On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the first of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 5th December / South Africa.
Two days before I leave on the six-week research trip across Sub-Saharan Africa, I'm sat in the living-room watching the news. Years ago, when I realised t.v. stations had political agendas and each episode of the news is as curated as any 'reality' t.v. show, I began to boycott them, but for some reason, this night, I am drawn to the box, to the dispassionate voice of the newsreader. As he speaks, he is interrupted by a news bulletin live from South Africa. PresidentJacob Zuma is speaking behind a podium and I know what he is about to say. I have feared this for years. I call out. My older sister comes running from the kitchen and I wrap my arms around her waist. Zuma says that Madiba has died — the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, has passed away and I lose my breath.
I am to travel in two days to begin researching Barbershop Chronicles, an anthology of conversations, a play about what men talk about in barber shops. The first stop is Johannesburg, South Africa, and I predict accurately what the conversation will be about. When I land, I'm collected by a taxi driver who works for the British Council and he gives me the first of many lessons I will learn about the country, its many languages and tribes, that JoBurg was a mining town, that Soweto is home to one million people, that Nigerian Christian evangelism is BIG here. I check into the Easy Hotel on De Korte Street in Braamfontain, email the few contacts I have in the city and have a dinner with Milisuthando, aka, MissMilliB - blogger, fashion writer, voice of her generation, really a renaissance woman through and through and through. As we drive, she speaks passionately of the history of Apartheid, the living legacy of that institution, the unbalance of economic power that persists, the hopes and dreams of black South Africans and what she imagines must be done to secure a peaceful future. I ask politely if I can record our conversation and I do so as we speed through the empty Sunday night city streets. Later on we visit Kitchener’s, a popular after-hours watering hole. Mili and I discuss the project and the differences between JoBurg and Cape Town. When she excuses herself to use the bathroom, the bar breaks into Mandela praise and struggle songs, swaying passionately in his honour, the television reeling documentary, after condolence, after solidarity messages. The barman lines up shots of something dark, sweet and fiery for the entire bar and we toast Mandela's legacy.
I meet Shoni the following day, my official 'fixer' for the trip. He is a quick witted, dirty-laughtered, laid back, good natured dude of diamond smiles, who admonishes me after purchasing a SIM card, to put away my phone when walking the streets. 'This is Joburg' he says, 'You must be careful'. But it feels too much like a lazy Brixton afternoon, and that brand of danger I can handle. We drive around visiting barber shops, Shoni doing his best to introduce me and the project to the guarded barbers. I take down names, addresses, dates and times to swing by and the day finishes at Yoeville which Shoni says is the most multiethnic neighbourhood in Sub-Saharan Africa. As we walk, everyone is here: Cameroon, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria, Malawi, Jamaica, Trinidad, Zambia and more, all spilling into the streets, all mixing their languages with Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Xhosa and more. Shoni suggests we go visit a friend of his and we drive to Greenside, across town, to Mandla's house. Mandla, Shoni's friend, isn't nicknamed 'Street Boss' for nothing. He knows JoBurg like the back of both palms and is plugged into street fashion, street culture and contemporary music. He runs Street Cred, a festival of all that I have listed, and as we speak, it becomes rapidly apparent that we have common ground, that there is work we can and must do together.
Mandela's passing is everywhere. Posters line the roads and bus stations. The t.v. and radio stations have jingles and snippets of songs laced into every ad break. People call in to talk of nothing less. Points and counterpoints are made about the adequacy of the ANC (the ruling political party) to run the country, the nature of deal Mandela made on his release from prison, the attempt to rebrand Mandela as a peace-loving-turn-the-other-cheek kind of brother, rather than the fiery freedom fighter who not only used violence, but supported Malcolm X's use of force, such that he featured in Spike Lee's biopic of the man. Soweto is home to a large stadium where Mandela's ceremony is to be held. Dignitaries from the entire world fly in, from Banki Moon to David Cameron, President Mugabe to Desmond Tutu, three US Presidents including Bill Clinton. The politicians make long speeches. The sign interpreter gets it wrong. The soldiers and police attempt to maintain order, but in the stands, the people sing. It has rained every day in JoBurg. It pours throughout Mandela's funeral, a lashing rain, relentless in its density and duration. Some say this is an omen, Madiba warning from death. Shoni had told me previously of 'The Night of Long Knives' a prophecy believed by Afrikaners when black South Africans reclaim their country and wealth by force. He says this jokingly, adding that he is not a fighter, doubts it will ever happen but there is a something in the JoBurg air.
