So what IS cultural tourism. . .
I sometimes feel that we cannot win when promoting cultural tourism within South Africa! People come to us with such differing cultural perceptions of their own that it is hard to please everyone.
Some people are expecting to see village life such as it might have been in the 19th century. In the days of David Livingstone and the colonial explorers… They are somewhat disappointed to see that people actually wear contemporary dress, have access to TVs, cellphones and use tinned food, alongside the more traditional staples.
Do they really believe that people haven’t changed their customs and behavior in today’s global world??
Others are very keen to understand what it’s like to live in the modern South Africa. They don’t just want to interact with the waiters in their 5 star hotels. But also meet ‘normal’ South Africans going about their lives. Some positively DON’T want a historical or ‘packaged’ experience. They want the real facts.
The feelings. . .
Yet others, to my wry amusement, say that they want this sort of authentic cultural experience. And yet are horrified when they realize that they can smell the cows and the manure of the kraal next to the house. Have to walk through mud, or encounter poverty in its grittiest and most heart-wrenching. Perhaps it makes them feel too uncomfortable about the comfort in their own lives – that’s certainly how it makes ME feel. . .
Finally others – and I include myself in this category – are torn between wanting to understand what it’s like to live in a modern day township. But feel great discomfort going into someone’s house. . . They feel embarrassed, concerned that it is condescending and arrogant. . .
Thus with all these conflicting emotions and expectations, it is difficult for us to say whether you will enjoy a “cultural tour” or not.
I recommend that you carefully read the description of any tour you are considering. . . To ascertain which type of tour it is (see below for more on that) and whether this is what YOU are looking for.
So, in the interests of clarity, I thought I’d talk about cultural tourism – what it is and what it isn’t.
Many ‘cultural tours’, especially in the Zulu areas of rural KwaZulu Natal are actually a historical tour of the Zulu customs and traditions, with some showmanship in the form of Zulu tribal dancing, which is very exciting to watch.
They are not what I would call authentic cultural tours but rather enjoyable cultural shows. You may have some opportunity to meet local people and discuss how they live now, but usually not. A visit to the Valley of 1000 Hills would be a good example of that…
Other cultural tours, usually in the urban townships of Soweto or Cape Town, are a more realistic depiction of modern urban living for many people in South Africa. Typically you would visit someone’s home. See some of the local community buildings such as a school, hospital or perhaps have a beer in a shebeen.
Recently these tours have started to focus on community upliftment projects. So you may visit craft centres where items can be bought.
The upliftment Projects
These are organized tours where your safety is of utmost importance. So it stands to reason that your visit follows a very set format. You will not go to dangerous areas or see ‘life on the edge’. However it is a glimpse of township life! Your guide is an important interpreter of what you see and can tell you a lot about South African life. What you will see often challenges your pre-conceptions. You see poverty but you may also see ‘middle class’ township life as people better themselves as in any city in the world.
Informal village visits
Finally the third (rather broad) category is the more informal village visits which you may undertake as part of your stay in South Africa. Many game lodges, for example, now offer visits to the local villages where their rangers and guides have grown up. This is an informal walk through, perhaps visiting somebody’s house or seeing a community school. What you get out of it very much depends on what you put in, in terms of asking questions of your guides and to those you meet.
You will see the more haphazard side of modern village living – a traditional thatched rondavel will have a modern brick outhouse or a dilapidated building will sport a brand new satellite dish on its side. It could be dirty, it could be smelly but you will be seeing a slice of real South African life. You may learn how someone who has gone to a local one-classroom school has managed to enter the safari industry and train to be a top safari guide. You may learn how many people that person’s wages support. If you have an open heart, you will get a lot from such visits.
I hope this helps!