The recent protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have brought an important and hard conversation to the forefront. The fight for justice and equality starts with conversations and there are countless women of color in the travel space who don’t get nearly as much shine as they deserve. So, I want to discover: Who are they? How do they navigate life abroad? In the spirit of celebrating Black content creators and expats around the world, the upcoming #WanderWomen features will be more representative of these women doing amazing work abroad.
The #WanderWomen series highlights diverse women around the globe every Wednesday who took a leap of faith to leave comfort and familiarity behind and embrace expat life. In some cases, it was to find themselves, love, work, or something else entirely. I hope these stories ignite the inner adventurer in you, to remember that no matter where you start over, there’s a new home waiting for you if you’re up for it!
Meet Helen Debrah-Ampofo, a Blogger Based in Abu Dhabi
Helen is a lifestyle and travel blogger living her best life in Abu Dhabi! She was born in London to Ghanaians and has been adventuring in the Middle East with her husband since 2016. Her writing style is open and honest as she tackles aspects of expat life honestly and with her signature flair. She talks to me about how Emirati life is treating her, ‘Traveling While Black’, misconceptions about the UAE and more. Read on!
In your blog posts I notice that you identify as Black-British, but not necessarily English. Can you elaborate on that?
I think it’s really interesting that you noticed to be honest, Monica. It’s mainly because in England, it doesn’t matter however long your family has settled there for, you never really feel like you belong. Somehow, you’re always made to feel like an outsider and that you’re not really welcome.
‘British’ is like the catch-all phrase for people who live in the UK but are originally from somewhere else (even if you were born and bred there).
I will never be English because I’m Black.
I can personally say living abroad long term is such a huge part of my identity as a woman. How has expat living impacted your 30-something identity for the better?
It’s probably cliché but living abroad has opened my eyes and my mind tremendously. Being exposed to a different way of living and to people from diverse backgrounds has made me evaluate the way I do things. Being in the desert has meant I’ve slowed down and have time to take things in rather than always being in the rush that characterises life in London. Lastly, relocating with my husband’s job rather than my own (and being a qualified teacher but jobless) has meant that I’ve had to build my own businesses from scratch. It’s been challenging but I’ve learned so much more than I would have had I gone straight into the classroom.
How has the social side of Abu Dhabi been? Is there a Black community there? How has it been tapping into social circles?
There are so many things to do in this city but I’ve been here four years now so I’ve kind of seen it and done it all now. I’m getting itchy feet. We are spoiled for choice in London, that’s the problem.
I’d say the number one thing to do here is Brunch – all you can eat food and drink at restaurants across the emirates. Every Friday and Saturday. New ones pop up all the time.
As for the Black community, we’re present! Be it Africans from The Continent or African descendants or those who are from the African/Caribbean diaspora, we’re from different countries but we are very much part of the UAE population.
It’s super easy to meet people out here. I liken it to moving away for university in your first year; everyone is in the same boat so people are more open to building friendships. There are loads of meetups and social events available and if you sign up for things on email or join Facebook groups, you’ll always be in the know.
I read your post, Traveling While Black and it was pretty eye-opening. What has been your favorite country to visit so far where you don’t have to worry about being judged and can truly enjoy the experience & culture?
Easy! Colombia. The only country I’ve been to, other than Ghana of course, where I’ve blended in. Even on the dance floor, it was even beneficial being a Black woman as the men assumed (wrongly) that I was a good dancer. Colombian culture is also similar to Ghanaian culture in that the people are incredibly friendly, music can be heard on every street corner and they are crazy about food. It was like a second home.
There have been other countries where I didn’t feel judged, like Thailand, but I wasn’t sure of this until I got there.
It’s a shame that this is often the case for Black people – we have to be conscious of where we travel because in some countries, it would be unsafe for us to visit there.
I really resonate with your career situation because I also followed my husband on a work visa and am having a hard time re-starting my career. How have you navigated this expat challenge that’s all too familiar for so many of us?
As I mentioned previously, it was challenging to begin with and I really struggled too at first. I thought it was unfair, especially as I am as qualified as my husband but was made to feel as though I wasn’t good enough.
Then I got over myself, stopped feeling sorry for myself and started to look at my situation as an opportunity rather than a setback.
And since changing my own perspective, I have been able to start three businesses around my passions: private tutoring, expat blogging and managing an online community for women with afro hair in the UAE. I haven’t made as much money as I imagined coming out here but honestly, I love what I’m doing. I’ve grown in so many ways and wouldn’t change it for the world.
What piece of advice would you have given yourself before moving to the UAE?
1. Start filming and documenting your experience as soon as you get off the plane, sis! You could’ve been a superstar by now.
2. Learn to relax. You’ll save yourself a headache and there are some things that are just out of your control.
In one of your posts, you say something really striking: “Whether you like it or not, whether you realise it or not, this world has not been created with Black people in mind.” You mentioned this in the context of hotels, but are there other parts of traveling where it’s the same case?
This is a part of life, not just travelling. I could only start wearing decent makeup in my 20s because brands didn’t create makeup for my skin shade. Skin coloured leotards for ballet dancers have only recently been created. Before Fashionova, even getting jeans that fit my proportions was a problem.
So there has always been injustice regarding our opportunities as Black people.
As for travel, my main struggle has been having to get rid of my hair products at customs and not being able to find anything that caters for me in the airport shops. And then there’s ‘randomly’ getting stopped and searched because apparently, I look like someone who smuggles drugs. Then there’s the constant perception of foreign men who think because I’m Black and in their country, I must be a prostitute. To be honest, the list is endless.
Some countries are missing things we love and have back home. What do you make sure to bring back in your suitcase when you travel from London to Abu Dhabi?
This question is particularly painful because I’m officially not going home this summer due to COVID, the plan-ruiner.
I always stock up on things like electronic toothbrush heads, Brita filters and even Dove shower gel because they are ridiculously pricey here (the added shipping costs don’t help). And then there’s my Ghanaian supplies: Shea butter and food spices that my mum brings from the Motherland are essentials for our survival out here!
What are some misconceptions about the UAE you want to set straight?
- Dubai is not a country. It’s an Emirate in the country called the United Arab Emirates. There are 7 Emirates and Abu Dhabi is actually the capital city.
- This is the safest country I’ve ever been to. I can leave my laptop, purse and phone in a coffee shop for an hour, come back and it will still be there untouched. It’s the Middle East but there are no bombs dropping here.
- It gets super hot in the summer months (high 50 degrees celsius) but it’s not like that all year round. Between November and April, the weather is perfect.
- There are clothing standards but they are a lot more liberal than you might expect. No one expects you to cover from head to toe in most places but being respectful to the customs never hurt anyone either!
Do you see you and your husband staying in Abu Dhabi long-term?
We have loved our time here but if there’s one thing we know about Abu Dhabi, it’s that living here is not forever. We have our sight set further East next, hopefully Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore in the next few years. With the UAE, its either luxury galore or food court takeaways.
There’s not really a middle ground and we miss that middle.
Also, I think the Emirati culture is a difficult one to penetrate. I would love to live somewhere where the culture is loud and in your face, and where I‘m pretty much forced to learn the language. You can get away with being in a Western bubble here and we didn’t leave England for that. And then there’s the job sitch. I love what I’m doing but I’d also love to have more options.