It’s mid-day. Disgusting and warm; sunray stands on rooftops.
Sifiso Ncwane’s Kulungile shouts from the pop-up churches, which are just about everywhere. Some men are high on drugs without a care; chicken feet are sold over there! Can you feel it, it is here.
This is the notorious Hillbrow you’ve always heard about!
As I attempt to keep up with the fast pace of Central Jo-hustle-burg, I think to myself; the freedom of homelessness can be such a dungeon, derailed by dusty days delayed in unrecognizable doses of procrastination. Dare to ask the drug dealers over there or the hookers on Nugget Street, fixing their hair; ask all the students from Eastern Cape who’ve come to look for a life here, whose mothers are still caged in the prison of “waiting” for husbands whose tongues, palms, spines and umbilical cords to home were swallowed and then spit out in dustbins and Shebeens of Soweto. Their rural siXhosa dialect has long been colonized by seSotho and siZulu dialects, and it quite tickles their fancy because they probably sound streetwise now. I had a conversation about this with a young man from Limpopo; he, too, is never sure which one of the men he passes every day is his father, if any is.
Were I a mother, the fear not to lose children to the stomach of Johannesburg would haunt me like regret, so I’d call my son every midnight, just to check if he still knows the color of the soil where his ancestors rest.
I should introduce myself.My name is Ziphozakhe Hlobo; a descendant of the Thembu clan kwaNgub’engcuka, ooQhudeni, Mpafane, Thukela, Mvelase, Ngoza, Dlamathibane, Ndlaliweli, Mkhubukeli, Makhonz’ egoduka. My mother is the late daughter of the Ntshilibe clan, ooLanga, ooBhanqo, eCofimvaba, but her remains rest eNgcobo, the home of her husband, my father.
I grew up in Port Elizabeth, quite a small city compared to Johannesburg and growing up in a black suburb, I had a simple upbringing. In all the neighboring townships, the children from my neighborhood were known as spoilt brats and snobs.
To be honest, I did not relate to its lifestyle much. My parents lived in an informal settlement, eKhayelitsha, in Cape Town, and my aunt had taken me in to live with her Kwa-magxaki. So I had more in common with the children from the townships, though I never fully blended in there either.
Hillbrow reminds me of the book, Welcome to Our Hillbrow and the time when I enrolled at the University and had to move to the city, not far from a place called Central, to be close to school.
“You will be staying in Central, that place full of prostitutes and criminals?”
My family was very reluctant to give in to this idea and, to be quite honest, so was I. But, Central was the only place I could live in, because I had applied late and had to take the accommodation I was offered.
The infamous Central was known for absorbing young people into its night life and making them drug dealers or prostitutes and then spitting them out once they caught AIDS. It was supposedly a place where Nigerians, or as they were called,amakwerekwere, would lure young girls into prostitution.
Central was to Port Elizabeth what Hillbrow is to Johannesburg. In fact, while I was still in high school, a sex tape of a girl in our school was making the entire buzz; people were saying that amakwerekwere had drugged her and sold the video on the internet.Distressful as it may have been to the girl, I enjoyed the buzz because it helped me befriend some of the coolest kids who had never noticed me in my neighborhood. I would be walking to a shop or to the library, and someone I have never spoken to would say, “So, what happened to that girl?”
After the scandal, the sex tape became a way through which our teachers warned us not to go to Central because, “look at what happened to her.” It was our parents’ tool to emphasize the danger in the streets of Central and we were not to even think about going to that place — otherwise we would end up like her. One of our teachers told us that in Central, there was a strip club that he had read about in the newspapers, but whenever we asked him in which paper he had read it from, he simply laughed.
When my cousin dropped me off at South Point residence for the first time, she noticed this strip club named Club Erotica. The look on her face was priceless. I convinced her I was not going to go to Club Erotica or any other club; I was going to go to the Opera House to watch plays on my Saturday nights. In no time, Central stopped being Central, but the place I lived in, went to buy my groceries at and visited my friends at. It became the place I went back to after lectures and the place I eventually called home.
After school holidays, I’d always take a taxi to Central; loud cash collectors were sticking their heads out of the taxis’ broken windows, shouting, “Town, Njoli, New Bright!”
Of course, when I was in Central, I’d miss the sincere“Molo mntanam,” from a neighbor, when my nostrils were annoyed by the heavy smell of Maltabella, apparently used at South African Breweries to make beer, which was not too far from Kwa-magxaki.
I’m now in Johannesburg, missing the very same delicate warmth, a sentiment I share with all those who hail from far away from this mess.
When we used to recklessly run barefoot in the rain, in our small home towns and villages, did our parents ever think we would, some day, run so far away from home?
I do long for home though, but this longing always collides with my dream to be free. You know? To own the boulevards of the world.