Of coffee with Lerato: Wandering Through Africa On Faith
If you were having coffee with me I would tell you that I am honoured to have a well-travelled guest with quite the wanderlust; Lerato Mogoatlhe here with us.
~B: Hi Lerato we can call you Lerato right or you have an alias you best known as?
L: I’m so happy about our coffee. There is nothing I love more than conversations with like-minded people, you know, we who are passionate to the point of being obsessed with Africa. My friend Astou Fall nicknamed me Vagabond…and @MadamAfrika, which is my name on Twitter and Instagram. I love them both but MadamAfrika has our continent in there so call me Madam Afrika, please.
~B: Alrighty then. Hello Madam Afrika; first thing’s first because in my world, there’s only two kinds of people: Tea or Coffee?
L: Coffee, buna, kahawa. Sorry tea – I’m not a morning person and you are not known to up an upper!!!
~B: How many countries have you been to and where did you have your most memorable cuppa?
L: 21. This question is a trick. You are trying to pick a favourite child among many. None the less, Sudan, Khartoum. I stayed in Al Amarat while there. A short walk from my hotel was an old woman who with a simple coffee stall on the street. Very basic: a small table, a couple of kettles to boil her water, drinking glasses and jars with coffee, ginger, sugar and cardamom. I’d sit quietly with her and we would communicate with our smiles. It was such a tender and loving way to start my mornings.
~B: I am in awe though, did you just wake up one day and decide “Right; I want to travel!” and upped and left just like. *finger snap*
L: Have you met me? I do not do snaps. It looks like it but trust me, my obsessive mind would never. let me. The moment is always a snap of the finger but the destiny was signed a long time ago. I was around 8 when we were taught about ancient Egypt at school. I still remember the awe, staring at a poster of the Sphinx. I still catch some of the teacher’s words: the great Pyramid, Seven wonders of the ancient world.
This made me realise that the world is far bigger than anything I can imagine, and that history goes waaaaay back to a time that I will only ever know through words and whatever is leftover from its time. I also told myself that I’m going to see the pyramids. I read Things Fall Apart at 13 going to 14 and my mind went to work again: these markets, the traditional wrestling, cowrie shells, palm wine…I wanted to see and taste them and that means going where they are. Around this age I also read a book that introduced me to Jollof rice – and drumroll, there goes my mind. I was blown away to discover that there are other ways to enjoy rice other than plain and boiled. In between there is more African literature and music and it all made me curious.
The backdrop of it is being raised on a steady diet of Black Pride and at some stage my uncle’s Pan Africanism. We are extremists, my uncle and I, so every idea and aspiration was measured against Africa, down to the littlest details and the conclusion I made by the time I hit my early twenties; that the world is great, but Africa is affirming. Listen, I wanted to learn French for the longest time and when I told my uncle he called me out. ”Only an inferiority complex makes you shed yourself” he said, and there is nothing lost than an African who buys into the propaganda of our inferiority…why learn French when I could not speak IsiXhosa, he argued.
So my life has always Africa first, middle and last.
Then I worked as a journalist and became increasingly unhappy with Africa being written as doom and gloom. I am a doer, so I left to rewrite the narrative. Africa is my destiny and fits into every component of my life and interests, if you get want I mean. Every time I question and explore my identity, the answer is always Africa.
Now to get to leaving. I went to Accra on a media trip in 2006 for four days, that introduced me to blackness as I will never experience it in South Africa for as long as apartheid is not fully dismantled: pride, glory, power…man…do you know what it feels like to see yourself as a servant all your life when you do not consider yourself one? So even being in a supermarket in Accra and seeing that everyone from owner and manager to the packer was black was affirming. I made the decision to quit my life in SA while in Accra. I kept it quiet (silence is golden) until November 2007 when I start telling friends that I’m leaving in 2008. The only thing “snap” was going with the 23rd of June. I may not know the moment when it will happen, but the destiny has been sealed.
~B: What was your plan did you have a travelling companions besides of course FAITH.
L: By myself. I roll solo. It is faster. It has focus. I consider myself quiet the Philosoblah, and have always believed that how we come into this life tells you have everything you need to know – even people who share a womb come out of it and into life alone. Company is great but some things can only be done alone. The biggest dream of my life had to be MY moment, not our moment. Gosh. I even broke up with a fling after the mention joining me in Accra – ALL THAT MIGHTY WEST AFRICAN ASS AND YOU WANT ME TO CARRY FOOD FOR THE ROAD. *Claps once*
~B: Where is the weirdest place you spent the night?
