Travel has taught me that the pitch-black night of the Sahara does not yield to the sunlight until it is good and ready. And when it does, the darkness gives way so fast that you would think this landscape is only ever bathed in light. Stark sunrises will turn the sand dunes a dull brown for a scant few seconds before the sky turns blue, and for a handful of minutes the giant dunes glow as the sun creeps up into the sky. Till then, every night, six nights a week, the dusty roads leading from Gorom Gorom to Oursi—a small town outside a small town in northern Burkina Faso near the border with Mali—are shrouded in the desert’s secrecy, under this inscrutable darkness and breathtaking silence.
But once a week, from the small hours of Thursday morning, the night is split open by a convoy of traders from across the Sahara—on foot, horses, camels, or caravans—quietly inching toward the town. This spectacle alone—women dressed to the nines in brilliant white along with all their glittering silver and gold bridal wealth and men draped in indigo-dyed tunics, silently heading to the weekly market—was worth every single dollar that I spent crossing Togo and then Ghana and finally Burkina Faso. And to think I nearly missed it because I was afraid.
Fear is a powerful and paralyzing impulse. In healthy doses, it can protect us from being a danger to ourselves and to others. Being afraid of driving after a night of drinking is a good thing. In unhealthy doses, it can be the difference between living a rich, fulfilling life and ending your life as an anecdote in one of those “regrets of the dying” articles. Being afraid of venturing outside your comfort zone to travel, love, or even try new food can constrict your imagination. And whatever fears you have in your normal life—spiders, snakes, regret, heartbreak—they are only intensified by travel, giving even the simplest choices a heavy patina of urgency.
In unhealthy doses, fear can be the difference between living a rich, fulfilling life and ending your life as an anecdote in one of those “regrets of the dying” articles.
I like to think of my trip to Gorom Gorom and other parts of the small, landlocked country of Burkina Faso as the first in a series of lessons on the nature of fear and the rewards of confronting it. It was my first truly solo and completely spontaneous trip. On a summer exchange with a student group at university, I endured a disappointing six weeks in Togo at a disappointing job that unexpectedly led to a fulfilling transfer for six weeks in Ghana, where I eventually found myself with 10 days to spend doing anything I wanted. I needed a plan. I could have stayed in Ghana and hung out while my friends worked but I was itching for a challenge, and I wasn’t sure at that time if I would ever go back to West Africa again. So I did something I had never done before, but now do regularly: I pulled out a map, looked at the countries surrounding Ghana, and almost randomly picked a place to go.
I was terrified at every step of my trip to Burkina Faso. When I was buying my bus ticket, I wondered if they were cheating me. When I had to get on the bus, I was afraid that it would crash. When I was on the bus, I was scared that the people sitting next to me would try to steal from me. When we crossed the border and encountered a platoon of soldiers in training, I thought there had been a coup. When I got into Ouagadougou, I was afraid of getting lost or mugged. When I bought my ticket to Gorom Gorom, I was petrified of getting kidnapped. The list of things that at any point could have made me turn around and go back was so unbearably long.
Yet every time I pushed through another mental barrier, I grew more certain of a philosophy that was slowly taking shape in my mind. Fear is never a good reason not to do something. Up to this point, I think I believed that if you were afraid of something, it meant it wasn’t good for you to do that something and you were better off staying close to the shore. But as each challenge was overcome and a new, beautiful mystery of Burkina Faso revealed itself, I started to experience the immense rewards of using fear as a catalyst for, rather than a deterrent to, action.
There was no plan when I got to Burkina Faso. Initially, I was only supposed to spend 10 days experiencing Ouagadougou, the capital city, but as I grew more comfortable strolling through the broad boulevards and listening to the harmattan sandblasting the roof of the hostel, the urge to see more of the country grew. The guidebook said Gorom Gorom was a once-in-a-lifetime visit because it was a spectacle so far off the beaten path that didn’t feel like it catered to tourists. I was desperate for once in a lifetime, so I bought the ticket and went, hoping that I would figure out the accommodation situation once I got there. And this was my second lesson—once you taste the rewards of pushing against the boundaries of your own fears, you start to crave that feeling of life with no limits.
Guidebooks are written with such sweeping certainty that it never occurred to me that I could have a different experience from the people in the books I was reading.
That doesn’t mean that the fears didn’t go away. The morning of the drive to Gorom Gorom, I woke up at 6 a.m. and walked through Ouagadougou toward the bus station with my giant backpack and sleeping bag on my back. In my head, I may as well have been carrying a flag saying, “Hello, I’m a tourist—please rob me?” Recall that everything I knew about West Africa up to this point I had read about in books written by white men, almost all of whom agreed that Africa was mysterious, scary, and teeming with nondescript Black bodies lurking in the shadows, waiting to rob you. Guidebooks are written with such sweeping certainty that it never occurred to me that I could have a different experience from the people in the books I was reading.
But as I walked through the streets of Ouagadougou that morning, I noticed that no one was noticing me. Traders sweeping the sidewalk before their days began and office workers shuffling toward their desk jobs milled past me, so focused on their own journeys that I was merely another obstacle in their path. I was someone they had to walk around or dodge but not really acknowledge.
How glorious! I discovered that my Blackness made me invisible and made it possible for me to fully relax into the role of observer. If I said nothing, everyone would presume that I was local and let me get on with my business as much as they went on with theirs. That uncomfortable feeling you get when you go to a new place—that everyone is watching you—I didn’t have that. And I could breathe.
This was how I learned that because I had been uncritically consuming other people’s versions of Africa—versions of Africa that are shaped by the particulars of their own existence—I had learned to be afraid of Africa. Later, I would go back to my travel guides and realize something that today seems so painfully obvious: the vast majority of guidebooks, especially those written about Africa, are written by white men for white men.
Race (as well as gender, sexual identity, and other markers of identity) shapes travel—and backpacking especially—in such palpable ways. As a Black woman, there are spaces where my race and gender make me invisible, which means that I can immerse myself more fully into the lives of those around me. And there are spaces where it makes me hyper visible, like taking the train from Vienna, Austria, to Bern, Switzerland, and being the only person in my full carriage whose identity documents were checked.
Burkina Faso reminded me that I had no reason to borrow the fears of others wholesale. Fear is subjective, and each subject must order their fears based on their own reality. This doesn’t mean that I always feel safe when backpacking on the continent—invisibility cuts both ways. I still carry a fear that if something bad should happen to me, there would be no hue and cry because the world doesn’t stop turning for missing or dead Black women the way it does for white men and women. Being Black in Africa is not an invitation to take stupid risks.
Gorom Gorom lived up to the hype and then some. The Thursday market was gorgeous, and on the road back to Ouagadougou I rode in the back of a large truck surrounded by goats, chickens, and traders in turbans smiling benevolently at this strange woman. Africa opened up for me in that town in a way that has stayed with me since. This wasn’t an Africa that existed in my textbooks or in the books that I have read—it was new and breathtaking, and because it was, I believed that I could be too. I grew up on that trip.
Backpacking taught me to stop being afraid of this invisibility and to chase after the opportunities it offers. The same energy that confounds and terrifies visitors to the continent, keeping them away from the pulsing, chaotic heart of many of Africa’s towns and cities, has given me some of the most memorable experiences of my life. The fear of discomfort that keeps us surrounded by easy things stops us from realizing that we can. You can, despite your fears. Embracing fear, listening to it but refusing to cow to it, has nurtured my love for backpacking, and backpacking has given me the world.