Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by

“Welcome to our home,” said Vivian, our guide for the day. Vivian grew up here in Masiphumelele, a township at the edge of Kommetjie and far from the glitz and glamour of Cape Town. Like the other 45,000 people living here, her parents and grandparents had come from the rural areas of Eastern Cape and other parts of the country in the 1980s, to find work and a better standard of living.

Today, about 40% of the people living here are unemployed and most live in less than favorable living conditions. Levels of shelter and air circulation are inadequate and respiratory diseases are common; fire is a constant threat; the sewage disposal system is dysfunctional; and HIV is one of the major concerns here. The name Masiphumelele was given to this area, as it means “we will succeed!” in Xhosa.

Streets of Masiphumelele

Exploring On Two Wheels

Vivian belongs to the new generation of South Africans, ready to fight for their happiness and a better lifestyle. Beaming with energy, she welcomed us into their community as we saddled up onto our bikes to take a tour around town. As part of our South Africa itinerary, we were here to explore the township on bike and get to know its people. I struggled to keep my balance on the old style Dutch bike (I’m not the best biker around) but I soon got used to the manual back-pedal brakes and found myself whizzing through the dusty back streets of Masiphumelele, waving to locals along the way.

“On bikes, you get closer to your surroundings. You have many more opportunities to interact with the community than you would have from an air-conditioned bus,” said Sally Peterson, the director of AWOL tours. It was Sally’s love for cycling that sparked the idea of a bicycle township tour. As a biking enthusiast, Sally was nominated as OutThere Magazine’s “Adventurer of the year” finalist in 2001 after cycling from London to Cape Town to raise funds for Survival International.

In 2002, she founded AWOL Tours and initiated this bicycle tourism program in conjunction with a non-profit organization, Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN). BEN facilitates the importation of second hand bicycles to South Africa where they have helped to set up and provide ongoing support to locally owned bicycle workshops, training and employing members of the community to renovate the bikes for the bike tours.

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Sally and her love for bikes

Experiencing Local Life in the Townships

Back in Masiphumelele, we hopped off our bikes to have lunch at Kwa Nongolooza’s Place, a simple and cozy shack that looked like someone’s backyard. The smell of barbequed meat sipped through the corrugated roof as we sat down for our meal.

There were no utensils; we had to eat with our fingers, just like the locals. I dipped my fingers into the pale white pap (maize porridge commonly eaten all over Africa) and kneaded it into dough, before drenching it with rose red spicy chakalaka vegetable relish.

I mixed them all up with some off-the-braai pork chops and sausage, and licked the  sauce off my fingers. By this point, we’d tried plenty of Capetonian foods from gourmet bobotie to Cape Malay cuisine, but this simple lunch turned out to be my favorite meal in Cape Town.

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Barbequed meat

Educating Visitors on Life in South Africa

After we had filled up our stomachs, we jumped back on our bikes to paddle past more shacks, one cramped next to another, along the severely polluted water canals and dust-filled alleys. We poked our heads in, and saw that some huts had water and electricity supply – which was quite a relief.

On the other side of the road, we saw some construction work and a few newly erected apartment buildings. Vivian told us that those were the new housing built by the government, to support the inhabitants of Masiphumelele. Aid was coming in to the township, albeit slowly.

We then made a stop at Masiphumelele Library, a center where people came to study, take classes in English and computers, and develop career goals. Funding for the library originally came from an American couple, John and Carol Thompson from New Hampshire who started MasiCorp (Masiphumelele Corporation and Trust), a non-profit educational organization. Today funding comes from a coalition of local organizations and volunteer teachers and tutors.

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Children at Masiphumelele Library

Meeting Locals in the Township

Here, we met several young children, who quickly became our new friends. One of the girls held my hands as we toured the library, and didn’t bear to say goodbye when we hopped back on to our bikes. Even though they didn’t speak much English, they could understand me and tell me their names and where they lived. They were as curious about as as we were of them.

We continued our tour to the local creche (day nursery), where we were surrounded by over 100 infants, before visiting the home of a traditional healer. The healer, or sangoma, happened to be Vivian’s mother and an important person in the community. Many people in the township come to consult her for medical advice, but she’s a lot more than that. She also shares traditions, myths and stories passed down to her from the previous sangoma.

Sitting in her living room, we watched as she sang and danced. The music was hypnotic and we couldn’t help but sway to the beat of the drum. While we had no idea what she was singing about, we could feel the connection she had to the spiritual gods and that wasn’t something that one could fake.

Traditional healer

Bike Tours Can Make an Impact

It’s easy to see why AWOL tours is such a success. AWOL’s bike tours have a strong emphasis on humanitarian work and community-based efforts. Since establishment, more than 3,000 tourists have participated on this tour, spreading considerable financial benefit to the community.

Apart from the various donations from the visiting tourists, much needed income has been generated and put into circulation in local township as part of tourism services and fees paid to business owners such as the BEN bicycle shop, the lunch shack at Kwa Nongolooza’s, the sangoma, and the local creche.

As we bid farewell to our new friends, we left with a smile, happy to have had a chance to gain new perspectives and at the same time, contributing just a little to this community.

A little girl in the creche

For more information, visit the AWOL Tours website and contact them directly for rates.

Have you visited a township? How do you feel about community-based tours?

Disclosure: Our trip was made possible by Cape Town Tourism and AWOL Tours, but all opinions expressed above are our own. For more photos from bike tour, click here.