SOWETO No place like home

September 4, 2008
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, NAIROBI, August 29 – Soweto! Eish! As the South Africans often exclaim – is like a country in itself, hey! Rid your mind of the squalid slum/tiny housing that it is often associated with and let me paint my picture.

People who live there are either irrationally proud to have been raised there or want to get out of the mill quick!

Soweto, English syllabic for South Western Townships, lies in Gauteng Province and on the way there a first timer is treated to a scenic and awe-inspiring view of huge picturesque mine dumps. They look sad and stately, and brought out a rather strange sentiment from inside me.

Not so for Musa Ngubane. She kept smiling and reaching out to private touchy thoughts when I asked her to tell me what Soweto means to her.

“I hope I never have to leave. This is my home and is where my ‘peeps’ at!" she says laughing. It was a joke between us, the use of the word ‘peeps’. She does like laughing though. I wish you’d heard it. It’s deep, husky, stunted and heartfelt.

Anyway, Musa’s lifeline in Soweto was intriguing to say the least.

"I grew up there. I had a hard time. I had to go to a public school and things weren’t easy for us (her family)."

Coupled with a very basic lifestyle at home, she describes the public schools as ‘dens of corruption’ where a student being good at her studies was as far removed from their grades as a Polar bear and a mirage.

"By the time I was done with school I had no idea how to use a computer," she confides. "Even my English was far from impressive. I would hang around with my mates and just chill in the estate. In So-We-To!" she tells me dramatically, breaking again into that trademark chuckle.

Four years after completing school, Musa was still chilling and getting tired of it. She hadn’t been to college and no one would employ her because of her lack of qualifications.

At around the same time her mother was retrenched from work. With part of the gratuity her mum received, she decided to buy a computer for their home. Musa tells me that she often stared at the computer and wondered how to use it – too proud to say so. But she knew she had to make it work somehow.

Soon enough, Musa got work as a tea-girl in an organisation known as Behind The Mask. It is a non profit human rights NGO and most of the extra work she did was pro-bono. But she didn’t mind. One of the ladies who worked there would teach her how to use the office computer during lunch-hour.

Gradually, her skills improved and as the organisation grew, so did she. Musa now had qualifications and experience to get a better job and of course healthier pay.
"I can comfortably live somewhere else. And Soweto is a bit of a way away. But I feel like I belong there. That is one place I feel I can be myself."

Her description and passion only made more sense to me the more my mind chewed on it. These are people who understood her, where she came from and brought out the best in her. As if God were trying to hammer the point home, on the last of a five day stay in Johannesburg I met a drunken man at a club who insisted that the Kenyan Maasai and the Zulu warrior had so much in common.

He slurred that they were both strong hunters and warriors. But that’s as far as it went. I can bet you a million dollars that if you plonked a Maasai smack in the middle of a Zulu village he wouldn’t feel as much at home as I was being led to believe.

Another native, this time a dear friend, Monare Ngobeni took me to Sandton City. He showed off the bright lights, complicated parking lots, told me the secret to knowing which floor/level I was on, drove me to another smaller mall, bought me a steak at Spur and I was having a jolly good time.

I was practically drooling over the fancy clothing and household items, and knew I would have to go back for some serious shopping.

"I live in Soweto," he says when I asked him which side of the woods he perched after a long hard working day at M-net.

"I love that place Laura. I should take you to my home. We hang out there with your brother when he came down and had some Braai (nyama choma, as they call it here)," he smiles, with the intense pride for Soweto that I had sensed in Musa.

This was before I managed a visit to Soweto. I would compare it to Nairobi’s Eastlands area. A much cleaner version though. It has modest housing on the outside but the satellite dishes all over the place told of good-looking interior décor. There is a definite lack of plush in the exterior, which is boldly show-cased in South African city life.

It is estimated that 75 percent of Johannesburg’s population resides in Soweto, whose very existence was propelled by the increasing population of Africans drawn from the villages to work on the gold mines that sprang up after 1886.

From the start they were accommodated in separate areas on the outskirts of Johannesburg, before being moved to Soweto. The living conditions were dilapidated and oppression by the whites was evident.

In 1976, it came under the global spotlight in form of an uprising, when mass protests erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. Police opened fire on 10,000 students marching from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium, and in the events that unfolded, 566 people died.

The second time it caught the world’s attention was when educational and economical boycotts began in the 1980s, in protest against apartheid, about two decades before the government succumbed and made Soweto a part of Johannesburg. This entitled her to funds to improve housing, electricity and water.

Recently, the rate of crime has risen to match the unemployment levels, which officially hovers at 30 percent. But that would only scare an outsider, in the same fashion as ‘Nairobbery’ once did.

Soweto is Musa and Monare’s home. Nairobi is the same to me and my friend Makau, who doesn’t know if he will ever move out of South C.  I know several others who cannot imagine life other than where they are.

Home is where your heart can relax and you are most yourself.

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