Slinking out of his Nairobi hostel, the young man wonders if today, finally, he will be able to pass through the front gate without attention. The light shrubbery around the low building has been dutifully arranged to offer an air of care and propriety. The wilted leaves sag under the Kenyan brightness; it is hot outside. This is his first time in another country. The khaki shorts and light green checkered half sleeve shirt he wears had been purchased specifically for this trip. “Tropical Armor: wicks away heat and moisture to keep you cool!” declared the glossy advertisement. Not so, he thinks, the first of many let-downs. His skin, now unfamiliarly ripe, prickles with the humidity of his sweat. A twenty-year-old white student from an American public university, he is now tired, tired of the differences that once seemed exotic and enticing. He reminds himself of what motivated him to come. Another glossy advertisement, this time of smiling black children’s faces along with the heroic invitation to “See the World! Study Abroad Next Semester in Kenya!” Curiosity piqued, he fell into the idea quite naturally. Many of his friends had also studied abroad in far-flung countries all over the world, countries whose geographical specificity he didn’t think he could locate, though he knew the big continents. His friends all seemed to return with tall tales, suntans and an accomplished air, like they were in a special global club. Yes, why not, he thought, as he filled out the surprisingly brief application.
Here in the actual Kenya, of dusty roads, crowded roads and so, so many black people everywhere, his senses are a bit confounded. He is used to being anonymous, doing whatever he wants whenever the time suits him and without much attention. Here, though, his white skin glows like a lighthouse on a foggy night. Street children and hawkers encircle him wherever he goes. He feels hounded and pursued, a bit like big game. What’s a good-intentioned Westerner like him to do? It’s not his fault these people are poor, he knows, he rationalizes. Should he give money to the street kids? How does he know if they really need it? Maybe they are scamming him? This daily relentless rehearsal—of hands outstretched, sooty faces expectant and calls of “Brother! Brother!”—dig into the young man’s patience. “Leave me the hell alone!” he wants to shout, “At home I’m just a poor college student!”
He searches for a pause in the push of black bodies around him. He feels and hears and senses his heartbeat throbbing in his chest, ears, behind the eyes and in his moist armpits. It’s not that he hasn’t thought about race or class before this trip. He knows he is white. He knows he has more than many others around the world. He thinks of himself as sensitive, generous, thoughtful: and yet he knows he is having a hard time here. A youngster’s hand yanks his shirt. Yesterday he gave some change to the young boys around him, but should he refuse this time? His insides churn strongly with irritation and suspicion, but outwardly, he slumps, defeated and confused. He wants to help, to give, be charitable. He sees himself as a friend of the poor, frequently offering panhandlers back in his big American city spare change or half his sandwich. Here, though, the jostle of people make his eyes go blank and pulse quicken.
The young man now pivots. He needs some space. He is gentle but determined as he launches himself shoulder-first into the crowd that rings him. The circle breaks. He is now free, alone, not surrounded by young black children anymore. Now he gathers speed and distances himself away from the crowd of hands, eyes and bodies. His triumph mingles with a feeling that would have tasted at once chalky and metallic if his feeling had a taste. This morning our young man had woken refreshed, pepped and ready. He had woken with the kind of wanderlust that celebrates the promise of travel, his own initiative, and the benefits of journeying across the seas. But now, severed from the human ring around him and standing by himself on this dusty road in Kenya, the thought of navigating and negotiating all that there is to navigate and negotiate wears him out. He is tired, and would rather be far away from the continuousness of the crowds, the hawkers with cheap plastic items for sale, their poverty, glossy advertisements, his white lighthouse, his guilt.
His sturdy sandals propel him toward the pub down the road where other foreigners like him from the US, Europe, and Australia flock, preen, gather and consolidate themselves. The air inside cools his moistness, softens his irritation. On the walls of the pub, an artist has affected a safari with spots, manes and hoofs. The comfortingly dark interior wicks away both the young man’s worry and dust. He knows that just two frosty bottles of Tusker Premium Lager will steady his mood.
If you think about it, “difference” of any kind is a somewhat odd thing. So many of us travel abroad to search for “something different”—new cultures, people, ways of life, stories, experiences, foods, sights, and geographies. We go far to stretch ourselves and be elsewhere. We go for “something different” than what we already know. Sometimes though—and this is the part we don’t often speak about—we aren’t really sure what to do with the differences we have found, especially if they make us have to question who we are and what that means in a larger global world.
Let’s take some of these big ideas and place ourselves within the story of travel, adventure, difference and identity. Where might you or I fit into the story? What is, in fact, our story? Was the previous story you? Was it me? Is this next story you?
