Social Researcher & Travel Curator Senzelwe Mthembu Shares Her Deep Love for African Travel

Senzelwe Mthembu is a social researcher by profession whose curiosity and passion has informed her travel philosophy. She is an avid traveler, photography enthusiast, advocate for solo travel and a digital storyteller who documents and shares her experiences while inspiring others to explore. Her strong passion for the African continent inspired her to start a travel group called ‘Lived Experience’ in 2018. The travel group focuses on building a community of Africans and global citizens who travel Africa and help clients curate memorable and immersive experiences. Intrigued to know more about her life as a travel curator and explorer, we had the pleasure of chatting with Mthembu to learn more.

Travelling is obviously something you love to do, and evidently, you have visited several countries. From these, which African country would you visit again and why?

It’s so difficult to pick because each African country I have visited so far is worth a re-visit and I still have so much of this continent to explore. If I have to pick though it would have to be Kenya. I have already been three times, for work and for leisure, and would go back again and again.

It’s a combination of things – Kenya felt familiar, like home, yet it was quite different from South Africa, it’s where I realized how lacking my knowledge of other African countries is but also how embraced we are as South Africans in other countries, through music and with our history. I loved the friendliness of Kenyans and how easy it was to make friends, how helpful and hospitable everyone was.
Almost all the taxi drivers and friends I met would send a message or call to check that I was safely at my next destination.

Tell us about the culture in this country and what about it stood out for you?

Kenya is diverse just like South Africa is, in terms of the various tribes that exist, the external influences in some parts and also in terms of the landscape in different regions. From world-class beaches to street food, well-preserved culture, national parks and wildlife, nightlife to a booming creative scene – there is just so much more to Kenya than we think we know.

I love that on any given day you can find Kenyans wearing bracelets with the Kenyan flag on them and that a national language is spoken. The national language, Swahili, is a language all Kenyans can speak.

Something else that stood out was the vibrant matatus blasting old school R&B and Hip-hop as well as the creative energy in Nairobi. In Mombasa, I also enjoyed the street food culture, the tuk tuks, warm weather and how the restaurants moved outside in the evenings because of the hot weather. And in Lamu, the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa, I loved the architecture, the small town with narrow alley ways and donkeys as the main mode of transport, watching the sunset while sailing on a traditional dhow boat and how well the culture is being preserved there. You have to experience this place for yourself!

Why is travelling African spaces and countries so important?

I feel that on the whole, South Africans are quite disconnected from the rest of the continent. Traveling Africa allows you to connect to others on the continent, to learn about other cultures and change the negative perceptions and stereotypes we have about other African countries but it also helps you embrace and celebrate differences. Moving around our continent also contributes to our economy and makes us depend a lot less of foreign support. I think we take for granted how rich and diverse the continent is and how business and cultural connections would be beneficial if intra-African travel was more accessible. It’s unfortunate that travel on the continent is still so difficult because of visa restrictions and expensive flights.

In my opinion you can find every kind of experience here – world class pristine beaches, vibrant cities with incredible night life, medieval and ancient cities, markets, all the adventure activities you can think of, rich cultural history and heritage, a variety of wildlife, interesting architecture and geological sites and a growing arts and culture scene (I could go on).

As a tourist, how are your negotiation skills? Are you sometimes given tourist prices?

I’d say my negotiation skills are okay! I respect that negotiating in some countries is a part of the culture so I will give it a go-to pay a price I think is fair and also just for the fun of it. I have realized though that on recent trips I just don’t have the energy for it, especially knowing how negatively tourism has affected people. If I feel the price I am given is fair and if I find the item beautiful, I won’t negotiate
down. I definitely am sometimes given tourist prices and in some instances even mistaken as being an American so I am always trying to make it known where I am from. Honestly, more than anything, I value being able to purchase goods at local markets and contribute to people’s livelihoods.

What 5 items are a must-have when travelling?

  • A moon bag or backpack to keep all your essentials close by and so that you
    can take only what you need with you on your excursions
  • A power bank and other electronics like phone chargers but having a power
    bank means you can confidently explore for hours on end and you will always
    have access to your phone in case you get lost, to search for interesting spots,
    connect with people on social media, get yourself back to your hotel, etc.
  • Sunscreen for obvious reasons!
  • A big scarf or small blanket is a must for me because it can be used in multiple
    ways: as a pillow, to keep you warm, on the beach, etc.
  • Flip flops for showers, pool and beach time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously and unfortunately had a negative impact on travel. With many people not being able to travel or visit and explore different countries as they normally would pre-Covid. What is one memory of travel (before the pandemic) that you hold on to dearly?

The memory I hold onto dearly is just that feeling of excitement and nerves before you land in a new destination. Being in a plane, seated in the window seat and looking outside to get that first glimpse of the landscape is something I really miss. And then that first step outside of the airport into a new country: feeling and smelling the air, being greeted by the first locals, and hopping into your transport and looking out on the way to your hotel.

In the next life would you want to be born an African, again?

Absolutely. Without a doubt! There is a unique African energy and spirit that I embody that I would not want to replace.

Written by: Ntsako Mlambo

Between 10 and 5