How a journey through Africa brought me face-to-face with the meaning of my racial identity

The sun was beaming down on a boiling day in the Ethiopian town of Bahir Dar and the only reason I was wandering around aimlessly was to find an ATM that would accept my bank card. As I passed by a side street, a group of men sitting on the ground stared at me while I walked by.

“India! India!” one yelled. “Saudi Arabia!”

“No! Germany!” another said, in a guess that wildly missed the mark.

I smiled as I walked past and mumbled, “Nope, Canada.” They all laughed.

It was a game so many locals played, where they’d guess the nationality of a passing foreigner by yelling it at them.

I was one month into a three-month journey across Africa, travelling from Cairo to Cape Town on a route that spanned from the continent’s north shores on the Mediterranean to the south at the Atlantic. I planned the trip to be difficult – I wanted to put myself in situations that were more challenging than a regular backpacking trip. Because of political tensions in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, many travellers opt to simply travel from Kenya to South Africa instead, but something about travelling the entire continent appealed to me.

The sun sets on a three-day train journey from Tanzania to Zambia.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

I had my first backpacking experience a couple of years earlier in South America, but I was put off because it was so easy to spend most of your time in a hostel with a bunch of other travellers. That’s not specifically a bad thing, it’s just not the kind of travel I was after.

But while I expected a rugged journey, I never realized how much this trip would put me face to face with the meaning of my racial identity.

I never figured out the right answer to people who asked where I’m from. If I answered Pakistan, I felt like I was implying that I wasn’t comparably rich like anybody from a Western country, and in a continent where the Western world’s money had changed the social fabric of many African nations, that felt like a lie. But whenever I said Canada, the answer was never accepted. To Africans, who only ever saw white Canadians, I was too brown for that.

My answer ended up changing depending on what part of Africa I was in after I noticed that my skin colour meant drastically different things in different places. In Egypt and Sudan, where my Muslim name seemed to get me extra hospitality, Pakistan became my standard answer. In Ethiopia, saying I was Pakistani often led to exhilarating experiences with locals, where I would find out one of their grandparents was from the subcontinent and we would converse in broken Urdu for a while. On a bus passing through a small Ethiopian village on the way to the Kenyan border, I met a man who spoke exclusively in Hindi to me for five hours – he’d learnt it all from watching Bollywood movies. He spoke excitedly to me about his family as we ate a local meal of goat’s feet during a pit stop.

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