Kenya, Ghana, India, or Jamaica: where you go is not important, but not because your location is somehow irrelevant or generic or feature-less or replaceable. Rather, it does not matter where you are because right now, you are a wealthy Global Northerner traveling through a more impoverished Global South. That is the key feature of this trip. Of course, you don’t feel so wealthy all the time. In Kenya, Ghana, India, and Jamaica alike, rich local people might seem richer than you. But today as you exit your hostel or hotel and slip away from the crowd of children asking for money, you may pass through less wealthy areas of the city, areas that might make you start to feel wealthier than you usually feel.
Let’s say that sometime during your travels you find yourself walking through an urban poor community, one of the many urban slums dotting Nairobi, Accra, Mumbai, or Kingston. Maybe you are curious to learn more about people’s lives in urban slums and have come to this area intentionally. Or perhaps you are on your way somewhere else and need to pass through these streets to get to the other side. Or it could be you have taken a wrong turn and simply ended up in this community. In any case, here you are. Urban slums, you have read, are the fastest growing human habitat. Over half of all people in Global South cities live in urban slums characterized by makeshift homes, irregular and/or inaccessible water and poor sanitation. You’ve read about slums before, this unmistakable feature of fast-growing cities of the Global South that are stretched at their seams, and now, here you are.
Your feet step on and your body moves forward. You notice that people live their lives all around you. They watch the foreigner who is you walk through their makeshift shantytown. The people to your left and right live on and around the small path that snakes through the community of urban poor residents. Life—in all its complicated and mundane and pungent messiness—spills out every which way. Women outside their corrugated tin homes squat every few feet and fan coal stoves. Children play in stagnant water. Everyone watches you, curious. The big children vibrate energy and shout “Hallo Hallo!” to you. Some adults look upon you somewhat dispassionately. Some smile shyly. “What you are doing here?” is the questions folks seem to be asking.
The residents whose community you pass through know very well you do not belong here. This isn’t about race, or rather, it’s not only about race. Whether you are white, black, brown, Asian, none of the above, or a combination of all of the above, your awkward gait, outsiderness, sturdy shoes and water bottle state your Global North origins. Everyone knows you come from—and will ultimately return back to— somewhere else. Race, today, seems secondary to class, or perhaps differently positioned. The fact that your shoes are this sturdy, and the fact that your eyes flit and fall the ways they do as you glance at the children playing in puddles, makes what you have—or have access to—matter differently than the color of your skin, at least right now. Economics and global position are key, and you’ve got the right combo that Bingo! unlocks the safe. You who have come to Kenya or Ghana or India or Jamaica or Bangladesh or Peru or Mozambique or Brazil have more compared to the urban poor community you walk through, and this matters more, or perhaps more accurately, matters differently than race right now.
You are now in the middle of this shantytown community. Everyone knows you belong to an elsewhere that allows you the privilege to live differently than all the people around you. That is how and why you are walking through their community, and how and why they are not walking through yours. Vexed, you begin to worry how you come across, how your curiosity to learn and see and be respectful and friendly presses up against your sturdy shoes and fancy water bottle in this community. What does it mean to acknowledge the differences in economics that are evidenced everywhere you turn? You might not be so wealthy in your home country, but here, walking through the streets of the urban Global South slum, you feel like a walking bank vault, a gazillionaire in motion. What do you do? What should you do to acknowledge the differences that are all around you? How do you be humane and just? How do you be friendly and open? How do you properly greet the people whose community you walk through?
Traveling through the Global South, and some parts of the Global North as well, means confronting differences in class, opportunity, access to wealth and cycles of structural poverty. Our travels through different economic zones as someone with slightly or greatly more privilege than local residents might make us feel sad, mad, or bad. Our travels through different economic zones might also elicit different responses from the local communities with whom we interact. They too might feel sad, mad, or bad, or something totally different. Everyone involved might exhibit a range of responses, for there is no one way for any of us to act. Poor residents who live in poor communities, in particular, are complex and multifaceted people, just like all people everywhere. As outsiders to a community, it’s natural that a foreigner or visitor like you or I see only that which is “most different”—the communities’ economic status, or their disenfranchisement, etc. But all of us, any of us, are more than simply one feature of our lives. Poor people might indeed be poor, but they are also more than their poverty. Poor people—just like people who are not poor– are also quiet, humorous, patient, loving, angry, thoughtful, loud, bored, amazing, ordinary or any other quality. Same with you or me.
Our actions are influenced not only by our good intentions to bridge differences but also by the historical, cultural, and geopolitical positions we occupy. Who we are in the world matters, especially when we compare that to and interact with other differently-located people. Take the power of mobility, for instance. Most Global North students volunteering in an orphanage or studying in Nairobi possess the mobility to walk through a local shantytown community temporarily, just long enough to transport themselves to the other side. They have the mobility to turn back toward the city with its modern amenities and cultural attractions. Shantytown residents, by contrast, might not have such an expansive comfort moving through more wealthy neighborhoods without being watched, suspected and questioned. It’s not that Western visitors will blend into a shantytown community easily, but most probably they will still be able to travel through it, precisely because they are outsiders-with-privileges. Shantytown residents in a wealthy community are also on display, but unlike the Westerners-with-privilege, shantytown residents are read as lacking-privilege, and thus, often suspect. What are you doing here? they may be asked. Are you here to steal, cause trouble, fight? We are watching you. More privileged visitors can “slum it” for a few minutes or hours; slum residents, by contrast, can rarely gentrify themselves so easily.
