In Focus

real people. real stories. real change.

Sergiu is a former street kid in Romania who now leads street tours. Peris is an HIV-positive woman in Kenya who launched her own jewellery-making business.

They are just two of the faces of In Focus.

The United Nations has declared 2017 the Year of Sustainable Tourism, and to honour it, we want you to come along and hear the stories only people like Sergiu and Peris can tell. Urban Adventures' In Focus tours are social enterprise tours run in partnership with local NGOs and non-profits around the world. They tell real stories from real people about real local issues.

These are some of those stories...

A day with the maasai

Words by Pippa Whishaw | Photos and video by Damien Raggatt

Mention Kenya, and many people will picture the Maasai — tall, scarlet-clad warriors leading cattle across the plains or leaping high into the air.

And no wonder; the Maasai are one of the few tribes in Kenya still maintaining their traditional ways of life. Most tours through the region will throw in a short visit to a Maasai village or an adumu ­­— the performance of a traditional jumping ceremony ­— but how often do travellers really connect with these local people? Contribute to their livelihoods, hear their stories?

Peris lives in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi. I meet her on my first day in the city, when I jump on the Urban Adventures tour A Day with the Maasai. Part of the In Focus range, the tour is run in partnership with One Horizon, a not-for-profit working to alleviate poverty in Kenya and South Africa. All net proceeds go to locally run projects on the ground, projects that are designed to become sustainable and self-sufficient as quickly as possible. Our guide, a friendly Kenyan by the name of Solomon, picks us up from our hotel bright and early. Peris is a Maasai woman and will be our host for the morning, leading us in a class on jewelry-making.

As we drive, Sol points out sprawling slums and new housing estates on the sides of the road. The day is about 20 degrees Celsius — unseasonably cold for August. The locals are baffled, talking excitedly and hopping about to keep warm. A soupy fog clogs the atmosphere, punctuated here and there by telephone poles and Acacia trees.

After about an hour, we park the van in a yellow valley and walk down a path. Three brightly clad Maasai women meet us along the way, singing a traditional welcome song on a lulling loop. We fall into step beside them. When we reach the property at the top of the hill, one of the singers introduces herself as Peris; the other women are her sister Unis and sister-in-law Emily. They smile and clasp our hands warmly.

The property is both Peris’ home and her place of business. After introducing us to her goats (for milking) and two heifers (both pregnant), she shows us around a large veggie patch, pointing out pumpkins, peas, black beans, maize, and Napia grass, used to feed the cattle. It’s only been in action for six months, but already her garden is flush with life. She planted the whole thing herself, together with her kids. Thorny bracken forms a fence around the plot.

With Sol translating, we ask Peris if she sells her produce in town, but she shakes her head. Everything she grows she uses to feed her family. Aside from a few items she still needs to buy, she’s almost entirely self-sufficient. I try to imagine growing everything I need to survive in my own garden, and the enormity of the idea hits me.

Home is what you fight for

Peris is HIV positive. After her husband learned of her diagnosis, she was shamed, threatened, and thrown out of the house by members of her own family. Women in Africa have very few land rights, despite the fact that their labour provides most of the continent’s food resources. Peris was living on the streets when she found One Horizon (and they found her).

First, she was required to undertake an 18-month Women in Equity program to learn more about nutrition and development. As she built up her small jewelry-making business, the organisation covered her rental costs, allowing her to save enough to buy the title deed to some land, and finally build a house.

Right now, we’re standing in that house, in Peris’ very own bedroom. It’s a simple space, fitted with a bed, a shelf, and a small window. A stack of spotty homegrown pumpkins erupts in one corner. Two of Peris’ five kids are in Nairobi, but the rest live here with her, including her 15-year-old daughter, Lois.

In the living room, Lois points to a photograph hanging above an English alphabet chart. It’s a picture of Peris in flowing robes, taken on the day she graduated from the development program. Gazing up at her mother, Lois smiles broadly. “When I finish high school, I want to study medicine,” she tells us in English. With a role model like her mother, there’s no doubt in my mind she could do it.

Maasai beading 101

Despite the weather, our jewelry-making class takes place outside under an Acacia tree. A group of locals — family and neighbours, women and men, Maasai and non-Maasai — gather around the table, sipping tea, singing songs, and gossiping in Swahili. Calm, immune to the raucous party happening around us, Peris shows me how to sew a pattern of tiny beads — red, white, black; red, white, black — onto a woven leather bracelet, her fingers moving deftly. It’s a fiddly business, but I soon get the hang of it. At one point, Emily, Unis, and Peris break into song in their native language, Ma, and the rest of the table falls respectfully quiet.

