South African Homestay in Makushu Village: 5 Things You Need To Know

During a six month trip through Africa recently, we were lucky enough to have a rural homestay in Makushu Village built into part of our trip (on a month long tour we took with Intrepid Travel). It was an incredible experience that we felt extremely privileged to undertake, and we’d do it again ourselves in a heartbeat.

That being said, this was a part of our trip that we think requires a little extra preparation!

Table of Contents

Our tour group with our homestay hosts in Makushu
Our host families and tour group

Introduction

As part of their Africa overlanding tours, Intrepid travel offer the chance to experience a local South African homestay. They offer this in a few destinations, and we’ve been lucky enough to try this with them in multiple places. For South Africa, they partner with a small village named Makushu. It’s really beautiful and just to the North of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. The people of Makushu live a very simple life and have been generous enough to invite tourists to their town with open arms and open hearts, to show them a taste of local life in South Africa.

It’s a beautiful thing really; South Africa is, in major cities, and to the eyes of most tourists, a country designed with tourists and business travellers in mind. Of course there are many beautiful touristy areas in South Africa, such as the Garden Route, and their many stunning National Parks, however a visit to Makushu offers a real once in a lifetime opportunity to get completely off the beaten track, and immerse yourself in a culture that you might otherwise never have known. The same, I’m sure, can be said of any rural South African village offering a homestay.

The experience of a homestay is vastly different from the typical trip to South Africa visiting Cape Town, the Garden Route or the National Parks, but that truly is something that makes it exceptionally unique and worthwhile.

How does a homestay work?

You’ll be invited to stay with local families, who will host you in their own homes. There are no hotels, so you will really be experiencing life as the locals do. Each homestay family usually takes in around 2 people each, and they have all signed up for the scheme as volunteers (they’re not paid). The homestay usually lasts two nights, and you’ll have a guide with you throughout most daylight hours, who can translate for you and help you settle in with your family. They’re not normally part of the family you’re staying with, but will be a family friend.

Food will all be completely local ingredients, prepared on site and you will have a chance to help out with daily chores and simple tasks. Don’t worry – you’re not exactly going to be put to work, it’s completely up to you how much or how little of that you get involved in, but it is usually respectful to offer to help out a little, and show an interest in the activities. The local guides will usually translate for you if you family does not speak English, so you can make yourself clear.

A group of children in South Africa wearing brightly coloured clothes. They are all dancing
The welcome dance on our arrival

Top tips for a homestay in Makushu Village

1. A lot of local culture is going to hit you in the face, all at once!

Personally we can say, this was nothing but a pro in our eyes! As two travel-obsessed backpackers, we were pretty excited when, on arrival, we met pretty much the entirety of this tiny South African village who wanted to perform a dance show for us.

We’d visited a lot of Africa by this point and spent a lot of time in South Africa, which is actually where we first met, so we’d seen our share of dance shows, and thought this was great fun. The local kids were all super excited to have guests, so they were up dancing and wanted us all to watch them and then join in (which naturally we did!). The adults were almost as excited as the kids, and all wanted to make friends with us immediately and show off their village.

Honestly, it was brilliant and we loved meeting them all, it was one of our favourite encounters on the trip, BUT it is really important to be prepared for this as it caught a lot of our fellow travellers off guard and was a little overwhelming. For many of them, it was their first trip to Africa, and being greeted by so many enthusiastic children and new faces came as a bit of a shock. Most of them had been travelling for a couple of weeks at this point, but it it left them feeling slightly dazed, especially since they had been on a bus for most of the day!

It certainly does help to know what you’re in for before arrival and to try to get a lot of rest the day before so you’re ready for a culture shock.

Kindergarten graduation

We were also asked to attend a kindergarten graduation, which was adorable! It was a fun festival-type ceremony, a lot of it in the local language (Tshivenḓa/Venda), with some singing, dancing and some presentations from the kids. Again, Murray and I had been to our fair share of African events like this (we have some family in Tanzania) and were quite well-prepared in advance that it would be quite long, quite religious and perhaps not as scintillating as it might sound. We don’t mean to be rude, but it is quite difficult to stay stimulated when sitting through a lengthy ceremony, most of which is in a language you don’t understand!

However, some of the others were not quite as prepared for this and did get a little grumpy towards the end. When asked along to one of those events, it’s definitely worth saying yes for the experience. If you take it for what it is – a display of culture and an insight into local customs – it can be fun. It’s our belief that when viewed through that lens, it does become much more interesting.

The Kindergarten Graduation ceremony, if you can believe that!

