Township, barrio, ghetto, slum. These are descriptions that can strike a deep chord when we hear them. These places embody poverty and hardship.

Naturally, many explorers want to see all aspects of a place, including where a conflict began. When enough time has passed, this can be appropriate. It can represent a part of the history and culture of a place (think WWII battlegrounds). But the desire to see a place like a slum can be problematic. For one, these are people’s homes. They are living breathing communities.  “Slum tourism” has become increasingly popular over the years forcing tourism professionals to ask, who is this type of tourism benefiting? Going to these areas can feel like you are gawking at people worse off than you. Is visiting a slum a way of flaunting your privilege? In short, yes. It can feel like you are exploiting poverty.

That said, there are times when this type of experience can be uplifting to a community. If they have embraced it and have parlayed it into a place of empowerment, it can be beneficial. Ask yourself before you visit what your motivations are and if the tour operator you are booking with is truly working with the community to build it up. This type of touristry provides a chance to see a different side of a city that’s not all cocktails and beaches.

Teacher and student outside the Koketso Day Care.

One of the most popular places to visit to participate in this kind of travel is in South Africa. Many people come to explore Johannesburg’s townships. Townships typically refer to underdeveloped urban areas that were reserved for non-white residents during the Apartheid era. They are usually built on the fringes of the towns and cities and have poor water, sewage, and infrastructure. Some areas of the township are so crowded that the houses are stacked on top of each other. Many families live in one room together and share a community outhouse.

Though they have had their challenges, there is a lot to celebrate about the townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Particularly, the township of Alexandra, in the  Gauteng province of South Africa. Visionary leader, Nelson Mandela rented his first room from John Madzeka Xhoma when he moved to Joburg in the 1940’s. The home is a hot spot when visiting the region because of Mandela’s revolutionary life. Beyond the historical significance, there are several community members who are shaping the future and setting out to show that there is more to the township than meets the eye.

 

Photo credit: BUVHI group

Alexandra Tours by African Public Bike (also known as BUVHI Tours) was started by entrepreneur Jeffrey Mulaudzi. Born and raised in the township, he felt it was important to showcase the unique character and spirit of his home. In 2010 he started the business as Mulaudzi Alexandra Tours. Jeff was showing his friends around the township by bicycle and word started to spread that Jeff’s tours were a lot of fun. Today visitors from all over the world hop on a bike with Jeff or one of his tour guides and peddle around to some of the most authentic spots in the township.

 

The tour does not shy away from the hardships that Alex residents face, rather it is shown with reverence for the people. Some pockets of the township are harder than others and guests get a glimpse of that. The tour guide helps guests understand how the townships came to be and how many are still struggling to break beyond the stigma of living in a township. But it also shares the bright spots of living there.

Some highlights of the tour are a stop at a shoe shop called, Walk Clean. The owners of the store aren’t exactly selling shoes, instead, they have a shoe cleaning business with a mission! The concept is to not only keep shoes clean but to encourage residents in the area to keep the streets clean. The store almost feels like a shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with its bright white sneakers lining the walls and the hip-hop music playing from the stereo. The owners are friendly and enthusiastic. Their entrepreneurial spirit has brought them far and they shared how they have dreams of making their business global. and You can follow them on Instagram at @walk_clean.

Walk Clean Store

 

Ikasi is a smallish gym facility has a lot of heart and soul. The owner is another example of someone who wants to see those in the neighborhood living out their full potential. This is shown by the strength training and dedication to body building, but also through their community programs. The owner, South African gold medallist Tumi Masite, built the gym and has continued to create a space for Alex residents to thrive. They have a program for the elderly and a school outreach program. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Masite is also a painter and creates colorful works of art depicting African folklore.

“IKASI GYM HAS BECOME A SAFE HAVEN FOR EVERYONE IN THE COMMUNITY TO ACHIEVE THEIR PERSONAL GOALS REGARDING THEIR LIVES AND FITNESS. FOR OTHERS IT’S A PERFECT PASTIME WHILST DOING SOMETHING CONSTRUCTIVE, OTHERS IS A SAFE SPACE AWAY FROM DRUGS AND OTHER HARMFUL THINGS/ACTS, FOR OTHERS IT’S A MUST BE PLACE FOR THEIR ULTIMATE FITNESS ACHIEVEMENTS, A HEALING PROCESS IT IS FOR OTHERS AND FOR OTHERS IT’S A PLACE OF WORK (MEMBERS WHO AMBITION TO BECOME MR. UNIVERSE)”. – Ikasi Gym

Misty with Ikasi owner, Tumi Masite.

The tour traipses along past the migrant hostels, a local pre-school, Nelson Mandela’s home, and finally, ends at a local shebeen (pub). There you enjoy a traditional South African meal, Mala Mogudu. Mogodu is a derivative of tripe served as a stew with hot pap.

Alex is unique and thriving. Most people choose to visit Soweto when visiting a Joburg township, but Alex has a lot of life and deserves more attention. They have hip clubs, delicious food, street markets, a rich arts scene, and more. If you choose to visit, just remember  (as always) to be respectful of the people. You are a guest in their home and acting like one goes a long way.

Mural of Nelson Mandela at the Alex Cultural Center.

Here are some of our tips for putting your best foot forward when visiting:

  1. Buy something- the community see’s a direct benefit from this.
  2. Pick the right tour company- does this tour operator treat the community with respect and are the members of the community directly benefiting from the tour?
  3. Make sure your guide is local.
  4. Check your intentions- don’t go to gawk. Go to learn something.
  5. Ask before taking pictures.
  6.  Smile and have fun! Don’t assume that because you are visiting impoverished areas that the people lead miserable lives. Most of them are totally happy and doing wonderful things. Of course, show reverence when appropriate, but don’t treat everyone you encounter as if they are leading horrible lives. At the end of the day, we all want to be treated like humans.
  7. Wave at the kids. They love it and want to interact with you.

Other recommended tours in Alexandra:

  1. Cocktails & Culinary Delicacies with Tour 2.0.
  2. Maboneng Township Arts Experience

 

Misty is the owner and founder of Green Suitcase Travel. She is a consultant, travel writer, and all around travel maven. When she is not traversing the world, spreading the news about sustainable travel, she is in Tucson, Arizona enjoying the desert.