Traveling, Lil Kim, Colorism And The Quantification Of My Blackness

“It happened again.  ‘Madam, I like your color.’ Said the man in the dashiki shirt as he walked past me in the mall’s parking lot. He stopped mid-way through a conversation about which he seemed passionate from a distance as he spoke with the guy walking next to him. “I love your color!” He repeated, after I ignored him the first time. He wanted to give out this “compliment” to me, to my “color”, the color of my skin, the color that has gotten more attention than necessary since I’ve gotten to Ghana. This same color that has allowed people to quantify my blackness.”  That was the beginning of my journal entry on March 17th 2016 during my time in Ghana as I debated about making it a blog post.

Random men would shout as they walk or drive past me. “I love your color” they would say. “You have a nice color. You’re beautiful.” It bothered me. It always did. Did my beauty reside solely in this ‘color’? Would they still see me as beautiful if I were two shades darker? I became alerted. I realized that I would get upset when I flipped through styling magazines or when I saw commercials with only women of my skin complexion. I think my internal upset reached its peak when I would see skin bleaching billboards throughout Accra, telling women “to love themselves”. Were those women only allowed to love themselves once they bleached? Was bleaching an act of “self love”? Why would anyone not love that beautiful flawless dark skin, rich in melanin, that still has black people looking 30 when they’re 90 years old? Why would anyone want to interrupt that kind of beauty?
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Photo Taken in Accra in March 2016: Carotone bleaching products. 

I became offended that my skin complexion was being used to make beautiful, indescribable women with enviable amount of melanin feel ugly. There would be something gnawing me on the inside when the young girls with whom I was working would tell me that they wished they had my skin color. I would be reminded of that time in Senegal when I went to several shops to buy shampoo and couldn’t find any because the shelves were full of skin-bleaching products. I would be reminded of the other time in Senegal when I saw a beautiful dark skin teenage girl use a skin bleaching lotion and upon telling her that she’s beautiful the way she is and that she shouldn’t use it because it’s bad for her skin, she responded with “you’re light skinned. You wouldn’t understand.”  I would be reminded of the time in Haiti, when a friend told me “you know why all these men are after you here? It’s only because you’re light-skinned.” I would be reminded of the time in Ghana when a random taxi was parked at my gate. And after the house help asked him to move so we could pass, he told her that he wanted to speak to the “obruni” (word used in Ghana to refer to white people) with the “beautiful color” instead of her because she was “too dark”.  I would be reminded of the confusion I faced trying to understand the “real difference” between “colored” and “blacks” in South Africa, no matter how many times different people tried to explain it to me. I would be reminded of the time in Senegal, when a man blatantly told me that he wanted to be with a woman with my complexion or lighter because he didn’t want his kids to come out “as dark” as him. I would be reminded of the unjustifiable privileges accorded to me within the black community simply because of my “lighter” skin complexion, simply because we are still mentally enslaved.
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Photo taken in Simon’s Town, South Africa

But there’s also another side to this skin color that I’ve experienced throughout my travels, especially in Africa: the side where I’m not “black enough”. You know, like the time when an ex-boyfriend insisted on calling me a “métisse des îles” (half-caste girl from the islands) after I continuously told him I wasn’t mixed. Or the time when a classmate in New York told my Haitian self that I had to be “mixed with Dominican” because I can’t “just be a light-skinned Haitian.” Or the time when I went to Haiti and heard a bunch of kids yell that they wanted to take a picture with the “blan” (white foreigner) over there” so I turned around to find the “blan” only to find the group of kids running towards me with their phones. Or that time in Ghana when I was asked “Are you even an African? Yet alone, are you even black?” even as I wore my 4b-textured hair in a short Afro.  Or that other time in Ghana when a woman called me an “obruni” (white) and I corrected her as I asserted my blackness but she proceeded to juxtapose her arm to mine and said “Look, I’m an obibini (black), you’re an obruni (white) so stop saying you’re an obibini (black) because you’re not!” Or that time after all those encounters when I almost internalized whether my skin complexion was “black enough” and worthy of me posting a photo on social media with the hashtag #melaninonfleek.

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Disclaimer: This photo is not my property. It’s one of the photos that have been circulating on my Facebook timeline. 

Now what does Lil Kim have to do with this? As she circulates on my timeline this week with people wondering “why did she do this to herself?” I couldn’t help but think of my encounters with colorism throughout my travels. I’m sick of people pretending that as a community, we didn’t have anything to do with what Lil Kim did to herself. I’m sick of you guys pretending that y’all don’t put non-famous black girls through it for their dark skin complexions on a daily basis. Oh if you already got on the defensive side after the last sentence, ask yourself how many times you’ve participated in preposterous hashtags like #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin.  Ask yourself how many times you’ve said “I don’t date dark-skinned girls.” Ask yourself how many times the “you’re pretty for a black/dark skin girl” line has come out of your mouth.  Even go as far as asking yourself how many times you’ve pushed the European standard of beauty down black women’s throat?  Oh, you don’t do the latter because you’re the “woke” black man who says “I love my black women natural”? But dig down in your subconscious mind and ask yourself why you didn’t even blink at that black sister with the 4c-hair texture but you chase her when she got that Indian weave on her head? Ask yourself how deep is that wedge you’ve driven between light skinned and dark skinned black women or even men. Because to me, the way I see it it’s Oppressor: 1000 and Black people (continental and diaspora): 0. The way I see it, you are too superficial and carry too much self-hate to realize that we’re all (insert n-word in plural here) in the eyes of the oppressor whose “divide and conquer policy” will continue to perpetuate within the black community unless YOU make it stop.
Little did that dark-skinned girl wishing to have my complexion know, I pray that if my unborn daughter has her skin complexion, she’ll be completely enamored with it and all the magically glorious melanin it carries.
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Ghana: Misogyny, Colorism and Don’t You Dare Touch Me!

