Monday, 2 November 2009

Mzanzi... The Sage in Madiba’s land

My first experience of South Africa started at the embassy here! I can’t say i was not warned! I was!But the picture Makin Soyinka painted was far tamer than the riot I was accosted by. The process was mad, maddened and maddening. It was mayhem. I am Nigerian and i am rarely skewed by outrageous and outlandish behaviour but I daresay I am still traumatised by the event that normally ensues at the Lagos SA high commission every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday –– it took me two and a half weeks to even make it through the visa section doorway and the assistance of a senior police officer and a gang of armed police who were recruited to create some semblance of order.
The SA High Commission in Lagos is not a zoo; its a refugee camp spotting on some of the most crazed socio-economic refugees you will come across anywhere on any CNN war region reportage. Getting a visa was almost impossible without the ‘skilled assitance’ of embassy touts getting fat on the spoils of the situation. I finally got my visa through some good fortune; meeting a friendly embassy consular at the bank and explaining my travail. And when he finally handed my passport with affixed visa, he said, “next time don’t trail me to the bank!” with a you-lucky-gag look and wry smile on his face. I sheepishly stammered my rebuttal to the accusation to no avail. I later found out thay he had communicated the incident to Langa Mancunga my host in SA, and they seemingly had agreed, I probably, was destined to visit Mzansi.
That notwithstanding, I missed my flight seven hours after getting the visa and left four days later: Hence missing the Cape Town gig, probably not performing at the biggest show of my career –– just like it happened last year at the Thisday Music Festival in Abuja.
But finally I’m aboard SAA enroute to Jo;burg, trying to communicate with my girlfriend, my mom and friends that I was on my way, the exercise, made totally futile by a number of Nigerians (Igbo’s to be precise), who chose to make a racket, turning the cabin into Alaba. I almost understood why Mr Malaji at the SA embassy could treat us the way he did, lording over the grounds of the high commission like a demi-god.

MZANSI was cold. A cop stopped me on my way to customs; he searched my luggage came across my CDs and asked me to make a plan. I convinced him my plans had nothing to do with letting go any of my dollars,except of course he wanted naira. He wisely declined and set me on my weary way, having rejected a truce offer of a personal copy of my CD ‘ twinkle twinkle superstar’. I didn’t mind.
Langa Mancunga, dreadlocked, t-shirt wearing, calm-talking host and organiser of the Arts Alive Speak The Mind Poetry Session, picked me up at the airport over an hour later than scheduled, the designated driver was unable to make it for some reason, and Langa had to leave his wife and warm bed as early as 5am to drive to Jo’ burg from Pretoria. I was grateful he did.
Beside Langa, the policeman with a plan, and the hustling airport cab man who would not let me stray farther than a bench, opposite the money exchange kiosks; Tumi the hotel receptionist was my first warm welcome in Jo’ burg; she was from Botswana, spoke in a singsong lilt, spoting a constant smile, a curious chatty intelligence and the most kicking hips ever on a skinny Chick. I spent hours talking to her for obvious reasons - intelligence! Right!
Tumi called me saaageee and I responded in kind etumilaaanggg (her full name was etumilang). There was Daniel the middle-aged mason doing some work at the hotel taking a meal break less than two hours after starting work to snack on pap and curry. Pap looked no different from the tuwo corn meal I grew up seeing in the north of Nigeria. I smoked a cigarette in the cold while listening to him talk about his food and watching him eat his pap and liver curry.
I spent my first day visiting malls and taking in Jo’ burg. It was a simply laid beautiful city, organised and ordered,with massively structured malls anywhere you go. I saw the infamous Hillbrow, Yeoville, New Town, Midrand.I stayed at Melrose, visited Rosebank, had my first Mcdonald’s big Mac –– (I’ve had better).

BASSLINE the venue of the event was located in New Town, an area designated as an arty environ. Bassline was a hot venue for all the serious music and cultural shows. It was not a MUSON or ICC Abuja or even a Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt or Hill Station Hotel in Jos or anything. It was more like a Terra Kulture or even the new defunct Studio 868, but just a bit more artsy, with foyers and offices and lounges and car parks sitting squat surrounded by classy joints like sophia town, bookstores like Xarra (where you can find my album! ) and you may be lucky to even meet the prince of New Town with his cutlery decorated crown and acquire a cutlery ring for anything between 20 and 50 rand depending on how impressed you are and how good you haggle.
My first show took place on a Friday. I was nervous as hell (ok maybe not as hell). But before then, the other acts on the bill with me had arrived .First to show up was our own Bassey Ikpi, a five time Def Poetry Poet, who left Nigeria for the U.S at the age of four. If you have seen DVD copies of Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry on HBO, I don’t need to tell you that she is just best at her game. And beautiful too! Then there was the oh-so delectable and strong TJ Dema with a casual yet deliberate style of delivery that remitted strong sensuality and reeks not of cheap sexuality. Just pure poetry to bowl you over by subtle hypnotism. Kojo Baffoe is Ghanaian and European but he’s lived in Jo’burg and is married there. His words in one word –– beautiful. Then the South African cats like Malisiswe who is a brilliant poet, smart lyricist - endearing performer. Kabomo hits you before you meet him, a larger than life personality that holds nothing back –– saying it as he feels it not minding about gored oxen and whatnot. He is boisterious, forthright and unpretentious. There was the funny Flo with his collective (group) serving as MC of the 2nd night. Nomsa, younger sister to Thandiswe (or Thandiswa) who is female member of Bongomaffin a popular music group –– in her harem pants, full body, sweet personality topped only by her sonorous vocals and sultry show. If I thought I was going to be the star of the event I had another thing coming! Everyone was out to prove their mettle and the audience was the better for it. A great encouraging crowd who nevertheless wouldn’t be gyped into buying my overprized CDs. So i just gave copies out for free.
The highest point of my trip was not the big mac, the big malls, the big big gals, the orderliness, the show; it was Soweto! But before then there had been the Apartheid Museum. A gallerium of pictures, history, videos, audio recordings etc that gives you a sensory feel of what it could have been in the darkest era of South Africa’s modern history. I felt empowered by the experience seeing the insecurity, weakness, fear and ignorance of oppression and oppressors and the ridiculous-ness of that state. And how hope, faith, truth, knowledge and rebellion can bring the worst evil down on its face.

