Hello! My name is Kierra Yvonne Fields and I’m a poet/open minded creative with interests in culture, nature, spirituality, and the relationship between all three. I am writing this from Brooklyn, New York where I’ve been based for the past eleven years. However, because I don’t have a permanent address these days, I consider myself a global resident who is open to creating a new home base. For me, the journey of life is the ultimate artistic expression, so I try to keep conscious and to keep things interesting. This is where travel figures in. My travels feed my immense curiosity and need for personal growth and mental expansion. Exposure to various perspectives helps prevent me from becoming too fixed in my views. Each trip reveals to me something new about our existence, whether that be a new way to think about something, or a foreign landscape, or the rhythm of a native language. Travel is challenging, humbling, exciting, and rewarding. It brings great richness and depth to my life.
What sparked your interest to travel throughout Africa? How did you plan for it?
I hadn’t seriously considered traveling through Africa until I was offered the opportunity to travel the continent and write a poetry collection inspired by my experiences. Prior to that I had only traveled around North America, Latin America, the UK, and Europe. It’s a shame that I hadn’t considered visiting the land of my people before this proposal. I suppose that I, though not consciously, had in some ways internalized the Western media’s portrayal of Africa. Luckily, I am also naturally skeptical of the media—so I didn’t let it stop me from experiencing Africa for myself! I’m so thankful to now know firsthand that the truth is not what we’ve been told. As for planning, I arbitrarily settled on Uganda as a starting point after seeing a photo of the lush and hilly landscapes. Having that sorted I knew I’d take it from there once I hit the road.
As an African American, did you have any concerns or preconceived notions on how you might be received as a solo female traveler in the various African regions you visited? How did they differ from the actual experience?
I have never given much thought to how I might be perceived as a solo female traveler. I think it is important to always trust that you will be safe and protected. I’ve had people tell me I’m delusional and/or brave, but the way I see it, we live in a world of dualities. Good and its opposite exists everywhere. My being in a country other than the one I was born in isn’t necessarily going to make me more susceptible to harm. And venturing out into the world fearful that something negative will happen charges that possibility. As they say, where intention goes energy flows. I look at my traveling solo as another aspect of living my life. If I wanted to see a movie and none of my friends wanted to, of course I’d still go! Life is life everywhere—people eat, sing, play, engage in conversation, cook meals, make love, party, and sleep. Yes, maybe the expression is different from place to place, but it is about finding your center and carrying your life force confidently and naturally no matter where you are. And also, listening to yourself! However, my confidence didn’t keep my African kin from worrying. I was shocked by how concerned they were to discover I was traveling alone. Africans value community and the familial structure over the individual. So there was a lot of, “Where are your kids? Your husband? Your parents?!” There were many times that I was joined for lunch by a stranger because to them nobody should ever eat alone.
As for how my being African American influenced my experiences, I’d say that it made them deeply personal and impactful. African people are generally kind and open to everyone, but the fact that I could see the features of myself, and of my family in the faces of the African people provided an ineffable sense of belonging.
Did you travel by yourself? Which cities/regions did you visit?
I did travel by myself. Had I waited around for someone else to be on board I would never have made it out there! I focused exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa, as that was one of the contractual terms. I began in Uganda, visiting Kampala, Jinja, and the Sipi region. Next up was Tanzania, where I spent most of my time traveling around Zanzibar with a brief stop in Dar es Salaam. In Mozambique I stayed on an island called Vilankulo. Then to South Africa, where I stayed in Cape Town for over a month. Something about that Table Mountain…I found it magnetic and grounding. Next was a tour through Namibia with stops in Windhoek, Swakopmund, and then I went on a solo road trip through the south stopping at Fish River Canyon, Aus Lüderitz, Sossusvlei, and Deadvlei. From Namibia I went to the only country of West Africa that I visited—Ghana, which is as amazing as many say. I fully intend to see more of West Africa.
How was this travel experience different from your past tips? What surprised you most about it?
