“In everything you do in this life, just have money—especially if you’re a woman.”Lily Dada, 2022.
I speak to Lily on a frigid Thursday morning, from my apartment in Abuja. It’s 3 AM WAT, and I’m wearing a fluffy blue wool sweater that’s begun to fray. The room is almost completely dark, illuminated only by the glow of my laptop screen open to Google Meet, and the flashing colours on my mouse.
Lily tells me her room is brightly lit, a room in the heart of Lagos, Nigeria, where she has been living since she got back from Kenya. Lagos is warm, Lily says, and the memories of Lagos’ humid ember months make me briefly recoil.
In my room in Abuja, the fierce harmattan breeze punctuates our conversation, whistling sharply as Lily and I begin to explore her experience as a digital nomad who has spent the past five years exploring 10 African countries.
At first, we exchange quips on why we’re both awake and willing to meet online mid-morning. I say it’s a hazard of my job, a by-product of managing a daily newsletter scheduled for 6:30 AM every morning. Lily’s response is similar. As a freelance remote digital marketer, travel consultant and digital nomad, she often works well into the night or wakes up early to get some work done.
I decide to kick off the conversation here—by asking if late nights, early mornings, cross-country travels and multiple streams of income were part of the future Lily dreamed of as a child.
TC: Is this what you’ve always wanted to do? To travel Africa and immerse yourself in different cultures?
Lily: I guess you could say that. Let me share something funny. You know those chewing gum packs that came with stick-on tattoos of girls wearing short skirts and colourful bras? That’s what I wanted to be growing up.
For the longest time, that was my goal and I kept repeating it until someone told me those girls were prostitutes who move from place to place.
In the end, though, I guess I could say I achieved that, seeing how hard I use a part of my body—my brain—for money, and what I’m doing right now as a digital nomad.
TC: And what does being a digital nomad mean to you?
Lily: So I’ll give you a typical example. This year, I’ve mostly been in West Africa, but last year, I was in Kenya for most of the year, and I even took a good trip to Tanzania.
I travelled across Kenya, I went to almost every state in Kenya. And I hosted well over 30 people in Kenya during that time. So as a digital nomad, this means that I’m not in one place. Typically, I get like an Airbnb or I look out for unique properties. I spend the week doing my work on my computer and when my weekends are free, I spend that time exploring.
My idea for travelling is what I like to call “slow trips”. I don’t believe in visiting a country and spending a few days there. I encourage slow, sustainable travel which involves spending a reasonable amount of time in a place before you leave and immersing yourself in the locations. I understand that this is not possible for everybody, which is why personally, I chose to be a digital nomad.
TC: That sounds expensive, I imagine.
Lily: So a typical budget for a month like that would be like $4,000–$5,000. It’s actually a lot of money; you could probably travel across Europe a few times with that same budget.
So yes, it’s expensive. But I will say this, it’s easier when you get out of Nigeria. That’s the hard part. But running through most of Kenya and Tanzania is cheaper, and you don’t have to worry about your safety. But if you’re a budget traveller, you can survive on less. For some perspective, bus tickets from Nairobi to Tanzania cost less than $30. And if you want to fly to Rwanda or Uganda, you book your tickets ahead for about $580.
There are ways to drive down costs and you’ll even find services offering these budget trips, but they’re not things I encourage.
TC: Why not? Wouldn’t cheaper budgets help people travel more?
Lily: They would, but then you won’t really be experiencing anything. For example, if you’re going on a five-day budget trip of ₦500,000 (~ $1,100) to Mombasa, you’ll spend most of your time in your hotel and doing everyday activities like bowling. You shouldn’t go to Mombasa just to bowl!
I feel like people work hard for money, and they should enjoy spending it too. If you want to go on a trip somewhere, why are you going there to sit in your hotel room? I would rather you take your time and get you experiences you’ll remember.
TC: And that’s what you did in Kenya last year. What was that like?
Lily: I was in Kenya for six months, living in a house by the beach, and it was the dream!
The weather is fantastic. It’s cold in the mornings, almost all year round too. I mean, you don’t need an AC in Nairobi. Every day, I woke up to pray a prayer of gratitude because it just was unreal. I had a dog that I took on walks in the evening; I was living like Picasso, you know. I’d be on my balcony overlooking the water, eating some fruit. Yeah, it really was the dream. But it was also expensive. I should warn you.
TC: How much are we talking about here?
Lily: I lived in a two-bedroom at the time and my rent was $250 per month and it was an unfurnished apartment. Fully furnished apartments in that place went for $2,000. It was a little town so my living expenses day to day weren’t high. Groceries for like two weeks would be about $100. And I was learning to windsurf.
TC: Was the expense why you left?
Lily: No, I had other things to attend to. Besides, everything was going really well and I was afraid I was living in a bubble. I didn’t want to be there when it burst, do you get what I mean?
