When you’re quarantined on a cruise ship for 89 days, confined to your room, and far from home, you’ve got some spare time to think. This is where Refeloe Kgabo, who was working as a Sales Associate with Miami-based Starboard Cruise Services, found herself back in March when Covid-19 brought cruising to an abrupt halt. So, what occupied Refeloe’s mind during these 89 days?
Refeloe reflected on her story thus far, the one that brought her overseas and has made her the woman she is today; and also the story that she is now writing back in South Africa in pursuit of her dreams and the woman she hopes to become.
An Atteridgeville native, Refeloe began working in tourism when she was 18. She started as a trainee at Travel with Flair, a leading black-owned travel management company, and was part of a team working on events and competitions.
“The whole exposure of being out there, running around, always the designated coordinator, always welcoming people, helping with travel arrangements—that’s when I was bitten by the bug of working in the events industry.”
Refeloe with flair
Refeloe cut her teeth at Travel with Flair, grateful throughout for the growth she experienced in her role. But her dream was always to travel overseas.
She would even go to a backpackers near where she worked just to meet travellers and hear stories about their backgrounds and adventures. A natural host, Refeloe would often volunteer to show some of these new friends around Pretoria and Johannesburg, demonstrating true South African hospitality.
“One of the days I actually met a friend, Monique, who was working on a cruise ship. Everyone wants to work on the cruise ship! And I thought, by the age of 25 I need to have travelled. So I took a chance and left a permanent job where I had been working for 6 years. I thought, if it’s for my dreams, I’m going to do it.”
Full of nerves and excitement, Refeloe headed to the US to start her job with a Miami-based retail company aboard some of the world’s finest cruise ships.
Outgoing and full of flair, Refeloe was a shoo-in to be a shopping host—a role that requires equal passion and personality. And having an infectious smile and public speaking prowess certainly doesn’t hurt.
During her two years in Miami, Refeloe met people from all over the world. And, in turn, she would tell them all about her childhood, about home and the beauty of South Africa.
Food first, then connection
If you ask Refeloe why tourism is important to her personally as well as to South Africa, her answer is the same, and it is resolute—tourism puts food on the table.
Refeloe has a deep appreciation of the industry’s contribution to South Africa’s economy, infrastructure, and the diverse opportunities for employment that it creates—from accountants to cleaners and events coordinators to waiters.
As an avid traveller herself, she is acutely aware of where her Rands go. “Knowing that my spending also puts a plate on someone else’s table makes me feel so, so happy.”
But a close second to tourism’s meal ticket, is its ability to connect people and bring about greater cultural understanding. “Once you get to travel you realise that you either have it easy or you have it the hard way. Sometimes we just stereotype because we don’t get to travel or see the world.”
Refeloe emphasises how important it is for South Africans to travel around our own country. “You need to know where you come from to be able to relate to people. Travel helps you communicate with fellow South Africans on a different level because you’ve been there, you understand, you’ve heard their stories.”
One positive outcome Refeloe sees emerging from this pandemic is a strengthened sense of female unity. She sees it in social media campaigns like ‘Challenge Accepted’ and in her own network of women, from her mentor Thami Nkadimeng to her circle of friends in tourism and eventing.
“Women are actually coming closer. It shows that out of a bad thing, something good can come. And there is nothing more beautiful than women who uplift each other.”
In addition to believing in one another, Refeloe also acknowledges the importance of believing and investing in yourself. “I advise women to use whatever resources they have during this time.”
She did this herself during the last few months by enrolling in a programme for voice training. Having realised her talent for speaking from a young age, she has now taken the steps to leverage this talent, equipping her home with voice recording equipment, making demos and marketing herself.
Refeloe has a strong, compelling and beautiful voice that is destined for greatness—a voice we are sure to hear more of very soon.
“I want to be an ambassador for South Africa. I want to share the stories of a South African child, a South African woman. I want to be able to invite people back into the country and say, ‘We are travel-ready. Because we are in tourism.’ And I do believe that that opportunity is definitely coming.”