SOWETO: THE FRIENDLY “SHOOT ME” & DEFYING GRAVITY

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on July 21, 2011 with No Comments

This was my last day, actually the last hours, of my adventure. I had six hours to explore Soweto and bungee jump before heading to the airport.

Soweto is an urban area of Johannesburg.Every time I told someone who have been in South Africa that I would stay in Soweto, they would raise their eyebrows.

Although a very historical place, many people perceive Soweto as a poor and dangerous neighborhood.

Why would I go there then?

I am a strong believer that each place has its own beauty. Therefore, I strive to find that beauty everywhere I go.

Soweto

Soweto (abbreviation for South Western Townships) played a key role for the freedom of South Africa. It was the home of anti-Apartheid political activists and South Africa’s greatest leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Robert Sobukwe. The Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko originated here in 1970, leading to the fall of the Apartheid regime.

If I wanted to learn something about South Africa’s history and South Africa’s today, there was no better place to experience South Africa than Soweto.

I was also very moved when I read about Soweto Backpacker’s founder Lebo, and very interested in exploring Soweto in a different way. His now famous biking tour seemed like the perfect fit for what I was looking for.

The friendly kids welcoming visitors

“The biking tour leaves at 10am,” said the girl at the reception. “Which one are you taking? Two hours or four hours?” she asked.

My flight back to the United States was scheduled for 6:45pm. I had to be at the airport at 4:45pm. I started making math and it seemed that –although tight- I would be able to do the four hours-biking tour and do the bungee jump before leaving to the airport.

“Could you please let Isaac know that I will go straight from the Orlando Towers to the airport?” I said to the girl.

“OK,” she said.

I went outside to hang out in the park owned by Soweto Backpackers. I met with Sheldon and Jeffrey, both Soweto natives. They were in their early twenties and worked at the hostel.

Sheldon rapping

Sheldon danced and rapped in the middle of the street while Jeffrey laughed.

“I am proud to say I am South African. Soweto is very friendly. Most people think that if they come to Soweto things are going to happen, but it is different. You can’t judge a place if you have never been there. People here like to have people from other countries around,” Sheldon said to me.

“There is this perception that they (in Soweto) are going to put on a gun on you to robe you, but you can be robbed in any place in the world. Honestly, it is not how it is in here in reality. People are very friendly,” Jeffrey defended his home.

Soweto’s population is mostly black. All different ethnic groups coexist peacefully (Zulu, Venda, Tsonga, Tswana) and all different languages are spoken.

“I am Zulu and I am learning now three more languages,” said Sheldon.

“I am Venda. My ancestors are probably from Zimbabwe. I speak six (languages),” explained Jeffrey.

Although they seemed similar to me, it was clear to me on my first visit to Johannesburg 12 days earlier that although there are equal rights by law, racial differences are still being talked about among South Africans.

“Let’s check your bike,” said Jeffrey. He was going to be one of the guides of the biking tour.

There were other seven guests of Soweto Backpackers taking the biking tour: David, the Californian I met the night before, a young teacher from UK and her partner from France, and other four young French tourists.

With Eyama, Poloko and Jeffrey

“My name is Poloko Nthako. This is Eyama Entoloko and this is Jeffrey Ralubuvhi Mulaudzi, his name means Freedom in Zulu. We are going to be your guides. If you have any questions, please ask,” said Poloko. He looked older than Jeffrey and Eyama.

“Soweto is very big. We will visit only a section of the township. If we want to visit the whole Soweto, it will take us three days,” he joked.

We biked uphill. It was just the beginning and many of us were already out of breath.

“Let’s take a break here so I can tell you about Soweto,” Poloko said.

Soweto emerged as a racially segregated area in which the black Africans –working for the gold mining companies owned by the white- were relocated.

Forced removals and the creation of townships outside the designated white areas were part of the policies of the Apartheid regime, which was implemented by the Afrikaner National Party in power in 1948.

Apartheid was a system of legal racial segregation enforced in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. Under this regime, people were classified into racial groups, segregating education, medical care, transportation, and other public services. Interracial marriages were forbidden and sex between different races was considered a crime.

We continued our biking tour through Soweto. Modest houses lined on each side of the road. As we passed, friendly locals would wave, smile and say hello.

“Here please,” said Poloko. “This is the former migrant workers hostel for men.”

A little girl of about three years of age came running towers me. Her tiny hand looked for mine. We held hands while Poloko, Eyama and Jeffrey told us about this site.

A local “Shebeen”

The concrete housing had dormitory for migrant workers from other provinces and foreign countries. Poloko explained that the conditions were precarious in the dark and dingy dorms, where men were forced to live apart from their wives and children.

“Let’s go to the Shebeen so you guys can take the local beer,” said Poloko. “Do not worry, you will be able to bike afterwards,” he laughed.

Just across the street, there was a local “Shebeen”.

During the Apartheid, blacks were not allowed to drink or buy alcohol without the permission of their bosses, originating the Shebeens.

These alternative bars operated illegally, selling homebrewed alcohol and becoming a meeting place for activists and community members.