As I look up, I see Solomon trying his hand with a needle, and smile. In traditional Maasai culture, jewelry-making is a woman’s task, along with cooking, looking after the children, and house-building, whereas men are responsible for doing business, tending cattle, and protecting the community. Here, in her home, on her land, Peris does it all — with the support of family, friends, tourists, and the good folks at One Horizon, of course. She may make traditional jewelry and teach travellers about Maasai culture for a living, but in many ways, Peris is a modern woman. A modern woman with an incredible story.

A Day with the Maasai is part of our In Focus series of tours and runs Mondays to Saturdays, with pick-up from Nairobi hotels at 9am. Learn more about this tour.

outcast bucharest

Words and photo by Celinne Da Costa

If there is anything that travelling has taught me, it’s that the path to success lies in resilience.

Facing obstacles in our lives is inevitable, but how we deal with them is within our control. Do we choose to allow our obstacles to define us, or do we compel ourselves to adapt to overcome them? In the end, improving our lives is sustained first and foremost by our ability to push past discomfort and fight for self-improvement.

I was taught a profound lesson about resilience and its ability to create success while travelling through Romania. It was there that I met a young man named Sergiu, a formerly homeless Romanian child turned Urban Adventures guide. I spent the entire day touring Bucharest with him as he showed me the city that he grew up in under the most strenuous of circumstances, and shared stories of what it meant to be a Romanian living on the streets. I was admittedly clueless to the harsh realities of homeless people in Bucharest and how most of them are set up for this path from childhood. Conditions in Romanian orphanages are terrible, causing many of the children — including Sergiu — to run away for a life in the streets. Homelessness is particularly frowned upon in previously communist countries like Romania, where anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to work would be punished. To this day, the homeless in Romania lack credibility in the eyes of authorities and are poorly treated.

The somber and enlightening tour Sergiu gave through Bucharest was unlike any that I experienced. Little did I know just from walking past these locations that metro stations were bustling drug exchange spots; that entire communities could live in underground sewers; that food could be scrounged from restaurants and nearby dumpsters. I couldn’t believe that the young man standing in front of me lived most of his life fighting through horrendous conditions such as drug abuse, sleeping outside in below-freezing weather, and surviving the streets with little to no help from others. Sergiu’s very existence was hardly recognised by the society he inhabited: “When I walked through the streets, people would see through me — it felt like I was invisible.”

Just a few hours with Sergiu completely opened my eyes to the struggles of homelessness. To survive in the streets takes an incredible amount of creativity, resourcefulness, and a strong sense of resilience in order to overcome the arduous challenges that accompany that life. It was in fact Sergiu’s resilient spirit that led him to where he is today: with the help of the Parada Foundation, he was able to overcome drug use, find a temporary merchandiser job, and work on finishing high school. Today, he is a well-travelled, multilingual Urban Adventures guide unveiling the innermost secrets and unusual quirks of Bucharest to any visitor who is curious enough to learn.

Perhaps the most important lesson that Sergiu taught me is that success is accessible to anyone. Everywhere around us there are resilient, strong people who, if they really want it, are able to create success for themselves. As Sergiu eloquently put it: “It all depends on you. If you want, you can succeed.”

My time with Sergiu reminded me that programs such as the Parada Foundation are crucial to giving people the opportunity to channel their resilience into success — resilience is contagious, it can be taught, and most importantly, it inspires others. If a teenage boy can pull himself out of homelessness and teach others how to attain success despite all odds… what’s stopping the rest of us?

Outcast Bucharest is part of our In Focus series of tours and runs daily at 11am. Learn more about this tour.

the olive tree of istanbul

Words by Julia D'Orazio | Photo by Small Projects Istanbul

For travellers, to roam and be immersed in new cultures and landscapes is the stuff of dreams. For others, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

For some, travel to a new land comes with a heavy heart. It is a one-way ticket with no more than a suitcase — if that.

Turkey is one of the many havens for people fleeing war-torn Syria. According to the UN, Turkey is the largest host country, with over 2.5 million seeking refuge. To aid one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time, many centres throughout the country have opened their doors to help displaced Syrians rebuild their lives, especially in densely populated Istanbul.

On the Urban Adventures tour The Olive Tree of Istanbul, it was time for me to get off the tourist trail and into the heart of Istanbul suburbia. We passed by colourful fresh produce stalls along narrow streets until we reached The Olive Tree Community Centre in the Capa District. There, we’d meet with several displaced Syrians who have escaped the unimaginable horrors occurring in their homeland. Citizens are dying and people are trying to escape by all means — and many without a final destination or future plan in mind.

Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) is a not-for-profit foundation helping these people to rebuild their lives in Turkey. The grassroots organisation was established to help fill the void between the Turkish government’s response to the humanitarian crisis and the current state of facilities and services available to assist these individuals. SPI recognises the need for supplemental education for both children and women, to give them a chance to secure a livelihood in Turkey. In the last year, the centre had to move due to the increased number of people participating in the project. The trade-off for finding a bigger space was that it moved to a basement residence with no natural light. But despite the bleakness of natural rays, down below the natural human light shines.

The centre itself is just a few rooms — a kitchen, a crèche, an eating area, and an office. It is nothing glamorous and rather basic, but immediately as I stepped foot into the centre, I felt nothing but warmth from its international volunteers, from the Syrians themselves, and from the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

To support SPI’s operational costs, the centre has opened its doors for visitors to Istanbul wanting to give back to local communities. Travellers are invited in for dinners and meet-and-greets, and can learn first-hand about something that a majority of the world only hears about through the media.

Along with other tour participants, we were all welcomed to the centre as the final touches were added to our home cooked Syrian meal. It looked as if it was festive affair with the amount of food that was freshly prepared and presented to us by the Syrian women who attend the centre’s programmes. We were introduced to the nourishing flavours of Syrian cuisine, with dishes including moujadara (burgal, green lentils, and fried onion), maklube (spiced rice, chicken, and nuts), baba ganoush (eggplant mixed with olive oil, tahini, and spices), and fetteh (rice, crispy bread, chicken, and tahini). The night would fill my stomach with food and my mind with much to think about.

The intimate dinner was joined by a few Syrians and volunteers of SPI and other tour participants, and we heard first-hand experiences of what had been encountered in war-torn Syria. There weren’t any dramatic announcements made about these difficult tales, but they found their way into conversation. As the night progressed, people opened up about their previous lives in Syria, their journeys to get to Turkey, and how the centre has aided them to start new lives in Istanbul.

There are many volunteers that enable SPI to operate the two programs it runs at The Olive Tree Community Centre. There is an after-school program to teach primary school-age children the Turkish language, as well as lessons for adults adjusting to a new life in Turkey.

But the program is not limited to just learning a new language, as SPI thrives on educating women to become self-sustaining business managers. Through the craft collective initiative, aptly named ‘Drop Earrings Not Bombs,’ Syrian newcomers are taught how to make uniquely designed earrings using threading and wire. These earrings are then sold online as well as locally. This project was created to help enable these women to utilise their skills while (unfortunately) their lives sit in limbo due to lengthy immigration processes.

As we wiped the corners of our lips and bid our farewells after dinner, I knew my outlook on the conflict — and the people affected by it — would never be the same. A visit to the centre offered me a chance to come to grips with the true realities of war. But as bleak as that may sound, the experience was far from it. The centre is full of optimism and one thing is for sure: it will certainly make you reassess how you can leave your mark in the world and help map the road ahead for others. And that would be the best reality anyone could ever dream of.

The Olive Tree of Istanbul is part of our In Focus series of tours and runs Tuesdays and Saturdays at 6:30pm. Learn more about this tour.


Words and photos by The Common Wanderer

As our white SUV swings around the corner and begins the steep drive into Imizamo Yethu, the leafy mansion-lined streets of Cape Town’s wealthy Constantia instantly fade from memory.

Here, in one of South Africa’s most infamous townships, the street is cramped with colourful tin shacks instead. Layers of rusted iron sheets nailed together to forge a home, the leaning structures both support and jostle each other to claim every square inch of the muddy spare ground. People mill about, some run to the bus stop outside, others laugh as they call to each other in Xhosa — one of South Africa’s 12 official languages.

As we roll to a stop and get ready to begin our Urban Adventures’ Faces of Cape Town tour, I clutch the camera in my hands a little tighter and silently will my heart rate to slow down. Until now, we’ve been warned away from townships just like this one, by horrifying stories of poverty, crime, and gang violence.

Yet here we are. Standing nervously beside a main road in a township abuzz with activity on a warm spring day.

“Welcome to our home!” A young Xhosa woman bounds over to us with her arms extended. In jeans and a yellow top that wouldn’t look out of place on a Milan Catwalk, her beaming smile radiates like the sunshine around us.

