I like to think of myself as a grown under 30 (with a few months of contrived denial left).
My mother calls me an “old soul”. My friends call me “old fashioned”.
Gen-Z would probably use a neologism I’ve never heard of, equating to “gritty, outdated antiquity,” although they’ve never heard of me because I’m not on TikTok.
On the back of me telling my friend, Melanie, that I “loved to write” and “probably would have been a journalist in another life”, I recently managed to land an unexpected invitation for an all-expenses-paid press trip. across Botswana.
Despite the immediate onset of crippling impostor syndrome coupled with a rush of adrenaline and excitement, I had to pretend to nod and accept his offer. Having never been to the country and having a particular interest in wildlife, birds and the photography of these, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. When I asked who else would join, the vague answer was “a handful of travel writers and travel marketers”. Not wanting to ask any more questions lest she realize her folly and revoke my invitation, I stifled my curiosity and began feverishly researching the trip ahead.
When we met in Johannesburg, the introduction was quite tame. Mélanie and I met Sharon, our representative from the Indaba Hotel group who, along with Kwando Safaris and Under One Botswana Sky, assisted our getaways.
We started the procedure with a guided tasting at their on-site gin school. We were thoroughly warmed by the third and final sample and discussed the intricacies of sophisticated tasting notes and viscosity when the fourth member of our group arrived. Senzelwe (IG: @senz_m) is a bubbly, braided, beautiful lady, and her late entry into fashion has been paired with her as well high fashion outfit. She joined us and immediately started capturing every visual detail of the miniature bronze pot on her iPhone X. This fascination with photography amused me, but I didn’t think of it because journalists have to accompany their work with pictures. However, my observation was thrown into sharp relief when, during our post-tasting conversation, I discovered that she had joined the trip as a social media influencer…
Now, let me explain my rather appalled (and hopefully well-hidden) reaction to this revelation. I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I need it for work and it’s useful for keeping in touch with friends, but I happen to suffer from the pervasive addiction that plagues my generation of mindlessly reaching for your phone at all times out of boredom or pause induced by procrastination.
Influencers are a big part of what I dislike about social media. Perfect people in perfect places living perfect lives, and all the while getting paid to make me jealous and anxious. In my opinion, this fake side of social media erodes the self-confidence of young people who don’t know better than to believe that this is real life and something to aspire to. So it was with some trepidation that I resigned myself to the fact that I would be chained to this person for the rest of the week.
The fifth member of the group, Richard, joined us from Cape Town. He’s an established lifestyle and travel writer, and we immediately bonded over a mutual love we quickly discovered for fine wines and whiskies. A man of my ilk. My nerves had calmed down a bit.
Imagine my dismay, however, when we picked up our sixth and final future comrade in Francistown, Uyapo (IG: @nde_uyapo), another influencer. Uyapo and Senzelwe then formed a formidable and feverish duo, painstakingly photographing every detail of every establishment we frequented, but also inserting their own image into each scene. My first impression was that this behavior was fairly benign, and, as long as they stuck to the trip schedule and didn’t hamper my chances of spotting a chirping cisticola in the papyrus swamps or a ring-necked palm thrush in the gardens from Chobe Safari Lodge, I could tolerate them.
However, a funny thing happened.
As the light faded with the dusty, burnt-orange Botswana sunset, the stars revealed themselves. Our two influencers traded in their cameras and cellphones for a G&T and/or a can of St. Louis, and we got to know each other quenching our thirst and recounting our experiences from each action-packed and memorable day. We sat in a circle around the fire and watched in mutual admiration our bush television, our eyes fixed but our mouths giving way to playful stories, laughter and jokes.
And so, the walls of prejudice that I built began to erode. Here are two young people, each successful in their day-to-day lives (Senzelwe is a medical researcher and Uyapo runs his own travel and marketing agency) who happened to be handsome, hip and knew how to monetize their image. In fact, I found that they worked a lot harder than the rest of us for the duration of the trip.
Curating content for a successful social media account requires you to be constantly aware of image opportunities, different angles on otherwise mundane scenes like bedrooms and dining tables. The rest of us took pictures here and there, otherwise happily indulging in the luxurious surroundings and drawing inspiration from articles that would only be written later. But between the two influencers, they were spinning terabytes of content to edit, curate, and share across different media platforms. And, more importantly, they weren’t obsessed with themselves. They weren’t in vain. They planned their outfits for each day, but that was only because they were being asked to satisfy the unreasonable and relentless demands of their dynamic online following. And they looked damn good.
I began to understand that these were two businessmen, responding to a demand created by the new world of media platforms and viral content. They operate in a competitive space and to stand out they have had to work hard to forge individual identities, carefully partnering with the right people and companies to sustain their careers without devaluing their brands, but also by preaching important messages. It hit home one evening when Senzelwe told us that she was passionate about African tourism, but above all that “Africans and people like me are showing the way to our fellow Africans”. That’s certainly something to consider, especially in a context of travel during a pandemic when local tourism is keeping countries like Botswana going, but also in a world where tourism is so often commodified and kept as a cultural memory. of the privileged and wealthy (and often white) elite. Suddenly, Senzi’s profile leaning on the railing overlooking the river below Mma Dinare’s camp ceased to be an obstruction and instead became a necessary and important context for his audience.
Suddenly, “influencer” ceased to be a dirty word.
By the end of the trip, our little group had shared amazing experiences and had become quite tight-knit. I quickly developed a healthy respect for the social media pundits and our travel gurus, and would gladly call them each a friend. They discovered parts of each destination and landscape that I would have otherwise missed, and my trip was undoubtedly enriched by all the different perspectives offered.
I’m still “old-fashioned” and will always walk past the chiseled, sunglass-adorned Adonises grumpy and reluctantly perched on a California beach. But, when Uyapo or Senzelwe come around to share the mass of incredible content they’ve shot in Botswana, I’ll watch their footage with the warm smile of an older distinguished relation, knowing that there are passionate and colorful people out there. behind these profiles who are determined to make a real difference in the currently struggling and segregated landscape of African tourism. DM/ML
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