The South African actor immerses herself in all things Kenyan, from the natural wonders to cultural experiences, and has an awakening.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Sandton, South Africa, and the sun is a couple of hours away from its daily disappearance down the horizon. FORBES AFRICA makes a phone call. A voice at the other end says a deep “hello”. It is award-winning South African actor and entrepreneur Nomzamo Mbatha, who is in New York City and has just woken up.
From the Big Apple, her mind travels to Africa.
When she’s not scorching television screens, in the award-winning South African drama-series, Isibaya, Mbatha spends a lot of time traveling.
She has been to 13 countries, but as an African, none has made her feel at home quite like Kenya.
She describes it as the warmest place in Africa and speaks of her endearing memories of the East African country.
“Kenya makes you feel like you should live there. Kenya makes you feel like you’re at home…” says Mbatha.
She traveled there for the first time when she was 16, handpicked by Save the Children, a non-governmental organization promoting children’s rights, as one of three South African children representing the country at a conference hosted by Kenya.
Mbatha recounts her first impressions.
“I remember seeing furniture doors just piled up on the side of the road and thought ‘whoa! I’ve never seen this’ and then I just remember Kenya having lots and lots of bananas.
“Because we were always on a bus, we didn’t get to see it (Kenya). My misconception of it, as a child, was that there’s not much to do as a tourist.”
In 2018, Mbatha was in Kenya again, flying first class on Kenya Airways with a carry-on and two big bags. “I don’t know how to travel light,” she confesses.
She recalls there were times in the earlier years as a traveler when she would pack everything, leave the house and get to the airport only to realize she wasn’t carrying her passport.
“So passport… that’s like your golden item! The number two [must-have item] I’d say is sneakers. It’s always great to have comfortable sneakers so you’re able to walk around the city, around the towns and just be comfortable. So always carry sneakers no matter what!
“Number three – I always have a nice little bag of small decanted toiletries. I have like 20 different things that I use.
“So when you’re traveling, especially long-haul flights, you want to be able to have your [face] cream because you don’t want to end up using what the airline gives you…
“When I’m traveling and connecting flights, I always make sure I go to the bathroom and use my products and keep my skin hydrated and clean.
“And, of course, the fourth must-have, is a book; it’s always a great travel mate.”
On her last trip to Kenya, Mbatha traveled with her manager and they were scheduled to fly out to Kakuma on a United Nations mission, however, she requested three days to be in Nairobi before the trip.
“I really just wanted to experience it and see more of it. Also, I was in a space where I hadn’t traveled in a while.
“It completely changed me. I went to the K1 Flea Market which is so amazing. Everybody has a smile. Everybody is so welcoming.
“I got to go to the Maasai Market which is absolutely fantastic. And there is so much art and craft you can find there… And then the fanciest restaurants; five-star restaurants they don’t tell you about, that they don’t show you. The party scene in Kenya is amazing. And what I really loved about Kenya is I felt completely safe.”
She then explored the Karura Forest, saved from deforestation by conservationists led by the late Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize laureate, leader of the Green Belt Movement, and environmental and political activist). Karura presented the most memorable moments for Mbatha while in Kenya.
“It was lush. And it was just inspiring to know that a woman’s name was behind all of this. I just remember thinking how massive it was. We just stood there and it was one of the best experiences of my life… it was beautiful. For me, it was better than seeing the Eiffel Tower. It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen.”
While the visit to Karura Forest left Mbatha in awe, it also taught her a valuable lesson.
“It was emotional in the sense that there is so much we can do for the planet. And it implores one to really do better in terms of our own social responsibility when it comes to environmental sustainability.”
Mbatha says the African continent has much to learn from Kenya.
“A lot of innovative businesses in Kenya [are] self-started. The government of Kenya is very cognizant of the fact they are not going to bring international brands. In fact, they empower local brands to start their own businesses, down to potato crisps. It’s very motivating for people to have the entrepreneurial spirit,” says the globetrotter in love with Africa.
Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester
The 37-year-old South African soccer midfielder says he could move to the English city for its sense of serenity and calm.
South Africa’s former national football player Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane started playing in the streets of Soweto but his fame has often taken him beyond the soccer pitches of South Africa.
Also a fashion entrepreneur and co-founder of the newly-established ShaYe lounge, the veteran midfielder recounts the indelible memories of his most recent holiday to Manchester with his wife, sports presenter Mpho Letsholonyane.
“In the off season of 2018, I had just gotten married. I personally love Jay-Z and my wife loves Beyoncé; and they were having their On The Run 2 tour in Manchester; a major city in the northwest of England.”
READ MORE | Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
Letsholonyane had also always wanted to go to Paris, a major European city and global center for art, fashion, food and culture, so flew to Manchester via the French capital.
The newly-weds spent a few days in Paris and thereon proceeded to Manchester for the concert, flying Air France on both sectors.