In the barber shop though, conversations are also about the every day, for life goes on. Shoni and I get our hair cut at a little joint down the road from the hotel. Abel, our barber from Cameroon is a small man of precise hand gestures. His francophone/African tongue makes rough work of English, speaking in rapid bursts, he explain he is the good brother - referring to the Bible Story - Cain is the bad one. He started cutting when he came to JoBurg, never learnt back home because he believed it was a job for dropouts, he dropped out of uni, left Cameroon to make money, and here he was. But he thanks God, says, it is nothing short of God's glory that he is able to make a living here, to feed himself. Some of his colleagues don't have up to R1000 saved but he does, and will pay for his University fees. In the ceremony, Presidents Mugabe (of Zimbabwe) and Obama (of America) receive the most enthusiastic and generous receptions. SA's president, Jacob Zuma's was as voluminous but negative: he was booed by his own people, on an international stage, the world's media watching. Able says this is bad, we should not have booed our leaders, 'they will go away if we do so'. I ask if he thinks they are doing a good job and he goes quiet as if he believes this is beside the point; they are leaders, we must respect them. Period. On the other hand, Shoni says this is what democracy means, we must boo them! Boo!
On Friday, I visit J's Barbershop. It is near Melrose Arch, a predominantly white-world away from the black-African of Braamfontein and Yeoville. J's reminds me of barber shops in London. HipHop is the soundtrack, barbers wear their jeans low, there are sofa's for waiting clients and clothing rails for of clothes for sale. I speak with Tumi, a private banker who'd been coming to J's for years. After talking about language differences and his varied receptions when travelling to different parts of this country, his tone softens on the topic of romance. A new relationship, a new girl, what he thinks of their future prospects, what his friends think of her, how he has watched her interact with family, that he thinks he has found 'The One'. I ask if he has communicated how deeply he feels, 'Does she know?' And he replies 'No, You have to act tough, can't let her know just yet, maybe after a year' (!).
As part of grant from the British Council, I am to run a creative writing workshop with a group of poets led by Thabiso Mohare, of British Council JoBurg, of Word & Sound - a poetry organisation. Thabiso is a soft-spoken, dreadlocked charismatic man of many talents - most of the folks I meet seem to be multifaceted here. When I first met Thabiso, he'd just been commissioned to write a poem for an American radio station on the mood in South Africa following Nelson's passing. As we drive to his apartment to hold the workshop, I learn a little more of his glowing plans for poetry in Southern Africa. At the apartment, the writers arrive and there are many of them, each with a different voice, aesthetic and approach to writing. After brief introductions, I lead a two hour, thirty-minute workshop on imagery and language. We discuss and critique 'Litany' by Billy Collins, 'The Jabberwocky' by Lewis Carol, and 'The Forgotten Dialect of The Heart' by Jack Gilbert. We discuss what is gained and lost in using words to communicate and greater what is gained and lost in using the English language instead any of the 12 languages of the 12 tribes in SA. After that, we write poems. We read these poems to each other. We eat, drink, nourish one another.
Soon it is Sunday. I'd been denied a Visa to Zimbabwe - the next stop on the six-week research trip - so I must now stay in South Africa for a few more days, attempt to get a visa, and in the meantime, seek out Zimbabweans resident in the country, to hang with and talk. When heavy sanctions were placed on President Mugabe for his violent land reform programmes, three million Zimbabweans fled to South Africa. Finding them should not be a problem. At night, I make a list: Things I have learnt:
1: The Night of Long Knives. 2: Samuel Eto'o is the most successful African footballer of all time. 3: Mandela was of the Xhosa people, the runt of South Africa's indigenous tribes. 4: Xhosa folk sided with the Dutch and English when they colonised South Africa. 5: Joop! fragrance sales rose by 80% in the first three months of its PR campaign. 6: The campaign was masterminded by MissMilliB and her team. 7: 'Our poverty is the 8th wonder of the world'. 8: Mugabe is a hero to most South Africans; his use of violence was just in their eyes. 9: The still waters that run deep in South Africa are not still. Not at all. 10: Hunter's Dry is the king of ciders.
Next stop, Harare, Zimbabwe?