And something strange did happen, but I only really put it together at the end. I had a neighbour who stole the keys to my apartment and would always break in to chill in the house when my friends and I took trips to other parts of Kenya.
TC: Oh, that’s alarming.
Lily: Don’t get me wrong; Kenya is super chill. Our houses are so close together neighbours could jump onto our balcony and open the doors from inside if we ever locked ourselves out.
This guy—who I met only once—lived across the street from us, apparently. He even helped out with my dogs once. I didn’t find out about the break-ins until I asked the security guard to help feed my dogs while I was away. He met the guy hanging with two women. The guard didn’t report it to me because he thought the guy was a friend.
We never did catch him in the act, and I eventually had to move, but I learnt he was a minister’s son who was a known degenerate in the area.
Other than that, Kenya was superb. I’m looking forward to my next trip.
TC: Is there any place you’re not looking forward to? Any place that’s off your list?
Lily: Definitely Togo! I had two near-death experiences there.
First time was in 2018, I think. I fell on my head at the waterfall. Second time, I was involved in a high-speed chase between the gendarmerie—the police—and my taxi driver.
TC: You really have done it all. Waterfalls, beach houses, and now a high-speed chase?!
Lily: No, no. It wasn’t anything like that. Carrying fuel around, in Togo, is a crime and my taxi driver had done just that. The police tried to apprehend him and he took off.
They chased us around town for almost two hours. And the worst part was neither the gendarmerie nor the driver understood French so we really couldn’t tell what was going on.
In the end, when he finally stopped, I came out with my hands up.
TC: Okay, now that’s exciting. Is it your worst travel experience though?
Lily: Oh, no. That honour belongs to Mali and Tanzania. They need to do better.
So far, I’ve been to ten African countries excluding Nigeria—Ghana, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo, Tanzania and Mali.
There’s a devil in the border officials at Mali. In my first trip to Mali, they almost arrested everyone in my travel group, simply because we were Nigerians. They literally pick out Nigerian passports at immigration and harass the holders. We had to pay those motherfuckers ₦10,000 (~$25) each before they let us go.
It’s the same in Tanzania. Border officials are discriminatory as fuck. Some clients have also had to pay $250 in bribes just because they were Nigerians. The last time I was there, they held us up for four hours, checking my visa and asking how I got it approved. I didn’t have to bribe my way through but I did miss my bus.
TC: What about the places you loved the most? I imagine Kenya is top on the list.
Lily: You’d think so, but Kenya is not No. 1. Senegal is first on my list and Kenya is second.
My first time in Senegal was my budget road trip. On the bus trip from Mali to Senegal, we met a woman—Sarah—who basically took care of us all the way. She didn’t speak any English, we didn’t speak any French, but yet, she looked after us all the way and helped us navigate discriminatory border officials. When we got to Senegal, she took us to her home to shower and fed us breakfast before helping us find a hotel. She even negotiated the deal for us.
And that’s how it mostly is in Senegal; there’s a strong sense of community. It’s easy to get robbed in Senegal, I must say, but there are more people looking to help you than rob you.
And the sunsets, oh Senegal’s sunsets are unreal. There’s so much happiness in the air. You see kids laughing and learning how to surf. Did you know that Senegal has the largest surfing community in Africa?
But I guess these are the highlights of being a nomad.
TC: But what are the lowlights then? You’ve spoken about language and immigration. Are there any more? Maybe food?
Lily: I actually draw the line of my adventurous sides at food. I have never tried local cuisines and I don’t think I should be ashamed to say it.
When I’m on trips, I find myself cooking a lot. I love English breakfast so once I have pancakes, bread, butter, eggs and coffee, I’m good to go. There’s also an abundance of meats and fruit everywhere, so I can get by on both while I’m on the road.
For lowlights, I guess it would be the strain it puts on relationships. It’s hard to find a place or someone to call home with for when I’m on trips, I like to immerse myself in and that means I communicate less.
It’s all worth it though, for the experience.
TC: How do you afford all this? Just so anyone who wants to walk this path has a blueprint to follow.
Lily: The first thing I’d advise is to have multiple streams of income. I do three things. First, I’m a freelance digital marketing specialist, and I’m also a travel consultant which is where I curate trips for people, and finally I have a concept store online called Unrefhyned Studio where I sell things I’ve upcycled from my trips.
Right now, from all these streams, I earn about $1,500–$2,000 per month. It’s not like I enjoy doing multiple things, but I enjoy the security that comes with having money.
In everything you do in this life, just have money—especially if you’re a woman.
I’d also advise—if you’re going to toe this path—that you have money that can last you three months. Life can happen at any time and any disturbance can render you nonfunctional for weeks. Money will shelve you during these times, it will keep you safe.
And finally, don’t put yourself in situations that you can avoid. Do your research, and like they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
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