Greg Gross on African-American travel to Africa
All of Africa celebrated when the biggest contemporary symbol of Black America, Barrack and Michelle Obama chose Ghana as the destination for their first official foreign visit. Africa had one of its own in the White House and as you’d expect the red carpet was rolled out. Before, President Obama’s visit, however, other iconic African-Americans had laid a strong foundation in the hearts of
Ghanaians. The icon who did more than any other in laying that foundation was the co-founder of the National Association for the advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), W.E.B Dubois, whose death was reported by the New York Times on August 28 1963 and whose tomb, located in Accra, is a tourist attraction.
It has always been Africa’s hope that these illustrious forebears and their love for the mother continent would translate into something more. Stronger social, cultural and economic ties maybe. In 2000, Ghana passed a law on the ‘Right of Abode’, which allows a person of African descent to apply and be granted the right to stay in Ghana indefinitely. Admittedly, the administration of this law has been nothing short of woeful, but the intention remains unsullied.
We are blessed to have one of the most influential voices in African-American travel to help us delve a bit deeper into this issue and to also find out a bit more about the man himself! Greg runs the award winning blog I’m black and I travel.
What triggered your passion for travel and how many countries have you notched up so far?
My passion for travel was inspired by my mother, who took me on cross-country train trips aboard the Sunset Limited at an early age. I wrote about this in one of my first blog posts. So far, I have notched 38 countries, and counting.
As an American or indeed African American what draws you to visit or travel in Africa?
What drew me in the beginning was history and heritage, the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, then the history of post-colonial Africa, which has been both little taught and highly distorted in North America. But the more I learned about African regions, nations and peoples, the more I realized that Africa is so much more than history. Where to begin — the world’s dishes and flavors that have their origins in African cuisine, the many styles of modern African music, eye-popping art and architecture, high fashion and the young African designers who are forcing the world to recognize their talents, “Nollywood” films and filmmakers.
The list seems to grow by the day. But perhaps the greatest draw for me are Africa’s people themselves — their warmth, their dignity, their can-do spirit in the face of great obstacles.
In an enlightening editorial you wrote recently in IBIT, you intimated that when it comes to Africa travel and the African American travel market, a golden opportunity is being missed. Can you please elaborate on that?
The sense I get is that as peoples, as communities, Africans and African-Americans are not really talking to each other. We have not yet truly connected. Ours is an awkward relationship. We are divided by an ocean, multiple cultures and 400 years of history. I have the impression that, probably due to its colonial past, Africa is more culturally attuned to Europe than to the Americas. Indeed, both Africans and African-Americans seem to feel more comfortable dealing with Europeans than with each other.
It doesn’t mean the gap is too wide to be bridged, only that the bridge is not being built yet. One of the consequences of this is that African travel and tourism have yet to tap into a large and potentially lucrative market, the African-American travel market, and African-Americans are missing out on getting to know the world’s most incredible continent.
Just how lucrative is the African American travel market and what steps do you think both continental Africans and African-Americans could take to bridge the socio-cultural gap?
Every year, economists estimate what they loosely call Black purchasing power in the US. Currently, that estimate stands at more than US $1 trillion — of which nearly $50 billion is annually spent on travel. Further, Black Americans are increasingly traveling abroad and traditionally travel in groups. Does this sound like a lucrative market for African tourism to tap into? I certainly think it is.
As Black Americans, we need to educate ourselves more about Africa, and bring open minds to that process. We need the help of Africans to do this.
African travel industry leaders must take the admittedly challenging and expensive step of marketing in the US with the same zeal as they now do in Europe. And if they truly are interested in exploiting the Black American travel market, they must tailor their offerings to that market, which in general is not as interested in the traditional safari experience.
People of vision, goodwill and determination on both sides must work to close this socio-cultural gap. Each side needs to reach out to the other. We can come together around history & heritage, music, fashion, and especially food. It can be done, and it’s long overdue to be done.
I recently read an article you wrote which stated “There are certain things you can count on in life. The sun will rise in the east. People will complain about taxes. And if you travel, you’re going to get stared at.” Could you please expand on this especially to the black traveller?
Much of the world is unaccustomed to seeing Black travelers. This is especially true in Asia and in China in particular, where many of its newly minted middle class are starting to travel outside their home regions for the first time. For them, seeing a Black person on the street is startling, and the common reaction of many people unexpectedly confronted with someone totally unfamiliar is to stare at the newcomer. The first time you’re on the receiving end of this treatment, it can be off-putting, even annoying. But once you realize that no insult is intended, you adjust, either by ignoring it, or getting into the spirit of it and using it as an excuse to make contacts with the locals.
Does food feature prominently in your travels? And if so what dish or dishes have blown you away?
Food is one of the major reasons to travel. I cringe when I see US fast-food outlets all over the world. I want to experience fresh foods and local flavors! What dishes have blown me away? Fish and chips in London. Almost everything I’ve ever tasted or cooked in France. The spicy, citrus-laced dishes of Thailand. And my all-time favorite African dish so far is Senegal’s thieboudienne.
Lastly, given you have been to over 40 states in the USA which would you suggest I visit, especially for a foodie like me?
American cuisine is such a fusion of flavors from all the world, it almost doesn’t matter where you go; you’ll find something wonderful. That said, the US has certain cities and regions that are major foodie centers. New York City is perhaps the most obvious: The whole world is there and they brought their foods with them (one can say the same of London or Paris). California, where I live, offers a foodie paradise — multiple ethnic cuisines, a serious commitment to fresh ingredients not found everywhere in the country. But you must — you MUST — sample the flavors of New Orleans. The city of my birth. The city that gave America its first true modern music, jazz, also created its own unique cuisine. It’s a blend of Native America, Africa, French, Spansh flavors and cooking styles. I’m getting simultaneously hungry and homesick just thinking about it.
Cover photo source: Essence