The morning of our first full day in Johannesburg broke in a blaze of sun. Sandra fiddled with the dial on her portable radio until she picked up what sounded like a local station that, except for the music and accent of the deejay, could have been mistaken for a station back home. Why is it that no matter where you go, almost all deejays sound the same?
Our room at Shepherds Court was large, and comfortable for the three of us and our suitcases. But it was the bathroom that had us ooohing and aaahing, with its heated tiles, shower, and whirlpool tub that beckoned invitingly each time we entered. Regrettably, we didn’t have time to enjoy it.
We spent most of the morning sorting the school supplies that we planned to donate. It was Sandra’s suggestion and Judith and I signed on without hesitation. Unfortunately, the week we arrived, all the schools were closed because of a strike. We were anxious for it to end as we had no plans to take the supplies back to New York.
Lorraine’s brother, Roger, arrived soon after our late breakfast to take us to Soweto and to meet their mom, Thandie Klaasen.
Known as one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite jazz singers, Thandie Klaasen has performed with Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle and Roberta Flack, among others. This elegant woman, of proud bearing, lives in a suburb of Johannesburg surrounded by the awards and mementos of her 50-plus-year career. Several young musicians seek her out and the night we were there was no different.
Mercy Pakela, a singer who was appearing that evening with Japanese jazz saxophonist, Sadao Watanabe, was there when we arrived. We all crowded together in Mrs. Klaasen’s living room, talking with her about her life, her struggles and her luncheon with Madiba. And as if the evening couldn’t get any better, both she and Mercy sang for us.
From the outset, we knew the trip would be fabulous, we just didn’t know it would be this fabulous!
Driving around Johannesburg, seeing the street signs, it started to sink in — we were actually in South Africa! We were living the trip that was once a dream. The excitement that was bubbling just below the surface boiled over when we saw the first directional sign that read SOWETO. We didn’t even have time to take our cameras out the first time we saw the sign but there were others and Roger slowed down long enough so that Judith could capture one.
I wished it had been daytime so my eyes could record every street, every building and every scene – in color. For so long, the media had defined Soweto for me, I wanted to replace those images with some of my own. Among the places on Lorraine’s list was Wandie’s, a township restaurant where Richard Branson, Quincy Jones and other famous people have eaten.
We weren’t as lucky. By the time we got to Wandie’s, the kitchen was closed. On hearing that, my hunger took on a new sense of urgency. It was as if I hadn’t eaten in two days. Where else could we eat at this hour?
Nambitha, another local restaurant not far from Wandie’s could have been in any large city. In front of the glass-fronted building, several large orange umbrellas, folded unto themselves, stood guard like sentries over the tables they protect during the day. Inside the airy dining space, light from the service area filtered through rows of bottles of wine giving the interior a warm, cozy feel.
Whereas the diners at Wandie’s looked older, Nambitha seemed to be the favorite eating place of Soweto’s young professionals. A group of twenty- or thirty-somethings was engaged in a spirited discussion at one table while a couple at another table seemed only to have eyes for each other.
When our server arrived, Sandra, Roger and I decided on the mutton curry, Judith the tripe. Roger suggested the dumpling as one of our accompanying dishes. Unlike the dumplings we were familiar with, this was a large, puffed flour ball that turned out to be very tasty and appropriate for the curry.
It felt natural and strangely liberating to leave my knife and fork on the table and eat with my fingers. I had washed my hands earlier but Roger signaled and the servers brought several bowls of water, wedges of lemon floating near the surface, and placed them next to each of us.
I must have had the taste of Jamaican-style curried goat in my mind because Nambitha’s mutton curry fell short, in my estimation. (Our curried goat is made from our own version of curry that we inherited from Indians who came to Jamaica from the sub-continent as indentured workers in the latter part of the 18th century. It is a mixture of several spices, including coriander, cumin, cardamon and tumeric, and any we curry make has a generous backing of Scotch Bonnet peppers).
This mutton curry tasted as if the chef had added water without balancing the spices, and once I tasted Judith’s tripe – she pronounced it “gamey” – I abandoned the mutton. The tripe tasted like what I’d get at a Jamaican Nine Night (a special wake that’s held for nine nights). It had the unmistakable flavor of a ram goat that had been cooked over an open fire. It was delicious.
Following the meal, we lingered and chatted with the staff. We left reluctantly so we could go home – to Roger’s. (Geez, I just realized I referred to Roger’s as “home.”)
A short drive from Nambitha, Roger showed us Bishop Tutu’s and Winnie Mandela’s homes. Unfortunately it was dark, so we couldn’t see much. As we drove to his home, I was struck by how quiet that part of Soweto was, it being a Friday night.
Roger’s modest home was on a quiet street of detached houses that could have been in any middle class community, anywhere in the world. After the images that we’d seen of Soweto on television, this felt strangely normal.
Our first full day in South Africa had come to an end and we hadn’t only visited, we were about to overnight in Soweto. How cool was that?
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