2. The bathroom situation in Makushu Village is unusual, but not unpleasant!

As we said in our introduction, you’re staying in the homes of local people. In rural South Africa, modern plumbing is not so common… Generally, the houses in Makushu used outdoor compost toilets. This will be the case with most homestay villages in Southern Africa. They’re shaped like a traditional Western toilet, but the seat is made of wood and is on top of a long drop, so there’s no flush and no sink.

In Makushu, the toilets are kept really clean, especially when there are guests staying, and the families do provide toilet paper. We’re sure it would be the same elsewhere. It is definitely not as rustic as a traditional long drop, and we actually found it quite pleasant to use, but it is worth knowing that there are certain mod-cons missing.

Likewise, the bathing situation is a lot of fun, but perhaps not what you’re used to. In each family in Makushu, there is usually a matriarch, who will do most of the cooking, cleaning and housework. In our house, the matriarch was an amazing lady called Esther, who was actually the wife of the village chief (which, we felt, was quite the honour)! Every morning, she would prepare us a piping hot bucket of water, which we could use to bathe in, either in our room or in the outdoor shower area.

Showers

There was no shower per se, but there was an outdoor wooden cubicle. It was set up like a shower cubicle where we could have our baths. The ‘tub’ (/bucket) was actually big enough that I could fit in it (though sadly Murray was too big) so I had a great time with it, and it worked like a normal bath for me, albeit a bit of a cramped one. Again, this can take some getting used to – from our perspective, we really hadn’t had much hot water on this trip, so we actually thought it was a nice change!

The toilet and the shower cubicle are the only two bathroom areas, so the lack of sink was a bit of a challenge, but we managed to clean our teeth in our room, using a small plastic cup Esther had given us.

A group of South African villagers plus our tour group sitting around a tv screen in a very old and dingy bar. We are all celebrating a goal.
Being in Makushu for the World Cup was a great experience

3. You might experience some food in Makushu Village that you aren’t used to

First things first, the people of Makushu can really cook, and all of the food we ate there was amazing. The mamas of the village made a phenomenal effort for us both nights we were there. They really cooked us up an absolute treat both days. The food is all completely locally sourced (mainly because it’s quite difficult to get any other food), and a lot of it is home grown, so you will definitely be experiencing authentic South African Cuisine.

Foods you can expect to find on a typical dinner spread:

  • Pap (maizemeal – the South African version of ugali or grits) or buckwheat (another type of starch, mashed to a swallow)
  • Chakalaka (a tomato dish, reminiscent of a spicy salsa)
  • Some kind of local meat in sauce or fish (varies)
  • Rice
  • Maybe potatoes and some other vegetable dishes

Breakfast is usually a type of local bread or doughnut with fruit, tea, coffee, juice etc. What was a bit of a shock to most of us was that on the day of our arrival, we were served up all of the above, along with a large bowl of chicken feet! I was suddenly feeling delighted to be vegan* but a few of the others were pretty aghast and let’s just say, it didn’t go down perhaps as well as they’d hoped!

A few of our group did try them and liked them, but most of us chose to avoid – it’s worth adding here that the locals really didn’t seem to mind this, and we weren’t forced to eat anything. We think really they were just trying to give us a more unique dish to try. Additionally, it’s really important not to be rude. This may not be typical dinner food to you, but it is to them, and it’s common in many parts of South Africa.

Dietary requirements:

*Note for those with dietary requirements: you need to make sure your tour leader knows exactly what you can and can’t eat and passes this on to the homestay families in advance of your stay. It shouldn’t be a problem but if your requirements are complex, they might need to ensure they have ingredients on hand, which can be difficult in the village. We had a complex group for dietary requirements (multiple vegans, vegetarians and coeliacs) and none of us struggled.

Emma and Murray (a white British couple) are standing with their arms around a black South African family, including an elderly lady, a small child and a young man.
Our host family – Esther, her granddaughter and our guide, Austin

4. There might be a language barrier

Though the guides speak excellent English, as do a lot of the local families, there are some members of the community (particularly the older generation) who don’t. The local language in Makushu and northern South Africa is Tshivenḓa (sometimes known as Venda) and it is widely acknowledged in Africa as one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Our guide, for example, spoke 9 Southern African languages, but had not yet managed to get his head around it!

Though you will almost always have a guide to translate for you, there may be times when you find yourself alone with a family member who doesn’t speak English at all (for example, Esther did not speak any English), so you may need to be patient and try to make yourself understood in other ways (such as gestures or else you can try Google Translate, though it didn’t have Venda available when we went).

The guides and families will very happily teach you a few words and will be delighted if you show an interest, so it is definitely worth giving it a shot. The local families really appreciate this effort as well, they were even happy when we learnt how to say good morning and thank you, so I do recommend trying to learn at least that!

