Looking at world-traveler Lola Akinmade Åkerström's life trajectory—from boarding school in Nigeria to the University of Maryland (she graduated with an M.Sc. and worked in the United States for 12 years) then on to Sweden (when true love enters the picture and her life becomes a self-initiated multifaceted success story)—the phrase that jumps to mind is “what a woman.”
It is clear from the diverse and numerous achievements notched up by this award-winning travel writer-blogger-photographer-author-entrepreneur—not to forget wife and mother—that for her, “a glass ceiling,” even as a concept, does not exist.
She will tell you that at age 15, which is when she left the “tough” Lagos boarding school that “helped shape the independent, resilient person I am today” for college in the U.S., she never imagined, let alone could have mapped, her journey to date, so jaw-dropping has it been.
She describes it as going “from a young girl with audacious dreams to being a photographer with National Geographic and writing a bestselling book about Swedish culture, with so many wins (and losses) in between.” Her just-published second book—of writings and photography inspired by her travels—is getting great press.
One thing she was always sure of, she says, is that “I wanted travel to be a part of my lifestyle.”
To this end, Åkerström has had many amazing experiences—from blackwater rafting in New Zealand to chasing Northern Lights in Lapland, hot-air ballooning over the Serengeti, sailing with icebergs in Greenland, dog-sledding in Sweden and Finland and many more.
“I would say spending time in Mauritius and Seychelles on assignment for Four Seasons was extra special because I was able to take my family with me. They got to see me on assignment and I got to see the world through their eyes too,” the effervescent dynamo says.
To date, Åkerström has visited “roughly 70 countries” and written about or photographed many of them.
Breaking Through Prejudice
Not that she’s counting. “Travel, for me, is not a race to conquer as many countries as possible during my lifetime. It’s about being an open-minded sponge to not only respectfully soak up other cultures, but to also squeeze some of myself and my culture out in return. To foster understanding, break down bias, and breakthrough prejudices.”
Prejudice being something she experienced herself when traveling, many moons ago, on a Nigerian passport. She writes about this in the introduction to her new book, “Due North: A collection of travel observations, reflections, and snapshots across colors, cultures, and continents.” It didn’t cloud her travel vision. Just made her more resilient.
Åkerström, after completing her master’s degree in information systems in Maryland, worked for 12 years as a geographic information system programmer and system architect.
So how did she get to switch hats and transition from something desk-bound and technical to writing about and photographing the world?
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Love and Marriage
The seed, she says, was planted when she volunteered with an expedition race in Fiji. Her job was to write stories and dispatches from the field and share them online.
While on assignment, the penny dropped. She realized she could potentially earn a living traveling and writing. As a keen oil painter, she was already taking photos while on her travels; images to paint when she got home. “After a while, I realized the photos could stand on their own and started exploring photography as a medium of expression.”
Meanwhile, she had fallen in love with a Swedish guy “and since my career at the time was more mobile than his,” they’d decided to move to Sweden when they married.
It was 10 years ago that she took the leap into the virtual unknown; writing, photography, traveling and writing about it. And having unleashed her entrepreneurial streak, she added various travel-related collaborative social media and marketing-related projects.
Then came the two books. And if you’re going to Sweden, be sure to check out her web magazine, Slow Travel Stockholm, where she is editor-in-chief.
Nigeria and Sweden Spliced
This year Åkerström turned 40. One might have thought, living in Sweden, married to someone “wonderful and dashing” who is also “the world's most private man, so I don't publicly share a lot of information about my private life or our kids, out of respect for him,” she would have developed an out-of-sight, out of mind attitude to her heritage. But no. She is proudly African and seamlessly and happily splices the Nigerian and Swedish elements.
If you look online at her wonderful website cum blog where she shares her thoughts and focuses on “exploring culture through food, tradition, and lifestyle,” she has a “Reflections on Turning 40” post. It involves a “fashion” shoot that she says is something people do in Nigeria to mark this transition.
“It’s a tradition I once laughed at and classed as cheesy. But the older I got, the more I appreciated why we Nigerians do these and now realize that those photo shoots are a physical manifestation of gratitude. Of taking stock of our blessings and trials in life and sharing with the world that we’re still standing tall through God’s grace.”
She acknowledges Sweden and Nigeria couldn't be more culturally different. “I come from a culture that’s very sensory and which celebrates every single day—the fact that we’re still alive—with lots of noise and merriment, with vigor, and with random festivities. This means I try to live each day as vividly and richly as possible.”
Food, Lifestyle and “Lagom”
She relishes the fact that as a writer who “loves exploring culture through food, tradition, and lifestyle”—and also someone who has lived on three continents with very distinct cultures —“I am privileged to be able to pick and choose the very best bits of each culture, and create the ideal lifestyle for me.”
For example, she says, “I love the fact we Nigerians love to celebrate and are a festive bunch. I also love the part of the Swedish mindset that keeps unnecessary boasting to a minimum (the subject of her best-selling first book, “Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well.”) And then I love that go-getting American confidence.”
When it comes to food and the culinary arts and what she likes to eat and photograph, Åkerström is upbeat and clear. “Since my career beat is exploring culture, food is one of the quickest keys into any culture,” she affirms.
“I love to cook. And I love carefully crafted food, especially slow gastronomy and farm-to-table or sea-to-table experiences. From spending time with makers of cheese, balsamic vinegar, and Parma ham in Emilia Romagna in Italy to going behind the scenes with chefs all over the world.”
Her favorite Swedish food? “That would be gravadlax (cured, not smoked salmon) with yellow almond potatoes and a tangy mustard sauce called gravlaxsås.”
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Her favorite Nigerian food? “It’s a thick green Efik-tribe stew that smells like freshly cut grass and is called Afang.”
Bon appetit! Or as they say in Sweden, Smaklig måltid!