The following short stories regarding some of my experiences over the past month in Ghana will have many things in common. They will all involve men, stubborn men, stubborn men who can’t take no for an answer, stubborn men who clearly feel a sense of entitlement, entitlement to my phone number, entitlement to a conversation with me, entitlement to my body. These stories will also involve another type of man: the invisible boyfriend I have acquired because, as we’ve established throughout several debates/discussions/social media hashtags, men respect the idea of another man being present in my womanly life more than the thought of me simply not wanting to interact with them. Because how dare I not want to interact with them!? (Except here in Ghana, the street harassers still “want to be friends”, no matter how many times “no” or “I have a boyfriend” comes out of my mouth.) In short, these stories will embody blatant misogyny. Oh wait! Let me guess? I’m lucky? I’m lucky they’re even talking to me? I should take them as compliments?  Please, where’s the mace o!?

Sadly, these incidents are not the only ones I’ve experienced within my short stay so far. From the constant catcalling, to the getting followed, to the disrespectful sexual jokes, to waiters going to my male counterpart to take my order instead of directly asking me or directly telling me when something is wrong with my order (because how could my soft little fragile womanly voice dare to order my own food?!) We all know that as a woman, my job is clearly to comply with every guy who approaches me, because they are all deserving of my precious time and my presence and I must be sure to not hurt his fragile ego because I should know better than not wanting to speak to him or I might deserve death. We all know that as a woman, when I decide to go through my closet before leaving my house, whatever I chose to throw on for the day has to be based on the fact that I want to attract male attention. We all know that the phone that I carry around is solely to make it easier for random men in the street to keep in touch with me. We all know that, as a fragile little womanly creature, it’s ok for random men to shout at me as I roam the streets of this earth, comment on my body and even sometimes grope it without my permission, and I just have to accept it because my entire existence relies on pleasing them. Again, where is the mace!?

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Three weeks ago.

I am walking from Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park to the Independence Square with a friend and two men walk past us. One says “Good Afternoon.” We keep walking and then I hear one of the men shout something in Twi. My friend rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “What just happened?” I ask. “Nothing” she says, “I don’t want to repeat.” I insist on her telling me: “What did he say?” She smiles uncomfortably and says: “He was talking to you. He said he loves your color, he loves your body, he loves your buttocks, he loves your breasts.” I shake my head and we keep walking.

Last week.

I am walking from work and I notice a man walking towards me as I pretend not to see him. I watch him smiling, licking his lips. I look away, then I look on my phone. After slightly passing me, he turns around and says: “African Queen! Can I get a minute of your time?” I keep walking.  He continues: “Please just one minute. I saw you from afar and I couldn’t help myself. And wow those (African map) earrings they caught my attention too. Please one minute.” I keep walking as he turns around and starts to follow me. “ I just want to get to know you.” he said. I put on my fake african-like accent and say “I have a boyfriend o.” Because this doesn’t mean anything to him, he persists: “I don’t care Queen. I just want to be your friend.” I continue to walk and make more use of my accent: “I have plenty plenty friends.” He continues to follow me: “oh are you Nigerian? What’s your name? I’ve just gotten back from there and you’re are taking me back.”  He follows me down the road: “Can I have your digits?” I turn to look at him and emphasized on the word boyfriend: “My boyfriend wouldn’t appreciate this. Please stop following me.” He does not stop: “Is that a laptop in your bag?” he asks.  I continue walking, ignoring him.  He continues to follow me: “oh please queen. Which way are you going? Can I walk with you?” Frustrated, I respond while walking at a faster pace: “The way you’re not going!” He stops walking and says “Queen please. Beautiful African Queen. At least turn around and lay your eyes on me one more time and I’ll go.”  I turn around, look at him and keep walking.

I get home and check my horoscope. Something had to be in the air around me.

Yesterday.

I’m heading out in the evening. I walk a few feet away from my house to catch a taxi. After the first taxi driver decides he wants to try to rip me off, I walk away, in search of another taxi. A car pulls up next to me as I walk on the sidewalk. The guy in the passenger seat lowers the window and starts :“Good Evening.” I, thinking that they might be asking for directions, turn around and say “Hello.” The guy in the passenger seat attempts to start a conversation:” Can I give you a lift?” I respond with a simple “No, thank you.” As I start to walk again.  He continues:” Don’t worry, I saw you talking to the taxi driver. I can take you and maybe we can exchange numbers?” Once again, I answer with a simple “No, thank you.” He continues:” Where are you going?” I quickly think of a way to get him off my case “I’m going to meet my boyfriend.” I respond.  He persists: “I can still take you. We can be friends.” Annoyed and wanting to be left alone, I decide to cross the street, not necessarily because I needed to do so.

Today.

Incident 1.

I am heading to work and get in the trotro (local transportation in Ghana). After sitting for a few minutes, my wandering eyes spot a guy staring at me through the rearview mirror. Our eyes lock through the mirror and I look immediately away, pretending to not have seen him staring at me and smiling. I use my peripheral vision to figure out if he is still staring. He is. I am sitting on the row behind him in the car. After a few minutes someone gets off and he moves to the seat right in front of me. He turns to me and says: “Are you alone or are you with someone?” I pretend to be staring out of the window and not hear.  He repeats: “Excuse me. Are you alone or with someone?” I put on an (African-like) accent and reply: “I’m sorry?” He repeats again: “Are you alone or with with someone?” Purposely not wanting to answer either part of the question, I answer “yes”. He continues: “You should let me call you so I can see what type of iPhone you have.” I answer simply :“No, thank you.” Smiling, he replies: ” I insist.” Once again, I repeat: “No, thank you.” He continues: “I insist. I won’t bite.” I decided to bring my invisible boyfriend into this conversation in hopes that the guy would get the message: “My boyfriend will bite.” He replies: ‘Is he a vampire?” Wanting to keep this short, I reply: “Yes.” And because the concept of being committed to someone else doesn’t matter to him as he tries to infiltrate my circle of friends, he replies: “There’s no such thing in this time. I just want to be your friend.” I reply with my normal answer to this commonly heard sentence: “I have plenty friends.” The trotro pulls up at a stop and he stands up: “What’s your name? Anyways this is my stop so I will make sure to see you around.”

Incident 2.

