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What’s it like to run an LGBTQ travel company in a country where homosexuality is illegal?

Lipian Bongani Mtandabari founded Zimbabwe's only gay-owned travel company, despite homosexuality remaining punishable with up to 14 years in prison.

By Will Stroude

Words: Markus Bidaux

Lipian Bongani Mtandabari grew up in Chinhoyi, a small town about 120 kilometres west of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

In January 2012, at 17 years old he moved to Harare to launch his first travel company, Phezulu Safaris, and in 2018 he moved to South Africa to start Ntsako Travel Africa, a Pan African travel company catering exclusively to the LGBTQ market.

Here, he discusses starting up his travel companies and living as a gay man in Africa.

Tell me about how you got into the travel industry?

We travelled a lot as a family, my mum always made sure we went on a family trip every three to four months, so by the time I was 12 I think I had literally gone all over Zimbabwe, and between 12 and 17 years of age we started exploring other African countries. Whilst I was 17 years old, I moved to Harare where I was supposed to be starting university, I used the tuition money my mum gave me to launch Phezulu Safaris. After two years, when I was supposed to take my school results to my mum I had collected my company registration documents and everything else and confessed. Luckily, she supported me and she was never disappointed in me.

Two years ago, I moved to South Africa and launched Ntsako Travel Africa, which is exclusive to the LGBTQ market. The company specialises on LGBTQ exclusive travel packages into South Africa and other African destinations, big five safaris, LGBTQ destination weddings, destination profiling and marketing. When clients come into South Africa or Zimbabwe, we provide guides who we’ve trained in inclusivity for the LGBTQ clientele. We guarantee safety, value and that they take back home our authentic African memories.

What does Ntsako mean?

Ntsako is a word that is derived from one of South Africa Ethic Group – XiTsonga. It means happy. And with the passion I had for the company, I could not think of a better name that speaks to the fine work we are doing.

And what countries are you operating in now?

The real hotspots are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. We visit Kenya and Tanzania mainly for the great migration of the wildebeest and in Mozambique we’ve got a few partners that own private islands where we can take small LGBTQ groups that take over the entire resort.

Where do most of your clients come from? 

Germany, Canada, Australia and we are in the process of reaching out to the US and European markets now. The most comfortable vehicles on a tour take 12 to 18 people, so we try to keep our groups about that size. Large groups are accommodated on special programs and requests.

Has there been any negative reaction from locals in Zimbabwe or any other countries?

Through that process of inclusivity training we are only working with people that we have done training with. So that allows them to know how to interact with our groups. When we send groups in and out of countries like Zimbabwe or Zambia we can advise on what is culturally acceptable such as avoiding public displays of affection.

What was it like growing up as a young gay man under former Prime Minister Robert Mugabe?

Mugabe was known all over the world for being verbally negative and taking a public position on shaming the LGBT+ community. Some of his well known statements were delivered during United Nations General Assemblies, such as “Gay people are worse than dogs”.

In Zimbabwe, LGBT+ activism started around 1995 and I was very young then. I personally do not have bad accounts under his regime, there are however a few recorded accounts of the community being harassed and detained by police. I would say his bark was not the same as his bite.

Have you ever run into trouble as a gay man in Zimbabwe or Africa?

No I have not. I must categorically state that the LGBT+ community in Africa live various lifestyles. We have a growing number and trends of LGBT+ sex workers, and these individuals often run into trouble with authorities, not only in Zimbabwe. But across Africa.

What’s the general attitude in Zimbabwe towards LGBT people?

There are areas where it’s a big problem and they don’t even want anything that is gay related, especially in areas that are still very traditional and conservative. Most of the communities doesn’t care and if they do they will talk behind the people’s back’s rather than harass them.

The law that enshrined gay relations in the old constitution was very straightforward, if were you caught by the police having same-sex relations you would be arrested. But with court cases since the new 2013 constitution, if both people are over 18 years old and there is an element of consent the case is likely to be dismissed, because the new constitution says sex is between two consenting adults. But you know the attorneys always find loopholes to get away with many things.

Are there any underground gay bars?

Gay friendly bars are on the increase across Zimbabwe because of the thriving communities. If we have a tourist group we will take them to a few of these. And the clubs are quite safe. You are very unlikely to have anything stolen from you in Zimbabwe, whereas that can’t be said of South Africa. Gay dating app are accessible though they won’t show you distances between locations in Zimbabwe. South Africa does have many gay and LGBT+ inclusive bars in Johannesburg, Durban and Capetown.

What itinerary would you suggest for people who have never been to Africa?

South Africa is our number recommendation to first time travellers coming to Africa with extensions into Zimbabwe and possibly Botswana (Botswana recently legalised same-sex relations during the 2019 year period).

Within South Africa, as Ntsako travel Africa, we have curated what we call the Pride of Mzansi routes, which start off in Gauteng. We take them on various tours that trace the history of the LGBT+ community in South Africa and Africa at large, through historical sites as Constitution Hill, Cradle of Humankind and Maropeng,  Apartheid Museum, Soweto and the Pride Nightlife which is club hopping to various gay/pink friendly bars in Johannesburg.

In between, we have tours to Mpumalanga and Limpopo for the Safari and Big Five Encounters in Kruger National Park. There are many itineraries available into Africa, I recommend a visit to our website to look at some of them or to contact us , we have many options on the fingertips. Some of our past trips can be viewed on social media under the hashtag #prideofmzansi.

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