The understanding and showcasing of Black History must undoubtedly occur throughout the year. In addition to this, the dedicated Black History Month in October in the UK serves as a spotlight on the history and achievements of Black people. It provides a time to collectively reflect on our own history; to showcase our rich and diverse cultures; to highlight our heroes; and to consider plans for the Black present and future.
For those of us with a background from, or connection to Africa, this has, now more than ever, been a time to make these plans a reality. We owe it to those who have come before us, who laid the foundation for the opportunities we are now afforded, and we owe it to the continent that has given and continues to give the world so much.
It is an exciting time in Africa. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement promises to transform intra-African trade, and foster stronger pan-African ties. Initiatives including Ghana’s 2019 ‘Year of Return’ and follow up ‘Beyond the Return’ have helped change the perception of the continent – promoting tourism, encouraging engagement with the diaspora and strengthening economic relations.
Exploring the world, particularly Africa, is something I had wanted to do for as long as I could remember. I recall in my first week at SOAS, meeting a lady who told me she had been to nearly all (now) 54 African countries. To say I was inspired was an understatement. Now, having travelled to 11 African countries (and counting!), with family, friends and solo, I welcome the rise of interest in African countries, both as travel destinations, and increased number of those returning to make it a permanent home.
I personally have a deeper understanding of the sheer magnitude and diversity of the continent, and my experiences have shaped the way I travel. As such, I understand that it is important that this rise in interest comes at a benefit to the local communities, who continue to welcome us with open arms. To have a positive impact is but a small way to repay for this privilege.
There are a number of ways sustainable and responsible travel can be achieved, including the following:
1. Environmental Awareness
Leaving nothing but footprints – We are in the midst of a climate emergency, and many developing countries, including those in Africa, are hit hardest by this. Having witnessed first-hand the beauty of nature and wildlife on safaris and the stunning white sand, turquoise waters and marine life, juxtaposed with the impact of plastic pollution, it was even more disheartening to find that tourists were a large contributing factor. This had the potential to impact those whose livelihoods rely on the tourism that these areas bring.
The banning of plastic bags and promotion of reusable alternatives in recent times by Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania has provided welcome relief to the issue of plastic pollution, but other countries have yet to follow suit. Furthermore, single-use plastic bottles and sachets, and their safe disposal remain an ongoing issue. Until global beverage companies take more responsibility for the plastic waste their products produce, particularly in countries where the infrastructure may not enable easy disposal or recycling, the problem will remain.
Therefore, we all have a duty of care to act responsibly, in order to preserve these beautiful destinations, the homes of their citizens, and their wildlife, and encourage the economic benefit that comes with it. This preservation can be as simple as taking your plastic away with you.
2. Cultural Immersion
Getting off the beaten track – inter-Africa travel, venturing to an African country outside of your country of origin, as well as exploring outside of capital cities and tourist hotspots provides an opportunity for deeper cultural immersion. Whilst you should always do your research, venturing away from the norm and embracing a world off the beaten track creates the opportunity for unique experiences and further personal connections. It also helps to contribute to the local economy.
Some of my fondest memories and best discoveries travelling Africa were as a result of this. From the two young men sharing their hopes and dreams for their futures at the Avenue of the Baobabs (Madagascar); the happy, elderly gentleman welcoming me to Paje (Zanzibar) before showing me his delightful fresh fruit and vegetables on display; to the lovely lady with the beaming smile, selling the freshest and most delicious kenkey, and fried fish in Osu (Ghana), that I finally found the day I was not looking.
These experiences had one thing in common – they were made easier by just a little knowledge of the local language. Learning Kiswahili opened up my experiences in East Africa, and undertaking a Kiswahili course at the SOAS Language Centre enhanced my comprehension. My Twi skills helped me navigate much of Ghana, from Accra to Tamale, and not forgetting my hometowns of Nkawkaw and the cool Kwahu mountains.
Even my GCSE-level French acted as a bridge during my solo travels to countries where it is widely-spoken – Senegal, Madagascar, Morocco, and Tunisia – and where anything I said was usually met with laughter and/or confusion, before realising my attempts were serious. I tried as much as possible to supplement this with phrases in Wolof, Malagasy, and Arabic respectively. A little knowledge of these languages has enabled communication with more people, of different ages and cultural backgrounds than I could have ever anticipated, and provided the opportunity to understand their experiences from their perspective, much to their (and my) surprise and joy!
3. Economic empowerment
The movement to support Black-owned businesses has taken shape globally. From Mandy Bowman’s Official Black Wallstreet to Beyoncé and Zerina Akers’ Black Parade Route in the US; and from Khalia Ismain’s Jamii to Black Pound Day in the UK, the latter founded by Swiss of So Solid Crew and occurring monthly, these initiatives showcase Black-owned businesses, encouraging people to support and help contribute to Black economic empowerment.
How does this translate to travelling in Africa? Africa is the land of the entrepreneur, especially amongst women. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, the highest rates of new and established women entrepreneurs are found on the continent. Getting off the beaten track to support small and local businesses, as well as making an extra effort to research the larger companies from whom we procure goods and services can ensure our presence and financial contributions are having a positive impact. This is possible by asking a number of questions, including:
- Is this company a local business? If not, could I get the same product or service from a local business?
- What is the company’s commitments to social responsibility and how are they measured?
- Does it give back to the local community?
- Does the local community benefit in a positive, and sustainable way?
- Does it provide employment and/or other opportunities to local people?
- Does it help maintain and sustain cultures, traditions and the surrounding environment?
As we continue to question companies and corporations in the UK about their impacts on local communities and commitments to diversity and inclusion, and as we consciously support more Black-owned businesses, we should approach travel and tourism in the same way. We should actively support these entrepreneurs and local businesses, who in turn likely source their goods, products and services from their local communities, therefore of course, contributing to the local economy.
These suggested approaches towards sustainable and responsible travel are by no means exhaustive. However, by sharing, I hope they serve as a catalyst to consider how we can ensure we are positively impacting this enhanced movement towards Africa. Therefore, for this Black History Month and beyond, I encourage you to consider travelling to Africa, and once there, to leave nothing but footprints, to get off the beaten track, and to support small and local businesses.
Yaa Ofori-Ansah graduated from SOAS with a Bachelor of Laws degree.
She currently works as a Sustainability Professional, focused on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues and impacts within Financial Services, where she also champions Diversity and Inclusion as part of the award-winning Black Professionals Forum Leadership Team. Through this, Yaa co-leads the RISE Mentoring programme, designed to provide secondary school students with the skills and knowledge to achieve their future goals.
Yaa is also a Freelance Writer and Researcher, an Apprentice Trustee on the SOAS Board of Trustees, and is the founder of Talking Drums (www.talkingdrumstravel.com), an initiative to inspire and empower people to travel Africa.
This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.