B&B Mamas of Soweto

When determined mamas get together they can shape an industry.

Charl Blignaut and photographers Leon Sadiki and Lucky Nxumalo visit three Soweto B&Bs.

“Everyone knows Mama Lolo,” says the photographer, sitting up front with Sonnyboy, who’s driving.

“They say hers was the first B&B in Soweto.”

Sonnyboy nods. He should know – he’s Mama Lolo’s nephew.

She raised him, and after retiring as a school inspector, she decided to start a business.

Her first venture was a funeral service, but undertaking was not to be her destiny – nor Sonnyboy’s.

“The first body we went to collect, there was a problem. Sonnyboy refused to pick up his end,” she recalls.

“We packed it in.”

Instead she enrolled to be trained as a tour guide at Gold Reef City.

She gave that up when she realised she was expected to drive a bus, sending Sonnyboy to be trained instead.

That’s how he got himself a job as a driver for a tourism company.

He’s been a guide for the past four years, all the while witnessing the steady increase of international visitors to Soweto.

“French and German tourists are the most common groups,” he says.

“But they come from every country, all over the world.”

We pass Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house and a throng of tourists at Mandela House.

They’ll stop by the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Freedom Square in Kliptown.

They will also most likely see Regina Mundi church, Credo Mutwa Cultural Village and the Apartheid Museum in the course of their day.

They may stop in at the neighbourhood live snake show or shop for curios.

They will almost certainly eat at Nambitha’s or one of the other restaurants here.

Creating jobs

There’s so much to see in Soweto nowadays – especially if you throw in night tours – that many tourists prefer sleeping over.

Easily a dozen B&Bs service the commercial hub of Orlando West.

Heading up a pristine road towards a koppie, we pass several, but our first stop is the curiously named Vhavenda Hills B&B.

“It’s because I’m from Limpopo,” says owner Kate Lechaga.

“I want the people from Limpopo to book here.”

The 50-year-old speaks in crisp, pointed English, a kindly woman with rounded cheeks and a great love of pink when it comes to the decor in her guest rooms.

The towels are plump and the bedding hotel-crisp.

“We started with B&Bs here in 2002".

My husband was a tour guide and people were asking, “Where can we sleep in Soweto?” Kate says.

“We formed a group of about eight women in the area. Tourists have been coming here since 1994, but there were too many in the bus for one B&B because our houses are small. So we decided we can share the tourists between us.”

For the first time since arriving in Soweto from school in Limpopo, Ma Kate had a proper job with prospects.

Clever collaborations

Ten years later, the B&B mamas of Orlando West still meet once a month.

Many of them have been “adopted” by Tsogo Sun’s corporate social investment project.

This CSI offers workshops in everything from bed-making to computer skills and plans research trips to hotels and other B&Bs as far afield as Cape Town.

They’ve also launched a website for the B&Bs.

At their meetings, the mamas discuss upcoming events that draw bookings – like the recent Africa Cup of Nations at the nearby football stadium and the Soweto Marathon – and how to market themselves.

“So does it work? Do you have lots of guests from Venda?” I ask.

Ma Kate chuckles. “Mostly they are internationals,” she says, adding that you can tell a lot about a culture at the dining room table.

“The Germans, they like beer. When I take them to dinner it’s the first thing they order. At breakfast the French don’t like bacon and sausages. They just want cereals and toast. And they like their coffee. The Americans like a full English breakfast.”

Sometimes there is a request for an African breakfast.

“That means soft porridge, vetkoek, fish, atchar and a boiled egg,” says Ma Kate.

New perceptions

The 2010 Fifa World Cup was good to Vhavenda Hills and the guests she’s most fond of discussing are a team from BBC radio.

“They broadcast from the pink room. The cables were coming down the stairs. They would talk about my B&B and people phoned to make bookings,” she tells us.

I ask her if some foreign visitors are still nervous of Soweto.

“They have this idea we all live in shacks and don’t have running water or electricity,” she says.

“They think it’s dangerous to walk in the street. But when they leave they say it’s not at all like what they read in the newspapers.’

“I hope they don’t expect to see animals on the street," I joke.

“Yes! They do!”

“No way. Lions?”

“And hyenas!” she says. “But not so often any?more.”

Coming up roses

A short distance away, Dakalo B&B catches the eye at once – it’s surrounded by lush gardens and tall trees.

“I’ll tell you who is scared of Soweto, it’s our white people. The international people are more free,” says Dakalo owner, 65-year-old Dolly Hlophe.

Behind a ready smile and secretary glasses, she has a rapier tongue.

“Are you colour-blind?” she asks, when I comment on another B&B with a pink room. ‘This is a red room.”

Ma Dolly says she has inherited her mother’s gift for creating beautiful gardens – despite being forcibly removed from Sophiatown with her family as a child and moving frequently.

“When I got here in 1978, after the riots in 1976 there was nothing, just burned veld,” she recalls.

“They allocated stands and we built houses.”

Today, certificates for winning the best rose garden in Soweto hang in the entrance hall.

“My garden is one of the best,” she says.

“But there’s an old man that other side.

He won three times and was even on Top Billing.”

Ma Dolly worked as a computer operator until she was retrenched.

She began making curtains, bedding and cushions before opening her home to tourists in 2002.

“They used to call this Dolly’s Forest,” she says of the trees that she planted outside.

“Now the whole street’s gardening,” I say.

“Yes, I try to influence them and motivate them. I give them plants.”

We’re interrupted by the arrival of Bra Cali Ngwenya, who is building the largest B&B in the area.

I cannot imagine the gruff Bra Cali on a trip to Cape Town with the sewing and gardening mamas.

“Ja, now you must say thank you because you are meeting a journalist because of these bloody women,” Ma Dolly teases him as we walk out, past the creeping jasmine shaped as a giant basket.

Good hospitality

“Do I talk too much?’ asks Mama Lolo Mabitsela when we get to her home in the upmarket Diepkloof Extension Phase Three.

“As a B&B owner you must keep talking, or else the guests run away,” she says.

We are looking at a Winnie Mandela-esque photo of her as a young teacher – the first in her neighbourhood.

“With me it’s always been firsts,” she says of her B&B, Mama Lolo’s, established in 2001.

I ask about her upbringing and she starts to sing: “My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy …” It’s Rebecca Malope, but she makes it sound like Dorothy Masuka.

As we tour the house that has been written about in the New York Times, a young German woman emerges from a room.

Hanna first stayed here seven years ago as an exchange student.

“I lived in Soweto. It’s the place to be,” she says.

“Now I am a social worker and I’ve returned on holiday.”

She is friends with Mama Lolo’s granddaughter and the young women are decked in summer frocks and setting off to Pretoria on the Gautrain.

Mama Lolo speaks fast, imperious in her throne-like chair.

She tells me how she taught members of parliament and studied until she became a headmaster and then an inspector.

But her true calling seems to be the hospitality industry.

“I wanted to be the first three-storey in the area,” she says.

“I would have liked to have started Soweto’s first hotel. But because of my age, the banks tell me I am high risk when I go and ask for a loan.”

She pauses. “I never thought there would be foreigners here,’ she says.

“Let alone local white people sitting where you are.”

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