Umqombothi, the local beer

When we arrived, men of different ages sat in old wooden benches and passed a bowl among them, sharing the umqombothi, a traditional beer made from maize and sorghum.

“Our turn,” said Poloko, tasting first the beer and passing it among the group.

Beer figures among my least favorite alcoholic drinks, but when traveling, do as locals do.

The taste of alcohol wasn’t as strong as I expected. It had a thick and sort of grainy consistency.

“And we always accompanied beer with music. This is the kwaito!” Poloko smiled and prepared for a demonstration.

Poloko, Eyama and Jeffrey gave us an onsite performance of what it sounded like local version of hip-hop.

“Ok, let’s go,” said Eyama. “We will show you now a delicacy in our township.”

We biked through a dirt road, seeing a different face of Soweto. It was dirty and impoverished with tiny dwellings made from scrap materials such as corrugated metal.

In the middle of the slum, we still got friendly smiles and greeting from both children and adults.

The "Shoot me" kids

“Shoot me. Shoot me!” screamed eagerly two kids who were also eager to give us a high five.

I was suddenly in shock by the demand. I had no gun and even if I had one, I would keep it away from a human. They were so excited and happy though… about being shot?

“They want to be just photographed,” explained Eyama.

I stopped my bike and “shoot” the kids, who were thrilled to see their photos in the screen my digital camera.

“This is the most famous and best restaurant of Soweto,” Poloko pointed at a sign that read Inyama ye ntloko.

Some fresh-bloody cow-heads were displayed just outside the “restaurant”, which looked more like a stall made of corrugated metal.

“This is typical from here. It is a delicacy,” said Poloko.

A local delicacy

“Jeffrey, my friend, I am a vegetarian. Do you think I will offend them if I don’t try it. Could you explain it is for religious reasons?” I almost begged.

“No problem. It is ok, but it is delicious!” he said.

“I am about to become a vegetarian,” the British girl said.

Some were brave enough to taste the cow-head cut in small pieces. It is accompanied with a small ball of maize to “enhance” the flavor.

I didn’t taste it but I was getting dizzy by the strong smell of the bloody meat.

“We can’t waste any part of the cow you know,” said Poloko.

Traveling and being a vegetarian is a reminder of the luxury I have to have eating choices while many people around the world eat what they can or have in order to survive.

The best local restaurant

“OK, let’s go group!” said Poloko and we followed.

We returned to the more middle classes area of Soweto and made it to the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum.

Just around the museum-memorial, there were dozens of souvenir stands. We left our bikes just outside the entrance where one of the vendors watched them.

“This is a very important site for Sowetans, and for South Africans. Our path to freedom started here,” Poloko explained.

On June 16, 1976, thousands of Soweto students marched peaceful to protest against apartheid laws imposed at the time. The police reacted. The students threw stones, while the police opened fire with guns. One of the first to die was a 13-year-old boy called Hector Pieterson.

Today, the memorial displays a photograph that became the symbol of the resistance movement: Hector Pieterson being carried by a fellow student through the streets of Soweto with his sister beside them.

To honor the youth who gave their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy Read the letters in the memorial.

“Everything here has meaning. These narrow lines with water on the floor represent the blood of the students who were killed during the uprising,” said Poloko.

The impact of the Soweto uprising reverberated not only in South Africa but also across the world. Economic sanctions against South African government were introduced from abroad. Soweto became target of state-sponsored violence, but also a symbol of resistance to overcome repression.

Hector Pieterson memorial

I listened to Poloko, Jeffrey and Eyama talked about these horrific events and even more horrific policies of the Apartheid. Although it may sound that it happened a while ago, the apartheid regime ended only 16 years ago. This is recent history. It wasn’t really that long ago and the wounds left by segregation are still healing.

“Let’s go and have something to eat. It is our Soweto burger!” said Poloko with excitement.

Time had passed quickly. It was almost 1pm.

Vegeterian kota

Not far from the memorial, there was the local restaurant famous for the “Kota”, the township burger!

The Kota was a carbohydrate bombshell, consisting in a big piece of bread cut in half with French fries, egg, cheese, vegetables (in my case) and ketchup inside.

With our calorie intake recharged, we cycled down to Vilakazi Street.

“Shoot me, shoot me,” more children welcome us, and we “shot” them back. Different from other countries where children want to be photographed to get money, in here, they genuinely want to be shot just for the fun of it!

From the working class and the slum to the upper class of Soweto, Vilakazi street was decorated with beautiful and modern houses and even mansions.

This is the most famous street of Soweto because two Nobel Peace Prize Winners -Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu- used to live.

Nelson Mandela’s house had been turned into a museum.

“That is a great great man, I love him,” said Poloko while placing his hand on his heart.

Nelson Mandela is one of the world’s most revered statesmen. He led the struggle to end the apartheid regime and give South Africans a multi-racial democracy. In 1956, he was charged with high treason along with 155 other activists, but charges were dropped. In 1964, he was charged again and sentenced to life. During his years in prison, Nelson Mandela’s reputation grew steadily. He became the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a potent symbol of resistance, refusing to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom.

It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die-Nelson Mandela.

