Following her spirit, SA author, Lerato Mogoatlhe packed up her life in South Africa and set off for an African adventure…
But what was meant to be a three-month trip turned into a five-year journey. Twenty-one countries later, we have the privilege of reading about her experiences throughout the continent that we call home.
“Vagabond is a love letter of my discovery of myself and many weird and wonderful moments that ultimately remind us that Africa is much more than the stereotypes and clichés used to define the continent and its people,” says Mogoatlhe.
From running out of money – a lot! To feeding hyenas from her mouth, and meeting some incredible people, and enjoying the generosity of strangers, Mogoatlhe’s memoir makes one want to ditch the 9-5, pack a backpack, and head out into the world for some travel adventures and misadventures.
- Living in Timbuktu
- Being adopted by Southern Sudanese refugees in Kakuma, Kenya while at the camp to write about the vote to secede from Sudan
- Smuggling herself into the DRC
- Travelling the Swahili Coast from Northern Mozambique to Lamu, Kenya
- An emotional breakdown at a mass grave in Rwanda
- Accounts of her six-month stays in Mali and Ethiopia
All4Women (A4W): What initially inspired you to explore West Africa?
Lerato Mogoatlhe (LM): I’ve always been obsessed with West Africa especially the music, food and literature, so when the time finally came for me to start living my long-held dream of travelling around Africa, I had to start in West Africa.
I was not let down one bit: it’s a bold and colourful destination… so unforgettable and intense, whether it’s the intensity of the climate or the way people hold on to their culture and traditions. And, the region understands big personalities and theatrics as a form of self-expression; it’s a natural fit with my personality.
A4W: When did you realise it would be a longer journey than you thought?
LM: It happened in stages. The first was in December 2008. I had already overstayed my initial period of June – Sept, and even though I loved the experience, it just did not resonate well with me.
My travels felt like a “been there, done that and got the T-shirt” kind of experience instead of something more personal, which I wanted my travels to be. The second was in 2009, when I lived in Bamako.
I had changed so much from when I first started my travels – I spoke French, I dressed, ate and acted local and felt completely at home. I resolved to never make the experience stop, so I kept going for as long as I could (which ended up as five years). I don’t live on the road anymore, but I still travel around Africa.
A4W: As a woman travelling alone, what advice would you give to our readers?
LM: This sounds strange from a person who routinely goes off the beaten path with strange men but, always be alert and make sure you are in a position to defend yourself should you need to. I only had two instances where things threatened to become violent, in Guinea in 2009 and in Ethiopia in 2013, but other than this, I never felt threatened or in any danger.
About Guinea: I lived at an island village called Kassa and danced 3km away at Soro. The man who owned the property where I was renting a room accused me of being a spy and wanted to confiscate my laptop and camera.
In Ethiopia, a buddy forced kisses on me and would not stop. In both cases, the men discovered that I have the temper of the king cobra. I’m sure they are both still scared senseless of me.
So, be alert, have fun and always use a condom if you are going to get into a holiday fling. And for heaven’s sake, if it doesn’t fit into your hand luggage, then it cannot come home with you.
A4W: What about the African continent inspires you most?
LM: People. The most beautiful and magical thing about Africa is us, the people. Kind, generous, gracious and so tender. I always feel loved and taken care of. Examples include something as simple as arriving in Dongola, Sudan, with only a Google image of where I wanted to go.
No one around me at the taxi station spoke English and I didn’t speak Arabic. One of the drivers called a friend who spoke English. However, the friend felt that it was not enough to simply tell them where I was going. He came to the station to meet me in person, and then gave me his mobile number so I could call him whenever I needed a translator.
Another example: When South Sudan was voting for independence, I only had enough money to buy a bus ticket from Nairobi to Kakuma refugee camp (where I wanted to interview Southern Sudanese refugees).
I couldn’t afford a hotel or a ticket back to Nairobi. A girl I met at the refugee camp, Elizabeth, offered me a place to stay at her house, while the police officers in the area pooled money together to help me buy a bus ticket. There are so many examples of ubuntu, and people treating this stranger like a beloved family member or friend, and this generosity is not unique to my experiences. It’s simply who we are.
Another source of inspiration is our heritage and beauty: our history is as old as time, and our landscape as beautiful and as diverse as our culture. This continent is a fantasy!
A4W: If you could revisit two places in particular, where would you go and why?
LM: Mali. I lived there for six months on a whim. When I was in Ivory Coast in 2008, I decided to start over so that my travels could be more authentic. I chose Mali because my favourite artist Habib Koite was going to headline the Festival of the Desert, which was held just outside of Timbuktu. I applied for a two-month visa and got given four months on the houses provided I stayed six months “to see what happens” as the woman who gave me this gift said.
What happened was that I really settled into my life as a vagabond. About my time in Mali, I write, “To be held with love, as Malians do, is a gift for the soul.” Mali is where I learned some French (which gave me a different experience now that language was no longer a barrier), I learned traditional dances which became a secondary language (I would not have lived in Guinea Conakry if I didn’t take up dancing; and my experience in Abomey, Benin, would not have included dancing the traditional dance of the Amazons. They were an army of more than 3 000 women that was feared for being brutal in war. The throne of King Guezo still stands on the skull of four of his biggest enemies who were killed by the Amazons. In pop culture, they are references as the Dora Milaje in the movie Black Panther. These women have always been my feminist heroes, so being able to transcend time by visiting the royal palaces and dancing as they would have is one of the highlights of my life).
Also in Mali: I met and befriended Habib Koite. Mali is the keeper of many of my favourite memories and experiences.
Egypt. I have surreal memories of Cairo. It’s simply unbelievable that once upon a time, I was in Giza, in Cairo, on my way to Saqqara to visit the pyramid of Djoser. It was designed by Imhotep, who is the high priest of the sun god Ra (discovered through my mom’s beloved crossword puzzles). This is why Egypt is so surreal. My childhood came alive. I was back at Saturday school (where I discovered ancient Egypt) or doing crosswords with my mom.
Coming face-to-face with the Sphinx, posters from Saturday schools were at last objects in front of me. My first introduction to Tutankhamun was through a poster of his death mask. I visited his grave in Luxor. When I was in Dahab in the Sinai region, I went up Mount Sinai (on a camel, no hard labour for this vagabond!).
A4W: What’s one of the weirdest things that happened on your five-year journey?
LM: Feeding hyenas from my mouth to theirs in Harar, Ethiopia. I’ve done some strange things in my life but this one takes the cake.
A4W: What’s next? What is your next big adventure?
LM: It would be so incredible to hit the road again for two years, first to go around the other parts of the continent that I haven’t been to yet, and then to follow Africa around the world by going to places where people who were enslaved were taken.
A4W: Where can we find/purchase your book?
LM: It’s online at loot.co.za; and at all book stores nationally. If anyone’s struggling to find it, they can contact me via my DMs on Twitter and Instagram (@MadamAfrika).