One of my good friends here, Annie, chose to celebrate turning 27 by getting a group together to spend 4 hours touring Soweto on a bicycle. Soweto, short for South Western Townships, is the largest township in South Africa. It is located just on the outskirts of Johannesburg and just over an hours drive from Pretoria.
Official townships and informal settlements formed during the apartheid era when black people living in designated “white only” areas were required to move into segregated townships. Official townships are mostly composed of government housing built specifically for the purpose of providing affordable accommodation for black workers during apartheid.
Informal settlements, or shanty towns, often spring up beside the townships. Dwellings in shanty town sections look like they could be made up of almost anything, but are usually constructed out of a combination of wood, metal, and cardboard boxes.
When Willa and Elizabeth came to visit we drove to Soweto but avoided going into any of the shanty town sections because, without an official guide, safety was a concern. The Soweto bike tour was fantastic because it allowed you the opportunity to experience the community first hand. We were able to learn about the history of the township and how people live on a daily basis through people who have resided in Soweto their entire lives.
Soweto Bicycle Tours operates out of Lebos Soweto Backpackers, a hostel located in Soweto. You have the option to do a 2 hour, 4 hour, or all day bicycle tour. We arrived at Lebos, paid the fee for the four-hour tour and picked out a bike. I really could not pinpoint the last time I actually rode a bicycle prior to this event so it was a little nerve-wracking at first wondering if I could even do it, but the saying “just like riding a bike” holds true and I had no issues (with the exception of being pretty sore afterwards!).
We biked to an overlook a short distance from Lebos and listened to a short history of the township. We introduced ourselves and then the guide explained some of the things we might see or experience on the tour. She mentioned that kids would bombard us and would want to give high fives or “catch a ride” and climb onto our bikes, which she warned us not to allow. She also taught us how to say “sawubona,” which means “hello” in Zulu, one of the official South African languages, often spoken in Soweto.
Two boys pretended to shoot at us and said “Give me your money” which was a little unnerving but the majority of the kids were really sweet and just wanted high fives.
We biked into the shanty town section first and headed to a local shebeen to taste home-brewed maize and sorghum beer (yes, this was the first stop on a four hour bicycle tour). Traditionally, shebeens (although many are now legal) were brew houses where alcohol was sold with a license or permit. We learned that traditionally women brewed the beer for the shebeen and she was known as the Shebeen Queen. We got to act out the ritual of the Shebeen Queen presenting her home-brew to her husband for approval. If the husband approves of the beer then everyone gets to taste it. The birthday girl got to be the queen for the day and had to present “her” beer to one of her husbands (Brant got to be one of the husbands). It was interesting because we all had to taste it out of the same wooden bowl. This was a large group of Americans and we were all hesitant about the cleanliness of the situation, but in the end I felt like I had to try it. We went for the experience and now I can safely say that I tried it and fortunately sharing a cup with a large group of people didn’t cause me to get sick afterwards. The beer was made with maize and sorghum so it had a very different flavor than the types of beers I prefer.
Next we biked over to a restaurant where they had us try cow cheek with pap (a local corn meal dish that has a consistency somewhere in between grits and mashed potatoes). We were given more (non shebeen) beer to wash it down and again had to share with each other. Surprisingly, I thought the cow cheek was decent. It was really salty and didn’t taste bad at all.
After that, we biked past government apartments that were built in the shanty town but have remained unoccupied for 5 years. These were fully furnished accommodations but the rents were too high for people and nobody can afford to rent them. Rather than lower the rents, the government has been letting them sit empty. We were all surprised that the buildings have been empty for so long and had not been extremely vandalized you would see a broken window here or there but she explained that the residents were feeling very frustrated having to look at these empty homes with no hope of ever residing there. She hoped after the election the government would try to work something out so people could move have better places to live.
We biked past a school and learned about how despite knowing how important education is, the teen pregnancy rate is so high that the graduation rate is embarrassingly low. In South Africa parents must pay tuition to send their children to school. The public schools are subsidized by the government, but there is still a portion that must be paid by the parent in order for the child to attend. All schools also require a uniform that must be supplied by the parent. In extreme cases, the government will supply one uniform for the child. Even the subsidized fees can present a real challenge to parents trying to educate their children with the unemployment rate so staggering. It is another reason the graduation rate is so low. One of the interesting things we learned here was that the 2011 census estimated the population just shy of 1.3 million people. Our tour guide told us that more accurate population estimate is around 3 million people. A 2 million people population discrepancy is a strange thought.
Then we headed over to the Hector Pieterson museum (the museum we visited when Willa and Elizabeth were in town). The bike tour does not take you inside, but the guide summarizes the history of the Soweto uprising and the events surrounding Pieterson being shot and killed.
For the last stop, we biked over towards Sowetos version of Beverly Hills, where you can view the homes of Nobel prize winners Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu on the same street. The bike tour does not take you inside the Mandela house, but it is open for tours. You can see the outside of Desmond Tutus house, which is never open for tours as a family member resides in the house. The area is very vibrant with many restaurants and street performers.
Finally, we headed back to Lebos and they served us bunny chow. My camera died at this point but I found a picture online of what we ate:
The bike tour was without a doubt one of my favorite experiences so far. The tour went above and beyond to showcase food, famous people and attractions, school situations, government issues the community still deals with, and how apartheid still affects them. The tour took you through the town riding in traffic and people, which some novice riders may find a little intimidating, but I felt added to the experience.
Love from South Africa! xoxoxo