When most people go to the city of Johannesburg 4 hours down south of Gaborone, it’s to frolic in the huge malls and exchange some hard earned cash for that which their heart desires. Rarely, if at all, do people go there to visit the slums and understandably so, they’re not exactly a holiday destination.
Like every urban city, Jozi has it’s good and bad sides. I can literally get lost on those long pristine highways which yes I do concur are better than most roads in Malawi, the entertainment is varied and plentiful, the vibrancy of the city is addictive and it’s always alive with energy and promise. It is one of Africa’s holiday (and economic) meccas and has something for everyone.
On my trip to Jozi with a group of exchange students, they were given a chance to see a few of the many faces of the city. In a previous post I detailed our visit to Nelson Mandela’s former home in Soweto which is now a museum. Just before that stop, we had visited the affluent part of Soweto and as we drove deeper into the township we were introduced to one of the many informal settlements.
A tour guide hired by our lodge took us on a short walk through an area called Motsoaledi and introduced us to some of the residents. Now for my fellow travel buddies it was an eye opening experience, though I’m sure they have seen poverty in some shape or form in their own countries, I doubt it was quite like this.
They asked lots of questions and wanted to understand the forces that brought such settlements into existence. I on the other hand felt guilty. Guilty that I am black, they are black and we live completely different lives. Now if I had gone to that area casually with other black people, no one would have looked twice at us. But because I was with a group of Caucasians I felt a little distanced from it all.
Granted I can not make poverty disappear on my own, let alone in another country, and the reasons why people live there are varied but I still felt some responsibility. I didn’t want to ask too many questions or take too many photos because I felt like I was disrespecting them. And having just seen the rich neighborhoods across the road, it made the experience that much worse. But I understand the immunity one develops against such places after seeing them often. They just become part of the landscape. I would be lying if I said there aren’t similar places in my home country of Malawi that I too had developed a blindness towards.
The people we came across were extremely friendly and the children followed us everywhere. We could see they were quite accustomed to getting guests because they posed for pictures with ease and eagerly spoke as much English as they could muster.
The guide told us they had a strict policy of not encouraging begging so if we wanted to give them something, we would have to buy food or fruits instead. They made a very orderly line and waited patiently as we handed out oranges and sweets that we bought.
Some of the shacks were painted to bring some levity to the dreary surroundings of the area. One that was particularly eye catching had Nelson Mandela’s face on it, I’m sure it has made it to a lot of tourists cameras. We were taken into one of the shacks and met a young lady whose name I have forgotten. She washed dishes while the guide introduced her and gave a bit of her family background: she shared the humble shack with a family of 4, was attending the University of Johannesburg and is studying to become a lawyer. She answered our questions with a smile and took all the “you’re really pretty” compliments with a shy “thank you”.
The guide also mentioned how the community does try to help themselves by doing small things to improve their living conditions. For example, they had put some money together to get a tap with running water installed on their street which all the residents used and they also had a little day care for the under 5 children so that they weren’t aimlessly running around all day.
Due to the miserable weather, we didn’t venture too far and soon returned to the warmth of the minibus we were being taken around in. As we headed to our next stop which was Nelson Mandela’s home on Vilakazi street, I wondered if our oft greedy and corrupt officials in high positions ever feel that guilt when they leave their giant estates to visit similar locations – but that’s a discussion for another day. One always leaves such places with an urge to do something, anything, to change the situation. Hopefully one day, I’ll get to do just that.
See more pics below…