The Spirit of Soweto
By Danait Kidane
With the recent passing of the great Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, I’ve found myself reflecting on my time in South Africa – specifically Soweto, a township located 20 miles away from Johannesburg. Soweto was home to the Mandela family from 1946 to 1962 and was my home for a mere five days. My time in Soweto was full of vibrant colors, contagious energy, local art, and beautiful smiles – however the culture was the most inspiring aspect of the township.
On a exploration seminar through my university business school, I had the opportunity to divide four weeks between Johannesburg, Soweto, Kruger Park and Cape Town. With two advisors and two dozen students, our first day in Soweto was full of questions for what our time here was going to look like – we all were curious. When we found out that our itinerary consisted of nothing but enjoying our time – we were thrilled! Spending hours in business meetings in Johannesburg wore us out, and now we were looking to truly experience the adventures South Africa had to offer.
The minute we arrived in Soweto, I was excited simply because I grew up watching Sarafina and was captivated by the history of the Apartheid. The movie, starring Whoppi Goldberg, was depicting the struggle that the people of Soweto experienced in 1992. Shot in Soweto, I was excited to learn from the locals who live in a place that holds so much history. With that in mind, we were introduced to the staff at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers hostel and I soon found out that this was going to be the most fun I’d have on this journey. The staff was incredible, the backpackers hostel was fun and the vibe was laid back but felt full of life. Our first dinner, we gathered together with the young staff and discussed South Africa’s different cultures and music. Post-dinner is when we all felt like we were on an island, with reggae and hip-hop blasting, a do-it-yourself bar and hookah for those who were interested. It was hard to not have a good time. It’s difficult to describe the environment in words, but let’s just say it was perfect. Well, for me at least.
We spent the next four nights relaxing with the cool staff, eating delicious desserts, and hanging out in the “back”, even though this atmosphere was located in the front of the hostel. When we were not having the time of our lives at night, most of the students spent their time pursuing different interests in Soweto. From taking in the beautiful street art, checking out the local mall and visiting nearby historical sites like the Hector Pieterson museum. We all split up, and while we were not together most of the time, we all felt the spirit of the people in Soweto. Whether it was at Lebo’s Backpackers or out in the street, the warm and triumph people surrounded all of us.
I remember buying a beautiful silhouette of a woman and I tried my best to use my smile to negotiate the price, and I was wisely told “You might have a pretty smile, but your smile won’t be paying my bills.” The humor in Soweto was witty and tough but humorous nonetheless. Another fond memory was walking into town using the back roads near the train tracks and encountering a crowd of fourteen year old boys on their way back from playing football (yes, soccer) and feeling overwhelmed with their hugs and in many cases, kisses on the cheeks. It was a bit much to handle, especially because my friends and I were not expecting it, but it was a lesson learned. When you walk into another community and culture, don’t be offended by their gestures or acts of endearment (unless it crosses serious lines, which I guess can be subjective). You are in their environment and the best way to approach traveling and local people is with an open mind.
The night that plays vividly in my memories was a Heineken sponsored party about a quarter mile away from Lebo’s, which we were advised not to go to for safety reasons (but who listens to that advice anyway), and it ended up being a night I still cherish. My friend Sara and I ran towards the party with the staff and spent our night dancing to house music with a beer in hand. We gathered in a circle with our friends while we jumped and danced and everyone got their chance to shine in the middle, at least six times. It was epic! After sharing laughs, Savannah cider beers and intense conversations, the happy spirit of the people of Soweto was visible from inside the gates of the backpackers hostel to the the streets of the township. I’m looking forward to going back and reconnecting with the staff and locals of Soweto but until then – reliving these memories will do.
Born in Kenya to Eritrean expats, Danait grew up in the rainy city of Seattle. She recently went on an exploration seminar in South Africa and backpacked across Europe this past year. Danait is a culture and travel enthusiast who loves to interact with locals and pick up on new languages. Currently studying abroad in the Netherlands, she hopes to inspire others to travel well!