It all began in the early 1900s in Zimbabwe, when the white settlers built a town called Salisbury and there was an influx of people from nearby countries, such as Mozambique and Zambia, looking for employment. To accommodate migrant labourers, the local council built hostels and flats. Separate housing, education and social networks were built for the black community in special townships that were established on the outskirts of the town.

These ‘high-density areas’, as they were called, were far from the traditionally white settlements and central business districts, and very often lacked basic facilities such as water and electricity. For many years, these areas were associated with violence and squalor, and people avoided them.

As the strife-torn country opened itself up to tourism over the last couple of years, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) replicated South Africa’s successful township tours to give tourists a glimpse into these racially segregated communities.

Garikayi Oscar, a young entrepreneur I meet at the SANGANAI- Hlanganani World Travel and Tourism Fair in Harare, talks about the tours he offers in a township named Highfield. “Townships are places of culture and traditions and are multi-ethnic by nature,” he says. “What began as a humiliating system has now become a symbol of how people have overcome the odds.”

The visitors get to experience Mbira or Township music (the Zimbabwean interpretation of jazz), visit churches, interact with students and spend some time with the community, apart from visiting places associated with the freedom struggle. Highfield is where the liberation struggle originated; President Mugabe’s house still stands here.

For $30, you can go on a bicycle tour, which includes lunch and refreshments, share a big tub of traditional beer at the local beer hall, or visit a songoma or healer.

“Highfield has three distinct areas classified as 2, 5 and 12 pounds. Long ago this was a verdant field and residents could choose the spots to build their houses on — these were the prices at which the land was sold long ago,” says Oscar. Affluent black Rhodesians built their homes here, as compared to the government-built mass housing blocks in other parts of Highfield.

I visit Mbare, Harare’s oldest township, where black Zimbabweans have lived and worked for many years. Today, flats with communal baths and kitchens — built originally for labourers — are populated by entire families. Despite the obvious signs of poverty, there is a sense of community spirit. “Politicians, musicians, football players and prominent artists have come from this district,” says the guide.

Businesses are run round the clock in Mbare. This area has the country’s largest farm produce market. For many years, when the country’s economy was in shambles, this area had shops selling all kinds of products.

Locals cook their staple sazda (maize meal) in open fires, and sell roasted corn alongside ice candies in plastic pouches. The covered Curio Market is stacked with musical instruments made from dried fruits, soapstone sculpture, intricately woven baskets, and animals carved out of wood. Bright murals, done by Dutch artists as part of the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA), enliven the shabby walls. At the crowded Mupedzanhama Market, second-hand clothes are sold for as little as a dollar.

This politically volatile area has seen rough times — in 2005, the controversial Operation Murambatsvina, in a crackdown on illegal housing and the black market, destroyed unauthorised homes and businesses and left thousands of people homeless.

Makokoba is the oldest township in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and houses rows of shabby houses festooned by laundry lines, graffiti on walls, and a bustling local market selling different varieties of maize used to brew beer and a cornucopia of herbal remedies.

Given that the people here are accustomed to scarcity, almost everything is recycled — slippers are made from old tyres, old oil cans are converted into works of art (like animals) or figures to decorate homes and gardens. You can join the locals at the beer hall; for a dollar, you will get a large bucket of Chibuku beer made from maize or sorghum.

Township tours have been a subject of controversy for being voyeuristic and ‘turning poverty into entertainment’. But, in a country like Zimbabwe, it presents an opportunity for craftsmen to sell souvenirs, tour guides to make money, and for the country’s tourism industry to grow.

You see the poverty and hardship, but also get a no-holds-barred glimpse into the life of marginalised communities. “One of the negatives in developing township tourism is that these areas generally work on a cash economy with no credit cards or ATMs,” says a friendly local.

I ask Cont Mhlanga, a famous theatre personality in Bulawayo who conducts township tours, about how safe these tours are. His reply: “As long as you don’t flaunt your wealth or are not foolish, it’s as safe as walking in the other areas of the city”.