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Najite Phoenix
Written by Najite Phoenix
Published on 20th March 2022
6 min read

Najite Phoenix reflects on race, gender and the politics of identity against the backdrop of her travels in the Gambia.

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To travel with a truly open mind is to forget who you were when you started.

- Gregory Diehl.

 

The gap-year-to-find-yourself has become a lauded Western myth. It's one that presents as a cliché, but not quite enough to stop me from yearning. Foreign travel, undeniably, has a tendency to shift our identity. It's a hyper-liminal space, moving us to dismantle the old while ushering in the new. So for the growth-seekers among us, I'd say, our yearning is not unfounded.

I arrived in The Gambia at the start of the pandemic, with no real idea how long I'd stay. Not much has changed. With lockdown normalising online work and the weather permitting year-round outdoor access for my children, I'm in no rush to leave on a permanent basis. 

As someone who explores the politics of identity - both personally and professionally - I'm grateful that the two years I've spent so far in West Africa have invited me to re-explore my own identity politics. The alternative cultural perspectives - and closer proximity to nature - have periodically activated and deactivated parts of my identity.

'The alternative cultural perspectives - and closer proximity to nature - have periodically activated and deactivated parts of my identity.'

When I left the UK for West Africa, as a British- born Black woman, I was well aware that I'd be prompted to more closely explore my somewhat dormant 'Western privilege'. In Gambia, my accent has become my guarantor. I’ve lost count of the times I overheard "she's British" added at the end of a request on my behalf to ensure the desired response. 

Uncomfortable.

Adjacent to this though, I’ve spent my leisure time making attempts to ignore the power imbalance. Just a small percentage of the shops, restaurants and hotels that line the coast are Gambian-owned - one of many colonial remnants. I remember sitting in one and watching the White men assume power over local women, roaming about with them like store-bought pets. When a German man assumed that I was also a Gambian woman for sale, he was surprised when I refused to entertain him in "perfect English." His words, not mine. It was just another reminder that the ethnic majority are still minoritised.

And yet, during evenings on the beach - just me and the sea - none of it matters.

'And yet, during evenings on the beach - just me and the sea - none of it matters.'

The Gambia is an unusual African country in that it is entirely surrounded by neighbouring Senegal on all sides apart from the coast. The Gambia is also the smallest country in Africa; a strip of land carved out of Senegal by British colonisers. So despite the subtle differences which have developed as a result of the border over time, the people of The Gambia and Senegal are ethnically - and culturally - very similar. However, some popular local narratives suggest otherwise.

Side-eyed by many Gambians, the Senegalese are often accused of illegally crossing the border, stealing Gambian jobs and causing spikes in levels of crime. I don’t like to hear this. No expert on the politics of the Senegambia region, my attempts one evening to draw parallels between xenophobic Brexit narratives or the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides were abruptly dismissed. Apparently this was different. Later that night, I lay in bed comforted by the animal chorus outside. But divisive discourse was loud and pervasive. Were we, as humans, doomed to develop distrust and disdain for anyone who happened to dwell on the other side of a border?

There are moments where the binaries of them vs us, minority vs majority and privileged vs disadvantaged feel insignificant. And others where they couldn't feel more important to recognise.

Western colonisation has impacted Africa and the East in ways that can't be ignored. Its legacy is all encompassing, and the hostility that exists in response to Senegambia's borders is just another small colonial remnant. For me, being here hasn't erased the very real challenges faced by those whose identities have been marginalised. Instead, it has highlighted the ways that this symbolic violence impacts everyone - differently. It reminds me that each of us - whether politically 'advantaged' or not - would benefit from the opportunity to step outside of those identities, for short periods of time.

'It reminds me that each of us - whether politically 'advantaged' or not - would benefit from the opportunity to step outside of those identities, for short periods of time.'

"Where are you from?" is a question drivers routinely ask during daily taxi rides - as often as four times a day. My answer changes as frequently. On days I have the energy, I'm precise: "I was born in the UK, my parents are Jamaican - and unfortunately, due to the slave trade, I'm not sure where in Africa I'm from." 

Too much? Maybe. Other days I offer simple answers. 

Noting my dreadlocks, most enjoy probing my Jamaican heritage. "Sister, I have to say, I love Jamaican music, even more than Gambian! I cannot tell you anything else!" one driver confessed, briefly lowering the reggae that was playing. "You see my hair, like yours?" he asked. "We are brother and sister.”

