Soweto

I am lucky enough to have spent January 2013 traveling with my family around southern Africa. South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Admittedly, I didn’t plan to keep a blog of this trip. But the more we did and the more we saw, the more convinced I became that Phoebe Abroad still has life left in it. Sure, I’m a month or two late, but here goes…

Our African adventure began in Johannesburg, where we landed after more than 24 hours of traveling. We fought the urge to sleep through the day and instead set off on a four hour bike tour of Soweto.

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Our group’s bikes in Soweto while we took a stop.

Soweto, an acronym for South West Townships, is an area of Johannesburg known for its segregation of colored people until only a few decades ago. Indeed, ingrained in its history is the struggle against apartheid. We cycled through different parts of the town, some better off than others, and each one with a unique character.

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Anything goes in Africa. Kids riding in the back of a ute.

Along the way, we would stop and our guide would feed us information about Soweto’s history as well as the way it is today. We had the opportunity to don some traditional attire, and try some locally brewed beer.

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Learning about the Soweto culture from our guide.

There were a few things over the course of the day which really made an impression. Notably, in some parts of Soweto it appears that people are living in squalor. The ‘houses’ are tin sheds which are scattered around a dirty expanse. Dilapidated structures, rubbish everywhere, no proper sewage system – what you call an eye-opener for Western holiday makers like us.

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Typical Soweto

But what was especially interesting was how happy and friendly the people were. Everybody we encountered said hello and welcomed us. Children were especially enthusiastic, often chasing us and wanting to shake our hands and be photographed with us. They were very cute.

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This little guy was a star.

They took us to a ‘restaurant’ in this part of town, which was little more than a fly-blown tin shed with a few tables. Admittedly I was relieved to announce that I was vegetarian and could not part take in this particular repast. I was even more relived when moments later we encountered the ‘butcher’ – a wheelbarrow of uncooked meat being attacked by flies under 30-degree sun. Fortunately – perhaps miraculously – those in my family who did eat the cow cheeks (the delicacy we were offered) stayed in good health.

Later along the tour we visited the Hector Pieterson memorial, dedicated to a young teenager who became an icon in South Africa’s history. A news photograph depicts him being carried, dying, having been shot by police who opened fire on protesting students. This event is commonly known as the Soweto Uprising, and is key in apartheid history. Close by is the Hector Pieterson museum, which we did not have the chance to visit, but I’m told it is worthwhile.

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The Hector Pieterson Memorial

We also saw where Nelson Mandela used to live, and where Desmond Tutu lived in the same street. Apparently it’s the only street in the world which has housed two Nobel Prize winners. I have a bit of a fondness for Desmond Tutu because he was an alumni of the university I went to in London. Hearing about him brought back memories of time spent at Tutu’s, the bar at King’s College named in his honour.

It was a thoroughly stimulating day, both mentally and physically. Perhaps a few too many inclines, but we coped. On the drive back to our hotel, we saw a soccer stadium where World Cup matches were played – more of interest to the males in the family, but aesthetically it was cool nonetheless. We glimpsed the Johannesburg city skyline, including the tallest building in Africa. Although we didn’t go into the city itself, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything spectacular. Having said that, it was interesting for me to be in Johannesburg, because a couple of my closest friends were born there. Now I can say I’ve been to their home country.

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FNB Stadium

On our one night in Johannesburg I did something I haven’t done since I was a young child – and was thrilled to be able to do. I slept through new year’s eve. Seeing as we had come off the plane at 6.30am and stuck out the entire day, we were exhausted.

The next morning we flew to Botswana to begin our Safari. More to come of course.

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