amazing. It was just one of the most fantastic experiences I've ever had in my entire life.


WARNER: You could say that this was a moment when Nanjala found that softness, that flexibility in the rules afforded to privileged outsiders. But the way that Nanjala interprets the story, there was equal pleasure for her in the opportunity to go unnoticed.

NYABOLA: If I hadn't been able to blend and stay quiet and be assumed to be local, I wouldn't have been able to stay there for six hours with nobody really paying attention to me. And so it's that mix that creates a new sort of possibility that I've sort of learned how to lean into. And again, these were experiences that all of the travel advice had said, don't do it, don't do it, don't do it. But the travel advice assumed that they were giving advice to people who would be much more visible than I was.

WARNER: You talk so lovingly about that opportunity that you had because of your unique blend of privilege, but also blending in. Who's the audience that you have in mind? Who do you want to be traveling more, and who could be traveling that isn't?

NYABOLA: Especially African women. Especially African women, Black women more broadly - African women don't travel as much as I as a traveler would like.

WARNER: Even African women who have the means to travel don't travel, you're saying.

NYABOLA: African women who don't realize that they have the means to travel don't travel as much as they do. I'm not a luxury traveler. I don't go to resorts. I don't fly if I can avoid it. A lot of middle-class and even working-class women inherit this idea that travel is out of their reach. You can be a solo female African traveler, solo female Black traveler in the world with confidence and with fear sort of put in its rightful place.

WARNER: I feel like when we talk about travel when it concerns people in the global south, too often it's overshadowed by the conversation around migration or asylum-seeking or refugees. I think what you've done in your book is to talk about another kind of travel and to raise that up with just as much importance. I mean, sometimes when you talk about it, it feels like you're almost talking about, like, a human right to travel.

NYABOLA: I do think that there's a human right to mobility. There's a human right to flee conflict. There's a human right to seek safety. There's a human right to seek opportunity. But there is also a human right to seek joy. And sometimes, travel is just joy. It's learning something new about yourself. It's listening to music that you've never heard before. It's, you know, watching a sunset, sunrise across the Sahara Desert.

I think that traveling is part of finding joy for everybody, but I think for Black people especially because movement - human mobility in the context of anti-Black racism has always been intertwined with violence. You're talking about the slave trade. You're talking about colonization. You're talking about all of these things whereby our mobility was criminalized. And I think what I'm hoping to do with this anthology is to make space for people - and especially African women and Black women - to be able to process both the trauma as well as the opportunity, to be able to see that these two things coexist.

WARNER: Like so many of us, because of the global pandemic, Nanjala is also not traveling these days.

I would like to end by asking you as a traveler, as a seeker of joy, any tips that you have learned for the rest of us about how to stay put?

NYABOLA: Oh, I've seen parts of Nairobi that I have not seen in years and I would never have thought to go to. And I think one small thing that we can do is to learn to take that same sense of wonder and discovery and newness and bring it to our day-to-day lives and our home cities and our home countries that really the thing that makes travel cool and interesting is not just about where we go, but it's also about how we go and how we approach places. And that how can be shifted to our bubbles and the stuff that's within our immediate reach.

WARNER: Today's show was produced by Rhaina Cohen and Derek Arthur with help from Justine Yan. Our editor is Luis Trelles. Also on staff is Jess Jiang. Thanks to Njeri Rugene, Allan Ssenyonga, Sana Krasikov and Robert Krulwich for their editorial guidance. Nanjala's book, "Travelling While Black," is available in the U.S. later this spring.

This interview has reminded me of just how much I love a good travel story. I know that you have some, so share them on Twitter @roughly. Shoot us an email at We are always looking for more story ideas.

Upon our ROUGH TRANSLATION high council sits Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche and Anya Grundmann. Our supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Our theme music is composed by John Ellis, additional music from Blue Dot Sessions, with mastering by Alex Drewenskus. I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.


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