A Day in the Life in Alex



As we pulled up on our bikes to hear the laughter of kids playing in the local daycare center, the laughter soon turned to singing. Singing Happy Birthday! It wasn’t my birthday, I had just met my travel companions four days earlier, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of their birthday’s either. For the kids in the school in Alexander Township in Johannesburg, it was probably the only English song they knew!

My first trip to South Africa was for my husband’s 50th birthday. We did the typical safari/Cape Town/wine country tour. All of that was exciting and different and beautiful. But the most lasting image for me was the ride through a township south of Cape Town, on our way down to the Cape of Good Hope. We had driven by townships on our way out of Joburg, and we saw more after our arrival in Cape Town. From the outside you see despair, poverty and living conditions that as an American you just can’t fathom. But once you get inside you see people, you see life, you see hope. That was the Africa I wanted to see more of when I decided to join AFAR Experiences in Johannesburg.

One of the amazing parts of visiting Joburg with AFAR Experiences was the opportunity to see the city from many different angles. From the affluence of Nelson Mandela’s home to the squalor of the downtown business district.  And on the last day, we visited Alexander Township. “Alex”, as its known to the natives. We were there for a bike tour hosted by Jeff Mulaudzi. In 2010, Jeff started Mulaudzi Tours to take visitors on a bike tour of his township. Alexander on Wheels is housed in the front yard of one of the many concrete homes on one of the many paved streets in Alex. After grabbing one of the twenty or thirty bikes in the yard we were off with Jeff and a couple of his friends, or colleagues. Our first stop was, well I’m not really sure where we were. We stopped in front of one of the many concrete structures we had passed within the paved section of Alex. The guys pulled out a couple of benches for us to sit down on and despite the fact that it was barely 10am (and many of us had barely stopped drinking from the night before) we learned that we were there to taste their very own locally brewed beer. The beer is made from what is basically banana juice so we first tried the plain juice. We were tasting it out of a hollowed out gourd that looked like it could have been as old as Jeffrey himself. It basically tasted like a melted banana pop, not bad. Sipping it from a ladle along with 8 of my travel mates was probably not the most sanitary thing in the world, but we all lived. Next came the taste of the actual beer. It was definitely fermented but I’m not sure I would call it beer. We were all gracious guests, however, and indulged in the tasting. After greeting us with a beverage, it was time to show off their town.

We visited the daycare center, went to a church and a high school. It was clear that Jeffrey wanted us to see that despite their poverty life was well, wonderful. They value education, they have built up an economic structure with stores, restaurants, hair salons and even tour companies.  Much of the township has paved roads, strong, concrete homes, albeit one room. But at the top of the hill, in the higher part of town, that’s when we started to see real poverty. The streets were barely wide enough for our bikes to get through, the corrugated steel walls were leaned together above us like a house of cards. It’s seeing this squalor that makes you wonder if democracy can succeed there after all.

One of the big controversies in the country today is the revelation that the new home the president is building will cost over $200MM. When we asked one of the kids if he was going to vote ANC in the upcoming election he said, “They’re all the same, it doesn’t matter. Look around you, and they’re spending $200MM on one home, they’re all the same.” We’ve been at this democracy thing for almost 250 years in America and we’re facing similar problems. I hope South Africa finds some better solutions.

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