Sesotho

Apparently Venda is very similar to Sesotho (the language of Lesotho), which is a slightly easier language to learn, so you could try learning some words of Sesotho instead, and the older generation will usually speak Afrikaans or Dutch. Unfortunately Esther told us (through our guide Austin) that although she could speak Afrikaans, she preferred not to, as she associated it with quite a traumatic time in her past (understandably), so it may be worth being aware of this as it might be best avoided.

Sesotho is also a common language in much of Southern Africa.

5. The facilities are quite limited

As we have said, Makushu is a small, rural South African township, so there really isn’t much there. This will be the same for many rural towns in Southern Africa. In terms of facilities that they do have, you can find:

  • A couple of local shops, selling things like bread, local sweets and snacks, and bottles of water
  • A school and some community-run initiatives, such as craft workshops (for bracelets, necklaces, beading etc.) – you can also purchase these souvenirs as you leave and it’s a nice way to give back to the community
  • A bar! Actually they have two, but they’re both a little out of the village centre. The locals will probably take you to one on one of the nights. You can get local beers, sodas, water etc. This is worth going along for, and definitely a highlight – the atmosphere is really fun.

Important to note, they do not have:

  • An ATM. You need to bring cash if you want to make purchases as they don’t take cards in many places
  • A hospital or pharmacy – always good to know
  • Proper supermarkets with any kind of foreign or imported goods
  • Petrol stations (the nearest one is quite a way out of town)
  • Clothes shops, tech shops, hardware stores

For the homestay, the houses you’re staying in themselves are also pretty basic. Ours was the fanciest, and had a TV! But this was rare. They are mostly stone walls and floors, with basic facilities, no indoor plumbing or kitchens (cooking is all done outsides on open fires), no internet. They will usually have have simple electricity (light bulbs are generally not very strong), as well as blankets and proper beds.

Austin, a black South African tour guide is taking a selfie, with a group of tourists and locals behind him. Everyone is hugging and saying goodbye to each other.
Saying our goodbyes!

Our top tips for a Southern African homestay:

Go into a homestay with an open mind, and go with the flow

If you feel it will help you to look up local customs beforehand, we would never discourage you. We always feel that when travelling, we are guests in another person’s home, so it’s super important to be respectful of their culture and traditions. That being said, even if you have no idea what might come next, try and and embrace it! These homestays are very safe, just very basic, and they’re a fantastic way to have a unique experience when travelling. The best way to get the most out of it is to enter with an open mind and see where it takes you.

Have fun!

You are a new face to the people hosting your homestay and they are curious about you. Try to enjoy your time with them as much as you can and make some friends. A positive attitude is the best way for this, so don’t sweat the small stuff and enjoy yourself where you can. Saying yes to new experiences is a great way to engage with this lifestyle.

Take with you any essentials you might need

By this we mean any medications you might need (anti diarrhoea medication, painkillers, prescription meds) as you won’t find them in Makushu/other rural African villages, as well as any home comforts you know you’ll need or things which might help make your stay more enjoyable. We suggest having a small first aid kit and a solar charger, just in case you don’t have chance to charge your devices and think you might need them. Those with complex dietary requirements might also consider taking snacks just in case.

Take cash for buying small souvenirs and tips

As mentioned above, the people of the homestay villages usually showcase some handmade goods which are available for purchase. This is a nice way to support the villagers for their hospitality and generosity and means a lot to them – additionally it usually goes towards meaningful community causes, such as women-led youth initiatives or school projects. We also had some cash on hand to tip our guide (the equivalent of around 10 USD per day is customary). We were told it’s not customary to tip the host families. The Intrepid guides usually make a kitty at the start of the stay and tip them with that, but we did give our host a present (a scarf), which she loved.

Finally, be respectful

Whatever happens on your homestay, remember that you are a guest, and as such your hosts are extending their very best hospitality to you. Though it may be different than what you are used to, they are usually very proud to host you, and it is really important to be gracious, grateful and demonstrate respect for their homes.

Don’t:

  • Create a lot of mess or extra work for your hosts
  • Make negative comments about their home, cooking or facilities, even if they are not what you are used to
  • Complain unless really necessary. You have a chance to feedback to your tour leader at the end of the trip with anything you are unhappy with.
  • Forget to say thank you – these people have gone out of their way to make you as comfortable as they can

Do:

  • Get stuck in, engage in activities, help out with tasks and show interest and curiosity
  • Tidy up after yourselves, ask where things like bins are so that you can dispose of rubbish
  • Be polite and friendly
  • Enjoy it!

This might sound obvious, but we saw people who were out of their comfort zone make a lot of these mistakes (sometimes unknowingly). Preparation helps, but most important is to have an open mind and a positive attitude. A homestay in rural Southern Africa is an amazing opportunity for everyone, so make the best of it and you’re bound to come out with some new friends and some really cool new experiences.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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