I get off the trotro after about 15 minutes and 5 stops later. As I start to walk towards my research site, a car stops next to me and the person goes “psst excuse me.” I roll my eyes, sigh and pretend to not hear anything or see the car slowing down next to me. I continue to ignore and keep walking, thinking “ Not again!”.  A few feet later, the car pulls up to a complete stop next to me as I continue to walk. The driver is the only person in the car. When he notices I was not stopping, he restarts the car again, keeps it moving without pushing on the gas. He starts: “Excuse me. I just want to speak to you. I don’t want to disturb you.” I raise my eyebrows and without looking at him I say: “You are disturbing me.” He slowly drives next to me, blocking traffic as I keep walking: “Please. I just want to speak to you.” I keep walking and take a shortcut away from the street. He pushes on the gas as I watch from afar. I look down to check what I am wearing for the day (because clearly it’s the woman’s fault if she’s getting unwanted attention and it probably has to do with her revealing/too sexy choice of clothing.*sarcasm*) Nope, I was wearing long pants and a tank top. I then get upset at myself for even thinking that it might be my fault. I notice him waiting at the end of the street where I will have to reappear when the shortcut ends: “Please. Where are you going?” he asks. I ignore him and turn to the street on my right. He takes a turn too. He then parks the car and then gets out: “I just want to speak to you and maybe get your contact.” I reply as I keep walking: “I’m sorry. I don’t want to speak to you.” He takes a few steps behind me and grabs my arm tightly. Now this is where he’s gone wrong. I don’t like people touching me without my permission. I look at him straight in his eyes and say assertively: “Sir please! Do not touch me!” I try pulling myself away from him. He proceeds to grabbing my arms even tighter and looks at me: “Stop it. I know I am stubborn. I just want to speak with you. You are making a scene!” Aggravated, I raise my voice: “Sir! Let go of my arm and leave me alone!” At this point, I start to look around and see a man on the street sitting by an unfinished building. He is paying attention. I wonder if he will come to my rescue if this escalates. He sits there, watching. The stalking man notices and says: “Stop making a scene! I just want to be your friend. Please give me your number.” Once again, I try to pull my arm from him: “Let go of my arm! I’m not giving you my number. I’m going to my boyfriend’s house. Leave me!!”. Raising his voice, he says: “I don’t care. I just want to be your friend please!”. I manage to pull my arm from his grip: “I have plenty friends already! Leave me o!” The man lets go of my arm and says:“I’m going to get my car and I’ll be back.” I walk to my research site as fast as I can. It was about three minutes away  and I wonder if I will make it there ok, while constantly looking over my shoulder, paranoid at the noise of every car passing by.

Incident 3.

I get to my research site. Instead of starting my observations, I find myself questioning if I did something for this type harassment to occur. I check my clothes again.”I don’t have time for this!” I think to myself. ” And even if I was wearing a thong and bra? So what!? That still didn’t give him the right to press on my arm like that and follow me for about 15 minutes.” I think about the should haves and could haves of the situation before I decide to get into work mode.

About 1.5 hours later, some unfamiliar visitors arrive to my research site. As I am chatting with my participants, an elderly man walks over to me, says my Ghanaian name, and extends his hand.  He introduces himself, tells me he’s traditional Chief and proceeds to explaining that since our names are similar it would mean that he’s my brother. (I will refer to him as Chief 1). I shake his hand and he walks away. I continue to interact with my participants, when I hear him calling me by my Ghanaian name again. “Please come.” he says. There are three elderly men sitting around a table, one of whom (Chief 2) I already knew. Chief 1 asks me to take a chair and join the table. As I grab the chair, the third man (Chief 3) introduces himself as a traditional Chief too. Chief 1 tells me to sit down and as I’m sitting, Chief 3 says “Not yet! Please come.” He then hugs me and tried to kiss my shoulder. I give him a confused look and say “Excuse me?” The three men laugh as they tell me to sit down. I start to internally question the fine line between having respect for the elders and completely calling out the misogynistic bull that is blatantly occurring as they start speaking in Ga (knowing that I don’t understand). The three Chiefs then start to question me about my marital status. “Are you married?” asks Chief 1 while the others laugh. I hesitate, think “what the hell is this?” then I reply that I have a boyfriend. He responds that my boyfriend is not important. The chiefs (must I remind you they are all old enough to be my grandfathers), start to debate about which one of them can “have me” (because, clearly, I’m a piece of property and nothing more than an object waiting to be had, waiting to be owned). They switch again from English to Ga as I’m trying to figure out what is going on. Chief 1 says he wants me to be his last wife. Chief 3 tells him that he’s too old and he should be the one to “have me”. Chief 1 then asks how old I am. “17” I said (clearly lying). Chief 1 replies : “Oh! 17! You are too young. If I take you, I will go to jail o!” I’m looking puzzled like: “What in the world is happening? I want to leave but can’t because this is my research site”. Chief 1 continues: “You know, what? This is what will happen. You can give me my last child.” I look at him disgustingly without answering because my facial expressions had to say it all. Chief 3, pulls out candy and offers me some. I shake my head and utter “No. thank you”. He insists. I tell him that I don’t eat sweets. Chief 1 replies: “You don’t eat sweets?” Again, I answer “No”. Chief 2 chimes in and says “Are you sure you don’t like sweets?” as they switch back to speaking in Ga and laugh. Chief 3 continues: “You don’t like sweets? Which sweets? The ones that goes in the mouth or the second hole?” They laugh. I roll my eyes. “I’m leaving.” I say as I get up. “Are we worrying you?” Chief 3 asks. Chief 2 asks me not to go and says he has wine for me, considering that I do not eat sweets. I tell him I do not drink alcohol (lies), as he gets up to go get the bottle of wine. “Chief 1 inquires on my reasons for not drinking. “I’m muslim” I respond with another lie. Chief 2 continues: “I’m Christian. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll convert into Islam for you.” They exchange a few lines in Ga and then Chief 3 adds in English: “ You know? I like your complexion. You look like a rare African.” Filled with disgust, (because I know where this is going, since mental slavery concerning the superiority of lighter skin complexions is ubiquitous here—This topic needs its own blog post) I ask: “What in the world does that even mean?” He answers: “The Europeans, they are too white. You are not dark. Your complexion is great, like a Lebanese.” I roll my eyes again: “I don’t appreciate this! I don’t appreciate any part of this conversation!”. Chief 3 continues: “Do you like live music? We want to take you out. How about friday?!” I answer: “I already have plans.” A small child gets behind me and starts to play with my hair that I’m wearing as an afro. Chief 2 comes back with a bottle of whiskey and chimes back in the conversation: “Next week, I will take you to do your hair. I can’t have you walking around like this. People will think I don’t take care of you.” As if I wasn’t already pissed off throughout this entire conversation, let alone the entire day, this comment was the drop that made the cup overflow. “I’m sorry. Excuse you?!” I said “For one, there’s nothing wrong with my natural hair! I don’t care if you don’t like it! You’re not the one wearing it! Two, I don’t need a man to take care of me! I got my own!” Fed up at this point, I get up without another word and move my chair.

