Sunday, April 13, 2008

Welcome to Africa!

Stuck in Jo’burg, waiting for a flight tomorrow morning. All not lost, however: yesterday after arriving here from Sao Paolo I ended up at a travel agency in super chichi mall, trying to get tickets on Air Zimbabwe and Air Malawi. Not a straightforward matter. Agents Mpume and Deborah were delightful, however, and by the time we were done I had an invitation to dinner in Soweto. Six, they said, for real African food, and don’t be late.

Not exactly a ride on the Lunatic Express. Met them as they were locking the agency doors and they were ready to go: all high heels and lip gloss and lilting accents, like two birds chattering on a spring morning. We bombed through Jo’burg and after an hour of traffic and getting lost, a half-dozen cell phone conversations in various languages to help get us on track, and weaving through traffic lights darkened by the city’s rolling blackouts, ended up at an open, that-roofed bar/restaurant with picnic tables and oil drums filled with hot coals against the cool night.

The Township of Soweto is vast, a million people, a warren of narrow streets and square concrete and cinderblock and corrugated metal shacks, barely illuminated with dim lights. But post Apartheid has brought improvements and restaurants like this one never existed until its end.

I sucked down tripe stew and tumbled through the keyhole, lost in an array of languages. Deborah spoke five; Mpume, a Zulu, sang songs punctuated with clicks, and the hard drinking men around us closed in. “Why are you girls with that white man?” Mpume, translated, but curiosity (and the allure of the women) got the better of them, and soon they were plying us with Johnny Walker Black and beers.

“I hate Americans,” said a guy whose name was something like estrellas, but with a click at the beginning, “but I like you. I don’t know why.” Politics and political murder; crime; the resurrection of Christ – “We have a new pastor and I told him, ‘I am a good Christian but I do not believe in the resurrection.’ We argued about it, and on Easter morning I passed on my usual shot of whiskey before church. His sermon burned and moved me and made me cry. But it did not convince me!”

I tried to buy a round but failed, and Mpume rebuked me: “You cannot compete with them,” she said. “They must show how important they are so they buy for everyone at all these tables,” she said, waving her hand at the tables on either side.

After three hours we escaped into the night and the Soweto traffic, swerving around smashed cars in what looked like traffic wars, and hurtled down the highway back to the suburb of Randburg, Rihanna and Akon blasting at top volume. And Mpume shouted, “Welcome to Africa!”

Unfortunately, I forgot my camera...


Anonymous said...

wow seems like fun!!! sna they really speak in clicks??? that must have sounded soo cool!!!


RD Padouk said...

I found this piece to be both intriguing and alarming. Intriguing because you paint such a vivid picture of this city. The energy of the crowds, the babble of languages, the crazy traffic, and the exotic food all create an enticing image of barely-contained chaos where anything could happen.

I found the piece to be alarming for pretty much the same reasons.