Having never traveled in a place with a predominately Afro population, blending in was new for me. Also, traveling through environments that are so far removed from the Western way of life, such as when I was in some of the villages in Uganda. These societies function according to their own systems and values, which I found to be entirely refreshing and beautiful. There is the tendency to imagine that the villages are destitute places in need of reformation, but the people know their land, and their ingenuity and resourcefulness is beyond impressive.
How did you navigate between each region? What tips and recommendations can you share to others interested in traveling in a similar way as you did?
I flew between most countries. Certain borders are really difficult to navigate via land, usually because of rough roads. Also, let’s not forget that Africa is HUGE, so moving from country to country by land can be very time consuming. I took a coach from Cape Town to Windhoek and it was a twenty hour journey! Mind you, the landscapes were breathtaking and it was a very productive and meditative trip. But if time is a concern, then often flying is quickest. Within a country there are usually plenty of coaches moving from town to town. If not it’s usually pretty affordable to hire a reputable driver. One thing I would not suggest—the ferry from Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania! If you have a strong stomach, go for it. But I thought I had a strong stomach. Let’s just say that I spent the three hour journey splitting my time between being thrown around (the waves are no joke) an already vomit splattered bathroom, trying my best to keep my own projectile fluids confined to the toilet/sink, and gripping the railing of a small stairway, sweating profusely from the sick, just praying. Praying that once we arrived I wouldn’t need to be taken away on a stretcher.
What were some of your experiences as a traveler in regions where the culture was so different from your own?
When I landed on the island of Zanzibar there was a bit of a culture shock as it was my first time being immersed in a Muslim society. So, the first few days there I got A LOT of looks. My ego was telling me that people were thinking, “Wow, who’s that fly girl?” when in reality I was offending a lot of people by showing off my legs, arms, and décolletage! So, after a while I came to feel alienated. I thought, ‘because I’m not Muslim, or pretending to be, I’m being ostracized?’ I grew somewhat resentful and thought to leave Zanzibar, but a rule I have while traveling; if I initially feel down on a place—if possible, stay longer.
With time I made friends with a Zanzibari fellow who informed me that it was likely that the locals, especially the women, also felt alienated by me. He also brought to my attention that there was more expectation placed on me, being a black woman, than there was on non-black tourists. For all they knew I was a scandalous Zanzibari woman. At first I was resistant to this. My head was fixed in the Western notion that it is not only my right, but my duty to assert my individuality. I know this sounds like “tsk, tsk, bad traveler”, but sometimes when our egos are confronted it takes us a second to open up to the lesson to be learned. I was resistant to assimilating to the culture because I thought that being “myself” would open the women’s minds to new ways of being—a dangerous and colonizing mindset to have been operating from. I was in their world and I was there to learn not to teach, so I checked myself. I wasn’t being less myself by covering up. The battle I thought I was fighting was a superficial one, and taking away from my ability to learn more about the culture I was in. So I began to dress more modestly, breezy full sleeves, long dresses, and even wrapping my hair. And indeed, people opened up and I was welcomed. I was able to make connections with Muslim sisters and learn more about their experience. I was then finally able to have deep conversations with them that I hope were as enlightening for them as they were for me. That experience was really important for me, not only as a traveler, but as a human.
Most people tend to generalize Africa as one big “country”, forgetting it is in fact a very large continent with diverse and differing cultures and languages. What would you say were some of the biggest similarities and differences you experienced while on this trip?