This is Nandipha (Nandi, she tells us), our guide through Imizamo Yethu, an 18-hectare informal settlement formed in 1991 on the slope of a mountain overlooking the Hout Bay area. Officially, the records list about 33,000 people living here, though Nandi points out that this doesn’t account for unregistered or foreign residents. The real number, she estimates, is much closer to 45–50,000.

“Today, you’re our guests. I want to show you the real township and how we live here,” she says. “Imizamo Yethu is Xhosa for ‘our collective efforts.’ We built this community, and we are proud of it.”

Feeling at ease in her presence, we follow her lead, slipping into the rabbit warren of crooked houses and narrow laneways.

Numbered with scrawling black pen, most homes are tin and wood while a lucky few have a sturdy concrete wall. Cardboard and rugs provide makeshift floors, electrical wires run haphazardly overhead. A four-toilet block that services a few hundred people stands locked, the keys kept by a supervisor to avoid vandalism and violence.

Women chat as they hang out washing on lines strung up between shacks and concrete blocks. Small children dart around their feet playing tag, while the sounds of local radio drift along the street. Wandering past the open door of a small shack, an old man watches a small TV set with one eye, and us warily with the other. A woman prepares food with a neighbour’s baby strapped to her back, while a group of teenage boys kick a soccer ball back and forth to each other with considerable skill.

This is ubuntu, a shared way of life. It stems from the ancient Xhosa word meaning ‘humanity to others,’ which Nandi tells us is an intrinsic part of life in Imizamo Yethu, and something that the community is extremely proud of.

Back on the main street we pass by Phillip’s Tavern. It’s one of many pubs in the area, but caters to a younger clientele while the other taverns tend to be frequented by mostly older men in the community. Here, shacks have blossomed into general stores full of food and supplies with business names painted on tin shopfronts. There’s a town hall, and several schools for varying grades and ages. Hardship fosters creativity and resourcefulness, and an entrepreneurial few are turning theirs into success.

Remove the place and the prejudice, and it’s a street scene like any other. Except that here, the wait for a proper government house to be built can literally take a lifetime. But, despite what you might expect, there is clean running water at the communal taps and in the houses. Nandi points out at one of the taps that the water is clean and safe to drink, and laughs at our surprise at just how normal life seems here. “We didn’t invite you here to feel sorry for us,” she says. “This is our collective effort, remember? We may not have much, but we make the best of it. Here, we live by hope.”

Entering a small primary school as morning lessons wrap up, a roar of noise greets us. It’s immediately clear Nandi’s a crowd favourite, and we soon find ourselves in the midst of 30 exuberant 4- and 5-year-olds hugging and dancing with rhythm we can never hope to obtain.

“It’s hard to have good role models here,” says Nandipha later as we wave goodbye to our excited little friends.

Township life can be hard for youngsters here as they navigate the obstacle course of adolescence with the added threat of substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and high school dropout rates. Many see no hope for their future and turn to drugs to numb their pain, prostitution to put money on the table.

“When girls don’t have that positive person to look up to, they lack motivation, they get bored. They sleep with their boyfriends or take drugs because there’s nothing else to do. They get pregnant, they drop out of school because they can’t cope. Then the cycle continues.”

It’s a cycle that Nandi has been working tirelessly to change through Sistahood, the not-for-profit girls’ organisation she founded in 2010. The club provides teenage girls with tutoring, life skills sessions, and social activities. More importantly, it provides them with a sorority. It’s a safe place for support in tough times, and inspires young girls to dream beyond the township and make plans for their future.

Nandi pauses, and asks us to look out over the Hout Bay Valley below.

“As a young girl, I used to come here and look out at the big white houses in Hout Bay. I was so angry. Why did they get to live there, while I lived like this, here? But as I grew up, I changed my heart. I let go of the anger, let the love in. Now, I’m inspired by the difference. I look to the future, and do my part to make my community a better place.”

That’s not to say Nandi hasn’t had her own struggles. She’s seen family members imprisoned, suffered discrimination, and still struggles to make ends meet some days. For now though, she turns to us with bright eyes. “I hope you’ve come to understand our special community better now,” she says as a farewell to us at the edge of the township. We’re feeling moved, inspired, and hopeful, our preconceived ideas about township life falling away.

If Imizamo Yethu is ‘our collective efforts,’ people like Nandipha are the proof. Inside her lives hope, and everything good about the new South Africa.

Faces of Cape Town is a sister tour to our In Focus series and was developed with the goal of giving insight into how people in the townships live, rather than as an official financial partner of any one NGO or non-profit. Learn more about this tour.