"Do you hear that?" I ask my friend. "No. What? I don’t hear anything," he replies, somewhat perplexed, which is not an unusual state for him to be in. "Exactly! No sirens, no violence, no tortured cries. Peace!"
I’m a cynic. Twenty years in journalism will do that to you. So when I heard that a so-called township tour was afoot, I balked at the thought. Mainly for two reasons: firstly the idea of gawking at poor fellow South Africans like zoo animals in their own back-yard is one of the most vile, invasive things I could imagine. Secondly, a tour of the world’s most impoverished shanty towns with a good chance of being robbed blind and perhaps knifed and shot to death, has incomprehensibly not yet found its way onto my bucket list.
But as we stand outside in the cold night air in the township of Kaymandi on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, red wine in hand getting a fresh air break from the warm, comforting dinner (with on-going courses!) inside, I am struck by an epiphany.
The tour started at about 5:30 p.m. on a bitterly cold winter’s early evening. Smoke lazily curled from the chimneys of houses as night slowly descended and street lights went on in the gloom. The smell of wood burning fires made the cold considerably less though. Dogs were barking, children playing in the streets and people came and went and greeted neighbors in the usual parade of humanity in this smallish town with its 60,000 residents. Satellite TV dishes are situated precariously and prominently on top of shacks and new and old cars are parked side by side in tiny drive-ways.
Kayamandi, meaning "nice home" in Xhosa one of the country’s 11 official languages, is a poor suburb (or township) of Stellenbosch, about an hour’s drive outside Cape Town in South Africa. The township was founded in the early 1950s as part of the increased segregation during the apartheid regime and as the second oldest in South Africa so much rich history hides here. Our tour leader is the hilariously funny, charismatic and colorful Tembi who has more than 16 years’ experience as a guide here and she is also a local. "This is my story and the story of my community," she tells us at the beginning of the tour.
She told us about the history of the town (formally established in 1941) and regaled us with tales about local customs, including lobola (which is still practiced today and refers to the local barter system for a bride). In between all this she chatted to the locals and when I asked her if she was married, her response was: "No! I need a rich husband! I can’t be THIS pretty and still cook!" Yes. She speaks loudly...
Since we’d arrived after hours, one of the first things we came across was an old shipping container on the side of the road that had been converted into a hairdresser’s salon with two doors and a fold-down window, now closed. We carried on at a slow pace down the myriad of streets with its cheerful residents and we were joined by illustrious company in the form of the South African Shadow Minister for Tourism James Vos, who took ample advantage of photo opportunities with the locals. In the meantime I chatted with young Spanish volunteers who help the community by painting houses, repairing work spaces and just generally learning about a way of life totally foreign to their own. Tembi pointed out the library building as well.
What struck me most on this walk was my level of complete comfort and also the fact that this tour has nothing to do with "victimhood." It is fascinating, interesting and entertaining and nobody here feels sorry for themselves.
Off the beaten track
The entire initiative was organized by an NGO called Route 360, located in Stellenbosch. The objective of the route is to take travelers off the usual tourist track, away from the wine lands and into the colorful communities nestled in the towering mountains of this picturesque part of South Africa. Route 360 links the splendors of the Stellenbosch wine lands with the communities existing on the outskirts.
The route allows both domestic and international visitors to select from inspirational and innovative cultural experiences, designed to showcase the abundance of the people’s inherent talent and natural resources. We walked through the streets past brick houses and slipped through muddy gaps in-between the shacks. We passed by a group of people who were roasting meat of unknown origin on an open fire.
Our tour ended at Mama’s house for dinner, where we were welcomed by the most adorable singing and dancing children.
Inside was a huge fire in the hearth besides a long table laden with wine, home-made ginger beer and soft drinks. Mama welcomed us warmly and then the food came. Vetkoek (a type of local fried doughnut) with home-made apricot jam as the first course is simply the best I have ever had in my life. And this is where you find us, getting fresh air outside and marveling at the richness of our diverse culture in South Africa.
Back inside, every course is explained by our hostess in the most delightful local parlance and turn of phrase and has us all laughing. I have seldom felt such camaraderie. For the main course, lovely baked chicken is devoured by all with relish, accompanied by traditional marog (a spinach dish), pumpkin and mieliepap (a corn dish).
After dinner two of our hostesses, who are related by marriage, show us the symbolism of the traditional wedding dress. Every fabric, piece of jewelry and color has meaning on the wedding garment and it is incredibly informative.
Dinner is concluded by a traditional dessert called malva pudding and then we spontaneously go around the table with our new friends, saying what the experience meant to us. There was hardly a dry eye in the house...
As Mama said it so philosophically: "There is an old African saying. ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’"
Do NOT miss this tour in South Africa - it will change you forever.
Tour will take approximately 3.5 hours
Daily departures Monday to Saturday at 10:00, evening tours by arrangement only.
Pick-up and drop-off in central Stellenbosch - transfers can be arranged from Cape Town at an additional cost
R650 per person for the full tour, R480 per person for the shorter tour.
- Minimum 2 participants
- Maximum 10 participants
Included in the Tour:
- Transport from Stellenbosch to Kayamandi Township
- Walking tour with a registered local guide
- An insider’s viewpoint from your locally born and bred Xhosa guide
- The opportunity to meet local entrepreneurs and artists
- Learning about the exciting community development projects
- Visiting a spaza shop
- Enjoying an authentic Xhosa lunch or dinner in a family home, incorporating various meat and vegetable dishes
- If time allows, helping to prepare the meal
- Tasting home-made ginger beer (non-alcoholic)
- Tasting mieliepap - a cornmeal staple of Xhosa cuisine
- Enjoying the host’s delightful stories while you share a meal with the locals.
Air China outbound flights to Johannesburg in South Africa operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, with return services from Johannesburg offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Flights will departs from Beijing at 23:15 Beijing time, and arrive in Johannesburg at 7:35 local time on the following day. The inbound flight departs from Johannesburg at 11:50 local time and arrives in Beijing at 7:30 Beijing time.
Go to: http://www.airchina.com.cn/en/
There are many daily local flights to Cape Town daily.