As I get on the trotro to head home, I feel completely annoyed with the occurrences of the day, pondering what I could have done differently and can do differently next time. I can feel the rage boiling inside me the whole one-hour ride. And as I get off the bus, the “mate” (man collecting the money and shouting the direction to which the bus is heading) grabs my hand, asking for my number too. I pull my hand away, walk home as fast as possible and proceed to drown my sorrows in a bowl of fufu.

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Dear Foreigner: Move your camera. This is NOT a zoo!

Imagine you’re sitting on your porch with your friends, hanging out as usual, going about your daily rituals, when someone you don’t know stops in front of you without saying a word, not even a greeting, and starts taking pictures of you. After snapping multiple shots, the person walks away, again even without saying a word. How do you react? What are your feelings towards such a person? Do you let them get away with it, not knowing what will happen with your pictures? What if, for whatever reasons, you belonged to a community who believes that pictures can cause harm, like capture your soul? What would you do then? Maybe you’ll follow the person to inquire? Maybe you’ll scream at the person to the point of even chasing him/her? Maybe you’ll go further and even shatter that person’s camera so they learn a lesson or two about manners? Now imagine this happening to someone else, furthermore imagine the different perceived power dynamics (race, class, nationality etc) that may play out between that “someone else” and the random photographer. Now stop imagining, because this is a reality faced by many in “developing countries” (a term I absolutely abhor).
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We were siting on a yacht going down the Volta River in Ghana. The beautiful green scenery, filled with the chirping of birds, topped by a golden sunset, accompanied by the vibrant noise of the boat’s motor had evoked simultaneous feelings of adventure and serenity. I tried to inhale the fresh air as much as I could before pulling out my camera. I captured the magnificent fierce sunset, I captured the shadows of the trees, I captured the river and the waves caused by the boat. After a few minutes away from the hotel where we had embarked, we unexpectedly started to encounter wooden shacks and communities living along side the river. I saw kids playing along the river, kids and adults bathing, some mothers tending to their children’s needs, breastfeeding or bathing them. It took a few seconds for me to come to the conscious realization that this was their daily life and I immediately looked away, in an attempt to not invade anyone’s privacy. I was instantly reminded of my summers in my grandmother’s countryside in Haiti where we would go play alongside the river. As I reminisced of the blissful moments of my childhood, something caught my attention. I noticed the European girl on the boat quickly pulling out her camera like someone wanting to capture a rare moment like a lion chasing a unicorn in a safari or something. I observed her. With every zoom motion, every click on the button to capture a photo, every adjustment she made to her camera, I became tense, I became aggravated. I, on the other hand, had switched off both my camera and my phone. I continued to observe her. She continued snapping as I had the recurring thought of accidentally bumping into her and knocking her camera (and possibly her toointo the river. A range of question invaded my thoughts: “Why did she choose this exact moment to snap thousands of pictures? Did she see these people who are living their daily lives, doing their daily activities as some sort of exposition? Would she post these photos to which she doesn’t even have permission on social media? Would she be ok with some stranger photographing her, to make matters worst, photographing her naked? Would she be ok with someone doing this to her children?” I was sickened. I wanted to tell her how disgusted I was by her actions. Whether she took those photos with good intentions, she had no rights to take them, she was not given permission. I wanted to tell her to delete them.
Now you see, this specific situation was just one of many that I’ve witnessed. It happens too often: a westerner, going to a so-called “developing country”, doing things that he/she would otherwise consider unethical or disrespectful to do in his/her neighborhood, like walking up to random children in the street and petting them, picking a child up and walking away with her as the mother screams to bring the child back (I have a friend who’s a witness to this) or blatantly snapping pictures of strangers without their permission. Would they do this at home? I bet you the answer is no!  I even recently encountered a Facebook album by a professional photographer titled “Third World Locals” (which I found utterly offensive, in contrast to the nice titles of his albums featuring white people.) This album was even accompanied with his obviously self-serving “altruistic” actions of “feeding the poor”. This has not only shown the level of objectification that people in “developing” countries encounter but it has also asserted the privilege and entitlement lived by westerners who travel to such countries.
So if you’re one of those travelers, photographers who go around snapping pictures of people in the “developing” world without consent, this paragraph is specifically for you. People of such countries are not there for your entertainment. We (yes, I included, having been the on the other side of your cameras while growing up in Haiti!) are not your next photography project. We are not there to serve to your egoistic desires of capturing your perfect profile pictures as you hand us an apple to make you look like a savior. (Gosh thanks for the apple! You have saved my life! I wouldn’t be alive today without you!)We are not there to bolster the false sense of importance that you attribute to yourself once you step foot in our neighborhoods. We are not there for you to capture us with your cameras with the purpose of ridiculing our cultures.We are not there for you to go back to your friends and label us as “primitive”. We are not animals in a zoo or circus whose sole purpose is to bring you to a state of sheer awe or bring out pity from you. We are most certainly not there to serve as objects of your poverty porn, where you go back home and convince people that we depend on them for survival (while taking their money in the name of helping us but really it’s only to further your own economic agendas).
We are humans. We have lives. We have rituals. We have customs. Contrary to your narrow-minded beliefs, we don’t sit around waiting for you to show up with your backpack, your baseball cap/sun hats, your sun glasses and your fancy camera (how to spot a westerner in a ‘developing country’ 101) to place our existence on a map. If we don’t give you permission to capture our magical essence, keep your cameras to yourself! If we’re not friends and have never shared a meal nor had a conversation so intriguing that it keeps us up at night, keep your cameras to yourself! If, last but not least, you’re offended by this post, and feel that your good intentions are overlooked, keep your camera to yourself, unless of course, you have asked to take our pictures, and we have given you consent!
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Ghana: The Wondering Wanderer

You know those random days, those days when you have no idea what you’re doing nor where you’re going, yet you continue? You know those days when you have an internal debate about what you should or shouldn’t do, not particularly because it’s right or wrong, but before you know it, some undistinguished force has you doing something you did not plan?  Well I like to think that perhaps it’s fate, perhaps it’s your instincts, or perhaps it’s the higher powers doing their guidance. And it is because of those random days, because of those random moments, those moments when I follow my instincts (or not) that I have stories to tell. It is because of those moments that my travels become more interesting. It is those moments that make me wonder, those moments that bring clarity, those moments that make me want to explore more because my curiosity has reached its peek. And today I experienced one of those moments.