When you or I see differences between ourselves and local residents, especially if we are good-intentioned Global Northerners traveling in the Global South, we might be tempted to downplay the differences. “We are actually all the same,” we might think. We downplay differences in order to better bridge them and connect with people. It feels nice to connect across differences, no? Feels good and noble. There is something sweet about wanting to imagine that we are all more similar than different. And yet, because we live in an unequal world, because some of us have more choices, opportunity and resources than others, we also must ask:
Where do our similarities end and our differences begin?
Does this differ for each of us?
And what does “connecting across differences” really mean?
Let’s say we really want “to connect” with the local shantytown residents, not just on a theoretical “all people are basically the same” level but in a more visceral and embodied way. What happens then? Let’s put you back in the story.
If you were to connect with the shantytown residents, how might this play out in action? Does connecting mean you pause on your walk and bend down to be at eye-level with the people sitting near their front doors? Perhaps you look each resident in the eye and crinkle your eyes into a genuine smile. The pungent smells of poverty tingle your nose, but you try to affect a neutral expression. This is going well, you think, proud of your capacity to withstand and forge through difference of this nature even though you’ve grown up so differently. Let’s say all this happens too:
You pinch the cute cheeks of the naked babies who
play in the puddles and
try not to kick a pan of clothes
soaking in a tin tub of scrubbing water
while you help a shantytown woman light her coal burning stove
and assist another woman hanging her wash to dry along a tattered wire.
Then you chit chat with the old grandfather
who sits contemplating
perhaps his chronic joblessness despite the “trickle-down theories” of development
or his wife’s ill-health because the free clinic is too far from his
steaming-in-summer and wet-in-rainy-season tin and zinc sheet home
located on the side of a lane
which you are beginning to realize
is also the footpath
which is the road
which is the sewer
which is the latrine
which is the kitchen
which is the washing space
which is the gathering space
which is the gossiping space
which is the play space of the cute children whose crusty bums leak
which is the space where life is lived for this
vibrant and poor,
complicated and not-only-a-stereotype,
struggling and also-living-with-joy-and-love community.
Let’s say you have thought all these thoughts and observed all these sights. And now, as you continue to move through this community, you start to think about what to do with your body, your mouth, eyes, hands, and heart. What do you do with your mouth? Do you speak to the residents with a friendly “Hello, Good Morning, How are you?” Do you use your tightly pressed mouth to smile at these men and women who watch you? What about your eyes? Where do you put your eyes? Do you dip your gaze down, down to protect the dignity of the people whose poverty splashes across the pathway? Or should you boldly gaze into the eyes of the families peppered about who, in turn, watch you with a fatigued curiosity? Where to place your hands? Should your hands wave to the young boy who is now following you, or caress the cheek of the baby girl in the arms of the lady you’ve had to gently weave your way around because she stands unmoving on the small path? Or should your hands stay plastered to your sides, safely away from the busyness and lives of the people around you? And lastly, what do you do with your heart, that muscle that is bursting and bleeding and confused and careening out of rhythm? Your heart beats out good intentions, guilt, privilege, connections, unequal opportunity, unfairness, humanity, love for one another, and fellowship. Each step you take jolts these words alive in front of you. Your mouth, eyes, hands and heart know not what to do, think, feel or stretch toward. Yes of course, you want to connect. And here you are, in this poor community in a different country far from your home. You want to learn from and befriend the people around you. You want to connect and bridge, but your mouth, eyes, hands and heart know not what to do. How to connect when the discomfort of difference is all around you?
In this story, connecting might seem more challenging than you or I initially imagined. How do we continue along the path when we feel uncomfortable, when we feel like a bank vault or a lighthouse? What’s a good traveler to do with our sturdy shoes and all the other parts of us that say, show, insist how different we are? When will we be able to celebrate diversity and connect across differences? Am I a global citizen yet? Are you?
Dr. Anu Taranath is a speaker, facilitator, and educator. She teaches at the University of Washington Seattle about global literatures and postcolonial studies. Awarded the Seattle Weekly’s “Best of Seattle” designation and the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award, she directs study abroad programs and serves as a consultant to deepen social justice and global conversations. With 22 students she published TIPS to Study Abroad: Simple Letters for Complex Engagement, and is finishing a manuscript on identity, difference and travel. For more, see www.anutaranath.com.