Three years ago, when I first volunteered in Africa, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea about the country I was going to, what volunteering abroad would demand of me, and least of all, how being a Black woman raised in America would color my life in Africa.

Even though I have always been lurred by the idea of stepping away from the familiarity everything you know, I felt this experience would be no small feat.

When I arrived in Ethiopia just two weeks into their New Year (which is in September), everywhere we went there was still evidence of recent revelry; Happy New Year banners and streamers hanging in the city. In the capital, Addis Ababa, it was difficult to get a sense of the country because it was such a cosmopolitan mix of people, luxury hotels and expansive grocery stores, but then there would also be a woman in rags holding one hand out for money or food, while the other hand held a baby. While I was there, I never adjusted to seeing the women and children begging. And I never adjusted to the lookism I was subjected to.

The university I was assigned to was in a city about 75 minutes outside of the capital, and I remained a spectacle for the nine months I was there. I should state that I have never been mistaken for anything but Black. Even before I locked my hair, I have always had full lips, a broad nose, high cheek bones and dark skin. All of which made me so completely unprepared for people stopping dead in their tracks in the street, the marketplace, or basically anywhere I was, and starring with mouths open, pointing and yelling at me or to whoever they might be saying, “Nigeria!” “Hamaica (Jamaica),” “Mali,” “Burkina Faso,” and so on.

I couldn’t understand why I was such an attraction when right in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia there were people who looked just like me. Furthermore, my Filipino, East Indian and European co-workers never even got so much as a glance in the streets. All of the attention made me wonder….do Black folks not volunteer in Africa? Because if they did, I wondered what looked so alien about me–a Black woman–in Africa?

I decided to temper myself; I would endure the immediate silences that fell when I entered the faculty lunchroom on campus, the people who would follow me in the streets awe struck, murmuring about me in Amharic. The one word I was always sure to hear and understand would be the country they’d picked as my native land.

But why wasn’t my roommate, who was lighter than me, ever the subject of such attention? Sure, people came up to her as well, but it was usually to ask about the tall “Nigerian” woman they had seen her with (i.e.; me). Or when they were too puzzled by my appearance, as this man in the market place was one day, they would simply shout, “You Africa!” Why were Africans calling me Africa in Africa, like my Blackness was unusual or we were in the middle of Iceland?

After months of having to steel myself from the stares, pointing and yelling just to do everyday tasks in town, I had grown intolerant. For the record, I stopped having conversations years ago about who was of African descent and people who “identify as of African descent.” Furthermore, I had been ridiculed since grade school about my darker complexion, so I learned early on that color–a thing I had no control over–could be held against me. But I was also nurtured on the goodness of Blackness, so there’s no dinner conversation, brief exchange or vigorous debate that can dismantle who or what I am. Nevertheless, there I was in Africa being called everything under the sun and  forced to ruminate on identity! But not my identity which I can sum that up easily with the eloquent words of Gwendolyn Brooks, “I am a Black,” as well as the on-point lyrics of dead prez, “I’m an African.” But what had me simmering was why it was so clear that I was an “African” that it had to be shouted in the streets. But for the other Black women in my group who were of a lighter complexion, they were merely accepted, and welcomed as one of Ethiopia’s own.

  • Kenyanness

    Dear Author

    I understand the spirit of your piece and I respect the validity of your experience. However there are so many implicit assumptions in the article that almost invalidate the your conclusion (not your experience by any means). If you go into “Africa” and expect to find a homogenous mass of people “who look like you” how can you then be surprised when you emerge as a spectacle? Africa is a diverse continent made up of millions of people who look different, just like indigenous people in Latin America look different, or there is no one “Asian” look. Your experience was in Ethiopia not in “Africa”, and it is a disservice to yourself and to the other people in the continent not to be specific with your observations. Ethiopians have a different ethnic heritage from Somalians or Sudanese or Egyptians or Kenyans next door – you would have had a completely different experience in each of those (I’ve beent to most of those countries – as a volunteer – so I know). Taking offence to people pointing out the limitations of your assumptions is a tad self-absorbed, no?

    Also, black people volunteer in Africa – there are millions of indigenous Africans running free schools, church programmes, after school programmes, Sunday schools, taking care of sick relatives, taking in orphaned family members, looking after grandparents etc. I think what you probably mean to ask is whether more African-Americans need to volunteer in “Africa”.

    Signed

    Frustrated African.

  • whilome

    What you said!

    Signed,

    Bemused Negress

  • http://www.internationalblack.wordpress.com Trina Roach

    A more accurate title for this article may have been “American and volunteering in Africa”.

    As someone who left the States after high school in the mid 70′s, and who has gone through an entire gamut of frustrations, epiphanies and re-orientations since then, I think the friction you experienced had more to do with stepping outside the familiar American worldview (of which the black American worldview is simply a subset) and inhabiting a space where that particular worldview is no longer valid currency.

    From personal experience I can say that one of the most enlightening challenges of navigating life outside the American worldview has been coming to understand my/our place within the bigger context of things and dispelling judgment (“We’re right, so they must be wrong!”) long enough to understand how their particular history and development led them to their specific worldview.

    One of the most valuable things travel brings is the opportunity to better understand what truths, semi-truths and untruths make up our own sense of identity.

  • FinegIRL

    Africa is not a country. You did not go to VOLUNTEER in Africa, you went to Ethiopia which is in Africa….PLEASE. So, next time you write because I ASSUME you are intelligent: You write, Ethiopia, Africa. You do not hear anyone say I went to school in North America or South America…you say you went to school in the US or Canada or Mexico or Brazil. I am just calling you out on the IGNORANCE THAT HAS PLAGUED THE AMERICAN SOCIETY, specifically US.

    And just because Ethiopians thought of you that way does not necessarily connote that AFRICANS think that way. YOU HAVE GENERALIZED ALL DIFFERENT CULTURES (nearing 5000 cultures) INTO A MONOLITH…SOMETHING BLACK AMERICAN WOMEN HAVE BEEN FIGHTING TO ELIMINATE….NOT ALL AFRICANS THINK ALIKE. SOME AFRICANS PREFER DARK-SKINNED WOMEN TO LIGHT-SKINNED WOMEN…BUT OF COURSE WE LIKE TO FOCUS ON THE ‘BAD’ INSTEAD OF THE ‘GOOD’…

    EThIOPIANS are a mix of Africans and Arab so of course they will definitely see you differently. Even the Nigeria you speak of, there are SHUWA-ARABS that are also a mix of black and Arab…so

  • LemonNLime

    Thanks for sharing your story. “Furthermore, my Filipino, East Indian and European co-workers never even got so much as a glance in the streets.” I would assume that much like in many place in Africa, Ethiopia dealt with colonization which is why white people weren’t such an anomaly. Also like in many other countries in Africa, there are a lot of Asian immigrants. Once you think about it, it’s not surprising they were confused by you.

    Traveling has made me evaluate my identity too. In the US, I identity as an black American but outside I am just an American.

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