Ring around the rosie, pocket full of Josie
21 June 2012 § Leave a comment
A brief history of my days in Johannesburg
As the days dwindle—only three remain—something (guilt? compulsion to reflect upon weeks instead of upon individual days?) demands conclusions, summaries, neat sentences that tie up experiences into bundles that other people can understand. Unfortunately, I more often fail than succeed in that, but I am rather fond of recording experiences here and there, so here is a jumbly stack of Joburg times, numbered to confer a sense of order.
1) The taxis
These are public cabs that go every which way round the city and prove a bit impossible to navigate unless you know the city; I have taken them here but did not dare essay a trip on one in Durban. Whenever I go to Wits, I just walk, for it takes only about forty-five minutes at a brisk pace, so the first time I took the taxi was last week when I went to Soweto to interview Oswald Mtshali. After a few mishaps, mostly because I was distracted and writing down interview questions, I finally made it to the downtown taxi station and wound my way around the multi-level behemoth of little vans until someone helped me find one headed toward Pimville (the part of Soweto I sought).
Then, a kind man helped me figure out where to alight, and he called for his friend across the street to come and help me. This young man (he was probably about twenty-five, tall, and friendly) led me on a twenty-minute walk through Pimville and explained that people do not even know street names; they simply go by house numbers. It is quite a muddled way of going about organising one’s town. During our journey, we chatted pleasantly, and he added himself to the list of people who ask me who my beau is, why he is not with me, and whether I am planning on getting married soon. For some reason, this poses no contradiction to the general consensus that I am eighteen years old (everyone who asks me my age is shocked when I tell them and then inform me that I am actually only eighteen). Does every girl in South Africa have a boyfriend? The shocked expressions and disbelief make me laugh. Even whilst writing this very post, the owner of the hostel inquired about my boyfriend. (Edit: when I was leaving South Africa, the customs official jokingly proposed to me and said it was too bad I was leaving, rather than entering, the country. When I’m in Kenya, I think I’ll just tell people that I’m married.)
When I made it to Mr. Mtshali’s house, I had a lovely time listening to him talk, and, after convincing me to tell him my hopes and dreams, he offered such encouragement about being a writer. He also called Nadine Gordimer for me so that I can meet her. He does not understand that by now—after I have written a letter to her and left two messages on her telephone—she is quite sick of me and will never want to meet me, and she is about ninety years old, so I daresay she may be dead before she ever changes her mind about me . . .
The return trip proved uneventful until I alighted where I thought Bree Street was (where the taxi rank is); I was actually far from it, and about a fifty-minute walk from Wits, which I discovered upon inquiring of three kind-looking souls which direction I should go in order to reach the university. They conferred in a nearly Dickensian manner, which I observed with amusement, allowing it to play itself out, and finally one of them suggested that I simply hop in the cab that was on its way to pick them up. I found out that one of them was the director of a nursing college close to Melville, and the other two were other officials. They dropped me off at Wits and went on their jolly way. It was caricaturish enough to make me laugh now.
Soon after arrival in this strange and varied place, a miniature coterie of friends (Grace, Lewis, Jacob, and Ryan, a friend and most helpful girl who’s here on a Fulbright and writing a book about Nat Nakasa, Lewis-my-research-subject’s best friend from childhood) ventured to the Indian part of town for dinner. The only time I had ever eaten Indian food before was in London, and I cannot remember in the littlest what the results were; if the food made me sick, I think I blocked it out of my mind. Or perhaps it was so cold that I did not notice being sick. In any case, I cheerfully ordered normal Indian food—some vegetable thing—in Fordsburg and felt quite proud of myself. Ah, pride comes before a fall. Fifteen hours later, my stomach felt nearly free of stabbing pains. Indian food wins a place on the list of permanently banned foods.
3) Driving to Pretoria
Weeks ago, when we rented Witsie, little did we suspect that, by signing papers and papers, we actually signed away innumerable (only because we never counted them) hours of our lives to navigating to and from Pretoria, which should be about forty-five minutes away. One time, it took us three hours. Wonderfully, all of the friends who made the blessed decision to live in South Africa this summer—I refer to Grace and Lewis, because they were the other two people in the car—are good-natured, and, in spite of carsickness, we managed to laugh at ourselves.