I went to Soweto on a Saturday a few hours before my second and last show right after visiting a number of stores run by Nigerians at Branfontein. Floyd, our tour guide of Botshelo touring company, took time to take me round, showed me the highbrow area of Soweto, pointed out the coloured parts, gave me the history of how the white suppressors separated the women and the men in different quarters/hostels and proceeded to systemically take advantage of the women and spawning off a sub-culture –– coloured South Africans, almost unaccepted by both black and white South Africans; who by the way are not integrated, each maintaining a distinct socio-economic culture, albeit singly South African in outlook and in character. It’s a beautiful country I tell you that for free.
By the way Soweto looked better than most of Lagos. As much as Pretoria looked mostly like Banana Island –– the poshest place in V.I (most of us don’t know where that is I understand).
Soweto revealed the soul of Mzansi in larger doses. It was a Saturday as I said and a street party was underway on Floyd’s parents’ street. So I insisted on joining the excuse being that I wanted to soak in Soweto! But honestly it was partly because it had gone past lunch time and free grub was not going to hurt in the least. I’m not sure what I had but it could have been sem-millet. I ate it with as much relish I could muster. Then I got a cider from a pub.

I was a bit popular at Soweto, a few people had watched one of my interviews on SABC (I did three of those) and there was a little excitement as I gave out CDs. It happened quite a few places people recognising us from TV. I realised the people here watch more of SABC and very little of channel O.
From that street party I reluctantly made my way from Soweto. We returned to Floyd’s house in a beautiful estate a beautiful house, where I attended a house party hosted by his wife. I met his mother-in-law, friends and especially his adorable kids, his son Kamu, stealing my heart with his charm, intelligence and insistence that I perform for him. I obliged. I like the boy.
I was a lot more relaxed for my second show. I was fitting in. It was a blast, the crowd was wonderful and so were the performers. Nomsa was on her way to India with her superstar bongomaffin sister Thandiswe (wa) and I miss her somewhat. But there were the enthusiastic Mimi (with Victor Dlamini), Xola the kind and so-hot photo-jo chick, Lunga the awesomely beautiful and young looking SABC producer, Collen the Nigeria-mimicking newscaster, Aviwe the host assistant, Kgomotso who exchanged banter with me on and off stage, the supportive poetess Thereska, the cool Ayob, the exciting Zim boys Elvis (thanks for the extra cup of wine) and Monah, the sly and retreating Dee (is that your name? Really?!), the involving Kethi (send the video will you) and her crew, Lorato and Fatima. Ade at the house of Nsakpo (when am I doing my set at that joint hey?), Rami and Vanessa (Arts Alive organisers). I cannot overlook the other performers at Arts Alive who were not spoken word poets, especially Neo Muyanga. The lovely young couple at the bar Cindy and Sipho (I like your mohawk too dude), Prince Shapiro (better luck selling your CDs next time dread), Dinkie Sithole (I should have given you a copy of my CD bra) and the presenter from SA FM Karabo (looking forward to sharing another cigarette with you! Ok maybe not –– we should both have quit then!) And not to forget dj bubbles, Ernest Rantao and Tebogo Ramatjie. And to Migs or Miguel my pal from South America –– next time don’t step on the lady’s feet when dancing with her you will enjoy a longer time on the dancefloor.)
But Jo’burg cannot be captured in an article (a book perhaps!) –– whether it’s the right handdrive freaking Bassey out and kept me waiting for the accident to occur, eating Japanese (still have my chopsticks), walking round oversized malls when the muslim shopkeepers were out on a prayer break, giving five rand coin to a white beggar pretending to play a wind instrument, getting lost at the metroplex airport, or observing a gay teenager at Alex town just before my workshop where I encouraged a group of shy students to write and recite poetry for the first time –– (Mandela and Desmond Tutu were reputed to have lived in Alex Town).
I saw young ones idling away on front porches, bar steps/fronts and teenage single mothers in street corners, I thought I caught sight of two female students going at each other in a French kiss; or eating sem-millet, potato paste and pap with beetroot melon and soggy veggies with a grimace and getting really pissed on boxwine (avoid those); trying to sell spoken word poetry CD, almost freezing even though it’s almost summer, dancing to Olufemi’s live performance with a mostly white audience at House of Nsakpo; or even being asked how come I was not loud spoken if I was Nigerian.

BN all my time all I did was marvel at the excellence shown in planning and executing the Arts Alive International Festival Joburg –– 50 venues and 63 stages. Rivers and Calabar Christmas Carnivals are both coming up in December and I’m wondering, how come arts can’t come alive in Nigeria? Can’t we borrow a page from the South Africans? Hey I’m just speaking my mind before poetry dies on my watch, neh!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful read!dude,that was really some piece.And believe me,whether you succeed in writing the book or just keep anticipating it,you have covered Jozi for the most part.I really enjoyed reading your 'diary'...!!!I would have attended the Arts Alive but just couldn't get out of my "routine".Jozi is the place to be if you visit South Africa.Yeah!I know there's so much fuss about cape Town..You know the way it with Lagos and Abuja?That's Jozi&Mother city for you...Keep the fire burining..I like your style!!!Oh!BTW,am resident in Jozi,a Nigerian in SA...!!!