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.

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185 Comments

  1. 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.

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    • Agreed!
      I was to born to a Ghanaian father and an African-American mother, when I first visited Ghana, I was about 13 years old and fell in love immediately once I got there, but I too experienced being stared at. I was young so my feelings weren’t as affected as the writer. I really was not offended when people would mention things like I didn’t “look” Ghanaian. because in my heart I was. and noone could tell me I wasn’t.

      I still get comments even now as a 23 year old from Africans who say I don’t look African at all. And I get comments from AA’s that say I don’t look american lol
      But those comments roll off my back easily because I understand that
      “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.” as stated my you Trina Roach.

      My semi truth was that even though I may be American and Ghanian, the creation of my identity is up to me and no one else.

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  2. 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

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    • Chrissy

      She did go volunteer in Africa. If Ethiopia is in Africa then she did go to Africa.

      “Africa is not a country. You did not go to VOLUNTEER in Africa, you went to Ethiopia which is in Africa….PLEASE”

      Ummm……you dont see the contradiction there?

      That’s like if I say Im going to the United States and I talk about my time in California. Isnt California in the United States? So I did go to the US….

      I really am confused by people taking this article to heart. Is it that serious? Where did the author generalize ALL Africans. When will it be ok to talk about an experience you had without everybody getting upset?

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    • TheBestAnonEver, Part 2

      Chrissy: Wrong analogy.

      Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in Africa

      California in United States in North America

      It would be beyond DUMB to generalize from California to all of the US, and further to all of North America. That is what FinegIRL is trying to highlight in her comment.

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    • Ethiopa = Country
      Africa = Continent

      California = State
      United States of America = Country
      North America (which includes Canada) = Continent

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    • Chrissy

      I never said Africa was a country. And yes I do know the difference between a continent, country, and state.

      The point is Ethiopia is in Africa. We can all agree?
      The author was talking about her time in Ethiopia which is in Africa…Yes?

      I mean she did specify what part of Ethiopia she was talking about. Like California being in the US….IT IS in the United States. So I would be correct in saying I went to the U.S. I mean California isnt in Canada or Mexico. Even if I said I went to North America and talked about my time in San Francisco, California…I mean I would hope most people knew California was in the United States.

      And I still dont see where the author talked about ALL Africans. She was talking about HER experience.

      SN: Ive also heard a lot of Ethiopians dont consider themselves to be black or African. I have been on some forums where I have seen some Ethiopians and Somalis talk badly about black/African people….

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    • taylor

      Please spare us the biracial argument. Welcome to the African Diaspora. And African Americans are as equally mixed as other groups in the world. Furthermore, not all Americans are dumb. And not all Americans think that Africa it is one of the most diverse regions in the world. We get that. Why would you think she does NOT look Ethiopian or East African? Ignorance on their behalf. I live in DC and people mistake me ever single day for being Ethiopian. ETHIOPIANS! They speak to me in Amharic everyday, all day, several times a day. When I was in Ethiopia, they thought I was Ethiopian! Nope, just regular ole Black American, no side of Arab. There was a sizeable percentage of slaves bought to the Americas who were of East African descent and the admixture in many AfAm may make them appear of other nationalities. But at the end of the day, don’t call me anything but what I am because you are too ignorant not to know the difference or have the wherewithall to ask.

      Quit with the dumb American act.

      Don’t do it. Don’t even try.

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    • Chrissy: “I really am confused by people taking this article to heart. Is it that serious? Where did the author generalize ALL Africans. When will it be ok to talk about an experience you had without everybody getting upset?”

      @Chrissy
      I agree. I thought I missed something, so I read the article again. I was trying to figure out why people were acting extra about this woman’s experience. She was in no way generalizing all Africans. I don’t get how they came to that conclusion.

      Taylor: “Quit with the dumb American act.”

      @Taylor
      Word! I don’t know what’s up with these Africans and their superiority attitudes toward (Black) Americans. They need to check that nonsense.

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    • * I mean SOME Africans have superiority attitudes toward Black Americans.

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    • “Furthermore, not all Americans are dumb. And not all Americans think that Africa it is one of the most diverse regions in the world. We get that” ____________________________________________________________________

      I see that you’re the one who brought the ‘dumb american’ thing into play. Quit deflecting, the main point is that it was a bit myopic for the author to expect that all africans look the same. Regardless of skin colour, the features vary greatly and yes, many tribes or regions are able to pick out their own based on those features. Hence the author’s indignation at being identified as non-ethiopian is mildly irritating. Also since she was with other foreigners who weren’t singled out like her, it should have occurred to her that perhaps, there was something else about her that drew such fascination. Why does everything have to be about skin colour? Issues.

      “Why would you think she does NOT look Ethiopian or East African?”
      ____________________________________________________________________

      Umm because the author herself said she’s pretty dark-skinned?

      “When I was in Ethiopia, they thought I was Ethiopian! Nope, just regular ole Black American, no side of Arab. There was a sizeable percentage of slaves bought to the Americas who were of East African descent and the admixture in many AfAm may make them appear of other nationalities. But at the end of the day, don’t call me anything but what I am because you are too ignorant not to know the difference or have the wherewithall to ask”
      ____________________________________________________________________

      First of all, no such thing as ‘regular ole black american’ Your features are from somewhere and certainly not somewhere called ‘black america’ You said it yourself: a sizeable % of slaves were of East African descent. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you’re originally from that side of the continent? Doesn’t sound ignorant to me for them to think you’re ethiopian…maybe presumptuous, but not ignorant :)

      All in all, you should take a chill pill because it doesn’t seem like you’re as knowledgeable as you deem yourself to be. We can all learn a new thing or two every now and then. For example, I’m african and I’m going to have research this whole ‘Ethiopian features = black + arab features’ thing because it’s new info to me so….

