Ethnically Ambiguous Journeys through the Diaspora

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. I figured a good intro to those types of posts would be the following short story:

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Les totally posing in Brazil

One of the ways people attempt to understand each other is to try and pinpoint one’s origins. With me, that’s easier said than done. My family comes from Trinidad, and we have African, Indian, and European heritage. Within the African diaspora, my looks are ethnically ambiguous, which has both made me an object of curiosity and facilitated my ease of movement.

As I have traveled through Latin America and Africa, and even the United States, the people I’ve met have made a hobby of trying to determine where I come from based on what I look like. I first became aware of this challenge to ethnically define me when I studied abroad in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Despite not speaking a lick of Portuguese when I arrived, Brazilians believed that I was a baiana– a native of Bahia. I attributed this to the fact that the racial makeup in that part of Brazil was very similar to that of Trinidad.

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Les getting rained on in DC

But when I moved to D.C. a few years later (and was subsequently stranded in Addis for a few days – story to follow), the Ethiopians I encountered swore up and down that I was Oromo, and that my parents had been lying to me about being Trinidadian. Being very proud of my ancestry, I objected at first but in the end, the allure of free food and drink won the day and I acknowledged my “true” heritage.

When I traveled to Africa, I encountered yet more speculation on where I was from. In Ghana, for example, people knew right away that I wasn’t from there, but speculated that I might be from somewhere in southern Africa – like Namibia.

In Uganda and a handful of other countries, so long as I adhered to local social norms and didn’t speak first, people would address me in the local language. As an analyst (and a generally curious individual), I found that if people assumed I was from their country, I was able to be relatively inconspicuous in situations where it might have been kind of awkward to have such an obvious foreign presence. (There may be a story to follow on that point.)

Then there was Rwanda, which took the cake. When people addressed me in Kinyarwanda, confusion set in when I sheepishly responded “English? Français?” Wherever I went, schoolgirls and waiters alike would stare at me as if I was a circus freak. It was fine for a few days, but it quickly made me extremely uncomfortable. I never was able to figure out what it was about Rwanda that made people’s reaction to me so bizarre.

Each time I travel somewhere new in Africa – or in Latin America, for that matter – I’m always curious about where people will guess that I’m from and how that might affect the way I’m able to interact with people and move throughout society. We’ll see what country will be next to claim me 🙂



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