Vagabond, an authentic way to see Africa

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Lerato Mogoatlhe’s travelogues in the book Vagabond is nothing short of a cathartic experience. She went around Africa, immersing herself in the food, music, and the lives of her fellow Africans she met in different countries. The result, a story so rich, it brought me to tears of joy. It awoke in me the yearning to have some of the experiences she had.

When a travel magazine does a feature on Africa, it is usually dominated by wildlife safari, a city or two, and choreographed “cultural features”. But we Africans usually are not fascinated by safari experiences. It’s like what Trevor Noah said, “what white people want to do on vacation is what black people are trying to escape”-he was referring to camping and “authentic cultural experience”. Don’t get me wrong, the Okavango Delta is the most magical place on planet earth to me, and I prefer the Drakensberg of Lesotho to the bustle of Johannesburg. But, I didn’t need money to see a springbok or giraffe earlier in my life. The larger and more exotic animals were, of course, privatised or in conservations, so I only got to see an elephant and lion through a wildlife tour.

Lerato’s book is about people. That’s what always ‘make’ a trip for me. The people of a place will share their interests, and if you live with them long enough, they will share their culture. But don’t get it twisted; not the choreographed dances by groups of youth you get across the continent, that’s just entertainment. Music and food are the biggest contributing factors in culture. So I was hooked. I made a note of the artists she mentions then listened to them on Spotify. The first ones of my playlist were Habib Koite, Salif Keita, Brenda Fassie, Bi Kidude, Tiken Jah Fakoly, and Lucky Dude. The fabulous thing about the Spotify playlist is that it adds similar taste music, helping me to discover even more great music across the continent. I discovered the new single from Salif Keita, a remix of Madan by French DJ Haska. It is a hot track.

Her take on the cuisines didn’t grab me at first. It could be because I already have an established sense of what I like and don’t, based on a plethora of my experiences with food; or, it could be that we don’t share the same staples as West Africa (cassava), and seafood for coastal countries. But something did seep in when I was reading on umami and the benefits of fermentation. It made me think of mabele (sorghum). It is the native grain of Africa. A superfood in its own right; gluten-free, and high in fibre. It has roughly 75% less starch than maize flour and 12% more protein. It is cooked across the continent, from Mali to South Africa. In India and South America, it is sometimes substituting flour for roti and tortillas. Fermented, it is my preferred grain for porridge. Mabele is widely available, yet I was treating it as a delicacy, relegated to my fading culture, that I get to eat once or twice a year when I go visit my home village.

The simplicity of the food, best served with beans, wild spinach, and free-range chicken (the kind that does thirty thousand steps a day). So I decided to restore sorghum from the fading edges on my culture and bought a kilogram of the flour. And then I realised, I don’t remember how to ferment it. I still remembered that warm water is an ingredient. But growing up, I never needed to make it from scratch. I know instances where new batches don’t ferment and the whole things just rot instead. So I asked my fellow Batswana to help me out with the best method of fermenting mabele. The Batswana are the only people in the Southern Africa region who ferment flours like maize and sorghum; the rest cook it as is. My sister was the first to reach out. She was disappointed that I had forgotten this fundamental process. But she was helpful nonetheless. Here is a method agreed on with my sister’s help, and my Facebook friends and family.

Although I don’t subscribe to the level of her accommodation’s comfort and safety, I was inspired by the idea of using public transport across Africa. Like the Tazara, a train that connects Tanzania and Zambia, running through Africa’s largest game reserve, the Selous Game Reserve. And the ferry across the Zambezi river, connecting Botswana and Zambia. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know anything worthwhile about travelling in Africa.

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