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.