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 Faithhere.

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

This Photographer is Capturing the Femininity of Congo’s La Sape Movement

Once a male-centric domain, women in Congo are disturbing the gender boundaries of La Sape, and photojournalist Victoire Douniama wants them recognized.

Even though the African fashion industry is finally getting the recognition it deserves, many under-the-surface subcultures that foster community and creativity expression still exist. One of those subcultures thrive in the Republic of Congo, where Congolese dandy culture, called La Sape (La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes), finds provenance.

Its history dates back to the early 1920s and 1930s during the period of the French colonial era. Notably, it was a form of protest against French colonialism. La Sape or Sapologie is a movement of unique complexity. It is more than just a catwalk of sapeurs who dress ostentatiously in colorful suits but represents the socioeconomic and political knot that ties the population.

Messani Grace in blue tux

Messani Grace, in a tuxedo. She says: "My husband is a sapeur as well and he is part of the main reason I feel confident to do this because he supports me alot and teaches me all I need to know about fashion."

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Since its inception, La Sape has had a masculine presence. Although women showed interest in La Sape, it was strictly reserved for men. Congolese women were expected to wear African print dresses and be housekeepers. Despite the challenges and backlash, a group of Congolese women kept challenging the status quo, fighting for their style of expression. Today, hundreds of women have joined the movement, dressing in suits, tuxedos, and bow ties.

Victoire Douniama wearing white

As a photojournalist, Victoire Douniama centers her project on female sapeurs because there was a gap in representation by other photographers.

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Documenting these women is Congolese photojournalist Victoire Douniama. Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Douniama has always been inclined towards art from a young age. She was inspired by her older sister’s sketchbook. “I was so fascinated by her art and her drawing talent," Douniama told OkayAfrica. "So visual arts has always been a passion of mine." Douniama's gift for drawing was evident by fifth grade and ,during her adolescent years, she developed a passion for photography.

As she settled back in the Republic of Congo, she was struck by the lack of representation of the nation in the media which mostly depicted negative aspects of the country. For Douniama, centering her craft in her native country is important, as it not only represents her roots but also it's an opportunity to use her passion to showcase the rich natural resources and cultures of the Congo. The neighboring country, Democratic Republic of the Congo, has also been a stage for Douniama to practice her work alongside various NGOs.

\u200bTsiba Mary Jane wears blue suit

Tsiba Mary Jane works as a thrift cloth vendor at the market of Mikalou in Brazzaville. He says: “I use my hair as a form of identity, as you can tell my hair is colored green, yellow, and red. Which represents the Congolese flag."

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Her tenacity is certainly unmatched as she navigates her craft in a country faced with various economic challenges, especially since the pandemic. Being an independent photographer under such hurdles can be discouraging for some, but her portfolio speaks for itself. When asked about her secret to success, she said: “You have to develop your own style and clients will hire if it corresponds to their brand."

Of the various projects under Douniama's belt is her photo journal, Les Saupeuse du Congo. For Douniama, La Sape is more than just a fashion statement. She recognizes the political elements of the visuals. The emergence of female sapeurs is revolutionary and, without a doubt, impressive.

“It originated as a political protest during the colonial era and a movement that called for change in Congo Brazzaville and the DRC," Douniama said. “It challenges the conservative role of women in Congo and it normalizes freedom of expression, which is vital for Congolese people to become more open-minded."

Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido

A portrait of Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido at a funeral outside a home at “La tchiemé.”

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

As a photojournalist, Douniama centers her project on female sapeurs because there was a gap in representation by other photographers. “I wanted to give the ladies a space to share their experiences and what exactly inspired them to join this movement, and how people within their societal circle responded to this," she said. "Because at some point, this conservative movement was only reserved for men."

This photo project has given her a look into the dynamic of La Saupeuse and their self-fashioning practices. The exuberant sapeuse is in her mid '30s to early '50s. She’s a wife, mother, and can be found in various walks of life as a market vendor, police officer, thrift clothes vendor, or government official. She carves her hair into an undercut or taper fade, with touches of different dye, borrowing masculine-considered accouterments and accessories like smoking pipes, hats, and umbrellas.

In colorful suave suits, these women are overturning gender norms, which require them to dress in traditional “lady-like” attire known as Liputta — a bold move for a conservative country as Congo. For this reason, regardless of how liberal much of society has become, some women are scorned, discriminated against, or even receive backlash.

So, can Les Saupeuse translate into a social upgrade for the lives of Congolese women? As the world continues to interrogate patriarchal standards, it’s a movement that is still forging its identity within the culture. “Many people did not think women can do all of this," Douniama said. "That is why they mostly wanted women to be reserved and submissive."


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