Township Sunday. On a Bike.

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.

taxi signal

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 at work

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

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.

shebeen queen

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 in gym

Peter runs an after-school program for kids in this small gym.

food prep

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.

Outside church

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.

Zionist church1

Zionist church2

Zionist church4

Amazement.

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.

pastor

The pastor.

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.

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.

Mandela 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.

cycling mural

Cool cycling mural painted outside Jeffrey’s house.

Jeffrey at home

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.

kids at bike office

Malaudzi Tour mascots.

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30 Comments

  • Reply Gail Wilson March 21, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    This sounds and looks amazing must put on my to do list. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Reply Gail Wilson March 21, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    This sounds and looks amazing must put on my to do list. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Reply tenneymason March 21, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Lovin’ the pics of that church service. What an adventure this must have been.

    • Reply 2summers March 21, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      Dad, you would have loved that church service. Sorry you missed it.

  • Reply Sine March 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Wonderful, Heather. Any post about Alexandra always warms my heart, and this one was great. I had no idea someone was offering bike tours though Alex, but of course you can find anything in Alex if you look. Leave it to you to unearth it! Love love love your church pics. One of my regrets is never visiting a sermon like that. Or taking the taxi for that matter. Well done and looking forward to more.

    • Reply 2summers March 21, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      Sine, you would LOVE this tour. You just have to come back to experience it for yourself.

  • Reply Sine March 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Wonderful, Heather. Any post about Alexandra always warms my heart, and this one was great. I had no idea someone was offering bike tours though Alex, but of course you can find anything in Alex if you look. Leave it to you to unearth it! Love love love your church pics. One of my regrets is never visiting a sermon like that. Or taking the taxi for that matter. Well done and looking forward to more.

    • Reply 2summers March 21, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      Sine, you would LOVE this tour. You just have to come back to experience it for yourself.

  • Reply addercatter March 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Magnificent!!! I am disabled and doubt I will ever be able to visit any of the places around the world I so desire to experience. I am thankful to you and others who post about their own journeys and love looking at the pictures. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Kat

    • Reply 2summers March 21, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Thanks Kat. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and i really appreciate your comment. Disability or not, I hope you find a way to experience the world in a similarly fantastic fashion 🙂

  • Reply addercatter March 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Magnificent!!! I am disabled and doubt I will ever be able to visit any of the places around the world I so desire to experience. I am thankful to you and others who post about their own journeys and love looking at the pictures. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Kat

    • Reply 2summers March 21, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Thanks Kat. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and i really appreciate your comment. Disability or not, I hope you find a way to experience the world in a similarly fantastic fashion 🙂

  • Reply eremophila March 21, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    Fantastic the way you get about Heather, really getting into the feel of a place, love it! Like Kat, I have my restrictions, and cannot travel, but I get a great perspective from you!

    • Reply 2summers March 22, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Thanks Enivea. I get great perspective from you too!

  • Reply eremophila March 21, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    Fantastic the way you get about Heather, really getting into the feel of a place, love it! Like Kat, I have my restrictions, and cannot travel, but I get a great perspective from you!

    • Reply 2summers March 22, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Thanks Enivea. I get great perspective from you too!

  • Reply romarashidross March 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    very nice trip

  • Reply romarashidross March 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    very nice trip

  • Reply Shahil Juggernath (@shahil) March 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Believe it or not, I’ve not been to Alex! This tour looks awesome so I hope to change that soon. Also, the bunny chow looking thing you ate is called a kota. I had one in Soweto last Sunday. It had cheese, chips, a russian, a vienna AND polony. Cost me R16!

    • Reply 2summers March 23, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      Haha. We had the meat-free version. You’re version sounds very…interesting 🙂

  • Reply Shahil Juggernath (@shahil) March 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Believe it or not, I’ve not been to Alex! This tour looks awesome so I hope to change that soon. Also, the bunny chow looking thing you ate is called a kota. I had one in Soweto last Sunday. It had cheese, chips, a russian, a vienna AND polony. Cost me R16!

  • Reply Soweto: A Conversation | findingjozi May 14, 2013 at 7:02 am

    […] kotas. Now I am hungry and you must never shop when you are hungry. But I was dopped so I bought a kota with cheese, chips, polony, a Russian and a Vienna. It was 16 bucks. Bru! How cheap is that? And […]

  • Reply Soweto: A Conversation | findingjozi May 14, 2013 at 7:02 am

    […] kotas. Now I am hungry and you must never shop when you are hungry. But I was dopped so I bought a kota with cheese, chips, polony, a Russian and a Vienna. It was 16 bucks. Bru! How cheap is that? And […]

  • Reply Becky October 11, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    I am enchanted by this blog and can feel thru your words and photos the powerful love that is felt for this world, so full of the best humanity has to offer.

    • Reply 2summers October 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      I’m glad you liked it! Thanks.

  • Reply Becky October 11, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    I am enchanted by this blog and can feel thru your words and photos the powerful love that is felt for this world, so full of the best humanity has to offer.

    • Reply 2summers October 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      I’m glad you liked it! Thanks.

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