L: On a dune in the Sahara. You know how they say the desert is either very hot or very cold. Understatement. After a wild night of lots of vodka (also known as the devil’s juice) I became convinced that I am going to die from the cold so I stayed up to keep an eye on my soul so I could tell it not leave my body – true damn story. I ended up hanging out on a dune….so that I may catch my soul when the cold tricks it into leaving my body.
~B: Lerato has a book coming out in September. Tell us about your book (was it part of the plan too or it kinda just happened along the way)
L: Vagabond was always going to happen. The difference now, I guess is that I am whiling the economic dynamics of being a full time writer than trying to balance it with a full time job that comes with nice cash and managing people.
~B: Briefly; tell us, which was the high point in your travels; what was the one thing you thought if I live through this I will never do; anything this crazy again?
L: High point: meeting and befriending Habib Koite. His album Afriki is how I pray and worship. This journey brought me to my knees many times. I kept running out of money that wasn’t coming into my account fast enough even though I was earning. The way SA media treats freelancers is DISGUSTING AND DEHUMANIZING. So I wanted to give up and take a break.
I went back to my place in Abidjan and started packing. I was listening to Afriki, to a song called Nteri, and in this moment I felt Allah saying to me that this bullshite will never end, but He has my back and indeed, for I never lacked even when I didn’t have money to move between Ghana and Ivory Coast, I still made it and it happened without a fuss. I literally showed up at Werewere Liking’s doorstep at Village Kiyi to say I need a place to stay and don’t have money. You know what her son Ben said,? Pity I arrived a day after a troupe they were hosting had left. I did what needed to be done, the answer was start over. I decide to start over in Mali because Habib, my greatest artists of all time, was headlining the festival of the desert.
I meet him in the Sahara – how fantastical is Africa though? Only here do you get to say things like “we met in the Sahara”.
Starting over changed my life: I learnt French, I assimilated, I joined a family of vagabonds who had drifted to house number 227, Para Djikoroni in Bamako. I lost my morbid obesity, among other things. I don’t have anything that I would not do.
If it doesn’t kill you it makes a killer story. Crazy: I put a knife on a taxi driver’s neck and threatened to kill him if he didn’t stop driving like he had a death wish. This was in Eastern Ethiopia.
L: I thought I had time all along but the reality of thinking I could have a 9 – 5 and still write sunk in. Now I am an author first, journalist and editorial expert second. This is the only way I can possibly write more books, which I want to. I burn a herb called imphepho. It’s an important part of our spirituality in South Africa . Our being black and ancestral. It calms me. I want to be a diva. Nadine Gordimer used to tell people do not bother her with meaningless social calls. It sounds bitchy but it is true, certainly for me, I work best under a rock, with zero distractions so all my energy and thoughts are focused on the task at hand.
~B: If you could pick any Fictional Characters from TV or literary creations to travel with you whom would you pick and why?
L: Tin Tin has been everywhere. He is a trust fund baby and they are very generous with mom and dad’s money. I want to travel with him and let me assure you, I would consider burning through his bank account the least I can do to get back at King Leopold. I take my justice wherever I can create it 🙂
~B: I don’t know how anyone can travel without music, I can’t live without it; what was the soundtrack of your sojourn.
L: The sound track is the Best of Lucky Dube. This continent loves that man. He was a hero. He showed up amid wars and chaos. He was one with the people. It was such a revelation for me to hear people tell me about how his music saved them or keeps them together still.
~B: Are you done travelling or………
L: Never. When I have been to every country in Africa; I will start over because nothing stays the same anyway.
~B: Would you do it again?
L: A million times. The five years of living on the road are the most important years of my life.
~B: Any people you would like to give a special mention to for their support in getting your book done and your nomadic life; wave at them like you are doing for TV
L: ***twerk, twerk, twerk, TWERK BOO!!!*** Let’s enjoy the most magnificent continent on earth, our Africa – the one that gives wings to our dreams.
~B: Thank you Lerato; it was a pleasure having you tell us some profound parting words.
L: Never believe news headline and the narrative of doom and gloom. That’s just a business decision because if it bleeds, it leads, as they say in journalism school. Take time to dig into Africa – books, music, food, culture, tech, art…everything, and you will truly see just how magnificent Africa is.
Bio: South African author and journalist who considers herself a Pan African first and makes life choices from that precious and powerful space.
Insta and Twitter: @MadamAfrika
Facebook: Lerato Amandla Mogoatlhe