“Funnily enough, the economy class on Air France is not as squashed as the economy class on South African Airlines. You’d expect an uncomfortable flight, but that wasn’t the case. There was enough room to stretch your legs and recline your seat,” says the footballer.
Upon landing and clearing customs, a shuttle was waiting for the two to be chauffeured through the city to their hotel. The 40-minute drive was what the 37-year-old says he enjoyed the most. It made him reflect and draw comparisons between his home country and Europe.
At the age of 23, Letsholonyane’s professional career had kicked-started, but it was in 2008 that he joined one of South Africa’s biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club, for an eight-year stint.
READ MORE | Executive Travel: NaakMusiQ’s Dubai
Receiving the call to represent Bafana Bafana for the 2010 World Cup was a moment he recalls vividly.
“We were at camp, and told to check out from the hotel and go home. We were to find out from the media, like other citizens, if we had been selected to play. I remember I was in the streets and didn’t want to focus on the media because I was nervous, panicking and excited.
“My parents broke the news to me, but there was more cheering in my hometown and outside my parent’s home. A soccer pitch and jersey with my number and surname were painted in the streets.”
It was a moment that led to fame and more travels. He flips back to Manchester, gushing about the city’s architecture as he was equally captivated by the serenity of the city and its mild-mannered people.
“The standalone houses are the kind you see on television, with no walls. People that side don’t seem to be worried about burglaries. It seems like the crime rate is low. It’s quiet and it’s the quiet that I like. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I could stay here’.”
Letsholonyane admits to seeking alone time to think and ruminate.
Ironically, for the footballer, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert was in the home of a football club.
Like all tourists, the couple traveled to Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club, where the musical extravaganza was to take place.
“We were told to use the train; luckily, it was a five-minute walk to the station. We got there but the people around us showed us what to do and where to go. We got off at a station, only to find out we had to wait for another train and it was packed. Then I started thinking about the hassle of getting into the stadium,” he says.
Letsholonyane and his wife dribbled their way through busy subways in Manchester to watch their favorite musicians on stage.
“Getting to Etihad Stadium was a pain-free experience. We got there early and people were idling outside. We went straight in and got seats in the front. There was no opening act, just the artists’ music playing.
Then the lights went dimmer and dimmer.
“It was time, we were about 10 meters away, and we saw them closely. Then it started raining. You’d think people would run for cover but no, people were just enjoying themselves. It was two and half hours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and an experience never to be forgotten,” he says.
It was well after 1AM when the couple reached their hotel. “There was nothing that made us uncomfortable about walking the streets of Manchester at night. It felt like day.”
The night ended with rain, rounding off a day so different from playing under the hot African sun in the soccer fields of South Africa.
No Longer In The Wilderness
Meet the women challenging stereotypes deep in the bush in Botswana’s tourism capital Maun, filling roles conventionally held by men.
For 10 years, until 2018, Botswana had no First Lady, as President Ian Khama was unmarried. Botswana’s first First Lady, Ruth Williams Khama, the wife of Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama, was recognized for her charitable work with women, and the current First Lady, Neo Masisi, is a champion for these causes too.
However, Masisi is also an accountant by profession with an MBA and an impressive resume (United Nations Headquarters in New York, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic).
But not just on the frontlines, in the deeper realms of this southern African country and acclaimed tourism destination, there are more women defying stereotypes, especially in its famed safari industry.
In the country’s tourism capital of Maun, at Kwando Safaris, guests visiting the iconic Okavango Delta waterways and predator plains of the Central Kalahari might be surprised to discover that for over a decade, a majority team of women have been behind the operation.
“Having so many women work in the company was never a policy; it just happened that way. I guess that women were just more capable,” says Sue Smart in her office in Maun.
She talks about her role as the Director of Kwando Safaris for 12 years as an accidental occupation, but a gutsy corporate background primed her for the head position.
“Coming to Gaborone as a volunteer, I worked with children impacted by HIV/AIDS. Then I visited the Okavango Delta on holiday. A chain of life events eventually led to me working at Kwando Safaris’ Kwara Camp, volunteering back of house, in the kitchen, with housekeeping – anywhere they needed it.”
Formerly a Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a background in environmental biology, it was a chance meeting with the owner that saw her grow from volunteer to boss in just three months. “In many ways, I was not a conventional fit for this role. I’m not African, a pilot, a guide, or a man, but my background in other areas meant I could run a business – even in the bush.”
Having a woman at the helm has had significant side effects for the company. Many women at Kwando Safaris hold high positions, from the general manager to operations manager to those in reservations to sales and marketing. This unofficial head office policy also extends into the camps in a formal staff management plan, where each lodge has a male and a female camp manager always on duty.
Looking at the origins of tourism in Botswana, it’s perhaps not surprising that (generally speaking) travel in southern Africa has been a male-dominated industry. After all, the very first visitors to Botswana’s wild spaces were rough and tough gun-slinging, trophy-seeking tourists.
