Letter from a Traveler

Dear all,

Forgive me; it has been so long since I last wrote you. It has been almost 22 years, and I am nowhere near as close as I should be to knowing you. How arrogant of me to expect boubous hitched up to the shoulders, all the better to embrace me, emotional strains from the kora announcing my arrival. The warmth of your reception fell short only in my wild imagination, because you often mistake me for one of your own and treat me as such anyway. We are still the same people; Cheikh Anta Diop was convinced. We left the Nile valley together, fertile black soil crushed beneath our feet. We debated philosophy and politics in grand libraries in Timbuktu, fought vicious raiders on horseback until the death. We were separated at birth by greed and racism. Civilization was the downfall of our nobility. In fact, the frontiers that divide us are artificial, they run only has deep as contracts drawn around a table in a distant cold city.

Forgive the unnecessary romance, but the closeness I feel to you is inexplicable, inevitable, and for that reason I feel that I must write you with my thoughts. It is disturbing the amount of distress I feel when I see you living a life less than worthy of your rich history. Of course we were not all born royal, but every goldsmith and griot and servant had a specific purpose to serve. Only now, this thing called economics, or corruption, (depending on the way you interpret the graphs) has made it so that some of you are relegated to abject poverty and international ad campaigns pleading on your behalf. I want to scream, to rip my hair out in mourning every time I hear someone pity you, each time someone laments the fate of “these less fortunate people”.

I am frightened by the violence of my reaction; forgive me for losing my composure. I only mean to share with you the pain and confusion I feel, not to add salt to the wounds of injustice you face. I want to collect every guidebook, every blog and travel advisory, and burn them a hundred times over for every time they use the word “authentic” or “untouched tribe” or “quaint” to describe you. How dare they, reduce an age-old lifestyle in which every element is a symbol for something greater, to a caricature; a picture-perfect primitive landscape for the back of a postcard, or a stamp, or a museum full of stolen artifacts. How disrespectful, to believe that donating some spare change on the plane ride here is going to solve your problems. Is giving you some candy or a piece of gum and taking a few photos for the road really going to make your day?

I am sobbing hysterically, my tears carve out valleys and channels on my cheeks and I want to scream at you to stop! Stop running, stop waving, stop tugging at water bottles and shirt hems and arms. It’s not your fault; your childish exuberance is totally innocent. You’re curious. It is not often that strangers come your way. I couldn’t explain why it upset me so, until I heard the patronizing comments, saw the pictures posted online, a virtual condescension that is a world away from you, humiliation you will never be aware of.

And you, my heart sinks to new depths when your beautiful form is reduced to something base, vulgar, bestial. They don’t understand, the length of your neck soars above human pettiness and the top of your head has borne every kind of weight, emotional, financial, the firm bottom of a clay pot. I do not glorify what is quotidian, nor do I sing unwarranted praises just to prove a point. I merely state the truth, that your infinite strength, your resilience against the constant battering of time and development cannot be fathomed by a fleeting visit by a tourist group and the purchase of some trinkets. You are not a souvenir with a polished finish, carved with wood and hollowed at the top to hold candles or car keys. Your breasts are not the figment of colonial fantasies. You are NOT for sale.

To you, my heart skips a beat every time I see you approaching. I do not refer to the characteristic quickening of the pulse felt by love struck teenagers. Rather, I mean the irregular beat that precedes my heart plunging to the depths of my stomach. It hurts to see you degrade yourself like this, to see you earn the label of money-hungry, visa-chasing glutton; interested in any stranger that can help you escape debt, overdue rent, apathy, stagnant job prospects. By no means do I condemn you for falling in love with whoever you desire, but when the desperation seeps through your pores and you are met with contempt in the markets, on the beach, in rundown bars, it hurts me. It hurts me to see you shed your kingly stature, laying down your tattered robes for whoever has the most favorable passport to walk over. You were not all kings, but you regress steps down the ladder every time you think this is your only way out. You know better, your mothers ingrained in you the principles of respect and responsibility. You know better than to treat women as a go-between between airport officials and embassy workers. Get up, stretch those broad shoulders and puff out your ample chest. There is work to be done, more so on this side of the immigration checkpoint. The same goes for you, playing the exotic queen is not your only ticket out of your perceived misery by any means.

I am sorry if I speak out of turn, you have raised me to be stronger than this, more stable. Still, I can’t help the fact that your beautiful chaos moves me to emotions in battle with each other even during the most mundane of walks down any street. It is my hope that you will take me back, though I may have become a stranger. I remain yours, always.

Signed,

A Traveler

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