My sad Jozi Christmas

2010-12-18 13:50

Last week, I took a walk into the heart of a morose Johannesburg.

I made an attempt to retrace the steps of my childhood days, when my mother would make good on her promise to buy us Christmas clothes.

 I made my way down the (in)famous bridge named after our former president.

From the bridge, the city looks so drab, so uninspired and unmoved by the litany of dreams that many bring to this once-famous city.

Turning into Bree Street, I wondered out loud about the filth and grime that littered this urban taxi rank.

Women with children and pregnant plastic grocery bags in hand hurried along as the robots threatened to change.

Not far from the road, an elderly man tried to get his balance and found great comfort in the now-winking robot.

I stole a glance at the man and thought to myself: I will grow up to be like him.

His face was a crisscross of fading lines and he clutched on to his pockets as he looked in my direction, perhaps thinking that I might help myself to his last few cents.

His lips muttered a word, perhaps a song, but I had no time for his wounded tongue, so off I went on to the other side of Newtown.

The towering figures in Mary Sibande’s work on building walls looked down on me, in a callous way.

I thought of my neighbour Ous Mpe. She had that kind of look, seemingly hewn from the book of life, with its burdens and woes.

Yet come Christmas, Ous Mpe would smile a little bit, as if the angels that once visited the shepherds had found their way to her soul.

I stood under the towering images and thought that perhaps if I stood longer, magic crumbs would rain on my head and bless my excursion into this city of dreams.

By now the bridge was out of sight.

I tried to work out the distance that I had travelled.

It was enough to persuade me that perhaps it was time for my first halfway drink stop.

Besides, did the three wise men not stop too on their way to Bethlehem?

I found a watering hole next to The Market Theatre.

As I sat my weary body down and enjoyed my drink, I caught a glance of the productions that were playing at the theatre. Songs of Migration, one poster read.

Not far from my window I could see the highway, reflected against the dying light.

I saw buses, stacked to the rafters with bags, wardrobes and bicycles.

The buses hummed as they went along and the melody of the traffic stuck a note with me – songs of migration.

I continued my journey into the denser part of the city.

I thought about the older buildings on the very edge of neglect, and in the same instant I thought of the many elderly people who will be alone this Christmas.

I sat at a bus stop, trying to catch a sense of the bustle and hustle that travelogues speak about.

Yet I found this rhythm so sad.

It sounded like a dirge and it wrapped around my senses, the same way a lament does.

A siren blasted as a police van sped past, yet people in the road did not move.

Ah, to be numbed by the feeling of pain/death.

Sinking into my seat, I looked up to the flats that dotted the landscape and I asked myself how people could live in such dirt.

Wouldn’t the spirit of Christmas make them want to clean and paint their walls, and not hang their laundry on their broken balconies?

I reminded myself that some people live in far worse conditions, and I asked myself again, what is the point of it all if only a few among us can celebrate joyfully this Christmas?

Wallowing in my curated depression, I realised the fragments of a bigger fault.

I retraced my steps and, like the drunk man I saw earlier, whispered under my breath: Was I not the one with the naive spirit who set out to reclaim the city – but from what?

From the majority of our people, who snake through its dirt and grime, who have no time to wonder at the art that looks indifferently at them, and who find a way to make do with what they have and who celebrate Christmas as they understand it?

In the pain of my chair, I realised that the dirge would soon wail for the city’s middle class ... Merry Christmas to you all.

» Wa Mamatu is the author of Laughing at Blackness: Leon Schuster and the Colonising Laughter.

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