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Contemporary and traditional African culture

© Jennifer Stern© Jennifer SternOne of the most interesting aspects of travel is to explore other ways of living – to see how other people do things. And southern Africa, including South Africa and its much-vaunted rainbow nation, is one of the better places to do so. Now, obviously, the most satisfying way to experience other cultures is to immerse yourself in them – just go, and see what happens, see who you meet and play it by ear. While this can be a very rewarding experience, it is rather hit and miss, and may even turn out less than ideal so it’s only a viable option for real adventurers – people who are prepared to step way beyond their comfort zones. It’s also pretty time-consuming, so most people will choose rather to go along with an organised cultural experience. Whether you’re interested in seeing how local people lived, dressed and developed their material culture hundreds of years ago, or you’re keen on exploring the music and vibe of contemporary Africa, you’ll find plenty of options.

There are a number of cultural villages scattered all around southern Africa. Here you will find reconstructed traditional homesteads, people in traditional dress and, perhaps, people recreating traditional crafts. Most cultural villages include a performance of traditional music and dance, and some offer traditional food. For a less contrived experience, you could do a village stay in a rural area, where you’ll find that people live out an interesting mix of traditional and contemporary lifestyles. You could even do a community-run adventure trail, or attend a traditional ceremony. And what you’re likely to discover is that the majority of South Africans no longer walk around dressed in skins herding cattle. They live in cities – albeit mostly on the outskirts – and have created a unique and vibrant contemporary African culture.

There are township tours in almost every centre in South Africa, although there is obviously more choice in the bigger cities. On a typical township tour, you’ll get to see the market, visit one or two participating people in their homes, perhaps visit a school and see a dance performance by school children, and maybe even visit a sangoma (traditional healer). Depending on the tour, you may visit historical sites within the township, or visit working artists in their studios. Almost certainly, you will stop for a drink – or even a meal – in a local tavern or shebeen. And, don’t forget, you can take a part of African culture home with you – you’ll find loads of fantastic items in local craft shops.

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