What does it feel like to move through a world designed to limit and exclude you? In her new book, Travelling While Black Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move, Nanjala Nyabola recounts an epic travel story that went terribly wrong.
Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. A constant traveller, she has visited over seventy countries across four continents and is the author of Travelling While Black, Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move. The following is an extract from her book.
During the three weeks I was in Nepal in 2019, my guide constantly refused to refill my water. It began on the first day. He had asked that everyone buy a reusable plastic water bottle, but I didn’t want one because I preferred to carry a water pack on my back. That was how I had summited both Mount Kenya (4,948 metres) and Mount Kilimanjaro (5,898 metres). We got into a back and forth at one of the rest houses and he refused to speak to me directly for the rest of the trip. But he also refused to refill my water bottle, and I didn’t want to keep buying plastic ones, because that garbage all remains on the mountain after you’ve gone home.
It was not lost on me that I was the only Black woman in my group. It wasn’t lost on the rest of the group that he spoke to me in a way he absolutely did not speak to other people. By the time I got sick, he had already picked his favourites, and I was certainly not one of them. But I didn’t care, because I was not on that mountain to make friends. I was on the mountain to get away from the pressures of an exhausting work schedule and, in fact, I really was happier with people leaving me alone.
But I needed water. Because hiking for eleven to twelve hours a day is an intense experience. The Himalayas are high and cold, so most days you are sweating profusely and you don’t see it. If you don’t moderate your water intake, it is very easy to grow dehydrated; and where dehydration happens, altitude sickness isn’t far behind.
A couple of days in, I got sick of waiting for them to provide me with water; so I bought a 1-litre plastic bottle and nursed it over dinner. And then I got angry. Truly and viscerally angry that I had been saving for this trip for months and was being treated this shabbily. I hated that I was almost fully dependent on people who did not have my best interests at heart. I went to bed angry.
From around the third day of the trip, in order to get my water pack refilled, I had to ask a white Australian man in the group to ask the guide on my behalf. One night, the Australian guy showed up late, and so I was freezing and overtaxed; I still had not had any water by the time I went to bed. In the small hours of that morning, there was a moment when my mind began to slowly shut down, because I couldn’t get my lungs to work.
It’s the kind of thing that you go through alone, and it reminds you that we are all in this world alone. Sometimes the events of those forty-eight hours replay themselves in my mind involuntarily and my heart starts racing and I get scared all over again, because I remember that I nearly died.
The day before, we had done a practice hike up and down a small hill by the camp in Dingboche (4,300 metres), to test our altitude. The air was too thin. My legs were tired. I was dehydrated. And I was still angry. I wanted to go home. But how can you go home fourteen days into a twenty-one-day hike? So I’d done what everyone says you should do—I’d tried to push through.
The next day, we made the push for Lobuche (4,900 metres). I don’t think I have ever struggled quite so hard to gain 500 metres of altitude. I was getting sick, and my body knew it before my mind did.
I finally arrived in Lobuche in the afternoon—about two hours before everyone else in the group. I was freezing and shivering. I sat by the fire for a few minutes but I couldn’t get warm. My ribs actually started to hurt from the shivering. My teeth were chattering. And so I decided to go to bed and try and get warm, under my sleeping bag, another sleeping bag, two blankets and a hot water bottle.
The first sign that something wasn’t right was that I couldn’t stop getting up to pee. Every thirty to forty minutes, I would have to go to the bathroom. I had already lost a lot of water.
That was when I got this feeling in my chest. Every time I lay on my stomach, I would get this pain under my ribs like that same discomfort. So I got up, and asked for the guide.
This wasn’t the leader of our group who had refused to refill my water, but an assistant in training. He came in and offered me an antacid, and sat with me for a few minutes while I explained all the things that were happening. I still couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I felt like all was not well in my body.
By two in the morning, I still had not slept, but now I was having trouble breathing. I was getting anxious, because the next morning we were scheduled to depart at 6 a.m. I wanted to sleep at least a little that night. But every time I tried to close my eyes I would get short of breath and have to get up again. So I asked for the guide, again.
I told him that I was having trouble breathing and he sat with me for a few minutes. I asked for an oxygen tank. I just needed to breathe properly for a few minutes so I could sleep.
The main guide brought in the oxygen tank, but there was a problem. None of them could figure out how it worked.
Suddenly, the only thing I wanted, more than anything else in the world, was to close my eyes and just rest. I felt like I had been fighting for air for so long and I just wanted to stop fighting. I couldn’t tell you what part of my brain realised this was a bad idea, but instinctively I just knew. ‘Don’t fall asleep, Nanjala. Don’t fall asleep.’
I stated reciting the alphabet backwards to stay awake. I don’t know when this happened, but they told me later that at some point the things I was saying stopped making any sense. That my lips were moving, but what was coming out of my mouth wasn’t what I thought it was.
Thankfully, one of the members of my group was a nurse; she helped them figure out how to run the oxygen tank. They strapped it over my face and after a few deep breaths I fell asleep almost immediately.
I think there’s a qualitative difference between racism and being raced. Racism, I think, is more sinister and deliberate. But being raced or racing other people is something that people do because they aren’t paying attention.
It’s cultural laziness: we create all these shorthands that allow us to process difference, but a lot of them are focused on the negative rather than the positive. I experience race differently when I’m in countries like Nepal or India, because I get none of the privileges of whiteness. I experience intense scrutiny or unequal treatment from ordinary people who also themselves come from a place where they have no privilege. They have raced me—decided, based on cultural generalisations, who they think I am—in order to process my presence; and, because of the way popular culture from the West especially projects and processes Black women, a lot of that is negative. It’s that feeling when you walk into a space and you meet people who think that you surely cannot know, just because of who they think you are.
I don’t think I am the kind of African my guide expected. I think he had raced and gendered me, and my showing up a little more sure than he expected me to be frustrated him. Especially when I was hyperventilating and he was struggling to figure out the oxygen, I could tell that his own self-assuredness was falling apart. I had to struggle for almost thirty minutes before he would go to her for help.
I would go back to Nepal in a heartbeat, but I am not sure I would ever attempt Everest Base Camp again. There is so much cruelty and violence in the world that it would be completely absurd, I think, to take myself back to a place where being raced and being unseen nearly cost me my life.
I think a lot about how callousness and carelessness can often result in the same outcome. People like to say that, because racism and being raced are different, we should think about the people perpetrating them differently. But for the person on the receiving end, the outcomes are the same. The mind and body still suffer the same. We find ourselves gasping for air. Reciting the alphabet backwards. Willing our bodies and minds not to give in, even though—in a world that keeps us jogging on the treadmill of justifying our right to exist—the only thing we want to do is rest.
Taken from Travelling While Black, Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move, by Nanjala Nyabola, published November 2020, £14.99, buy it here