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    • Quell

      @sli: I’ve been noticing as well lately that some Africans and Caribbean blacks believe they’re superior to black Americans, and I don’t get it especially when it’s coming from blacks in the Caribbean when we damn near share the same history, the only real difference is our ancestors were dropped off in separate locations, therefore we have different customs.

      I must admit that I don’t get why the author was so surprised to be singled out In Ethiopia, I’m wondering if it was even as serious has she stated. If you are a foreigner in any country you’re going to be singled out eventually. Also if the the title is going to be “Black and Volunteering in Africa” perhaps she should’ve she visited more countries in Africa to see what her experience would be, and how the natives would treat her before she generalized a whole continent based on one country.

      I’d just like for black people all over the world to stop generalizing and stereotyping each other, we already have enough people to do that for us.

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    • Quell: “I’d just like for black people all over the world to stop generalizing and stereotyping each other, we already have enough people to do that for us.”

      @Quell
      You are absolutely on point with this.

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  3. 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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    • nappyandhappy

      Ethopia was never colonized, the portugese tried a number of times but Ethopia was always able to push them back. More over most euopean countries could not justify colonizing Ethopia, becasue they werent “savages”, (ethopia has a strong Christian almost orthodox core ) they already had the white mans God many years before Constianople decided to make Rome Christian. They were occupied during world war 2 by Italy for 4 years but again they were never colonized.

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    • LemoneNLime

      Thanks for the clarification! I knew the Italians were their at one point, I just thought it was as a colonial presence rather than a war time one.

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  4. My main issue with this article is that there seems to be a lot of assumption on the part of the author. That’s great that you feel strongly reassured of the pride you have in your blackness, which many of us – including myself – feel. However, did it not occur to you to ever ask one of the Ethiopian, or other, staff in the organization you were volunteering with where these reactions may have come from? That might’ve given your confusion a rest and saved you from writing an article based on your own speculations about others, which is funny because your discomfort in this article stems from other peoples confusion about you.

    My father lived and worked in Ethiopia for some time – Addis, to be specific – and whenever I’d visit him, I rarely got called the names you experienced, even though I am a black Nigerian from the Southern region. We even visited other parts of Southern Ethiopia and I never received the same reaction you did.

    Lastly, although you claim that the you were near the Omo Valley area where there were people that ‘looked like you’, one mustn’t forget that simply because you share the similar trait of having dark skin, it does not mean you look alike. Masai people do not look like Zulus, who do not look like Igbos, who do not look like the Wolof. What I am trying to say is that perhaps these people that called you these names can recognized someone who is from the Omo area based on facial features and other factors. Don’t forget that the fact that you were with non-black individuals at times may have played a role in them categorizing you as something other than Ethiopian. And yes, I suppose not many black foreigners may not volunteer in that part of the world.

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  5. As many have already stated, this piece is specific to Ethiopia and it’s best not to generalize it as Africa. I can’t express enough about how massive and diverse the continent is.

    To add some perspective: I am of Ethiopian descent, but if I were to hop a flight to Ethiopia tomorrow I would get the same pointing, staring and commentary that you experienced. Believe it or not, I would probably get more.

    My parents are Ethiopian, yet I was born and raised in North America. So why would I get singled out even though I have all the same features? This is a conversation of “the other”. It’s a question of identity that is deeply rooted into Ethiopian culture. Ethiopians visiting from the diaspora are subjected to the exact same attention. And although I can attest that it’s uncomfortable and frustrating, I’d be cautious in generalizing it as “African”. I’m not expecting you to be aware of all of this, which is why I’m adding my voice to this. It’s a whole lot deeper than that.

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    • Culturally Aware

      Thanks for your insight Mimi.

      Since you are of Ethiopian descent, you may be able to answer my questions. When the author wrote, people called her “African”, is it maybe because Ethiopians don’t really consider themselves to be aligned with West Africans, like Nigerians, Liberians etc. I also heard some Ethiopians don’t consider themselves to be black because its associated with West Africans? I’ve heard that some Ethiopians, Eritreans etc. seperate themselves from West Africans, why is that?

      I understand that Africa is a huge continent and I do not expect all of the diverse people and cultures to just consider themselves one.

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    • D-Chubb

      Thanks Mimi for offering some much needed insight, instead going on about how stupid Black Americans are.

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    • DeePDX

      Mimi, thank you so much for pointing this out!

      Though I’m sure it was not the author’s intention to single out the Ethiopian people, others on this site have pointed a finger of judgment at her and what she has written. The fact that her appearance brought about so much strong reaction is something to delve deeper into, you are correct.

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    • “Lastly, although you claim that the you were near the Omo Valley area where there were people that ‘looked like you’, one mustn’t forget that simply because you share the similar trait of having dark skin, it does not mean you look alike. Masai people do not look like Zulus, who do not look like Igbos, who do not look like the Wolof. What I am trying to say is that perhaps these people that called you these names can recognized someone who is from the Omo area based on facial features and other factors”

      @DeepDX, the above from 9ja should quell your curiosity. very logical explanation:)
      @ Dchubb: Nobody called black americans stupid. This isn’t about ‘black americans’, it is about the author’s article so no need to personalize:)

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