After being jailed for 27 years, he become the country’s first black president in multi-racial democratic elections in 1994, putting end to the Apartheid regime.

Just outside Mandela’s home, a young boy sang a song dedicated to Mandela. Poloko and Eyama served as a choir.

“If I am going to step on a hill and raise my voice and prayers of the women of my country, we are going to fight for the freedom not only of ourselves but for all Africans…” recited the boy while Poloko and Eyama repeated a chorus that I suspected was in Zulu “Asi bonanga Mandelaaa”

“Viva Mandela Viva,” said Poloko when they finished the song.

“But Mandela’s contribution to South African is beyong politics you know. When his son Makgatho died, he came out to say publicity that the cause of his death was Aids. There was an Aids epidemic in South Africa and it was a taboo topic then. Mandela wanted people to talk about it to make it appear like a normal illness that could be treated,” said Poloko.

In his wrist Poloko wore a rubber band with the date of Mandela’s release from jail.

On this high note, it ended the biking tour around Soweto.

We cycled back to the hostel, having explored the different areas of Soweto (from the very poor to the upscale), having experienced the warm welcoming and friendliness of its people, having learned about its crucial role in history and in the freedom of South Africa, and having seen another face of Soweto that has nothing to do with violence but with the compassion, cheerfulness and kindness of locals like Lebo, Poloko, Jeffrey, Eyama and the dozens of kinds who came out to greet us with smiles and the “shoot me” line.

When we arrived in the hostel, there was a Rastafarian party going on in the park owned by Soweto Backpackers.

Another "shoot me" kid!

Children jumped and played in an inflatable castle while a DJ played reggae music.

I went inside to check if Isaac had arrived.

It was 2:30pm already and I have no much time left to do the bungee jump.

“He is on his way,” said the receptionist.

Half and hour had passed and I was still waiting. I was getting nervous not because of the jump, but because time was running and I had to be at the terminal at 4:45pm. Soweto was about 45 minutes from the international airport.

Isaac arrived at 3:15pm, and the girl at the reception had no mention to him that we would stop at the Orlando Towers for a bungee jump before heading to the airport.

“Let’s run Isaac. I am sure we can make it,” he didn’t look so convinced but was willing to take me to the bungee jump site.

I threw my backpack in the trunk of the car and we drove to the Orlando Towers.

Orlando Towers

The two magnificent and disused cooling towers in Soweto were beautifully painted and turned in 2007 into an adventure center, offering a variety of activities such as bungee jumping, climbing, rap jumping and a zip line, among others.

I love to try new things, and bungee jumping was something I had never done. I always dreamt of doing it in the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, but this was a great opportunity to do a “training”, to get a spectacular view of Soweto and to feel the ultimate free fall.

“Hi, I was supposed to come yesterday but my flight was delayed, so I couldn’t come. Now I have only 45 minutes to do this because I need to run to the airport,” I said to three girls that worked at the booking office.

The three girls didn’t look very convinced.

“Please, I know you can do it,” I said.

They checked my weight and sent me to another area where two technicians put the robes on my fit. Although it was tight, it didn’t look so strong.

“I don’t know if I am very adventurous, suicidal or just crazy,” I told Isaac, who was freaking out about my jump.

At that point, my only fear was to lose my flight!

“Are you ready?” the lady asked.

“Yes, let’s do this!” I replied.

Other two guys (also prepared for the jump), the lady and I took an open-air lift that took us up the outside of one of the towers.

My heart was pumping at the speed of the loud house music played in the bar located at the bottom between the two towers.

“Guys, I am sorry but I need to go first because I need to go to the airport. Do you mind?” I asked them.

“Sure,” One of them responded.

“Aren’t you a little afraid?” asked another technician who welcomed us at the top.

“It is ok. I am afraid of not getting on time to the airport,” I answered.

“I am your photographer. Please stand right there,” a young guy pointed at a floating stairway.

I started walking on it, suspended in the air!

I was so excited!!! I was about to jump. The hard house music kept the adrenaline on at all times.

Other three technicians waited for me at middle to put some more robes and check that it was secured.

“You are too beautiful. I am not doing well my job,” joked the photographer who was asking more personal questions than taking photos.

“OK Daniela, we are going to count from five and then you jump,” said a guy who seemed like the master technician.

I stood in the middle of the suspended-bridge between the two towers, looking at a breath-taking view of greater Soweto from the sky!

I stepped out closer to the edge of the bridge. I was 100 meters up in the air. I was excited but it did feel like a suicidal action.

The three bungee technicians started the count down.

“Five, Four, Three…”

I closed my eyes and jumped before they even finished counting, setting myself free into the open air.

Those first seconds were a combination of discomfort and emptiness in my stomach that quickly switched into the feeling of empowerment and freedom of overcoming my fears… pushing my limits!

My body went up and down in the air as it was just a feather. I laughed and laughed while hanging upside-down, enjoying the excitement of a totally new experience; embracing those last moments of my adventure…

This was the end of my journey. Within two hours, I would be on a plane on my way home, but I was leaving Africa with that beautiful and additive feeling of freedom that I always experience when I am on the road…

Feeling free!!!!

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