Heart & Hospitality
Originally Published: August 4, 2014
It’s been a few days since my mom and I got back to Johannesburg from our big trip down the east coast of South Africa. Before we left for our intended 10 day coastal tour (which actually turned into three weeks) we didn’t have any idea how much work was being done by the hostels there to help uplift the communities they are in. Along the way we met many people who realize how important it is to operate their hostels in a responsible manner; including supporting fair working environments, helping with education-based activities, environmental conservation and fair trade practices. Many of the hostels and lodges we stayed at were members of Hostelling International, which is a global network of hostels committed to sustainable practices and responsible/fair trade tourism. So committed in fact that they have set up a Sustainability Fund so that travellers can make small donations with their overnight bookings to help their network of hostels reduce their CO2 emissions with grants awarded for the best projects. This year they have introduced exciting news – one project will be voted in by the public. The hostels I visited are a few of the places who are doing some incredible work that you should know about.
Along the coast we took the Baz Bus to all of our destinations and loved being able to see more of the country this way. The 22 seater bus was also a great way to meet and get to know other travellers within South Africa. We found we would see people multiple times after going to separate hostels, and we made friends that we could travel with. We were also pleasantly surprised to hear about the community work Baz Bus is doing along the route. One of their drivers in particular caught our attention as he stopped the bus to deliver food and clothes to a few impoverished families, and explained to us how small actions can have the potential to create large change.
When we arrived to Coffee Shack, a Fair Trade Certified hostel in Coffee Bay late in the evening after a long day of bus travel, we were greeted by the friendly staff, shown the property and then headed to our room which was recreated based on the traditional rondavels from the village. We woke up in the morning to be awestruck by the beauty of the place that had been concealed by darkness when we arrived the previous night. We made our way over to have breakfast and meet with David and Belinda Malherbe, the hardworking founders of Coffee Shack who briefed us on some of the community projects they have running at Sustainable Coffee Bay, the NPO that Coffee Shack founded. Some include Ikhaya Labantwana, a montessori school for children ages 2.5-5 yrs. and a scholarship fund to send a select group of children to a secondary school. We learned that Coffee Shack is a fair-trade certified hostel and 30% community owned. After breakfast we had an opportunity to go with the children from the Montessori school they operate to a local orphanage. The children were going to have eye tests done by Mercy Ships, an organization that provides free healthcare, health education, agriculture, mental health and community development programs to underserved people . Eye tests seem like such a small thing, but they can make a huge difference in the life of a child because eyesight is a very important part in the learning process and making sure that kids can learn to their fullest potential early on. The orphanage Khaya Lethu, in Coffee Bay, was set up to provide a home for abandoned/orphaned children because of the aids crisis. It was the first orphanage/school I would visit on my travels. There I met another organization Willen & Doen who have also dedicated their time and energy to improving the lives of children in the area with a school and permaculture project.
Later that evening we took a hike with a small group into the local village to experience a traditional Xhosa dinner with a family in their home (rondavels). We watched the mama’s cook dinner on an open fire in the dark while we sat with the children. When dinner was almost ready we were invited to come sit in the rondavel. Following tradition, the women sat on the floor and the men sat on benches behind the women. The mamas performed traditional dances and songs. Though the candlelight was dim due to the rondavels not having electricity, it wasn’t hard to see the energy these women put into their dances. Thanks to our wonderful guide, Jerry, who translated for us, we were able to ask the mamas about their culture/life, and they were able to ask us about ours. I found this activity to be important because as travellers & global citizens, we should be learning about the other cultures that make up our world. By learning about the cultures that are in the communities we visit, we can have a greater appreciation for them.
The next day, Belinda from Coffee Shack showed us around the Montessori school, Ikhaya Labantwana (which means ‘home of the children’). The school is found on a secluded hill overlooking the ocean, and is a great environment for the children to learn in. The school started with 15 kids in a rondavel. As the demand for more schools like this grew, and more people signed up to be on the waiting list for Ikhaya Labantwana, they needed to expand. By 2013, they had a new building that was able to hold 60 children. Still there is even more need to expand as there are not nearly enough schools or teachers for the area children.
The following week we moved further down the coast to another fair-trade backpacker’s hostel in Chintsa called Buccaneers Lodge & Backpacker’s and checked into our room. We made it an early night. (Unfortunately we did not have enough time to get to every hostel on the Fair Trade Travel Pass but they are listed on the this link.)
In the morning, we headed out to see a presentation being done by Mike Denison and Phumala, two community leaders at Friends of Chinsta, an NPO that Buccaneer’s is very involved with. We learned about the variety of community projects happening to serve the community which focus on education, environment, social transformation, sport development, etc.. After the presentation was finished, we followed Phumala, a tireless social justice advocate to the township where we got to see some of the programs first-hand. The projects I was the most fascinated with what was a water filtration system in the backyard of an elementary school that took used waste water, filtering & cleaning it so it could be used in the garden to feed the children attending the school as well as provide additional food to market. The second was called ’The big green teaching e-machine’, a mobile, solar panelled computer lab that moves around the community to teach computer literacy courses. Just by talking to Sal Price, the owner of Buccaneers, you could tell how much she cares about the surrounding community and the people in it. In fact, like our previous experience at Coffee Shack, Buccaneer’s had an element of community in every part of the hostel as well. In the gift shop we were happy to see only locally made and environmentally friendly products. When you spend your money, you are voting for what you believe in, so why not support local artisans and a better environment?