I went in the morning to a meeting at the ministries in Accra, and I told myself that I would go home right after. At the end of the meeting, I checked the time and it was barely 1 PM. I figured that if I were to go home now, I would not leave again and boredom would most likely paralyze me. Besides, there was a lot about Accra that needed to be discovered. I was alone, and the thought of me discovering the hustle and bustle of the city on my own made me hesitant. (Shame on me! I’ve lived in many “hustle and bustle” cities!) Seeing that I like to indulge in self-reflection and self-analysis, I discovered a small piece of fear that resided deep inside me: it was my first time going out alone since I’ve been in Accra for a week. That fear made me reminisce on all the countries to which I’ve traveled alone. I started to wonder why I had not felt it in Senegal or Haiti (Yea I know, I should probably stop the comparisons.) Then, I realized that in those countries, someone always accompanied me whenever I was taking new routes and by the time I had to take those routes alone, I had already grown accustomed to them. It made sense:  Accra was new, and I was a bit intimidated. I thought about the fact that my passport and my laptop were with me and this thought almost convinced me to go back home. But since fear is not something I like to keep as company, I decided to do something about it. So instead of going home, I decided to walk the busy streets of downtown Accra.

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As I walked from the ministries, I reached past the Independence Arch that I’ve always wanted to capture in my photos, even before coming to Ghana. I decided to walk back towards it. Apart from a couple of people lying on the ground, the small park surrounding the arch was empty. Soon enough, two guards appeared and one waved at me, made a sound with his teeth that Ghanaians do to call you or get your attention. I signaled that I was taking pictures. The look on their faces told me they were not pleased so I left telling myself that I’d be back some other day, knowing that people have taken pictures there before. I decided to walk the opposite direction from my home. I convinced myself that I would take the next taxi I saw and go home, but with every taxi, I kept walking and decided it would be the next. After walking for about 30 minutes, I decided I’d take a “chocho” (taptap in Haiti, car rapide in Senegal, matatu in Kenya. You get the idea) as I had done in the morning to get to my meeting. However, I had some difficulties finding the chocho that went in my home’s direction. I kept walking and after struggling to cross the street, after walking past countless of men wanting to stop me for small talk, I stumbled upon a sign that said something along the lines of “Art Center”. I immediately thought it would be a tourist market as I had spotted a group of ‘obrunis’ (white people). As I entered the yard and saw the different stands, I approached the first one, curious at the types of prices that would be thrown at me, but not really looking to buy anything. The different vendors approached me, each trying to take me to their stands, a ritual to which I am accustomed. Thus, I immediately put on my Ghanaian accent before speaking to anyone. It felt as if I had a new identity, an identity that would keep the prices from going over my head. If you know any markets in Haiti, Senegal or many other countries, you know that this bargaining game has to be played well, and my acquired Ghanaian accent was a part of the winning strategy. In Senegal, I automatically got the “Haitian discount” on top of my great bargaining skills, as the majority of the Senegalese people I encountered knew about Haiti. Here in Ghana, that is not the case and I often find myself having to explain where Haiti is. Therefore, I either add a Ghanaian accent to my English or I use my Senegalese name, as I do not have to explain where Senegal is. (You can laugh now! Even I laugh sometimes! But I only realized it was easier a few days ago, when a random man asked for my name and I found myself unconsciously giving him my Senegalese name (a habit from living in Senegal) and I started speaking to him in Wolof. When I realized what just happened, it was too late and I just laughed and went with it.) Clearly I was confused about which country I was in and this happens a lot as I find myself unconsciously opening my mouth to speak in Wolof and Haitian Creole.

Anyways, as I entered a stall at the Art Center, I heard a voice shouting: “I like your kinky hair!” I looked and said “Medase” (thank you) as the compliment continued. As I finished visiting the different stalls, hearing the overly inflated prices and not wanting to waste energy bargaining since I was not buying anything, I decided it was time to go home. The compliment-giving man, a Rastafarian approached me, asking if I was into dancing drums. I told him I didn’t dance, but I loved the sound of drums. He proceeded to introducing himself, told me he was a drum and flute instructor and played in a restaurant nearby. He asked to take me to tour the restaurant. I agreed, seeing that I was not ready to go back home. The restaurant, with typical African decors and locally made furniture made me feel at home. After giving me the tour, he showed me a poster about an upcoming show about traditional rituals. This is where he peeked my interest. See, since I’ve been in Ghana, everyone (and I mean everyone, even the phone companies send texts about going to church!) has been trying to take me to church. When I say that I don’t go to church, it feels that people make it their personal mission to have me “saved”. The last person to invite me to church turned out to be a pastor. I did not know of his pastor status until the conversation ended and it was then that I realized that it all made sense when he told me that I was going to hell and that he was going to pray for my soul. Moreover, he asked me to promise him to go to church for at least 30 minutes on Sundays. I told him I did not make promises that I do not intend on keeping. Well, better luck next time pastor! There are plenty other souls waiting to be saved! “To each his own” is my personal mantra. Nevertheless, with every encounter with someone wanting to pray for my soul or wanting to take me to church, I have prayed for someone to invite me to a traditional shrine, to a traditional ceremony, to anything non-western.  My soul has begged for it, and as I like to say “I did not come to Ghana, the land of my ancestors, to learn about Christianity (a religion imposed on black people through colonization, but that’s another topic for another day). Having gone to Catholic school was enough.”

