Monday, May 14, 2018

What’s the Word Johannesburg? – Jo’burg Day 1 (April 2017)

Traditional South African Cuisine at Pata Pata (Oxtails)

I left Cape Town on a sunny Monday afternoon. I arrived in Johannesburg to problems. The Airbnb was complicated to get into. I had to pick up the key in one building and then find the next, leaving my luggage in an Uber. Only problem was that I could not find the entrance to the apartment building. I ended up walking around the block desperately asking security guards to help me. Finally, I found it (after an hour) and I was completely frazzled. The guard and driver helped me get my things up three long flights of stairs (they too were not in the airbnb description) and I arrived. The apartment was nicely designed, as was reflected in the photos, but it was hot. The lack of a/c was a detail that I had forgotten. No screens on the windows or sliding patio door. But I was there.

Moabang Tailor Shop
So I will not complain. I changed my clothes and set off for dinner. I was staying in Moabang, an area that is considered to be the arts district of Johanessburg. It was kind of like areas of Brooklyn, NYC but without the basic living necessities like grocery stores. I had dinner at a restaurant called Pata Pata, named for Miriam Makeba’s popular song. Art spaces dotted the streets, along with dress shops offering tailored clothing in bold African prints. I started calling people. I felt really uncomfortable, insecure and unsafe. I knew not a soul in Johannesburg but unlike Cape Town, I did not have the security of a prime location and hotel concierge. I called my husband. I called another friend. Finally I remembered to call a person from Johannesburg that I had met in Ghana last summer. Her name is Ilke and she also teaches music. She happened to be in the far western cape (the lower southwest of the country) the exact days that I was going to be in the city. She offered to connect me with another musician friend of hers. This connection turned out to be gold. Mpho is a traditional musician who volunteered to take me into Suweto. I was mildly interested in the things that tourists normally do in a city. The mainstream things. But I was really in Johanessburg to connect with the freedom struggle. A movement that was rooted in the Suweto township. During apartheid South African Blacks were relocated to townships from various areas of the cities. They were packed in tightly to these places. Very much like Jewish people were forced into the Ghettos of Warsaw, Poland. Whites took the best land, near the coast or in spacious areas. Blacks were forced to live outside of the city and commute to their jobs. I did not realize that Suweto was so far outside of Johannesburg. It is about a half hour drive.

Brother Mpho came to collect me the next day in the late morning. Suweto was our destination. When we arrived I realized that Suweto was a bastion of Blackness. Black folk were everywhere. The place where I was staying felt like gentrified Brooklyn. This place felt like the Washington DC of my childhood. I realized I had found my home in South Africa. Our first stop was the Hector Pieterson Museum. The Museum is named after the 12 year old boy who was shot by police during a protest march. Sound familiar? Suweto students were marching to protest the Afrikans language as the medium of instruction in their schools. The police opened fire on the students and killed many of them. The museum exhibitions present a chronology of the events that led to his murder. Its location is not too far from the protest site. 

The exhibition includes video footage of the South African president of that time and supporters of apartheid. He was a Nazi supporter who wore a Nazi uniform and spouted racial hatred and separatist, read black oppression, ideas. White South Africans are actually on camera talking about how they shouldn’t mix with ‘the lower races.’ It was not only Black folks harmed by slavery and colonialism. Whites harmed themselves. In the history section of the new Smithsonian African American Museum, it is stated that the 500 year period of slavery created ‘Whiteness.’  Ingrained in the construction of whiteness are supremacist ideas, hatred and murder. The white South African supporters of apartheid needed a new identity. Mandela and Dr. King gave it to them.  The Civil Rights and Anti-Apartheid movements also helped them to redefine themselves. But more work needs to be done.

I cried at the museum. Especially when I saw the freedom songs. Freedom songs. We African -
Americans have those too. There was also a blossoming of protest poetry during their movement. Poetry in Zulu and Xhosa. Poetry in their languages that defined their identity. I came away with a new understanding of the time during apartheid. After the museum we went to Nelson Mandela’s house. Yes – I said the Mandela house! His home in is Suweto, where he lived with Winnie and his two daughter, Zenani and Zindziwa (Zindzi for short). Desmond Tutu lived down the street. The home has been transformed into a beautiful museum. I walked slowly through taking in all of the photos, personal affects and furniture. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wanted to soak it all in. They looked at me and charged me the entry fee for members of the African Union. My brothers and sisters – we the African – American nation should formally join the African Union. That’s where we belong! Each room is set up in the way it was when they lived there. The girl’s beds are still in the same place. There are all kinds of awards, videos and audio narration all over the house. I was very, very moved.

Maya with Mama Dee at Kliptown Youth Center (Suweto)
After this, my Brother Mpho took me to a youth center in Kliptown, a well - known and very impoverished area of Suweto. One lady wearing a beautiful head wrap surprised me. She stood up and out of her lips flowed the mellifluous talk of an African – American woman from the South. I hugged her in amazement and asked where she was from. She told me she was from South Africa. Mama Dee left the country at the height of apartheid and moved to Texas. During her twenty years in the US with us, she adopted African America as her second home and culture. Hence, her southern Black folks way of talking. She took me on a tour of the center, which houses youth, provides career development and hosts retreats. At the end of my visit I heard a powerful choir rehearsing. I went to see them. They were standing in a dark room, lit only with one dim candle. Their voices soared through the blackness up to the dusky star lit sky. Their singing was powerful and encompassed the heart of all listeners. We should not be ashamed. Music, singing…music making, musicality, however you want to say it, is a part of Black identity. It is blackness. Not that it is all that we excel in. We have brilliance in all areas. But let’s not allow other’s foolish stereotypes rob us of our identity. The way we make music is black. After a while, Brother Mpho gently told me that it was time to go.

It was night. By the way, Suweto is huge. There are people of all socioeconomic levels that live there. We pulled up to a cozy looking house with a gravel walkway leading to the back. This was a Tuesday night jam session. We walked towards the back of the house to a covered outdoor area. A wildly colorful mural was the backdrop for the stage filled with musicians who could play their behinds off! Learned another thing. Everything that we African – Americans have in music is because we are form Africa! Those folks could play. Different artists and bands began to sit in. We were kind of there early for the pre-show (We arrived at around 7) I understood the wisdom in this, because by nine o’clock the place was absolutely packed. This was where it was happening in Jo’burg. There was a singer there named Zuka of the Zuka Collective. She had such freedom in her singing. She would break out into a dance during instrumental breaks and sang with such expression. She was great. I cannot really describe it all. How does one describe a vibe? How can I describe intangibles such as music and groove? What I will say it that what they were doing is fresh. Everyone knows (or should know) when something new is happening. I am sure the Cats felt that way at the dawning of the be-bop movement in Harlem in the 1940s. Something new. And so it was in Suweto at that  jam session. Suweto is like Harlem. A majority Black place where culture happens and where political movements happen. A place of Black consciousness. So that was my first day in Jo’burg. The answer to my jazz in South Africa question awaited me my next evening out. 

Mpho at Tuesday night jam in Suweto

Sister Zuka sings in full force

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