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Song of Soweto


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The train pulled in at Park Station in the centre of Johannesburg. I was picked up by my hostel, Lebo's Backpackers in Orlando West, Soweto. The South Western Townships have existed in some form since the early 1900s and now comprise 34 sections and an estimated 3.5-5 million inhabitants (vague because of the numbers of unregistered residents). Previously notorious for the violent protests of the 80s and 90s, Soweto has become a thriving community and is the richest township in South Africa, but still contains slum housing and serious deprivation. When I was looking for accommodation in Joburg, most places prided themselves on being secure compounds away from anything even vaguely interesting. Lebo's brings the world to Soweto, giving you a chance to experience the reality of life for many South Africans and see the optimism that exudes from the place.

Lebo made his name taking bicycle tours through Soweto and I joined an outing the next morning (on a pink bike, obviously). It was a great way to experience parts of the township usually unseen by tourists. We tried the local delicacy of cow cheek and unfiltered beer in a shebeen (beer house) and visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial before seeing Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu's homes on the same street.

The musical heritage of Soweto is incredibly strong, from Solomon Linda (whose Mubube was infamously rewritten as The Lion Sleeps Tonight) to new artists and the fabulous Soweto Gospel Choir.

After learning some of the language in KwaZulu Natal where (the clue is in the name) all you need is Zulu, it was rendered pretty useless as every street in Soweto is home to a different language (SA has 11 official languages and countless dialects) and most of the young people speak a blended street slang that takes bits from all of them.

In the afternoon I visited the Apartheid Museum with Claire, originally from Australia but now living in Windhoek, Namibia and touring South Africa to get ideas for the backpackers and safari company she works for, Chameleon [http://www.chameleonbackpackers.com/bps_home.asp] (you're welcome Claire). The museum is very impressive and sensitively presents the last hundred years of South African social history, highlighting the problems without preaching and celebrating the successes of the Rainbow Nation without ignoring the shortcomings.

Next morning I braved the metro and central Joburg and appreciated the view from the tallest building in Africa.

The Arts on Main centre is an old warehouse converted to studio space, shops and a restaurant; something of an island of hipsters surrounded by the slightly intimidating former CBD. Main Street Life up the road has a similar vibe.

I made the most of the Transvaal autumn sunshine on my last morning and ended up being interviewed for Austrian TV about why I had chosen to stay in Soweto, before heading to the airport for the flight home. South Africa is a fascinating country and I'm glad I got a chance to see a little of it before leaving. But leave I must, as it is time for my little brother, who I swear just yesterday had Ryan Giggs on his duvet cover, to get married and the last part of my year out to begin.

Posted by arianemeena 03:32 Archived in South Africa

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