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Needless to say, today was the day that my ancestors have chosen to answer to my begging. Today, through my wandering ways, through my decision to postpone each taxi, through my decision to keep walking without a destination in mind, my ancestors made it so I meet J.E., the Rastafarian. His mention of the upcoming the traditional rituals to which I was invited, opened a floodgate of questions from my part, as I mentioned to him that I was on a quest to learn more about my ancestors, their lives, their rituals. I asked him if we could sit and talk. Needless to say, my Rastafarian friend imparted his wisdom on me! He told me about traditional Ghanaian rituals, about Black people being mentally enslaved. “Have you ever seen a colony of Black ants? They can all be following each other in a straight line. You don’t know where they’re going, but they do. Imagine one day you decide to play with them and just run your finger through their line (He demonstrated on the table). You’ll see that they start to act crazy with no direction. That’s us. That’s Black people before and after colonization.” I proceeded to ask him what rituals he uses to pray. “I pray to my ancestors. They have always been there for me. They have guided me. You know, sometimes you’re going somewhere, something tells you not to go and later you find out that something bad happened in the place you were going? Or an accident happens a few minutes after you were somewhere? Your ancestors are looking after you. They are guiding you. Trust them.” I immediately imagined my Haitian grandmother saying something similar. J.E. went on to explain the importance of water, and its use in the rituals that he watched he grandfather perform in the village, and how he learned to pray to his ancestors. We must have been talking for about 30 minutes when one of the waitresses at the restaurant came to tell us that I was not allowed to sit in the yard without placing an order. “Ok, we’ll go.” said J.E. “I’m not ready to go. I still want to hear more from you. All of what you’re saying sounds really interesting.” I replied as I placed a juice order. We laughed and continued talking. Our conversation covered different topics concerning Black people, Black people in the diaspora. It then moved on to African women bleaching their skins, to the natural hair vs. the chemically-straightened hair debate, to the slave ports in Cape Coast, to the imposing of Christianity on Black people and to pastors getting rich off of poor people’s tithe, to African leaders who are not standing up for Africa, to the West keeping Black people poor because it keeps them rich etc. “You know, it’s important for every black person to have a place in a village to go back to. It allows you to get to know your roots, know your rituals, know your culture, know your ancestors.,” he said. As we continued our conversation, he asked: “Have you been to the ghettos in Accra?” I shook my head ‘no’. “I will take you.” he said. I became hesitant. “There are some traditional ‘priests’ there who perform the traditional rituals. It’s not far from here. I can also show you the ports in Accra where they embarked Africans and turned them into slaves.” he said. “Oh you mean the ports where they stole my great-great-grandparents? Let’s go.” I said. On these notes, we got up and left the restaurant. As we walked through the “ghettos” he described the area to me and pointed to a cliff that gave a view to the ocean. We walked towards the cliff. “Over there, this is the port.” he said. I stood there in silence, picturing the atrocities that occurred on that port. I was overwhelmed. I was getting tired. After showing me around the neighborhood for a few more minutes, J.E. took me to a chocho that was heading in the direction I needed. On my way home, as I as I reflected on the events that occurred during the day, I was thankful to my ancestors. And at that moment, as fate or coincidence may have it, I heard a random words coming from the radio in a store saying: “Oh Ghana, West Africa. Oh Ghana, West Africa. We invite you to experience what our ancestors have left for us.” I shook my head and smiled. “This is so creepy!” I thought while still smiling. I could feel my eyes filling up. They were there. They were looking over me. They know what they are doing. They are here.

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Ghana: “Sharing is Caring”

That feeling. That feeling when your heart begins to palpitate and you feel a tear coming. It happened again. It always happens. I knew it would happen. It happened as I stared out of the plane’s window, watching it get ready to land as I spot the brightly lit houses that were right below me. And suddenly, my phone, while on shuffle, plays Bracket’s “Mama Africa“, as if the film editor felt it would be the perfect background track to this enchanting moment. I smiled, put the song on replay, as I joyfully mumbled the lyrics. ” Oya make you likota likota, Mama Africa likota eh. Make you dance eyeh eyeh eyeh eyeh!” At this point, I was dancing in my seat, my face still glued to the window. Once the wheels hit the tarmac, the clapping, the whistling and the “Thank you God” started and I was immediately reminded of the last this happened on a flight I took. Haiti. “Yea, I see where Haitians get it from.” I smiled to myself. “I missed this. Oh my goodness! I am home! I am home! I am home!” I kept repeating the last three words to myself, as if the simple act of repetition would hasten the process of me believing that I had arrived in Ghana.  It all felt like a dream. It felt surreal. “I’m back! They stole me and took me away on a boat. But I’m back again.” I thought about my ancestors, I pictured them. I pictured their plight as I waited for the plane to disembark.

