Five years on the road in Africa: how Lerato Mogoatlhe became a travel writer

South African journalist Lerato Mogoatlhe set off for three months in west Africa. She ended up drifting across the continent for five years. In 2019 she wrote a book about her travels, called Vagabond: Wandering Through Africa on Faith. As a scholar of, among other areas, African travel writing and mobility, I chatted to Mogoatlhe about travelling solo, queer and black.

Janet Remmington: In reflecting on the book, you write that your first encounters with countries that would become the story of your life “started with literature and music”.

Lerato Mogoatlhe: I have to say music videos were the most accessible way to experience the continent from my bedroom or lounge as a child in Pretoria, South Africa. They made me want to feel, hear, see, taste and smell what was out there for myself. How do you hear Oumou Sangaré sing about Bamako in Mali and not want to experience the city? Later influences in Johannesburg included university friends – and foods – from across Africa, bringing fresh perspectives and flavours. All of this opened my senses to the continent beyond the breaking news headlines or stereotypical perceptions.

Janet Remmington: Your book has a bold, enticing title: Vagabond. This word is usually defined in terms of one who wanders without a fixed abode. Throughout history vagabonds or wanderers have proved to be provocative. In colonial contexts like South Africa it was used, among other terms like “vagrant”, to disparage and control indigenous people on the move. Studies have shown how “vagabond” is loaded with double meaning: a romantic figure of freedom and also a challenging figure of disruption. Why did you chose it for the book?

Lerato Mogoatlhe: There’s no shying away from the vagabond. I am no stranger to the term’s double edge. I chose Vagabond precisely because travelling solo across the continent, especially back in 2008, seemed so random and outrageous to some people in my life. Why quit a job to travel? Couldn’t I find a better use for my money? Or: what exactly will you be doing, what’s there, why are you going?

A book cover showing a mosque against a green sky, the earth is comprised of a map of west Africa.

Blackbird Books

I didn’t know anything about what was ahead, besides being ready to travel and seeing what would happen (in the absence of a travel budget). In this light, being a vagabond might be seen as aimless – almost like a failure to then launch into young adulthood.

However, to me, being a vagabond represents freedom and adventure, and the time of my life. The aimless wandering, the drifting without a place to stay … it remains a moment in time in my life. A glorious one. I knew my book would be called Vagabond even before I wrote a single word of it. I played around with the word, got used to it, and gave it a different meaning.

Janet Remmington: South Africa’s long history of colonialism and apartheid, which served the white state and population, suppressed many black freedoms, including mobility and cultural expression. I was struck by how you position your extensive travel across Africa as giving you “the opportunity to experience being black and African without disguising or denying myself to fit in”. Can you expand on this – the role that travel plays for you?

Lerato Mogoatlhe: This reflection was inspired by an experience I had in Dar es Salaam. I was at an ATM, withdrawing money when a man dressed in full Masaai regalia joined the line. I was surprised by it. I asked if there was a special occasion, but he said it was just an ordinary day. It made me think about Heritage Day in South Africa, where people dress in traditional attire. And how such an important expression of blackness/Africanness is embraced fully for just one day. I always think about the Ndebele cultural activist who was kicked off the train in Johannesburg because his traditional garb was deemed inappropriate.

Janet Remmington: You write very honestly in the book about the personal risks, as well as the rewards, of travel. You are lured by a conman in Senegal, for instance, and repel a rapist in Ethiopia. There are very real challenges, but you bring to life the many opportunities. How do you see Vagabond contributing to travel literature from and about Africa in this light, particularly writing as a black, queer woman?

An African woman smiles slightly as she looks at the camera, her hair shaven and wearing African print.

The author.
Courtesy Lerato Mogoatlhe

Lerato Mogoatlhe: As a queer woman, it’s my declaration that there isn’t only violence in being queer in Africa and travelling around the continent. We are here, we live here. I cannot fear it and I refuse to fear it.

The personal risks: the weird and wonderful thing about travelling is that it makes life feel like a fantasy. I used to dream about places I’ve been to, and I still do. I get a thrill from turning the fantasy into reality. However, outside my fantasies, travelling is real life. It has challenges and heartbreaks.

I know one thing about myself: I am going to live big and loud, including travelling. Patriarchy, racism and homophobia are not going to deny me. I see my contribution as daring, fun and funny.

Vagabond is the story of a certain period of my life unfolding around Africa. It is intimate. It also adds to travel literature that doesn’t reduce Africa and Africans to clichés. In my work Africans are not happy-go-lucky souls who, despite being poor, are so warm and generous.

Read more:
Travelling while black: 7 South African travelogues you should read

Janet Remmington: Vagabond is packed with adventure, transporting the reader to scenic and human wonders across Africa. However, the book does not avoid the continent’s harrowing zones. You write, for example, about your haunting visits to Rwanda’s genocide memorials which instilled a calling to “write Africa differently”. Can you speak about this deep sense of purpose and what it means?

Lerato Mogoatlhe: My story and connection to the continent is not the kind that amounts to “been there, done that, got the T-shirt”. I hope it is deeper: a conversation with others and myself about what this continent is beyond typecasts, and what it should be and what it should never be. It should no longer be wholly defined by war and conflict; we should no longer write our history with blood. I’m writing Africa by celebrating life, creativity and innovation. That’s my purpose, because whatever else this continent is, it is firstly and most importantly home.

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