Colombia has had a rough history with criminal elements and as an African working in a space that uses storytelling to shift the (mostly negative) African narrative, I made a conscious decision to go in with an open mind and enjoy myself. We visited Bogota and Barranquilla and each of these cities left me with some interesting memories (and amazing pics)!
My favourite thing about Colombia has to be Alba (also the name of the Abuela in Jane The Virgin), who sparked a conversation with me about my shoes as we were waiting to board and we had an amazing conversation where I got the sense that she was taking it upon herself to ensure we have a great trip free of any bad incidences. She warned me to hide my phones when in town and not walk around with too much cash…typical big city tips that we were thankful for anyway.
Colombia was such an experience for me. Everything was so new including the language (Africa only has one Spanish speaking country so I don’t get to hear Spanish much), the food, the culture, the music and the racism.
Travelling while African, I face a lot of barriers that I’ve come to expect, for example, I was asked whether I have Ebola at Colombian immigration and was also asked to confirm if I am indeed from Zambia and not Congo, despite me having a Zambian passport! We later joked about how it was literally easier for a dog to enter the country. (There was a woman with a dog in line behind me). However, what I was not ready for was the backwardness of that country regarding race relations with black people.
We spent our first week in the capital Bogota and we got so many curious stares that it was uncomfortable. Bogota has a big walking culture so we walked almost everywhere and it started to feel like a parade of our blackness after a few days because people would just not stop staring! We asked our lovely hosts (friends of ours who happen to be white and super understanding of “these things”) whether they also got the same, to which they answered, “naaah, not really”. Not that I expected anything different, I guess I was just taken aback by how overtly the locals were doing it. A funny incident was when this guy stared hard at my favourite bearded guy so much so that he had to physically turn his head to maintain eye contact and then when he noticed FBG not breaking eye contact either, he smiled and gave FBG a thumbs up. WTF?!!
It took me back to 2014 when I realized after four years in South Africa that race is something I cannot (continue to) ignore. You see, growing up in Zambia, I never had to think of myself as anything but a girl who loved books, went to a Catholic school, spoke a weirdly ghetto kind of Bemba and hated okra. I never had to consider other aspects of my identity related to ethnicity, race and nationality because it just never came up. Although it’s been six years now, I sometimes joke and refer to myself as “newly black” because almost every day since then, I learn something new about what navigating the world as a black African immigrant ex-pat woman.
Our host made a great point when she mentioned that although the US still has more work to do around racial equality, they were leaps and bounds ahead of Colombia, where racism was a hush-hush, almost “taboo” topic.
We only had to sit around at the Barranquilla Carnival for a few minutes before we witnessed an entire troupe of people donning Black Face and another troupe wearing costumes that were very clearly parodying big lips, thick thighs, large buttocks and slave-era dresses. They argue and say their version of Black Face is an homage to their African ancestry but that is not so. It’s evident because every time someone (typically kids) in Black Face took a pic, they would stick their tongue out to the side, widen their eyes and try to look as menacing and savage as possible. They also went around walking up to unsuspecting tourists, inflating their cheeks, making strange sounds and posing with machetes to complete the look. Surely, there are better ways to pay homage to one’s African ancestry.
Would I visit Colombia again? Honestly, I don’t know, because it was very jarring to be under that much scrutiny for simply existing and going about my business. I realise that I have lived a life that is relatively “sheltered” from racial encounters by virtue of growing up in Zambia, which only has about 7 white people. (Disclaimer: there are more than 7 and some of them are Zambian citizens)
I’m grateful to Colombia for my first introduction to the world of carnivals, amazing food (seriously, Osk Peru in Bogota gave me the best restaurant experience I’ve ever had), and awesome memories but I’d hate to think how different my experience would have been if it were a solo trip and how much more I’d have had to endure as a young, African woman without the “buffer” of companionship.
I understand that I wrote this while very raw from all the stares and new experiences and it may deter would-be visitors. I now owe everyone a post about all the great moments I had in Colombia, which, I assure you, I had plenty of.
Have you been to Colombia? Share your experiences with me.