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Courtesy of Lerato Mogoatlhe

Lerato Mogoatlhe on Her New Travel Memoir, 'Vagabond': "I was accused of being a spy."

The South African writer traveled to 21 African countries over the span of 5 years and says that Mali, Rwanda and Sudan were by far her favorite places.

Eleven years ago, Lerato Mogoatlhe decided that it was time to leave South Africa so she quit her job as an entertainment and lifestyle journalist and flew to Senegal to begin what she thought would be a three month trip. She had always dreamed of traveling Africa, and after an earlier work trip to Ghana, she realized she could not put off her dreams any longer. The three month stint would turn into five years. Her new memoir, Vagabond: Travelling Through Africa on Faith is a chronicle of that trip and the 21 African countries she experienced along the way.

But this is no comfortable travel read. When Mogoatlhe first steps off the plane in Senegal, she has made no plans whatsoever, not even accommodation. What she does have is the unshakable certainty that she is home. Mogoatlhe starts her journey with the strong belief that every other African country, flaws and all, will make her feel just as home as she felt in South Africa.

And so she trusts that everything would eventually figure itself out. From sitting on piers and waiting for someone, anyone, to ask if she needed a place to stay, to running out of cash, Mogoatlhe's written account of her spirited country hopping (as well as the characters she met along the way) is filed with numerous "laugh out loud" moments and leaves one with the burning conviction to go to the places that she has gone and truly experience the unimaginable for oneself.

We sat down with Mogoatlhe to discuss her new travel memoir Vagabond: Travelling Through Africa on Faith and found out why she would rather visit Bujumbura than New York or Paris on any given day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Why did you decide to document your travels in Vagabond: Travelling Through Africa on Faith?

Because I wanted to live forever. I find that for me, because I want to live forever, a book is a way to just bring it all in one place, and present my story, the story of us and the story of who Africans are.

I think, one thing that's very important to me about my identity is that being African is something that I thoroughly love and enjoy, and I have no problems with it. I do have a massive problem with the stereotypes associated with Africans. I have a massive problem with acculturation and the fact that it's so easy for everything you consume to be Americanized or westernized.

You were initially only supposed to stay three months and that extended into five years. Tell me how that happened.

In my fifth month I was in Abidjan and I still didn't feel ready to leave. I thought I needed to start over. As I was thinking about starting over, I was listening to my favorite album Afriki by Habib Kioté—I love him. So I was like, "I guess I'm going to Mali because my favorite artist is performing in Timbuktu in a few like 10 days."

That's how I started over. Only after six months did I really start feeling my travels and start connecting.

Celebrating the inevitable birth of South SudanCourtesy of Lerato Mogoatlhe

You started your journey officially in Senegal. What would you say was the highlight of being there?

It was putting the landlord in his place. He was an unfriendly guy which was weird because you know how Africans are, we like to greet and all that. One time he came knocking knocking on my window screaming for me to get out in French. He wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there. I told him I was a South African journalist travelling the continent.

Eventually he reasoned that I must be telling the truth and asked if a man was paying for my stay. There are many things that a person might be confused about me but do not ever reduce my identity to a man. I just took a table, flipped it and threw it across the yard. Then I just asked him, "Are we finished now? You are wasting my time. I have a dance class to go to."

You're in a "foreign land" and your French is decent, at the very most. What was that moment like for you?

It was liberating. I was just like, "If you are not going to respect me, then fear me. You had a choice." But we kissed and made up. The thing I love about West Africans is that they are drama queens, theatrical, I mean, I'm like so home in West Africa. Theatrics no. So that was the next day I'm just like, "Okay, let me buy kola nuts, take it to his house, and just chat."I told him that it wasn't okay to do what he did. And that was that.

Manuscripts from TimbuktuCourtesy of Lerato Mogoatlhe

How did you fund five years of living across 21 African countries?

I was freelancing as a journalist. I think in terms of some tricks and tools, there's a platform called Couchsurfing where people who want to host travelers sign up. You can just put out a notice that you'll be in the area and you need a place to stay or you can just approach people directly, so that helped me out.

I ate street food a lot, lived very cheaply, and also people are very kind and generous. People would just meet me and be like, "Right, do you have a place to stay? Is it a hotel? Oh no, please girl, you are moving in with my family." All those things.

Pyramid of Giza, EgyptCourtesy of Lerato Mogoatlhe

Freelancing is great because you've got so much more freedom of your time. However, how did you travel the continent and navigate not getting your payments on time?

When I was in Senegal I ran out of money because a cheque was late. I couldn't pay my hotel bill so I asked them if I could pay it off when I did finally get paid. I ran out of money a lot. When I was in Ghana going to the Ivory Coast, you had to pay twice even though it was one bus company from Takoradi in Ghana, to the border and then from the border to Abidjan. So I only paid from Takoradi to the border.

From the border to Abidjan I was just like, "So now I don't have cash. Can I leave my passport here, I'll come pay you?" If I say I'm going to come pay you, I'm really going to come pay you. I don't remember there being anyone that I asked for help and they didn't help me. If anything, people always used to say, "Stop worrying, you are home. You'll be taken care of," and it was such a huge affirmation.

Mount Sinai, EgyptCourtesy of Lerato Mogoatlhe

What would you say are your top three favorite African countries?

I really got to settle into my travels in Mali. I got to finally pick up French and that opened up a different world. And then there is Rwanda for different reasons. When I was in Rwanda I went to the Kigali genocide memorial, then I went to memorials in Nyamata and Ntarama as well as just outside of Kigali. Ntarama it was so raw because it was in the church where people were killed and you could see grenade holes or bullet holes wherever and at the back you can go inside the mass grave. You see all of it. And lastly Sudan because it was such a breath of fresh air. Sudanese people are generous.

Lake Tanganyika, BurundiCourtesy of Lerato Mogoatlhe

Are there African countries that you are afraid to go to?

No. I used to be scared of Somalia because of Mogadishu. I used to be scared of Darfur. At the time, it was genuinely scary to think of going to Mogadishu when there's so much conflict. But also using common sense and experience, you only ever hear about the bad stuff, that's the nature of news. If it bleeds, it leads.

If I hear about bomb blast five times a year, what about the rest of the 360 days? I used to be scared of conflict areas and war zones and where there's been turmoil. When I go to the Central African Republic, I don't think it's wise to venture out of the capital city for instance because the capital city is secure to some extent. So I'll just use common sense about these places that I want to explore next.

Grab a copy of Vagabond: Travelling Through Africa on Faith here.


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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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