Travel Is Alienating, But It’s Still Worth It

Two weeks ago, I was in Nairobi in Kenya. This was my tenth visit to the city, a place I now consider somewhere between a destination and a home. When I arrived at the airport in the late night hours, Milka — an airport worker — spotted me (as she always seems to) and welcomed me with her usual smile and warmth. That interaction just about summarises my growing level of familiarity with this space, as does the fact that over the past few years, I’ve seen good friends of mine who live there more times than I see friends who live in Zimbabwe (but outside Harare), my current base.

A mural of Miriam Makeba at at a Nairobi arts centre.

I had last been in Nairobi last August, just after US President Obama’s visit there, with billboards welcoming him to share a Tusker and other such things still up. It seems every time I visit, something significant changes, or has just changed. Like the times I went there just after the Westgate and Garissa attacks, respectively, or the opening of the much talked about Thika Superhighway. This trip was no different as I soon learned that the flashing lights along the main avenues were new technology to be used to monitor and track speeding vehicles.

The taxi drivers I spoke to weren’t happy about it. Just like in the past they haven’t been happy about other things we’ve debated on our long rides from the airport; things like Kenya’s interventions in Somalia, or the ICC or elections or the advent of Uber or climate change.

It’s strange how you can know things about a place that you can only talk about with locals, and once you are not among them, you actually don’t know what to do with this information. Increasingly, this is a recurring experience in my life. What is a person meant to do with all these stories and interactions? How do you connect the dots into a pattern that makes sense beyond yourself? Or is this all just for my information?

A 23-hour-long journey from New York, routing me through Europe, had gotten me to Nairobi. New York, that vast city, with its impossible crowds of people at every corner (at least in Manhattan) waiting for the traffic lights to grant them right of way against an impetuous rush of vehicles. New York with its endless crescendo of sounds and lights and things to see, do, be. This was my fourth time there and perhaps not quite in the same way as Nairobi, it’s starting to feeling like a place and not merely a tourist stop. You know you are getting there when Times Square no longer makes you stop to stare at its giant flashing billboards. Now, I’m more interested to find the places that no one would rave about in travel reviews, like the quaint branch of a library or the place that sells 99c coffee.

So there I was, two weeks ago, tumbling from one reality to another, both of which aren’t mine to fully claim because I am, or at least construct myself as, part-voyeur, part-local; not of there, but carrying something of that place in who I am constantly becoming, which is a mishmash remix of many many different things.

A classic example of this is my love of the word ‘Banage!’, a Luganda expression that roughly translates to ‘Vanhuwe!’ in Shona, but which I don’t know how to describe in English. I use it all the time to express my exasperation at certain things. But obviously, when not speaking to Ugandans or those familiar with its vocab, the expression is not acknowledged and I feel myself entering — again — my own little world of arcane experiences.

A fisherman casts his net over Lake Victoria in Jinja, Uganda.

I’d like to make it clear that I am not whinging about any of this. It is, after all, a by-product of a privilege not many are afforded. Also, it links me to many things I would otherwise not experience or be aware of. To use another example, two years ago, I posted a photograph to Facebook of a building in Addis Ababa that looked so much like one in Zimbabwe and ended up learning — through the comments of some of my highly informed friends — about a Zimbabwean architect I had never heard of before, but who was responsible for designing many of the buildings I walked past everyday.

So this alienation I describe might sound like a paradox. Because travel is supposed to make you more knowledgeable, right? More worldly? More relatable?

Sometimes it works out that way, like with the architect example. But relatability tends to pertain to a certain kind of travel; the touristy sort of exploration of a place that means yes, we can talk about that cute boutique hotel in that lovely little city and that restaurant that serves that to-die-for local dish everyone raves about. And safaris! But we can’t really talk about how even though Nakumatt is the supposed Kenyan chain store we foreigners should all frequent religiously, I will actively seek out an Uchumi or Tusky’s first (I don’t know, they just seem less snooty to me). Or how walking down Moi Avenue, seeing the crowds gathered to watch some street theatre or to listen to the street pastor preaching about prosperity, I feel myself being teleported to First Street in Harare and lose my sense of place - no longer certain where, or who, I am.

It’s the alienation from things when you start becoming ‘too local’ to other spaces and - at the same time - ‘too foreign’ to your own locality that I am talking about. When you have experiences that are uniquely yours. Or when you offer a critique of a country that everyone reckons is perfect and you become that problematic person who has too many opinions that aren’t the nice kind, that offer too much complexity. So who will you talk about this all with, when most others who travel don’t really do so for these sorts of experiences, favouring the comfort of their hotel rooms and air-conditioned shuttles? And while there are many travelers who go off the beaten path and may have similar travel experiences, how many are black African women and know what it’s like to be in a place where the people there fetishise your blackness and constantly refer to you as Michelle Obama (true story from my Turkey files!)?

And this alienation comes with a flip side; the alienation of people where you visit or start to acclimatise to not knowing a thing about you. As a result, you are constructed as that Zimbabwean person of no nuance, who is only known by your president or your catastrophic economic collapse. If I counted the number of times I get asked, “How is Mugabe?” or “How many trillions does a loaf of bread cost in Zimbabwe?”… Sigh.

Pigeons take flight in Penang, Malaysia.

As I continue to explore spaces and places, and learn about their nuances, it is a sad reality I have come to accept that many of the people I interact with cannot even begin to formulate a reasoned idea around who I am, and where I am from. But I don’t blame them, really. For why should they? And would I know that much more about them if I didn’t visit, or read things about them in the media?

Still, with all the frustrations and moments of isolation, I’d always choose to travel and (mis)fit myself further into this world of endless experiences. Sometimes calculations of the money that I have used up on my expeditions keeps me up at night as I quietly berate myself for choosing adventure over assets. But more times, I am thankful for the many beautifully personal dots I hope, someday, to connect into something that makes better sense of my place in this universe.