Well, I’ll say this, when traveling through Africa its largeness can be felt in so many ways; the seemingly endless stretches of land, the variation of culture. But there are also other ways that Africa feels small. Or better yet, tight knit. I believe that feeling has to do with African connectedness. Even when the outward expression of being African (or black, for that matter) is different, there is still a universal experience that rests at the heart of it. And when looking at Africa, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, certain things are pretty similar across the board. In Africa everyone is family. Everyone is welcome, and sometimes to Africa’s detriment. But I felt welcome and taken care of wherever I went. There is a prevalent laid back attitude that is consistent through Sub-Saharan Africa. Like, it’s okay to relax. There’s no rush. Really. What are you rushing for? And that was something that made Africa feel smaller to me. It’s not like with Europe, where in Spain people move at a slower pace versus Switzerland, where time optimization and order are priorities. I like to refer to Africa as a nation. Of course it isn’t a country, but I also think there is something reductive about referring to it as just a continent. The unification of Africa is the key to its liberation. As of now, yes, there is division between countries, between religions, between traditional and contemporary, but I think at its heart, Africa is one. And I feel a part of that, too. As for differences, the biggest differences that I observed were matters of landscape, cultural expression, and language.
What impact would you say the various cultures you were exposed to have had on you?
I felt a particular affinity with Ghanaian culture - I even consider moving there. Something that really struck me about Ghana is that there is a mystical spirituality that kind of simmers beneath the surface. At the surface you have Christianity, Islam, and even Rastafari, but beneath that there is an approach to spirituality that I’d say is entirely traditional. If you are sensitive to those things you start to notice it in many ways; the art, the celebrations, the way people carry themselves, and also, the television programs. There is a heavy emphasis on magic and mysticism. Some may try to repress it, but it’s there. And I respect it, and am very curious about it. Though I do not know my exact African roots, knowing Africa has provided me with a deeper knowledge of self than I had before. I have some pretty radical opinions on the matter, but to keep it brief, I think we of the Diaspora need to remember Africa. There is a term that I learned in Ghana, Sankofa, which means to return to your roots. I believe this is really important if we want to change things for ourselves.
What would you say was been the most challenging about the experience? The most gratifying?
The most challenging thing about traveling through Africa was grappling with my own privilege in the face of these beautiful, hardworking, intelligent, talented, and spiritual beings, who despite all their abilities still struggle to fully recover from the damage of colonialism. Moreover, witnessing the ways in which colonialism never ceased to plague nations. The countries that hold the wealth continue to steal from Africa, and unfortunately, many of the political leaders of Africa are equally corrupt and dangerously shortsighted.
I am so thankful for Africa and the lessons it has taught me. And this gratitude and new way of seeing is the greatest gift Africa gave me. So many things that I once took for granted, so much that I didn’t consider before, are now the issues that drive my passion. Africa is so special. The people are so special, as are the animals, and the plants, and the land —and the children. The children are so graceful, and silly, and respectful, and just good. Their goodness must be protected, same for the land, the resources, the animals, the languages, and the cultures. And I don’t say any of this to say that Africa is incapable of protecting itself, I say this because I feel a personal relation to Africa and feel that in protecting it or contributing to its growth is in some way protecting a part of me, and generations to come. So, I’m thankful to have found a sense of purpose in Africa.
What are three things you know now you wish you knew before traveling through the continent?
Well, I’m actually happy I up and went to Africa without knowing much about it. One thing I’m glad that I did know, if not consciously, then subconsciously: I’m glad I knew that much of what has been said of Africa was a load of lies. Some part of me knew, because otherwise I wouldn’t have gone! And honestly, I don’t think there is anything I needed to know before leaving that I didn’t eventually discover along the way. Discovering Africa organically and learning about the complexities firsthand from the people there has given me a more solid foundation for further learning. Come to think of it, it’s probably a continent that you should travel to leaving what you think you know behind. Learn from the people of Africa first, then go from there.
What’s next for you? Do you have any final words of advice?
Well, the poetry collection that was impetus for the trip is coming along nicely. I’d love to have it completed and ready for publishing by August, but, you can’t rush these things. Next up I am headed to Copenhagen to meet with a friend, then it’s back to Africa. This year I intend to seriously carve my own niche in the world of travel.
And words of advice? Be fearless. This universe is miraculous, and the more that you believe it to be so, the more that it reveals itself as such.
Images Courtesy of Kierra Yvonne Fields
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