Extra Baggage on a Trip Home

Traveling to my parents' native Ethiopia, I thought I left racial tensions back in the U.S. I was wrong.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of miles from home, the troubling words of James Baldwin found me:

It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me—anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me.

Three weeks into my 5-month stay in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, these words revealed themselves; reached out to the American girl stationed in the country that raised her mother and father. I’d been to Ethiopia three times since the age of ten. Yet, I knew the fourth trip would be different—longer than the others and designed for a little personal, post-undergrad study abroad. Equipped with a basic knowledge of Amharic and the mindset of a seasoned tourist, I opened up a tattered copy of Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name and discovered a travel buddy.

We had plenty in common. Both writers, both expecting our journeys to bring us some concrete sense of self-definition. Baldwin in Europe, me in Ethiopia. But what of this implied ubiquity of racial tension? My hometown of Washington D.C was definitely a hub for menacing social forces: economic injustice, political correctness, racial stereotyping—the usual suspects. Leaving D.C. meant escaping the burden of race-based discrimination. How could there be discrimination in Ethiopia? Nearly every face I saw resembled mine.

Three months into my stay in Addis, a face like mine said “no”. Flat out, no. It was late at night. My sister and I entered an upscale, French restaurant to use the restroom. By then, I had learned the rules a bit. Conversations with friends and family had revealed some of Ethiopia’s secrets. The ever-increasing foreigner population was often given preferential treatment in stores and restaurants—Ethiopian establishments combining Western ideals with economic interests.

I knew what kind of restaurant we were walking into that night as I took-in the posh setting and white patrons. I knew by the stares of the employees—Ethiopian employees—that we were not welcome. Yet, still we asked the question: may we use the bathroom?

There was a flurry of words that night. None as eloquent as Baldwin’s warning. My sister and I, dressed casually in jeans, were regarded as prostitutes; informed that the restaurant could not be used as a toilet. After offering to sit at a table and pay for dinner, we were told simply: “We do not want you as customers.”

The bathroom door was locked in front of our eyes and entrusted to white customers upon request. A crowd of staff members and other interested parties formed around us as we voiced our complaints. They asked us to leave, warned us to keep our voices down. One female employee even suggested that we go pee in the street.

Eventually, the restaurant chef—a white man—appeared from the kitchen and consented to our use of their facilities. I guess we won, technically speaking. I even exposed the restaurant and my thoughts on the incident in an article for a local paper. Still, days after the experience and even now, two months after my return to D.C, that initial “no” still echoes.