Michelle and I arrived at the Marlboro Gautrain Station, on the edge of Alexandra Township, at 10:30 Sunday morning. Jeffrey, our guide, was waiting for us on the curb.
“Who wants to get the taxi?” Jeffrey asked. I volunteered Michelle. Michelle stepped to the edge of the street and pointed downward, as Jeffrey demonstrated.
Michelle hails a taxi.
Within seconds a small Toyota hatchback pulled to halt. These informal taxis, nicknamed “cockroaches”, are the main mode of transportation in Alex. Our ride in the cockroach would be short though. We were going to explore the township on two wheels, not four.
We twisted through Alex’s narrow, crowded streets and reached a small compound behind a corrugated iron gate — the headquarters of Malaudzi Tours.
Jeffrey Malaudzi in his office. Jeffrey is a lifelong Alex resident. He started his tour company three years ago, when he was just 18 years old.
Jeffrey gave us a quick debriefing on cycling in Alex and invited us to choose our bicycles. Cycling helmets are optional, Jeffrey told us; we opted for helmets. Then we climbed aboard and pedaled off — Jeffrey, me, Michelle, and Jeffrey’s assistant Emmanuel, all in a line.
Bikes and kids.
After a brief uphill climb to the top of the street, we stopped for Jeffrey to give us some background on the history and culture of Alex. Alex — the oldest township in Joburg — is one of the most interesting places in the city, in my opinion. I’ve written about it before so please check out my older post for more information.
Our ride began in earnest. Cycling through a township on a busy Sunday is quite an experience. I couldn’t take pictures as I rode, which was frustrating as I spotted three or four amazing photo-ops every second.
The streets were filled with churchgoers, clad in the long white and blue robes favored by African Christian denominations. We passed free-wandering roosters and goats. Colorfully painted tuck shops selling cold drinks and cell phone airtime. Women braiding hair outside informal salons. Tightly packed metal shacks and an endless sea of tangled power lines and TV antennas.
Taxis honked. “Hey, white ladies!” called men sitting outside shebeens. Children waved and passersby reached for their phones, trying to snap pictures as we passed.
We stopped at a home where traditional African beer is brewed. “Who wants to be the queen?” Jeffrey asked. Michelle volunteered me. Jeffrey pointed to straw mat on the ground and directed me to sit with my legs tucked beneath me. He tied an elaborate beaded collar around my neck. “Now you’re the shebeen queen,” Jeffrey said.
I was handed a wooden calabash filled with murky whitish liquid. Jeffrey said the shebeen guests are supposed to sample the beer before the queen, so I presented the calabash to Michelle. “If the beer is good,” Jeffrey told Michelle, “You say, ‘Aha!'”. (Correct pronunciation: “a-GHAA!” with guttural emphasis on the H.)
Michelle put the calabash to her lips. “Aha!” she announced. She handed the bowl back to me. I sipped. “Aha?” I said.
Sometimes pictures speak louder than words. (Photo: Michelle Schenck)
Our next stop was the Amalgamated Primary School, one of the oldest primary schools in Alex, next to one of the oldest churches in Alex. Music and song emanated from both buildings. Outside a young man tended a smoldering fire with an African drum next to it. Jeffrey explained that heating the drum, which is made from animal hide, makes the drum more pliable and improves the sound.
The brick school complex houses a gym, a daycare center, and a church. Space is at a premium in Alex so most public buildings serve multiple purposes, especially on Sundays.
Peter runs an after-school program for kids in this small gym.
A lady chops vegetables on the steps of the school.
Before visiting the church service, Jeffrey said we must cover our legs. A woman appeared with wraps for us to tie around our waists. “Women sit on one side, men on the other,” Jeffrey told us. “You’re welcome to go inside but please remove your shoes and don’t take photos.” We nodded solemnly and crept in.
Ready for church. (Photo: Jeffrey Malaudzi)
Inside the room, walls painted green, men whirled to the beat of a drum. The men wore bright, full-skirted satin robes of every color. The women, heads and bodies cloaked in white satin, sat along the wall and watched. Michelle and I joined them.
The men’s robes whooshed and flared. The room became a kaleidoscope. I think there was singing but I’m not sure. My vision blurred for a while. I think it was tears.
I noticed that a few members of the congregation, which I later learned is a group from Zimbabwe, were taking cell phone pictures of Michelle and me. One of the men whispered something to Jeffrey. Jeffrey crawled over to us. “You are welcome to take photos,” he said.
He didn’t have to tell me twice.
The dancing ended and the church’s pastor took the floor. He was barefoot and had an amazing face. I never got his name. “I’d like to welcome our guests,” said the pastor. “And I believe they are also Christians.” He looked pointedly at Michelle and me. We weren’t about to contradict him.
If there is anyone on earth who could convert me to Christianity, it would be this man.
The pastor delivered a simple but articulate sermon about Passover. Michelle and I listened, mesmerized. A few of the congregants dozed — it must be hot inside those satin robes. Eventually the sermon ended and the congregation, both men and women, got up to sing and dance again. They were still going when we left.
I don’t think I can top this section so I’ll move quickly through the rest of the tour.
It was hot. We rode up and down a few hills and got tired. We stopped for a traditional township lunch.
This is a “kota”: A quarter loaf of bread filled with chips (fries), cheese, tomato, and lettuce. Best eaten with spicy achar (in the background) and chili sauce, washed down with Stoney Ginger Beer.
We visited the oldest high school in Alex (also filled with churchgoers), the workers’ hostels, and Nelson Mandela’s first house.
We traveled between rows of makeshift shacks, the dirt paths so narrow that we had to walk beside our bikes. We got to know Jeffrey and visited his house.
Cool cycling mural painted outside Jeffrey’s house.
Jeffrey moved to his own place recently, but his landlord has given him notice so next month he has to move back to this house/room, where he grew up with his mother and sister. His mother and sister sleep on the bed and Jeffrey sleeps on the floor. There is a bathroom outside, shared by several families.
Eventually we made our way back to Jeffrey’s office, dropped the bikes, and hailed a taxi back to the Gautrain station.
I’ve taken a lot of tours in Joburg and this is one of the best. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
By the way, Jeffrey specializes in tours for people who are transiting through Joburg and looking for something to do during their layover. It’s easy to get to and from O.R. Tambo International Airport via the Gautrain. So if you find yourself passing through and want a quick taste of township life (or if you’re a local looking for something different to do), call Jeffrey.
Malaudzi Tour mascots.