The sun was beaming down on a boiling day in the Ethiopian town of Bahir Dar and the only reason I was wandering around aimlessly was to find an ATM that would accept my bank card. As I passed by a side street, a group of men sitting on the ground stared at me while I walked by.
“India! India!” one yelled. “Saudi Arabia!”
“No! Germany!” another said, in a guess that wildly missed the mark.
I smiled as I walked past and mumbled, “Nope, Canada.” They all laughed.
It was a game so many locals played, where they’d guess the nationality of a passing foreigner by yelling it at them.
I was one month into a three-month journey across Africa, travelling from Cairo to Cape Town on a route that spanned from the continent’s north shores on the Mediterranean to the south at the Atlantic. I planned the trip to be difficult – I wanted to put myself in situations that were more challenging than a regular backpacking trip. Because of political tensions in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, many travellers opt to simply travel from Kenya to South Africa instead, but something about travelling the entire continent appealed to me.
I had my first backpacking experience a couple of years earlier in South America, but I was put off because it was so easy to spend most of your time in a hostel with a bunch of other travellers. That’s not specifically a bad thing, it’s just not the kind of travel I was after.
But while I expected a rugged journey, I never realized how much this trip would put me face to face with the meaning of my racial identity.
I never figured out the right answer to people who asked where I’m from. If I answered Pakistan, I felt like I was implying that I wasn’t comparably rich like anybody from a Western country, and in a continent where the Western world’s money had changed the social fabric of many African nations, that felt like a lie. But whenever I said Canada, the answer was never accepted. To Africans, who only ever saw white Canadians, I was too brown for that.
My answer ended up changing depending on what part of Africa I was in after I noticed that my skin colour meant drastically different things in different places. In Egypt and Sudan, where my Muslim name seemed to get me extra hospitality, Pakistan became my standard answer. In Ethiopia, saying I was Pakistani often led to exhilarating experiences with locals, where I would find out one of their grandparents was from the subcontinent and we would converse in broken Urdu for a while. On a bus passing through a small Ethiopian village on the way to the Kenyan border, I met a man who spoke exclusively in Hindi to me for five hours – he’d learnt it all from watching Bollywood movies. He spoke excitedly to me about his family as we ate a local meal of goat’s feet during a pit stop.
But in East Africa, the history of Gujarati settlement that led to Gujaratis being some of the richest people would make me feel odd about what my skin colour meant. It would only get weirder the further south I went, where I’d learn about the middle ground that Indian settlers sat in during South Africa’s apartheid era.
I enjoyed the experience, even though it was uncomfortable and confusing sometimes. To be white seemed to mean a similar thing in every African country I went to. But to be brown could mean any number of things.
Having grown up in a small Canadian town as a second-generation immigrant, I was used to my identity being a pretty mundane and simple part of my life that I didn’t give much attention to. Still, I would often reach for hobbies that were categorically “white” and felt the need to distance myself from being Pakistani.
My friends would joke that I was the only brown guy on the ski hill and as a kid I loved golf and cycling – all sports that were never played by any of my Pakistani relatives or friends. My family would call me “whitewashed.” They were small, sometimes meaningless differences, but they were concerted efforts by me as an adolescent growing up in small-town Ontario, and they were noticed by brown people around me.
Backpacking would be one of the hobbies I’d take up that was noticeably white. During that previous one-month trip in South America, I’d met plenty of Canadians and Americans, but I only met one person-of-colour traveller, an Indian-Canadian, during the entire trip. In Africa, I would travel for an entire month before I met another Westerner of colour. All in all, I would meet three.
But what struck me most was seeing how many Indian and Pakistani people had migrated to various African countries along the east coast. In Rwanda, I heard Urdu conversations in grocery stores about how Pakistan and India were one and the same. In Uganda, many electronics-store owners I came across in Kampala were from the subcontinent. The only time you saw them outside their businesses in most East African countries was in flashy SUVs, a sure mark of wealth that always seemed as out of place as I was.
At a time when the conversation in Canada is ramping up about how communities such as mine can experience discrimination and marginalization, it messed with my head to be in a region of the world where Indian migrants were some of the wealthiest members of society.
On the flip side, no place made me consider what it meant to have brown skin more than South Africa. Apartheid has been over for more than two decades, but recent conversations about the stark inequities faced by black North Americans show that it takes much longer than that for racial wounds to heal.
Everything before then in Africa had been relatively simple: There were white travellers, black locals and me, a brown traveller. I was different, and there were some local Indians, but I was still obviously a traveller. But South Africa’s social structure is incredibly complicated and decades of racial segregation even between different colours meant that I suddenly felt like I wasn’t being treated like a traveller, but like just another coloured person in this complex country.
After three months on the road, with three bouts of violent food sickness, a robbery of all my belongings and the usual stress of travelling much too fast in a dangerously overcrowded minibus without seat belts, there were more reasons to be relieved than having to think about my racial background all the time when I returned home.
I was no longer a brown person in Uganda, someone to be begged to for money. I wasn’t a brown person in Egypt, where people would rapidly speak in Arabic to me. And I wasn’t a brown person in South Africa, where I was uncomfortable in my skin.
I was just Canadian. And nobody was yelling what they thought my ethnicity was when I walked down the street.
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