Friday, 12 July 2013

Soweto Bike Tour

Hello South Africa! After an 18-hour flight, we arrived in Johannesburg at 5:30pm June 4th, 24 hours after we had left Dulles, and hopped on a bus to head to Soweto where we’d be spending our next three days. Soweto is a township southwest of Johannesburg (hence so-we-to). We spent our first three nights at Lebo’s Backpackers, a hostel where we slept 6 and 8 to a room. The close quarters provided for a crash course of getting to know everyone and any sort of group awkwardness was resolved in those first three days. We didn’t waste a minute to start learning about South Africa because the next morning after flying in, we took a bike tour of Orlando West, the neighborhood that Lebo’s Backpackers is in. That morning, exhausted and jet-lagged, we hopped on our rickety bikes (or hopped in our tuk-tuk), strapped on our helmets and set out to learn the history of West Orlando. After starting our bike ride up the hardest hill of the day, we stopped at the top to rest and look out over the rest of Orlando West as well as Orlando East and over towards the mine dumps that blocked the view of Johannesburg. There we were introduced to Soweto and all of its culture and pride. Our tour guides began by performing the official song of Orlando West that we all know as The Circle of Life. The song was originally written and created by a man from Orlando West and he sold the song to a man in New York who adapted it and placed it in the opening scene of The Lion King. The opening of the song is in isiZulu, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages and the mother tongue of the province Guateng where Johannesburg is. Our tour guides then proceeded to teach us a few isiZulu words that would allow us to greet people. One way to say hello is sanibonani and the response is yebo. We were also taught that if someone says “shoot me” there are asking for their picture to be taken and it is custom to show them the picture you had taken of them.
Our tour guide holding the traditional beer
Cow cheek and pap

From there we continued through a middle class area of Orlando West comprised of modest brick or plaster houses. We then proceeded to the poorest part of Orlando West and got our first experience of what a township is and the poverty and wealth disparities that South Africa faces. In this area, many people live in metal shacks and make use of communal taps for water and communal bathrooms where there are only six to a street and the sewage creates streams within the dirt streets. Yet despite the poor living conditions, everyone was welcoming and there many instances where I was able to put my newly learned Zulu to use. While there, we were introduced to shebeens, a small hut that illegally sold alcohol during apartheid years, but now is just used as a place to hang out and drink. We were given the chance to go inside and try their local homebrewed beer. Before leaving, those of us who were willing, tried their local delicacy, cow cheek. They serve it with salt and paprika and a corn porridge called pap. All I have to say is thank goodness for the beer that they had to wash down the meat.
Hector Peterson Memorial -
Hector is the boy being carried by a fellow classmate

We then continued on to one of South Africa’s major landmarks of history, the Hector Peterson Memorial. On June 16th, 1976 students in Soweto peacefully marched to protest the use of Afrikaans, a language of apartheid, as a teaching medium in schools because black students did not speak Afrikaans. The students met resistance by police and it quickly escalated to violence. Students were shot by the police and this is where the famous picture of Hector Peterson, a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed, came from. Today, June 16th is a national holiday and is called Youth Day and students within Soweto wear their school uniforms to show their respect for those who stood up to the apartheid regime. Our tour guide had told us that he was planning on wearing his old school uniform on that day. Hearing the story of apartheid from someone who was too young to experience it highlighted how deep these issues are and that they are still affecting our generation today.
Nelson Mandela House
          We ended our bike tour by riding through the main road of Orlando West and seeing the houses of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Orlando West, Soweto is the only place in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived on the same street. Nelson Mandela lived in his Orlando West home from 1946 and into the 1990s before becoming president. Mandela’s home is now a museum for those to visit and learn about the history of him and his family. Desmond Tutu’s house, just a few blocks down from Mandela’s, is still a private residence with some of his family members living there.
            After only a few hours on our bikes, we had learned an incredible amount of history and the legacies of Soweto and specifically Orlando West. Despite the hills and a good amount of physical exertion less than 24 hours after landing in Johannesburg, the bike tour was the perfect way to be introduced to South Africa. I’m glad that we weren’t eased into the drastic cultural differences between the states and South Africa. I think that if we had visited Soweto after Cape Town or even after we visited the museums in Johannesburg, our experience would have been different in that we would have already been partially sensitized to the disparities in South Africa. Taking the bike tour the first day we were there gave me the opportunity to immediately experience the culture shock and go through the feelings of being lost, disbelief, and awe as well as anger that people have no choice but to live in these conditions. I think it’s still something many of us still struggle with when visiting and working in the townships in Cape Town, however it’s inspiring to see the camaraderie and hospitality that people who live in townships have with each other and visitors.

Street in the township

Written by Amanda Masse

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