Four weeks into my trip, a Black British friend debated with a Gambian about who had it worse on the colonial front: the descendants of those enslaved or the descendants of those who remained in Africa and were colonised. Eventually I sat, quiet, as my attempts to mediate were met with resistance from both parties.

Later that day, she argued with a driver who flippantly referred to us as "Toubabs" - a borderline derogatory term used to describe White or Western foreigners. I shared her frustration this time. In those moments, I was reminded that despite the locals who did welcome us as 'fellow Africans', we'd never have a fixed cultural or political identity. It is the diasporan's curse. One I imagine we've been tasked to break by discovering our place outside of man-made identity constructs. Perhaps strengthening our mutual connection to the environment, in lieu of our place within a tribe. 

Weeks later we sat at Gambia's Stone Circle. Our guide, Stone Man, highlighted our connection to nature: we aren’t destroying the planet, any more than we are destroying ourselves. That is surely the case for humanity too; deeply connected, an attack on 'the other' must be a form of self harm.

'In those moments, I was reminded that despite the locals who did welcome us as 'fellow Africans', we'd never have a fixed cultural or political identity. It is the diasporan's curse'

During my time at the beach, I look to the sea for insight into novel ways of connecting the divides. I am reminded that empathy and compassion require softness. But when our sense of self is challenged, our defensiveness creates hard barriers which are difficult to permeate.

Interrupting the lesson one day, I pulled out my phone to scroll its feed. I read an article saying we're now more globally connected than ever. At a time when approaches to subjects like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Anti-Racism become more rigid in regards to what's sayable, I question its direction - as well as my contribution. Will approaches become less localised and more universal? Or will they account for the differences spanning international borders? Terms like Black and Minority Ethnic being replaced with Global Majority Ethnic seems to be a rare example of both beginning to happen.

The early and ongoing experience of my 'Western privilege' being brought to attention in new forms, has had me thinking about the way that we learn about inequalities - as well as the role we unintentionally play in creating or maintaining them.

I'm reminded why, when I talk about the White Capitalist Patriarchy, I'm not pointing at the white guy across the street. I'm pointing to an archetype and a system that privileges those in closest proximity to its white, masculine and Western representation. Perhaps more importantly, I'm pointing to a system which also manifests and does its bidding through each and every one of us, leaving me with more questions than answers.

What's clear though, is that as my identity fluctuates, it loses its grip. As concepts are being rearranged and turned on their head, I’m a lot less inclined to get in the way. As certain aspects begin to feel less substantial, I'm less inclined to fight for them. I'm pulled back to the idea that the isms we're trying to fight are caused by a toxic self - defence. Surely this offers a kind of medicine?

These thoughts are not entirely new, but their intensity is. And I am sure that I owe this shift to the liminal space I’ve been in. Described as a threshold between the old and the new, liminal space is often characterised by experimental chaos. Temporarily, things make a lot less sense, until the intensity of its labour pains give birth to something new. Liminal space takes many forms - and on the professional front, we inherently know their value. Whether a creative residency, a fellowship or a company away -day, participants step outside of the usual work environment in order to return with fresh perspectives. Stepping back from a thing - no matter what it is - offers us a chance to develop a new take. And outside of deep meditation, psychedelic experience or trauma, travel is one experience that helps us to do this with our identity. At least it has for me. 

With a recharged desire to focus on what unites us rather than divides us, I wonder about how the liminal characteristics of foreign environments could help deepen our cultural and political empathy and awareness by triggering a detachment from our identities. How might we accelerate shifts already underway - from boardroom training to alternative environments - that prime us for deeper learning? Maybe no new tools are needed, but intentions. 

Maybe nature-based training sessions can be used to draw attention to our interconnection. Or specific guided meditations might move us beyond the limits of identity-derived division. Perhaps creative prompts can be used to transport ourselves into foreign worlds, allowing us to see past our own perspective?

'I wonder about how the liminal characteristics of foreign environments could help deepen our cultural and political empathy and awareness by triggering a detachment from our identities.'

I'd like to think that my ongoing exploration of decolonial thought stems not just from my own identity and struggles as a Black woman, but from a basic desire to do better. I can't be sure. But what feels certain is that a compassionate world can only emerge if we are all led beyond our own identities - welcoming experiences that loosen our attachment to them, while revealing their fluidity. If our identities can shift within the space of a four-hour flight, it's important to assess how we define them to begin with - and why.

In the words of Eckhart Tolle: “You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.”