By Bianca Mona
Disclaimer: This post was extremely difficult to write. First, I was worried about being offensive so my word selection was long and tedious. I didn’t want to seem judgmental and biased. Then I was worried about the fallibility of first impressions. First impressions are tricky. Some are spot on and remain, while others are adjusted as time goes by and an experience is had. In the end, this post is a mix of my judgments (which I am slowly working on) and some things I’ve noticed.
My semi-liberal self was determined to enter “Africa” with an open mind. The reality was I had no clue what to expect. I had no frame of reference, so why bother with assumptions or expectations. I told myself, Bianca, just be open to the experience.
So I entered Johannesburg, I thought, with open mind and open heart. What I would soon discover is my subconscious mind had been forming a narrative that would be disproven within days of my arrival.
My initial thoughts are as follows:
1) The South African sun shines brighter (and longer).
Generally the weather is nothing like I expected. The days hover around 85 degrees, while the nights go down to anywhere between 68 and 70 degrees. My mornings here are intense. The sun rises at a quarter to 5 and vividly shines until a quarter to 7 in the evening. This sunrise is crisp and refreshing. During the days, the sun slowly and tenderly kisses my skin. We have a pleasantly intimate relationship.
2) The diversity of the people.
I thought South Africa would be Black, White, and Indian. Ohhhh I was so wrong. Everybody and their mama lives here. EVERYBODY! Besides South Africa’s 11 official languages, in the course of the day I will also hear Wolof, German, French, Cantonese, Finnish, and Hausa. Most people are multilingual, speaking anywhere from 2 to 12 languages. One day, I asked one of my bilingual peers, “How do you determine which language to speak when approaching a stranger?” She simply said, “You try one and if it doesn’t work you try another. You eventually figure it out.”
3) Even pavement.
I think the only reason I noticed this is because New York’s streets are riddled with holes. Every block and every neighborhood is made of bumpy, rocky roads. And although the city repairs the roads annually, within 2 months, the New York City streets are fucked up again. I find this perplexing because Johannesburg, which is the size of 3 Brooklyns (which means it’s huge) generally has smooth, pothole-free streets. There are more people and more traffic, yet nicer streets. In conjunction, this is a mountainous, hilly place. Terrain is not flat at all.
4) Mall culture
Since, I have gotten here, I found that the people that I am around and observe really like malls. The mall is the hub for all sorts of activity and transactions. The grocery store is in the mall. The bank. The phone company. The drug store (referred to here as the chemist). The nail shop. All in the mall. I haven’t been to the mall so much since I was 13.
5) Smoking and drinking.
I thought smoking was passé. Didn’t the world get the memo that you will get cancer from smoking? Well, maybe the memo didn’t reach South Africa, because I see many young, brilliant, “healthy” folks smoking cigarettes. So many people smoke here that I am starting to wonder if the notion that one develops cancer from smoking is propaganda. Is secondhand smoke rhetoric because no one gives a damn about blowing smoke in my face. I guess everyone has a fix. Mine is bread and cake. For others its tobacco.
Oh but the alcohol here is divine. (Even the tap water here is delicious.) Fabulous bottles of wine for like 4 and 6 bucks. The drinking, of something, happens at every meal. And it’s kinda endless. Which makes me wonder, how do you know some is an alcohol if that much alcoholic consumption is taking place? I have had at least one drink almost every day since arriving. I soon will have to dry out.
6) General landscape (architectural, neighborhoods, and the like)
The white colonizers in South Africa were clever as hell. They systematically created a robust city and beautifully landscaped homes immediately surrounding the central downtown, while simultaneously creating slums (aka townships), partly modeled after Native American reservations in Canada, and barring people of color (anyone none white) from these affluent areas. My point being, Johannesburg is not “third world.” (I hate common vernacular usage of this term. For the record, “third world” country is not a country that simply is primitive, underdeveloped, or poor, as most people think. In fact, a third world country is actually just a country that is not considered a capitalist country (first world) and not considered a communist country (2nd world). This term was further defined during in “April 1955, twenty-nine countries from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East came together for a diplomatic conference in Bandung, Indonesia, intending to define the direction of the postcolonial world. Representing approximately two-thirds of the world’s population, the Bandung conference occurred during a key moment of transition in the mid-twentieth century—amid the global wave of decolonization that took place after the Second World War and the nascent establishment of a new cold war world order. Conference participants such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Zhou Enlai of China, and President Sukarno of Indonesia seized this occasion of change to attempt the creation of a political alternative to the dual threats of Western neocolonialism and the cold war interventionism of the United States and the Soviet Union.” http://books.google.co.za/books/about/Making_a_World_After_Empire.html?id=yRdG3-rELNkC&redir_esc=y) The homes and neighborhood here are simply beautiful. Old and historic with tons of lush fauna. And yes while the masses of Black South Africans still remain in township match box houses, these places too, are undergoing a facelift as the Black middle class expands. South Africa is not just your stereotypical, National Geographic’s, tittys out, loincloth nation.
Phew…that was a lot. Here’s some other random facts about JHB: http://www.wits.ac.za/placesofinterest/16403/johannesburg_at_a_glance.html
Each day I’m growing and expanding my thoughts about this complex and intriguing place.