Part I: Lessons From Johannesburg

Greetings Friends,

I’m gonna take you a few weeks back to my time in eGoli, the city of gold. Not only to dispel the rumors of Johannesburg being the “world’s unfriendliest city,” but also to share some insights about racism, respect and revival. Although my time in South Africa has just exceeded one month, it’s plain to see that these three R’s will be central themes in the narrative of my internship. Moving forward, I recognize that I will constantly be returning to Joburg, not physically but mentally, as a reference point to navigating South Africa’s complex society.

I’ll begin by pointing out that I am very much alive, no thanks to the bizarre warnings and blogs that scared me out of my wits about visiting the great city of crime and contrasts. Also, here’s a travel tip: don’t read an article entitled “69 Tips on Johannesburg Warnings and Dangers” while onboard a train heading to said location, just don’t do it. I started my trip stressed and on edge. A week later, I ended my trip untroubled and longing to stay. Johannesburg has taught me crucial lessons in such a short amount of time. I’ve travelled to a fare share of large cities, but I’ve never come away with as much material to contemplate on; for this, a thank you is in order.

Lesson 1: Be part of a new narrative.

I usually read up on the history of places prior to visiting. I wouldn’t call myself a social intellect, but I am curious. Couple that with a determination to not be ignorant and you’ve got me… the gal who generally knows what’s going on. Upon reading about Johannesburg, I found myself thinking about Detroit. The more I read, the more it was spelled out for me. At one point I remember thinking “you’ve got to be kidding me” because of the parallel tales of both cities. This realization contributed to my wanting to visit Joburg despite all of the warnings, because once upon a time I too was warned about visiting the motor city. But why am I writing about Detroit you ask? As some of you may know, the city holds a special place in my heart because my brother lives there. There’s also a beautiful sadness I experience every time I visit that isn’t as tragic as it sounds, but rather triumphant. The city pulses on deep, breathing veins, something you have to see with your own two eyes because the media stopped giving a damn a long time ago. Similar to the descriptions I read of Joburg, Detroit was dubbed the “murder capital of the world,” which is usually enough to keep most people away. But I’m not most people.

Some background: Both Johannesburg and Detroit have experienced a “mass exodus” from the inner city to the posh suburbs. In both cities, the decentralization of people and businesses has led to the misfortune of the inner city. To understand the correlation, it is important to look at the history of both cities; both developed as 19th century industrial towns (mining in Johannesburg, the motor industry in Detroit), and that’s where you can pinpoint the underlying causes of decentralization. In both cases, racism, as well as a reaction against overcrowding and pollution that came with the industrial revolution, were catalysts for the mass exodus to the suburbs. When businesses (along with the white middle class) relocated to the suburbs, the result was inner cities becoming poorer, more crime ridden, and increasingly populated by disadvantaged black people.

Both cities sound pretty hopeless when laid out in such a stark paragraph, only they’re the furthest thing from hopeless. In both cities, I’ve seen the devastation that comes with decentralization, but what I haven’t seen (especially among youth) was despondency. The spirit of Detroit and the spirit of Joburg are both rooted in hope, creativity and urban revival. The charm of the local art scene in both cities is unmatched, and is a beautiful reminder of what is to come. Here’s some food for thought: If you haven’t been to either city but are planning to visit, go into them with an open mind, rather than the unfortunate imagery of “ruin porn”. Whether you’re in Corktown or Maboneng, look around you, take in the rhythmical throbbing of the vibrance around you. And that goes way beyond Detroit and Joburg as a rule of thumb. When visiting places with plighted histories, you can be a trash talker and emanate negativity, or you can be part of a new, hopeful narrative that’s positive and undisturbing. Seeing the hope in Johannesburg in contrast to the gloomy online chatter was like experiencing Detroit all over again. Only this time, instead of merely commenting on this injustice, I will act on it. Especially now, I will employ this lesson in the city I live in, Pietermaritzburg, another place with a painful past, but also full of hidden gems if you know where to look.

I thought I’d share this image I took earlier this year at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, a necessary reminder for those of us who slip up WHEREVER we may be.

Lesson 2: Strangers will take care of you if your spirit is in tune.

Friends, this is one of the realest things I’ve learned since being here, and it’s truly improved my quality of life. We know what our spirit is… that nonphysical part of ourselves that is the seat of our emotions and character. But ask yourself,  how do you convey your spirit to others? How do you make people see you as legitimate? How do you convince someone you’re kind hearted? Creative? Accepting? What vibes do you give off to strangers? These are questions I’m constantly asking myself, because for years I’ve struggled with authenticity. When you’re as chatty and enthusiastic as I am, often times you come off as inauthentic. This is something I’ve been told a few times, followed by confusion and hurt on my part. 

I was nervous going into this internship because I didn’t want to be perceived as trying too hard or as having alternate motives once the chatterbox began. So I made a game plan and tested it out in Johannesburg to great success. Regrettably, I’m someone who constantly needs to be in control, so I usually do all the planning and talking when it comes to exploring new places. I took a step back in Johannesburg and decided to employ a new strategy, to just go with it, and it worked. I made more friends in Johannesburg in one week than I have in the last 9 months in Toronto. I smiled, I listened, and I went along with whatever was placed in my path, even if it wasn’t part of my plan. This resulted in some beautiful moments that allowed me to jump into new experiences rather than scratch the surface. It meant befriending strangers at cafes, and later going out with those strangers for my first authentic South African meal. It meant wandering into a karaoke bar and performing on stage when asked to by a local. It meant being fearless and meeting up with a friend of a friend with an open mind, and a listening ear. It meant trusting the locals with my safety and wellbeing. It meant letting go of the control in a city that demands constant vigilance. I’m too glad that I approached my time in Johannesburg the way I did. I will always remember Johannesburg for this invaluable life lesson in fine tuning, and letting go.

This is a photo of a group of friends that invited Linda and I to traditional South African cuisine:

Shisa Nyama (Braai, African Spinach, Peanut Butternut Squash)

Pap & Semp

Mopane Worms (mmmmm)

I will leave it here until part two when I discuss the most important lesson I took away from Johannesburg, delving further into respect, ubuntu, and something I’ve yet to touch on: racism. All of which are contextually important for the narrative of my internship.

Please stick around, make sure you’re spirit is on the right frequency, and stay positive!

Much love, R.


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