With Wayde van Niekerk’s recent gold medal at the Rio Olympics there has been a tirade of controversy surrounding his ethnicity and the term “coloured”.
You know something is important when online comedians get dragged through the coals for memes and local hip-hop artists are asked for comment. When you’re travelling, it’s no different. Almost everywhere I’ve been, inevitably the question of race comes up.
People find it hard to place us because there are so many variants of coloured people. It’s like you’re a bag of Quality Streets with every combination under the sun available. When you tell them you are, in fact, “coloured”, you’re met with looks of disdain and shock and horror.
“You can’t say that anymore brother,” an American tourist once told me. The jaw-drop is almost immediate – and what follows is a convoluted description of what you really are. You have to go through the tired explanation of how we were classified as a separate race.
We have our own identity and way of doing things. My favourite thing is to tell these fellow travellers that US president Barack Obama is actually coloured. The guffaws that this brings on is always entertaining. I can’t think of one instance where people could guess where I was from.
At the inevitable stopover in the Middle East it’s not surprising when someone comes up to me and talks Arabic, because to them I look Arabic. I’ve been called Morrocan, Egyptian, French – hell, I was even chased down the street in Greece because they thought I was from some place other than South Africa.
The beauty of travel is that it doesn’t matter what race you’re classified as. You fall under this one huge traveller banner and the more exotic you look, the more interesting you are. As soon as I leave our shores, I am classified as black, yellowbone, or “that light-skinned brother” as our Yankee counterparts like to put it.
Hey, why not be another race? And what is race anyway? It does open a whole new window of travellers. When I see my fellow African brethren I greet them and they greet back. I wear my African-emblem cap and necklace that I bought at my local traffic light with pride. I wear my dashiki too, even though I know it’s not South African, because I’m proud of being an African.
When I’ve been asked if I say “jambo” as a greeting, I giggle and explain that we have 11 official languages. That’s always a showstopper. My favourite, though, is the nod. The nod for guys and the “hey girl” for women.
You see, the thing is, it doesn’t matter where you are from, you usually only encounter a finite number of Africans or those of African descent travelling. This number is so small that when I do, I get excited and make a point of giving a nod of approval or a fist pump as a sign of solidarity.
It’s an acknowledgement of “I see you and it’s good to see you here too.” It also screams: “Hey, we’re out here! How cool is this place?” A feeling that every traveller has regardless of race or ethnicity …