4) The Pretoria archives
Oh horror! After six log books (one of which required the serial numbers of cameras), we were finally allowed to obtain request slips, but those took so long to fill that I never saw a bit of what I requested, which, to be honest, was little. The woman behind the desk chattered away in Zulu on the telephone, and I laboured at a computer in the back, searching every word remotely connected to Lewis Nkosi; the glacial pace of the internet rendered this a solemn, slow-motion process. Whilst I awaited these phantom documents, I joined Grace at a much pleasanter task: reading. I’m still reading Light in August, yet even if I finish it before I arrive in the States, two novels remain in this remarkable volume of Faulkner (remarkable because the pages are Bible-thin; were every book’s pages thus, imagine the number of books one could transport during long journeys!).
We finally left after snapping as many photographs as possible of the documents that Lewis requested, in a fury of speed, because I had to be in Sandton, a schmancy northern suburb of Joburg, for an interview, which nearly made me swoon during it and for an hour after it. Peter Thuynsma, who started the African literature department at Wits with Ezekiel/Es’kia Mphahlele—who was nearly my research subject last semester—made me want to write his biography, and Mphahlele’s, and every other writer he mentioned. He was Ezekiel’s student in Denver, and they became close friends even before returning to South Africa, and he (Peter) became an American citizen, a rare occurrence among South African exiles. He said that he still gets chills when he is waiting in the line for American citizens when he goes through customs. He said it without blind patriotism or sentimentality—and, indeed, he lacked sentimentality in general; strict matter-of-factness marked his speech yet desisted from imparting any intellectual immovability—which made it all the more solidly encouraging. So many Americans disparage their own country that I took pleasure in hearing a South African-turned-at-least-partly-American avowing his love.
5) The bioscope
About a week ago, Jacob and a few other friends and I went to the bioscope downtown to see two documentaries: one was about Hillbrow, an erstwhile solely white and now virtually all black, strongly international, and allegedly dangerous part of downtown Joburg. My favourite part was an elderly Jewish woman who lived in Hillbrow when it was all white and still lives there. She is eighty-something years old and goes about her business and climbs the twenty-something flights of stairs with her little white dog after a round of errands and hair styling (it takes her two hours to climb all of the stairs). I keep mixing up the two films in my head (the other was about police brutality), but I think it was during the Hillbrow one that Jacob and I turned to each other with mutual recognition in our eyes: there, upon the screen, was a boy we met in March, when we visited the Central Methodist Mission and its adjoining school in downtown Joburg!
Bishop Paul Verryn also appeared on the screen, eliciting a collective (well, only from two of us) sigh. What a mensch!, as Professor Chafe would say.
I was signed up for a Sophiatown-Constitution Hill-Soweto-Sophiatown tour that was supposed to involve poetry tea and “sconce”, as they were termed in the notice, at the end, but after several directional mix-ups and extra walking (the two accompany all of my endeavours with inevitability) and discovering that the Constitution Hill tour was exactly what I had done before and we were headed for the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto, which I also visited before with my class, I claimed exhaustion (from travelling and frustration and boredom and social activity—a deadly combination for some people) and escaped from the tour.
When I had first departed from the hostel to walk to Sophiatown, which exists alongside Melville, I called the woman in charge, who told me where the group was. Behold!—when I arrived, they were actually somewhere else, “straight down the road,” as she next told me on the telephone. I then enquired of five people while walking down this road where to find the A B Xuma (he was president of the ANC once upon a moon) house, where I could only assume the group had relocated. The complete lack of knowledge of street names in their own neighbourhood of the people I asked shocked me. It is actually shameful. How is it possible not to know a road that is literally one block away? Eventually I found it, however, and my brief annoyance abated. This kind of outraged, disbelieving annoyance visits itself rarely enough upon my spirit that it rattled me for a few hours. Following escape, I made a delightful lunch, went running in a field, met a boy from Australia and talked to him for a few hours, and am now savouring the quiet evening hours that hold reading and writing as their finest pleasures.
Other unaddressed subjects include interviewing Juby Mayet (the only female Drum writer) in Lenasia, another part of Soweto; trying to return the car (it proved a difficult endeavour; we did eventually succeed); going to the drive-in movie theatre near Pretoria, the four of us realising at the same moment what an abomination of the art of film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was, and proceeding to provide commentary and laughing for the remainder of it; going shopping at vintage stores in Melville with Grace and finishing with a pair of bloomers; perishing multiple times whilst running up the hills in the Melville koppies; and scores of other adventures. Writing this list makes me realise how many there actually have been…
Edit: I did write this post on Saturday, but the internet disappeared before all of the photos could upload themselves (each one takes four to five minutes), and then I didn’t have/use internet until now (at home, where each photo takes about three seconds).