A walk on the wild side
September 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
I took a walk before breakfast today, as I do most days, but instead of winding my way through the genteel suburbs, I headed for the grit and pace of Louis Botha Avenue.
Louis Botha, for those not from here, is a big arterial that connects Alexandra Township in the north with the Johannesburg CBD. It is ruled by Joburg’s traffic tyrants: scores of white minibus taxis that perform breathtaking breaches of traffic laws in the quest to acquire the most commuters and hopefully get them to their destinations. Arriving alive is far from guaranteed for their customers.
But oh, what a treasure trove of shops and sights and smells I found.
These are not the glitzy shops you see replicated in every mall across South Africa. There’s nothing glamorous about any of the shopfronts, and there is evidence of decay on most of the buildings. But there’s so much more to see – life and vitality and colour with every step you take.
The most common shops along the stretch where I walked were small convenience stores selling groceries and fruit, Hair salons and small dressmaking concerns rubbed up against each other. I leant on a wall to post a picture on Instagram and caught the unmistakable whiff of stale urine, and then, on the next block, the comforting aroma of fresh bread, the staff inside busily tending to a queue of customers. I peered through a dusty window to see beautiful loaves flecked with flax seeds, quietly cooling on a stainless steel rack.
A little further up the road, I came across a car spares shop, just there, on the high street, like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. Front bumpers on the pavement heralded its presence; a peer inside the door revealed stacks of car doors and other assorted wonders. I stopped to take a picture and a water meter reader waited patiently for me step off the meter cover so he could do his work.
I did a fair amount of peering into doorways. There are wonderful alleyways and entrance halls that beckon you to explore the flats above, or the courtyards at the back.
One building, painted matt black on the outside, had the most gorgeous painting just inside the door. I caught a brief impression of yellow, orange and blue concentric circles and wished, several blocks later, that I’d been less shy about taking a photograph.
I also discovered that right there, mere blocks from my home, the City of Johannesburg has installed an African literature bookshop. As an author, this makes me exceedingly happy – it’s so important not only to cultivate literature both at home and on the rest of the continent, but to encourage a culture of reading and increase platforms for Africans to tell their own stories. I beamed up at its bright blue beauty in a way that saw anxious parents pulling their toddlers a little closer to their sides.
Louis Botha Avenue is one of those places with a bit of a reputation. It’s gritty and dirty and the pavements have stories to tell. There are remnants of fires in disused doorways, broken glass glints from every corner. A bullet hole sends weblike ripples outwards on a shopfront window.
But there’s a buzz. Shopkeepers sweep the pavements clean and shoo their children away from the roadside edge. Groups of young men gather for a smoke and a laugh. Children in neat blue uniforms hurry to their first class of the day. Harried mothers clean invisible dirt off their babies’ faces in that time-honoured finger-licking gesture. Smiles are wide, greetings are genuine.
It’s quintessential Johannesburg. It’s home.