After six straight months of being in Singapore, I was excited by the idea of being surrounded by people who looked like me. I have always wanted to visit Africa, the motherland of every person on Earth really, but especially excited to see where my roots come from. Not just as an African-American, but also as a Puerto Rican, I recognize that my ancestors originated from Africa.
But South Africa in real life was a lot different than I expected. Of course in retrospect, picking a country scarred from Apartheid has probably shaped my experience some, but I had hoped for a more welcome reception from Black South Africans than I received. I should also add that I booked my accommodation through a Dutch company (a fantastic one, post coming soon). Perhaps what I experienced was a result of the hotels and guesthouses being occupied mostly by Europeans because that’s the clientele it catered to and I just wasn’t in the right place. I also went on safaris and was more into outdoorsy types of activities, so that could have impacted my experience as well. I even wonder if my experience was somehow different because I was traveling with my white boyfriend.
For starters, almost every place I stayed on my trip was filled with all white tourists. The staff members were all Black, from hotel reception to maids, but almost none of the guests were African, or African-American. The same is true for most of the restaurants I visited. Almost everywhere I went I was the only Black person other than the employees. I left Singapore hoping to see so much more diversity, but instead all I saw was division. Whereas in Botswana and Zimbabwe I was able to talk more with people, hotel staff included, in South Africa I didn’t feel like anyone was genuinely interested.
When walking around or talking to people I didn’t feel particularly welcomed either. Some people were nice if I engaged them in conversation or was buying something from them, but for the most part I just felt ignored. I had one really negative experience when at the airport. I was greeted by a security guard and when I replied in English you could see that he was slightly disgusted that I didn’t speak Zulu. He arrogantly suggested I learn something on my next visit, assuming because I wasn’t fluent in the language that I didn’t know anything. He also said that my American accent was a dead giveaway. Asshole. As if I had been masquerading around pretending to be South African. I couldn’t imagine expecting tourist in America to learn the language before visiting. So many people in America don’t speak English even after years of living there and I could care less.
I did visit a Zulu cultural center, a traditional healer and learned about some of the crafts. The guide was very nice and opened up a bit after persistent questions. The tour itself was very good, but I got the sense that this was work for the people there, so again I didn’t get necessarily an authentic experience.
I also was disappointed by the number of women wearing wigs and weaves. To be fair, I’m equally as disappointed in this in the US. But I was so excited to finally visit a place where getting my hair done would be easy, and yet so many other women seemed to be hiding their natural hair under terrible synthetic wigs. When getting my hair braided I felt like a sideshow. A few people would come by and gawk at my hair or have whole conversations so clearly about me, but wouldn’t say anything to me, even when I tried to engage them in conversation.
Just before flying out I did have a very real conversation with a lady working at Woolworths. I stopped to get a pedicure and her feisty attitude and promise that it would be the best pedicure I’ve ever had in my life made me decide to give it a try. She wasn’t from South Africa but explained to me that she, like many others I’m sure, came over from Zimbabwe to see if the grass was greener here, only to discover it was just as brown. She shared with me a little about her history and the more she spoke the more comfortable she got, dropping f-bombs and everything. But rather than remembering her for her colorful language, it’s what she said about Beyoncé that stuck with me. She said she was reading an article that mentioned that Beyoncé was African-American and she got so happy, filled with pride. She assumed that the hyphen actually meant that Beyoncé had been born in Africa and when she did some research and discovered that this was not the case, she felt lied to. She couldn’t understand why we would go around calling ourselves African-American when we hadn’t been born there. She used the example of a white South African, saying no white South African is going around calling himself European South African. Touché. I honestly had never thought of it that way. I’m just as comfortable to say that I’m black as African-American, but perhaps she’s right. But then again, I’m a Puerto Rican born in Los Angeles. Should I stop calling myself Puerto Rican because I wasn’t born there? I identify strongly with my Puerto Rican culture and can tell you where on the island my family is from, but I wasn’t born there.
In the end I’m just left with my personal experience. I learned what it was like for me. But more importantly, it made me think about my behavior as an American and question how welcoming I am. I don’t live in the US anymore, but when I am there I’m just going about my business like everyone else, just like I’m sure most people I met in South Africa were doing. I had an “aha” moment. It’s no one’s job to be the welcoming committee for me. Maybe I should start with me and look for more opportunities to be a friendly face a foreigner meets during their visit. It also made me realize that just because I’m on vacation doesn’t mean everyone else is. Most are just going about their everyday lives and rather than judge the situation, maybe I should just be grateful that I got to witness it.
So what do I know for sure? I know that when I do go back to Africa it will be with someone who is from there. I don’t want the tourist version that I so clearly got. I also know that visiting South Africa made me even more curious about the rest of Africa. Once again I’m shown that the more I see and know, the more I know that I don’t know.