27 years old Senzelwe Mthembu is an explorer at heart, a South African traveler, researcher, content creator, and photography enthusiast.
When she’s not curating travel experiences, Senzelwe works as a social researcher at the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA). She focuses on youth transitions into adulthood, youth (un)employment, and on other topics related to young people.
She has a background in politics, philosophy, and economics and obtained her Master’s Degree in Philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2015.
In this article, she highlights how she’s evolving as a traveler and her experiences traveling on the continent.
What made you fall in love with travel?
My passion for travel started at a young age when, as a family, we would drive down to rural Kwa-Zulu Natal during the festive season.
I remember being fascinated by the change in terrain and context. The first memorable trip for me was to the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga. So my passion for travel and the African continent started right here, in South Africa.
I later realized the need to showcase my love for travel and to highlight Africa’s beauty to other Africans and to the world.
What kind of traveler are you?
I think I have evolved as a traveler and will probably continue to evolve as my interests change. I was once primarily interested in going to the main tourist attractions and wanting to do things because so many other people had done them.
Travel felt like quite a selfish endeavor. I now take a greater interest in the people from the place that I am traveling to and I want to fully immerse myself in the culture and learn as much as I can.
What interesting social customs have you encountered while traveling the continent?
There are two things which I found interesting. The first was just how friendly and helpful people in Kenya are.
I have not experienced hospitality in the way I experienced it in Kenya. It felt like there was a real concern for other human beings, especially those visiting their country.
The second, which we generally don’t practice here in South Africa, was taking your shoes off when you enter someone’s home. Not only was this the case in the traditional Swahili settlement of Lamu where most of the population is Muslim, but this practice was also found in Nairobi, Kenya where on one evening we invited friends we had made over to our Airbnb home and they did the same.
I found it interesting that young people in Kenya were also taking their shoes off when entering someone’s home.
Paradise on a plate… Your favorite meal on any of your travels?
My favorite meal on my travels was at a very unpretentious, buffet-style traditional Swahili restaurant.
It was the first meal I had in Lamu, Kenya and consisted of pilau (a rice, meat and vegetable dish that is very popular in Kenya), lentils, fish in a spicy tomato stew and other vegetables.
I was so impressed by the flavors.
What do you know now about traveling on a limited budget that you wish you’d known earlier?
I wish I took the plunge earlier! Travel is possible for many people and a range of budgets can be accommodated.
But I do wish I learned the art of saving ahead of time and drawing up a budget. There are so many ways of making travel more affordable, whether it’s taking local public transport, staying in someone’s home or eating where locals eat.
Traveling on a limited budget does not necessarily make your experience any less enjoyable.
Got any travel & safety hacks for passport newbies & solo travelers?
Here are 3 tips for keeping safe and for saving money, especially as a solo traveler.
1. Do your research ahead of time.
The first important things to check for international travel in Africa is whether or not you need any vaccinations such as for Yellow Fever or Malaria.
Also, check luggage dimensions and free baggage policies for the airline or be prepared to pay extra, risk missing your flight or be forced to leave things behind!
2. Choose your accommodation wisely.
Solo travel often means paying more for accommodation since you won’t be sharing the costs with anyone. But that is not always the case!
It’s important to ask yourself what you can afford but also, what you can’t compromise on when it comes to accommodation. If your budget is low, you can still find good accommodation but manage your expectations.
Use Airbnb to book your accommodation as it allows you to book a private room in someone’s house at your stated budget. This makes it safer for you as most of the time you are living with a local who can provide invaluable information and tips about the neighborhood.
Also consider staying in a hostel or backpackers, which will work out to be much cheaper and makes it easier for you to meet like-minded solo travelers. For both these options, remember to read reviews!
Be as prepared as possible.
Prepare for possible long layovers at airports by having a pillow or blanket, WATER (I cannot stress this one enough) and snacks from the plane or from home.
Carry a moon bag or small backpack for your valuables. It’s so much easier to remember the important things when you can access valuables easily. Write out important contact details and information in multiple places, including on your phone and have extra copies of important documentation in case you lose anything.
And make sure you can access your money from more than one bank card.What is your next travel destination, and why?
I will be traveling to Rwanda and Tanzania soon, but this time it’ll be as part of a beautifully curated group trip where West Africans and Southern Africans, amongst others, will meet in East Africa for an experience of a lifetime.
My sister and I have a shared passion for travel in Africa and so we launched our destination travel company, Lived Experience Travel, this year. Our first international trip is in partnership with Ghana-based, The Travel Clan (@thetravelclan on Instagram) and we are heading to East Africa.
This will be a two-country, 11-day trip to Rwanda and Tanzania that fuses culture, art, traditional food and that celebrates what Africa has overcome and what some of our achievements are.
Your final travel advice for motherland moguls?
I think we need to take advantage of what technology and social media have enabled us to do and that is – connect.
The best way to experience a new place is by meeting the locals, having real conversations with people and exploring together.
Another piece of advice is not to wait for others to come along and that local travel is valid! If you notice a pattern of passing travel opportunities up, save some of the money you would have spent on eating out and shopping until you can comfortably do a solo trip or an organized group trip.
Be open-minded, humble yourself to the ways of others, be yourself and learning from my past mistakes – draw up a budget (even if it’s rough).
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