When I finally got out of my row I prayed that the plane would let us out on the tarmac and not into a tunnel. I am a sucker for hot air. There’s nothing like a great welcome to Haiti or Africa that allows the fresh, hot air, to hit you in the face as soon as you take that first step out of the plane. Once I took that first step, my smile got bigger. “This is more like it!” I said to myself as I inhaled so profoundly the hot, foggy air that has a particular smell to it that is not found elsewhere but on the continent. “It’s just like that smell in Senegal. or Kenya”. The internal dialogue continued as I smiled and got on the bus that took the passengers to customs. It was about 10 PM.
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On the other end of the airport, my friend was waiting. After the greatest greetings, we went directly from the airport to a jazz bar, where I was serenaded by Nanaya’s amazing voice to the sound of the drums as I had my first meal consisting of kelewele (you know my addiction to plantains) and grilled chicken (you know my addiction to chicken. (No stop it! Stop right there! I know what you’re thinking! It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?! Haha) That chicken elevated my taste buds and took me back to the exact version of the grilled chicken from the street vendor I was addicted to in Haiti. Same taste, same spices. This was peace. This was heaven. This was everything. Less than 24 hours in Accra and it had already felt like home.
The following day, I, unpredictably, found myself on the way to the Volta region. Though it was on my list of things to do before leaving Ghana, I was not aware I was there until I snapped a picture on my phone and saw the location that the phone recorded. “What!? We’re in the Volta region?! This is the Volta lake?!” I asked. After confirmation from someone else, I exclaimed “Oh my! Well, that was fast! It was on my to-do list! I can’t believe I’m already here and didn’t even know it!” Oh the things that happen when you choose to have flexible plans. This was meant to be. It all came to fruition as my friend’s sister, who was going to take her visiting friends for a hike outside of Accra asked me to join them. After discovering that the place where they originally intended to go was not in service, the trip took a different turn and we decided to go to Senchi. As we made the turn on the highway to head to Senchi, someone in the car screamed “Oh my gosh! The baboons!” These words put me in such a panic as I tried to hide how truly afraid I was when I glanced outside the window to see three baboons, hanging out on the side of the road. The driver stopped so the girls could take pictures. I didn’t care about pictures. Nope, not this time! The realization that my  door was the closest to the baboons made me panic even more as I frantically locked the door. The girls rolled my window down so they can take the pictures. I started having flashbacks on the memory that has now caused my fear of baboons. I tried hard to not show how afraid I was, but on the inside I was crying. I was picturing the baboons jumping through the window at any moment and ripping my face off.  I needed this to end. I needed the window to go up. I needed the driver to step on the gas (and possibly run down the entire clan of baboons and annihilate the entire species.)  Funny enough, my first question as I was invited to join the trip was “Are there any baboons in the area? And if so, I do not want to go.” My fear of baboons was known to all in the car, and so was the story behind it. Luckily, the ugly baboons and their nasty pink bottoms went away and we drove away. The relief!
As the next three months (hopefully slowly) go by, I pray that I do not run into any of these suckers when I will be exploring Ghana,while conducting research for my masters thesis. In other words, Ghana has revived my blogging process as I am sure I’ll have plenty to tell. When I moved to Amsterdam in July, I had no desire to write about my adventures there, I was uninspired…(maybe because I’ve written so much about Europe already?) But Africa, this beautiful continent, the home of my ancestors (Yes, my DNA test says I’m 92% African amongst which was 21% Ghanaian!) never fails to inspire! It never fails to bring out the emotions in me, it never fails to give me amazing stories. And as a friend just reminded me that I need to update my blog because “sharing is caring”, I’ll be doing just that for the next few months. Stay tuned! 🙂
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Kenya: The Baboon Attack!

You know that moment when what probably lasted three minutes felt like a lifetime? That moment where your fight or flight instincts kick in and your life flashes in front of your eyes? That moment when you’re not sure if you’ll get out alive or just with a few wounds? That moment when you start thinking about all the warnings people gave you about traveling to “Africa” and all the sarcastic replies you make to such warnings like “Yea right! Why must you be so ignorant to think an animal will eat me in Africa?” That’s the moment I experienced as I exited the Nairobi National Park after an afternoon safari visit. As we were asked to get out of the car at the main exit/entrance of the park to sign out, I kindly asked one of the park’s guard to point me in the direction of the restrooms. “Just go around the corner.” she said as she pointed to a housed section of the entrance of the park.

This picture was taken as we drove past the baboons about 20 minutes before they attacked me.

This picture was taken as we drove past the baboons about 20 minutes before they attacked me.

As I made my way to the restroom, I noticed that the baboons we passed earlier on the road were still in that same spot, about 100 feet away from the restrooms. Though there was a low fence separating the baboons from the restroom area, it never crossed my mind that they would come in my direction. I used the restroom and came out. After approximately five  steps out of the doors, I had to turn around the corner of the restrooms to make my way back to the car. That’s where the most horrifying experience of my trip started: there was a group of baboons in the small and only passage way and they all started staring at me. There were about seven big ones and a baby. I panicked and leaned against the wall, hoping they would move out of the way. Within seconds, they started to surround me and my first reaction was to scream for help. They all responded to my screams by screaming louder, as if it were a competition. Every time they took a step towards me, I screamed and it made them jump back, only to jump towards me again. I tried to find a way to escape but I was surrounded and in one move they could all jump on me and turn me into their meal. I continued to scream, hoping someone would come to rescue me. But no one came. I was terrified and one the verge of crying. The baboons had their claws and teeth out. I was helpless. I saw death. There was no way out.

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Disclaimer: This image is not mine and is taken from the internet. But it depicts exactly what the nasty animals that attacked me looked like at the moment.

I turned around and noticed I was leaning on a door that was part of the wall. I frantically tried to turn the knob. No luck. It was locked. I tried hitting it with my hands while simultaneously screaming. Still no luck. The baboons finally got really close to me and started pounding on me as I kicked towards the ones near my feet while trying to find an escape. My life flashed in front of my eyes every time one of the baboons joined the group that was hitting me. Was this real? It felt like a horror movie. This couldn’t be happening.

As I saw a little space through which I could escape, an even bigger baboon which looked like the dominant male came from around the corner and took his stance, screaming while threatening to jump on me as the others continued pounding on me. “This is it. I’m done. I’m not leaving here alive.” I thought to myself. I was hopeless.  I needed a way out if I were going to make it out alive. Suddenly, as the male dominant baboon tried to get closer to me, a little space cleared between him and the wall. I ran as fast as I could with the adrenaline pumping inside of me while the mob of baboons chased me. I reached for the first door I could find which was the man’s bathroom. I closed the door as quickly and leaned on it, thinking I was safe. Within seconds, the two biggest baboons were pounding on the door. I decided to stay in there thinking that after all the screaming and the “help me”, someone would start looking for me when I did not go back to the car, especially since it was getting darker. I checked to make sure all the  windows were closed while still pushing on the door to keep it from opening while the baboons were still pounding on it. My mind was racing. My adrenaline level was pumping. After what felt like five minutes, no one still came to find me. So I decided I was going to have to do this alone. I quickly scanned the bathroom to see if there was anything I could use to chase off the baboons in case no one came looking for me. There was a broom, but I decided it would be safer to wait longer.

