By Jojokhala C. Mei
All my life I’ve thought melanin-rich South Africans need to make the magic mind-shift we still sorely can’t even imagine; until Tshwane-bred irreverent travel writer Lerato Mogoatlhe pulled me on a shoe-string backpacking budget, tripping and laughing along across 285 pages around our continent in her travelogue VAGABOND: Wondering through Africa on faith. It is romantic, and brutally honest all the way.
Off course business writer Victor Kgomoetswane has formally discovered the truth in his book AFRICA IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS, plus his now abandoned local KAYA FM radio station programme. My trust is not misplaced in outspoken and sultry Lerato for the full-monty that outdoes even a long ago European-produced food travelogue on SABC TV.
In 2008 her solo evocative trek starts in Senegal on the West African coast, into the land of camels she gingerly avoids in the Sahara desert to reward herself with finding the town Timbuktu which Europeans fabled to be the end-of-the-world. No surprise since it was the time ex-President Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance restoration of the impressive centuries old heritage of mud temples and manuscripts of jet black people. Here in Mali her wandering eye finds its match when an eight year old boy, Mohammed, slowly falls in love with her and daringly invites her to tea with his bemused mother. It must be to recover her poise that she rediscovers her 2006 joy of Accra in Ghana that hit her wanderlust. And boy does she go overboard seducing beach boys at every turn there.
Expecting her to zizg-zag across each African country at one go as if Africa is one uniform country in American speak, I discover the journalist she keeps darting back to recharge in South Africa; and returns to stumble into her mega-star singing hero Salif Keita in Francophone Ivory Coast, then randomly off the beaten track through nearby quaint Mozambique, and the out-of-place Egyptian Antiquity treasures I last saw in the so-called British Museum.. It could be exhaustive to follow her roughshod not through the touristy Kenya of the posh Serengeti Game Park lodges, then pavement Zanzibar. She doesn’t rush to see the world-famous endangered Rwandan guerillas, but it’s the people she doesn’t meet here that we mourn with each exquisite word she finds to describe the memorial to the genocide.
June 2020 is our corona winter of discontent, when the local KAYA FM radio station punts an upcoming programme with a line by the late legendary trumpeter Hugh Rapulana Masekela saying “When people come to Africa they don’t come to see us. They come to see the animals, because we are bad imitations of the people who oppressed us.’ Yes, Masekela could be talking about South Africans he knew only too well, because in every other country Lerato is ‘shaken by people who live with an unshakable conviction in being African’, or ‘I love Ethiopia because it is true to itself’,
In fact, Lerato’s such a consummate travel writer that when I gasp or laugh out rudely loud I have to put the book away for some time to savour the revelation or irony for days on end. There’s a line or tract on every single page of this book. She even breathes life into the Egyptian Bantu pharaoh facemask that I once saw in the sterilized so-called British Museum:
* June 2017. I ache for faraway places when I listen to Khaled sing Aicha. … Weâ€™re at the Nile River. Itâ€™s pronounced kneel, He grabs my phone as cue to pose for a picture. â€œWelcomeâ€ he smiles. My jaw drops to the floor when we drive into Giza, and I see a pyramid. …Even through the gates, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities tantalizes with its contents. …Egyptians call their land the mother of the world. I’m not one for labels that countries give themselves, but it’s hard to not call Egypt mother, … the variety of their artifacts is astounding, and their details dazzling…. The theme of perfection I first experience in the pyramids is carried over here. …Luxor is truly a wonder to behold from the air.
* The complexion is jet black and their hair silky. Sudanese people are breathtakingly beautiful. I have to stop myself from staring.
- The two uniformed gentlemen at one of the tables say ‘Bon jour’. They would also like the pleasure of my company. …When it’s time to leave they call for the bill. But when it’s time to pay one of them goes into the street to set up a road block. He returns after ten minutes with money he collected as bribes, and uses it to settle the bill
- BAMAKO, MALI: The silly man strikes a deal on wishful thinking instead of sense. Abbas offers him the refuge of our home and family and he is calling us liars and scammers before he eats the chicken yassa Astou and I cook. Astou has seen flashes of my temper … when he walks in demanding instead of asking for food, reducing me to a servant a man will never find in me. King’s eyes glint with mischief, Jilly’s lips curl into his smile, and Abbas raises his eyebrows at her. Everyone knows what’s going to happen to Dave if I don’t leave the room.
* No matter how desolate the location, there’s always a mosque around.
* It is a mixture of macaroni, spaghetti, rice, and lentils topped with tomato sauce made with up to twelve, chickpeas, and crispy brown onions. My appetite finally finds me in Egypt.
Now and again Lerato cuddles up next to local desert women brewing coffee in dusty street braziers, and I know she wouldn’t resist my quaint Nigerian hangout hidden in plain sight downtown Newtown, Johannesburg/ But strangely South Africa is not one of the African countries she dives into off the beaten touristy tracts. She also keeps passing through Zambia, but never meets a Zambian. Only at the African Unions birthday does she raise eyes from shuffling feet to get the elderly Kenneth Kaunda and manage to say “Thank you for our freedom.’
This paperback story would easily stand up to cricketer Imran Khan’s travelogue up Pakistani’s Indus River as a hardcover larger coffee table and library book, with space for its photos to breathe. It’s safe to say hound the publisher if you can’t find the treasure to cuddle up with this winter.
Lerato is the most consummate travel writer, I could tease your own appetite with a line or two out of every single page in this book, in every country: