This is a story about visiting a South African township by bicycle, where people and life and answers to questions are up close and personal.
As we rode to the end of our visit, a big white van, way too clean, rolled passed us in almost slow-motion like you might expect in a movie. From the side windows, faces peered out, their eyes snagging on us. Others pressed cameras. They were touring the township from above, behind closed doors. They looked at us on our rickety bicycles, a tad perplexed.
We looked at them much the same way.
They were missing out.
South African Townships in Context
Up until our recent visit to South Africa, the word “township” for us always carried a negative connotation. Townships were the places where the then South African apartheid government dictated black South Africans should live segregated from the white community. Ghettos, basically. When townships made their way into the news — if memory serves — it was for protest and unrest.
What is life like in townships today, in the context of modern-day South Africa? And who lives there?
This is a glimpse of what we found in one of them, Cape Town’s Masiphumelele Township. It’s a taste of not only what the visit taught us about South Africa, but also a little bit of what it taught us about life.
Old Dutch Bikes on Township Streets
We met Zwai, our guide, in a yard of converted cargo ship containers. Each housed a workshop-meets-training center for local residents. The container he was affiliated with, one called Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN), focused on repairing bicycles donated from all over the world and offering them for rent. Two of the fleet, a couple of old Amsterdam throwbacks, would be ours for the afternoon.
Through roads paved and unpaved, we cycled. Some people shook our hands, gave us high fives. Many were just as curious about us as we were about them. I personally love the South African hand-shake of pressing thumbs to a snap!
The idea: use the bicycles to cover some ground, but take it in slowly.
Our first stop? Anything but slow. As we approached a local preschool, kids poured out and began chanting “Teach-ah! Teach-ah! Teach-ah!”
I don’t know if I am a teacher, but I’m apparently fun to climb on.
As we performed the service of human jungle gyms, we learned that because the center does not meet government requirements, it receives no public funding. A small group of women have their hands full with over 65 children. Parents, many of whom work far from the township in order to support their families, pay what they can.
The bicycle tour makes a stop here not only to give travelers an opportunity to goof off with crazy little kids, but also to provide some funding to help the center.
The Official and Not-So-Official Parts of Town
We rode through the established part of the township, past clinics, community centers and libraries. Impressive. Much a function of aid money, no doubt. I just hope that those in the community would remain vested, regardless of funding.
Zwai explained the ethnic contours of the township. Over eight languages are spoken (Zwai speaks around seven, not unusual in South Africa) and the community is made up of people from across the country and the rest of the continent. Somalis rent buildings from the South Africans and run the shops (“Somalis keep prices low, good shop keepers.”) while Nigerians are the hairdressers (“The Nigerians, they just do hair better than the rest of us.”).
Little details, they make our fascinating world tick.
Towards the edge of the “official” or registered part of the township, we put our bikes away and proceeded on foot through streets, alleys and backyards.
Houses shifted quickly from brick to corrugated tin. Services vanished. There was no sewerage service, no water system, only shared bathrooms and wells. No official electricity hook up either, though some “share” with those a few meters away who are fortunate enough to have it.
The stream running between these outer settlements was putrid, strewn with garbage. The distinct smell of waste, human and otherwise, battled with the runoff of laundry soap and blended just enough to penetrate the inner channels of one's nostrils with remarkable precision.
We crossed a small footbridge to an enclave of tin shacks. As the odor of the channel fell behind us, what began to strike me: kids in school uniforms, people walking by and saying hello.
Walkways were swept clean, homes were numbered, often colorfully painted – and stereotypes of poverty and life at the edge of a township faded into something simply human.
Beyond that, I witnessed something of surprising order, something that I can only imagine and hope that people are proud of. I peered into a couple of homes whose doorways were open, and I amazed by what I saw: tidy little existences in those shacks, everything in its right place. Pictures of family, makeshift music systems, maybe a TV, pillows, furniture, dishes, curios and memories. Residents here had carved out a dignified existence from which many of us could learn the lessons of limitation.
Sangoma: The Girl Haunted By Dreams
We reached the house of a local sangoma (the Zulu word for a traditional healer) named Maria.
“Ask me anything,” she said.
Not having the faintest idea what a sangoma really was, we took her up on the invitation.
“How does someone decide she’s going to be sangoma?” I asked
After all, she was so young. Aren't healers supposed to be old and wizened? She certainly didn’t appear to have the marks of wisdom. She didn’t quite look the role.
Maria told a story of how she began having dreams from about the time she was seven years old. The dreams seemed to foretell of events – good and bad – that would happen to people in the community. At the time, though, she had no idea what was going on. She put it out of her mind and never shared with her family what she was experiencing.
The dreams and visions continued — for nine years — until, as she describes, her body told her no more and she became really sick. Her family had no idea. Neither did the hospital; they couldn’t find anything wrong with her. Only after some family probing did she think to tell what was really going on.
Maria's mother, also a sangoma, explained the burdens and blessings of those dreams and Maria decided to pursue “the calling.” Seven years under her belt, she has a lifetime yet of learning ahead of her.
She also suspects her three-year old daughter of being a sangoma. “She just knows things about people she’s never met, but she isn’t old enough to understand what she should say and what she shouldn’t, especially if it’s something bad.”
Imagine your ESP-enabled three year-old neighbor, no social filter, sharing the visions she's having about you. Awkward. Funny. Kinda' creepy.
The Lesson of Emmanuel
As school let out, kids poured forth into the streets. Children, particularly ones in their school uniforms, will always give me hope. They are bright-eyed, purposeful. As I offered hellos, a few looked down shyly, but most looked me in the eye and offered greetings right back.
I like that.
As I rounded a corner reflecting on all this youth, all of what could be, I came across a man sitting on a stoop, a raised bit of sidewalk. Our eyes met, I nodded and said hello. To me, he looked like he belonged in a movie or a maybe even a band.
But there was something more, something deep in his eyes.
“Don’t worry about yesterday, be happy for today,” he offered.
I acknowledged his wisdom and rode past, thinking not to interrupt his day. Half a minute later, I said to Audrey, “Hold on. I have to go back.”
So I did, and I engaged the man, exchanging a few more pleasantries.
Eventually, he offered some context for what he'd said: his sister-in-law died the day before. Although he and his family grieved, he was thankful for what he had. He didn’t know when he might go either. So he aimed to be happy for every day that remained.
Reflections and Broken Stereotypes
Over lunch at a local restaurant – grilled chicken and pap (a puffy polenta-like white paste of ground maize/corn), we reflected on our experience.
What surprised us most?
How “ordinary” it all seemed, township life. People went about their days much as they would anywhere else – kids went to school, laundry was hung, people shopped, women went to the hairdresser, men to the barber. People lived, people died.
Historically, townships were places where black Africans were ordered to live segregated. Today, a township is a community — with local governance, schools, clinics, libraries, community centers and a range of socio-economies encompassing the poor and the better off.
Sure, there are still problems and challenges. No tour, bicycle or otherwise, will single-handedly fix that. After all, that’s life anywhere. With the legacy of apartheid, townships are still almost exclusively composed of black South Africans and employment-anxious immigrants from further up the continent. Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to fashion yourself into a beacon of racial integration.
But step back after just a couple of hours and a landscape of interactions and observations and you just might realize you’ve learned something.
As the big white van drove past us at the end of our half-day journey, Zwai noted: “This is how some of the other tour companies run township tours.”
“They make it seem like it is dangerous here. But you’ve seen how it is. How can you experience a place unless you are on the streets? This is why we are on bikes. Local people like it when they can talk with you.”
“We’re all humans here,” he said.
Indeed, we are all humans here.
Township Tours: What to Ask For, What to Look For
We understand there's some controversy surrounding township tours. Based on our own experiences in Cape Town and Soweto, they can be carried out respectfully. Township tours can also benefit the community financially and interpersonally by enabling human encounters and connections with people from all over the world.
Before you book a township tour, here's what we suggest you ask the tour company:
- Does the organization have a local partner from the township? Is the guide from the township?
- How is the money from the tour distributed in the community? Who benefits from the tours?
- What are the goals of the tour, both for the community and for the tourist?
- Does the tour involve lunch at a local restaurant or home? This isn't essential, but we find that sharing a meal is one of the effective ways to connect with people.
- How many people will be on the tour? We find that the larger the group, the more intimidating it is for locals to interact. Seek out a private tour or a small group.
Practical Details for Our Township Bicycle Tour of Masiphumelele
We booked our township experience with AWOL Tours based on a personal recommendation. All tours are private, so you don't have to worry about being lumped in a large group. They partner with BEN (Bicycle Empowerment Network). Approximately 80% of the money we paid stays in the community of Masiphumelele – proceeds going to the guide, sangoma, preschool, and restaurant. Cost: Prices start at R550-R650 per person. Our tour cost R760 ($80) per person, including lunch. This excludes transport to Masiphumelele. We had a rental car so we drove ourselves.
Disclosure: We received an educational/media discount of 50%.