On the road

What do you learn when you travel? And why should you set out at all? South African writer Lerato Mogoatlhe has traveled to thirty countries on her continent in fourteen years – and learned a lot about herself in the process

an essay by Lerato Mogoatlhe

 

July 2022

Meet me: Lerato Mogoatlhe, a South African travel writer and author of Vagabond: wandering through Africa on faith, a memoir about what happened when a planned three-month trip became five years of living and travelling in Africa. In 14 years, I have visited more than 30 African countries.

I’m often asked about my travels – why I started, how I keep going, and to what end – and the short answer is that I wanted to write about Africa without the doom and gloom. The only question I don’t like answering is one I’m often asked by both audiences and journalists: what have I learned from my travels.


 

“I certainly don’t travel just to show that Africa is a welcoming destination that’s affordable and has a decent air and road network”

 


“Living and travelling around Africa has taught me many things,” is my standard answer. Pushed for more, I might add: community, compassion, kindness, humour, sharing and integrity. Yet no matter how moved I am to be have been on the receiving end of these qualities while I travelled around Africa, jobless, and too broke to stay in hotels or buy a bus ticket, those occasions were never just learning moments.

I want an easy relationship with Africa and my travels. I want fun, frivolity, and adventure. I want to party, have flings, end flings and to be inspired. If someone finds inspiration in me; well, that’s just the cherry on top.

I don’t travel to change my life. I certainly don’t travel just to show that Africa is a welcoming destination that’s affordable and has a decent air and road network; a continent as poised for romance and adventure as, say, Europe or South-East Asia, albeit slower and pricier.

 

From roaming countries to inner journeys

I want an easy relationship with Africa and my travels. I want fun, frivolity, and adventure. I want to party, have flings, end flings and to be inspired. If someone finds inspiration in me; well, that’s just the cherry on top.

I don’t travel to change my life. I certainly don’t travel just to show that Africa is a welcoming destination that’s affordable and has a decent air and road network; a continent as poised for romance and adventure as, say, Europe or South-East Asia, albeit slower and pricier.

I don’t want my life, as I move around Africa to be one long teachable moment, to place a burden on the places I visit and the people I meet to be anything more than a pleasant encounter. Truth be told, I travel to get to know the Africa that lies beyond South Africa, and something has to pay for my travels, so I tell stories. Usually a trip to a new African country fills me with wonder and magic. I’ll take anything that feels like a trip. “So,” I ask myself, “what have your travels taught you?” I wait for my heart rate to calm down: as expected, the conversation was a non-starter. But it does get me thinking about why I love travelling in Africa so much: journeys create other journeys, external and internal.



The most incredible internal journey that travel has taken me on may well be the endless encounters with myself in all my glory.

I am love. That’s an affirmation from living in Mali for six months. Malians love in a way I found unusual: with tenderness and the utmost care for the other person’s heart. To be held with love, as Malians do, is a gift for the soul. The country gave me unconditional love for myself.

I’m generous. That’s one of the best gifts from my travels, and it was placed into my daily life during two weeks in Sudan. The Sudanese treat strangers like dear friends; it’s the only place I’ve been to where I was given padkos or food to eat on a long trip. But it’s how people treat each other that truly stands out. Parts of Sudan lie in the Sahara desert and are extremely hot during the day. In every part of the country I visited, I saw clay jars filled with drinking water, which would be topped up throughout the day. As an instant friend (whose name I instantly forgot) explained: “That way, anyone who is thirsty can drink without asking for water or having to buy it.”

 

There is much to discover in every country in Africa - not only in literature

I’m kind. I’ve learned to see people the way a woman called Elizabeth saw me when I visited Kakuma rcamp in Kenya to write about the birth of South Sudan. I only had enough money to travel from Nairobi so I planned to sleep outside on someone’s patio. But Elizabeth noticed that I had gone straight from a two-day bus trip to a celebratory lunch and then on to the voting station and a party held at a soccer field, without mentioning leaving the camp. She offered me a place to stay with her grandmother and cousins.

My word is worth its weight in gold. This was a gift from Dakar, given to me by the receptionist-slash-waiter at Via Via hotel in Yoff the first time I ran out of money while waiting for a freelance cheque. He said, “You are home. You will always be taken care of.” To be “taken care of”, was to be housed, fed and transported around West and East Africa when I couldn’t pay my own way, which was often.

I rage openly and without a care for consequence. When I interviewed David Bahati, a Ugandan MP who was spearheading a bill which would result in LGBTI Ugandans being jailed or killed, I told him I sleep with women and dared him to arrest me. He didn’t, although I was arrested in Uganda two years later when I attended the inaugural Pride Uganda because I raged at the police for shutting down the event and arresting some of its leaders.


 

“During one of the most painful periods of my life, my travels felt like a long, loving embrace”

 


This brings me to the final and most recent gift given to me by my travels: I am human. I have always been defined by my strength, or as I like to say, “I always land on my feet”. It’s a survival instinct honed by growing up in a violent home. Nothing brings me to my knees, certainly not other people.

Being a strong Black woman was my pride and joy, but it meant holding my breath for decades, constantly proving to myself that I was in total control of my life and that when life knocked me down, I would get right back up.

During one of the most painful periods of my life, my travels felt like a long, loving embrace which allowed me to be human in a way I had never fully shown up for myself before: unsure, vulnerable, broken in places and hurting.

And glorious nonetheless.


Lerato Mogoatlhe’s book “Vagabond. Wandering through Africa on faith” was published by Jacana Media (Pty), 2019. 

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