Venturing further down the coast, we made or way to Island Vibe in Jeffreys Bay where we met with another passionate community advocate, owner Taise Sampsom. Turns out she also took her kids out of school for one year to travel which we found quite interesting. On our second day at Island Vibe, we took a tour with one of the staff members Sico, to some of the community projects that the hostel is involved in. He took us to a very impoverished township where the programs are based. There we saw a few of the daycare programs which are available to the community. They were all doing the best they could to make it a cheerful place for the children but were very understaffed and definitely under resourced. A few of the daycare centres were 12ft by 12ft shacks with as many as 30 children. Even though some of the daycares were in this condition, it was evident how much the caregivers adored the children.
Another program we learned about while at Island Vibe was the Jeffreys Bay Surf School, a program that takes kids from the townships and teaches them to surf. The Program gives them the chance to do something they love and could not otherwise afford. Opportunities like this give the kids something to be passionate about and look forward to. The project also focuses on mentorship which can help the children/teens in the program to have someone to look up to and learn new skills from. Learning a new skill like this can help them gain focus in a community where many kids are lead astray by drugs and alcohol. Jeffreys Bay Surf School also has weekly lessons for street kids who are involved in a local community project that Island Vibe is also very committed to called the Joshua Project, The surf school encourages backpackers who take lessons to volunteer teaching these kids as well because they feel that the community depends a lot on the surf industry.
Driving to our next destination called Bulungula was quite interesting for my mom and I. The drive in to the lodge was two hours from the main road up and down these unbelievable bumpy make shift roads. Bulungula Lodge was very unique in how integrated it was in the community; the Nqileni Village, right beside the homes of the local people. I was very happy to learn that the lodge is 100% community owned and operated with a very low ecological footprint. It was equipped with solar panels, rain and ground sourced water, and composting toilets. Also in conjunction with Bulungula Lodge was the Bulungula Incubator; Here’s an explanation of what the Incubator is that I found on their website: “The idea with the Bulungula Incubator was that having lived in this community for many years and having worked through all the usual complications involved with development projects in communities like ours, we now had the social infrastructure in place to allow in which to implement good rural development ideas and seek to partner with government, other NGO’s, organisations, individuals and corporations in our vision to become a catalyst for vibrant and sustainable rural communities.”
Bulungula was very special in the way that they empowered local village people to run their own businesses that they can sustain themselves. I personally believe that empowerment is important as opposed to handouts. When people are empowered to sustain themselves it can have a longer lasting effect in their lives and the lives of people around them. Like the places we visited before, at Bulungula i felt a large sense of unity. I loved that the people from the village would come and gather at the lodge and it wasn’t simply for the “tourists”. We were upset that we didn’t get to see any of the incubator projects while at Bulungula because the NPO is closed on the weekends, but by the looks of all they had to offer, we know it would have been spectacular to see firsthand.
In traditional Xhosa culture, at age 18, boys must undertake a rites of passage to become a man. They must attend what is called The School of Circumcision for one month to have the operation done and get lessons on being a man. When they come back they must paint their face red to show that they’ve graduated and there is a 3 day ceremony in the community to celebrate. We happened to be at the lodge when the boys were returning from the school. A group of people from Bulungula were going and we decided to join. The ceremony was a vibrant gathering of around 150 people from the village. The women dressed up in their traditional costumes complete with face paint and beautifully printed capes. As the custom was, the men sat on one side of the field and the women on the other. Seeing other cultures ways of celebrating coming-of-age was really interesting because i just turned 16 and am interested in the customs surrounding teenagers as well. Attending this ceremony gave me more insight into the Xhosa culture which i didn’t know anything about before i started the tour.
After a short stop back in Johannesburg for a few days we went off to visit Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers in Soweto(which stands for South Western Township) a short but sweet stay. Lebo’s was also a stop on the Fair Trade Travel Pass and do bicycle tours of Soweto that focus on sharing its rich culture and history. The next day we had the chance to experience on of their famous bicycle tours. We stopped many times along the way and learned so much about the history of Soweto. One of our stops that stuck out to both my mom and I the most was Hector Pieterson Square, a memorial site to pay tribute to Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy who was shot during the Soweto Uprising in 1976 where students marched to protest Afrikaans being imposed as the main method of schooling. This stood out to me because I couldn’t fathom the thought that such violence was used on these kids who were trying to stand up for what they believe in. I thought that learning about the history of Soweto and the apartheid time was very significant because we must know about history so it doesn’t repeat itself. The tour helped me to understand a lot of what we had seen in our travels through South Africa and to appreciate the struggles for freedom & equality that many have experienced and are still fighting for not only here but worldwide. Soweto-born Lebo and his wife Maria, formerly from Sweden, were another inspirational couple who were helping to educate tourists by introducing them to the vibrant Soweto way of life and they do it with a commitment to fair trade practices as well.
I am so thankful to have met such amazing people along the coast. I have learned so much and I’m glad to see such incredible work being done despite the problems that people are facing in their day to day life. One thing it proved is that hospitality and heart don’t stray too far from each other when it comes to doing good things in the community.
Thank you to all the hostels that have hosted us along the way: Happy Hippo, Coffee Shack, Buccaneers Backpackers, Island Vibe Backpackers, Lungile Lodge, Bulungula Lodge, Tekweni Backpackers and Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers and our friends at Travel Massive, Ian Cumming & Simon Lewis.
To learn you how you can travel responsibly, check out some cool tips from Hostelling International https://www.hihostels.com/sustainability/what-can-you-do
Author Kasha Slavner, 2014