The current CEO of Botswana Tourism is a woman and, attesting to the country’s progressiveness, she’s not the first either. Myra Sekgororoane is encouraging about women in the industry saying, “I have not encountered any significant challenges because of my gender. Perhaps, I have been lucky in that the hospitality and tourism industry tends to have a high predominance of females globally.”
According to National Geographic, research shows working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families, compared to the 35% generally contributed by men.
Tumie Matlhware and Ruth Stewart, managers for Travel For Impact, wholeheartedly agree. The Maun-based NGO aims to spread the wealth generated from tourism activities into the community, providing a direct and tangible link between conservation and its benefits.
“We want tourism dollars working beyond the traditional tourism world,” says Stewart, when we meet for coffee at the charming Tshilli Farmstall, another female-run establishment in Maun.
Travel For Impact has a powerful goal, with the slogan of “If every tourist who slept in our beautiful country paid 1 USD for every night they spent here, we would raise in excess of 300,000 USD per year”.
By partnering with exclusive lodges, camps, tour operators and hotels in Botswana, funds generated are put into local community partners, such as support for basket-weaving cooperatives. Looking at the company profile, the NGO funds many projects that support women.
Stewart shares the scientific standpoint endorsed by National Geographic, saying: “Women are the backbone of the community. If you support women, it gets passed down. They buy food, school supplies and more. They are the pillars of society.”
The corporate social responsibility choice at Kwando Safaris concurs. Smart believes that “the ultimate saviors of animals are people, which is why we sponsor the grassroots initiative, Mummy’s Angels, instead of a more usual conservation project”.
Mummy’s Angels started in April 2018, spearheaded by three women in Maun, to empower mothers with newborns who have little by way of financial support.
“We had second-hand clothes and other baby items in good condition and wanted to donate somewhere it would make a difference,” says one founder, Rochelle Katz.
Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
The 32-year-old South African comedian traveled to the West African country for some eye-opening experiences.
South African comedian, actor and entrepreneur, Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane, is a frequent traveler but ask him about his happy place and he says it’s a little corner of Africa named Ghana.
He has traveled overseas before, but it was his travels within Africa that opened his eyes to the magic of the continent, and made him realize that all Africans have the same stories and are essentially the same.
“It’s just these borders we were brought up [in that] we don’t take the time to learn about each other’s cultures and share each other’s stories,” says Modikoane.
“I’ve traveled to a lot of countries over the years and early on in my career, I was in the US. A few years ago, I went to Canada for the annual Just For Laughs international comedy festival and these places are amazing, but traveling in Africa has been the most eye-opening for me.”
Modikoane’s career kick-started in 2009 on the reality TV show, So You Think You’re Funny? His growing audiences haven’t stopped laughing since.
With fame, came the chances to travel. His very first trip to West Africa was to Nigeria on Arik Air two years ago, when he flew business class.
“I don’t know what it is about us [black people], but when we don’t have things, we don’t see why it’s necessary – we don’t understand why we have to pay R30,000 ($2,000) for a seat, a leather seat,” he says, chuckling.
He goes on to elaborate with his trademark wit: “The seat is reclined all the way, we are drinking champagne in glasses; I didn’t even know there were glasses on planes…. Even forks and knives. And in business class, you don’t get shouted at by the attendants for reclining your seat four centimeters back, never! Even the magazines are not the same – we get business magazines and informative magazines. We even have a food menu with pages.”
That was his trip to Nigeria when on the ground, he was impressed by the hard work of the locals, the hustle and bustle of the streets and everything from bikes and Maybachs driving past him.
However, Ghana was his most memorable destination where he stayed five days.
“Ghana just looks beautiful and is next to Nigeria and they have this feud going on about who makes the best jollof rice and after tasting both, I have to give it up to Ghana,” says the comedian.
What he also loved about Ghana was its orderliness, and the warmth of the people.
What impressed Modikoane was that the people did not wait for the government to give them handouts and opportunities; the locals were willing to work hard to find them.
“The people there work outside of their work, have a business outside of their job and that’s the one thing I’ve come to realize about traveling in Africa. We [South Africans] are sitting in the land of opportunity but we are not working as hard as those from other parts of Africa. That is the magic of going to these places and spending time with other artists or musicians who also may have [on the side] their own clothing store, a restaurant, a barber shop…”
Modikoane juxtaposes his experiences in Ghana and South Africa, making various comparisons in the ways people conduct their lives. “When you go outside of South Africa, you see the Africanness of our continent. We South Africans have the modern, western element and live with white people in our communities and our country is not fully ours, but there, it’s theirs. Their heritage is rich, their culture is rich.”
And the most important part about visiting the rest of Africa for Modikoane?
“They make you feel like a celebrity,” he chuckles again.
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