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The baboons got tired of pounding on the door and moved away. After about fifteen minutes, they were no longer in sight. I decided to peek out of the door and checked around the corner. The coast was clear. I saw a monkey that climbed the nearest tree and before I knew it, my feet were running as fast as I could towards the car. I was in a state of shock. I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh. I was shaking. “I was attacked by baboons.” I managed to utter these words as my Kenyans friends thought it was a joke. “You guys did not hear the screaming?” I asked still trying to process the unfortunate event that had occurred. “Oh my God! I knew it! I even got out of the car and told the guards I heard someone screaming and they should go check. But they told me it was just the baboons screaming.” replied my friend. I was in disbelief. I could have been killed by a mob of baboons and the guards who were no more than 20 feet away did not even check. ” I even told the guards the sounds were coming from the area where you went and said I hope it’s not you.” continued my friend. My other friend added her part to the conversation: “This is unacceptable because I too heard the screaming and told the guards to go check. But they said it was the baboons screaming and I even asked them if it was normal for baboons to sound like humans and they said yes.” I sat in the car and checked my legs. I wasn’t sure if I had been bitten or scratched. There was no blood but my pants were covered with the dust that came from the paws of the pounding baboons.

I spent the rest of the evening processing what had just happened. I wondered why the baboons decided to attack me. I spent most of the night awake and decided to research “baboon attack”. Most articles talked about baboons attacking people who carried food. But I only had my camera around my neck. I even stumbled upon the pictures of a woman attacked by baboons and pictures of a few bloody dead bodies showed up. I was shaking and could not even stand looking at the images of baboons that appeared throughout my search. I was lucky.

The following day I was paranoid. I went to the elephant orphanage and found myself constantly checking my surroundings to the point where I asked if there were any baboons. After the elephant orphanage, I went to a garden where I overheard the owner say something in regards to baboons. The only word I actually heard was “baboon” and it didn’t take long for fear to overcome my body. ” I’m sorry? What? Are there baboons here?” I asked him and to that he replied with a nonchalant “yes”. My knees got weak. I wanted to run and wait in the car as images of the previous day kept haunting me. I spent the entire time questioning how it is possible that I was currently alive and escaped with minor injuries. Once again, I was lucky. And for the days that followed, I dreamed of carrying a riffle and making the entire baboon species go extinct.

The End.

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Kenya: The Impetuous Adventure

It’s my third day in Kenya and it still feels surreal. It’s still difficult to believe that I purchased this ticket one week before boarding on the plane. I remember seeing the deal at 3 AM on sunday morning and debating whether I should take it or continue on with the dream I’ve always had of backpacking the east coast of Africa from Egypt to Mozambique. I sat there, in bed, in front of the computer for three hours playing with the website and staring at my debit card. “The hell with it! Let’s do it! It’s been on your to-do list since last year!” I told myself. I grabbed my card and reserved the ticket. “In any case, I have 24 hours to cancel the reservation.” I told myself as I tried to resonate this impromptu act. The excitement would not let me sleep longer. I woke up by 9 AM after 3 hours of sleep, still trying to decide whether I wanted to go to Kenya, and most importantly if I wanted to do it alone.DSCN2846Now, here I am laying awake at 2:40 AM, in Kenya, on a bus from Nairobi to Mombasa, thinking about what I’ve done. The guilt won’t leave me alone as my heart palpitates. “I love that you’re curious. But why did you have to be this curious? I know you can’t help it. I know you can’t! The world is too big for you to not crave the experience. But now you can label yourself as “cheater”! Yes, you’re a cheater!” These are the thoughts ravaging my mind at the wee hours of the morning.

During the week that I prepared my trip to Kenya, Senegal was heavy on my mind. The idea that I was heading to another black African country made me feel like a cheater. It’s like I was in a loving relationship with Senegal, a relationship where we understand each other well. But, here I was, exploring Senegal’s brothers, while afraid that they, too, will steal my heart.
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I remember as I stepped out of the plane at the Jomo Kenyatta airport, the air hit my nose and my first thoughts were “yes! The same African air! It’s starting!” And then I smiled all the way from the plane to the bus that took me inside the airport. It was my first time on the East African coast and I was excited. I thought about everything I have ever read and heard about Kenya and decided I would only embrace the good, especially since the country has been on my “to travel” list for quite a while. After an hour through customs, I met my new friends who would be hosting me and we left the airport. It was already past 10 PM and after two days of travel, I wanted real food and most importantly, I wanted non-westernized food. So, we went on a hunt for food. (For the small-minded: no, we did not take our spears and go hunting for bush meat!) Considering it was Monday night, most restaurants were already closed and it took about an hour and a half until we found a place that would accommodate our needs. And thus, I had my first Kenyan dinner around 1 AM. It consisted of ugali, goat meat and barbecued beef. After eating, we went to a Kenyan club where the culture shock hit me immediately. It was “reggae night”, a term to which I am very accustomed and from my observations, Kenyans take that term seriously.
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Being in Kenya provoked a constant internal battle to not compare the country to Senegal or Haiti in order for me to enjoy the experience. But truth is, even though I had a couple of fun nights partying ( including a man from the Luo tribe asking my hand in marriage and telling me I’m worth a lot of cows), I am not fond of Kenya. There was something that did not click with me and I did not fall in love with the country as I was told to expect. (No offense to my Kenyan friends.) I started writing this post when I was in Kenya but decided to not finish it. I had to analyze why the country did not appeal to me as I thought it would. I went to Kenya with a lot of expectations after conversing with a lot of Kenya lovers who assured me I was going to have the greatest time of my life. But Kenya disappointed me and here are some of the main reasons why:
1) There was a lack of cultural connection for me as a person of Haitian origins.
2) I got attacked by a mob of baboons at the Nairobi National Park the day before my departure and no one, not even the officials working at the park bothered to check on me while they heard me screaming for help, even when they were notified that someone was screaming.
3) My biggest disappointment of them all was seeing the loss of traditional values and the embracement of western values. For example, a Kenyan in traditional clothing was a rare sight. From my observations, dressing up in Kenya meant wearing your suit or western-style clothing (whereas in Senegal dressing up meant wearing your nicest African print “boubou” or “taille-basse” that was sewn by a local tailor.)
Though I was disappointed, I still believe everyone should give Kenya a chance. There are plenty of people who go to Kenya and enjoy the country. I just wasn’t one of them. And this made me realize that people are in search of different things when they travel ; whether it’s a luxurious vacation by the beach, or an adventurous hike. But for me, I realized, it’s all about the connections to the cultures and people.

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