On a lazy Sunday afternoon, the whiff of gently spiced curries floats through the streets of Mamelodi. Men from the township chat jovially under a wooden shelter, drinking beer, taking turns to stir the large metal pots on the open fire. Cow heads, they tell me as I look curiously, reminded of open-air communal cooking in India, though you seldom find men taking charge here.
From a narrow street ahead, reggae music pours out, calling me towards it, towards women chilling in the outdoors over beer and gossip, dancing, playing pool! This is no party, just their only day off work. And so what if most of them are domestic workers with meagre wages, they sure know how to have a good time. I awkwardly smile at first, wondering if I am intruding. But the awkwardness melts away quickly in their jokes, and turns to hugs when they hear I’m from India. Take a picture of us, they urge me, so you can show your people how we live here; I oblige, for we can sure learn a thing or two from them. What I can’t learn though, are the dance moves they teach me; we laugh as I fumble around with my two left feet, until they give up and offer me beer instead.
Townships in South Africa are settlements where non-white people were forcibly segregated to during the Apartheid era, and while they come with some pretty scary labels, many of them became hubs of music, art and standup poetry. Unassuming and predominantly black Mamelodi, for instance, was once the Jazz capital of the country, it’s little houses creating heart-stopping music. The music still lives on today in the form of reggae and hip hop, and those who can’t afford a music system at home, figure out a workaround by using the one in their car or turning up the neighbor’s volume (Read: My First Impressions of South Africa).
The aromas of food tempt me and my new friend MaPhuti, to stop at the local resto-cum-pub, for a delicious meal of seasonal curries and rice, washed down with a South African Cider. MaPhuti takes me back in time to her childhood spent in a township near Johannesburg; her poignant tales are bittersweet, of the apartheid struggle, and the camaraderie within the community that kept them going during those dark days. There was a time when black, colored and Indian-origin people could only live, study and work in designated areas, but now that the country is open and opportunities are aplenty, young people like her are moving to the cities and choosing their own path in life. She moved to Johannesburg to become a CA, but recently quit her job to start a travel company that showcases a different and more real side to South Africa. (Read: What Seychelles’ Most Famous Musician Taught Me About Dreams).
She drives me to a secret spot up the hill, from where the lights of Mamelodi shimmer under the setting sun and music echoes through the valley as though holding it together. Silently, we introspect about the past, my thoughts drifting to my ancestors in India, who were taken far away from their homes to work on the sugarcane fields in South Africa – realizing just how lucky both MaPhuti and I are, to belong to a generation that has the freedom to travel, work and live life on our own terms.
Perhaps an Indian origin cabbie in Durban put it best:
“Our ancestors used to clean the grass and cut the cane.
We smoke the grass and drink the cane.”
Mamelodi is located near the city of Pretoria, an hour’s drive from Johannesburg. Based on what I’ve heard, it’s best to visit a township in South Africa accompanied by a local, atleast your first time. Please don’t opt for a township tour that takes you through one like a safari, not giving you the chance to meet and get to know the people. If you’d like to visit casually like I did, or stay a few days and experience life in a township, contact MaPhuti of Ubuhle Be Narha.
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