While not being one for living in the past, or particularly nostalgic about my younger days, one cannot but help but see how many of the “old ways”, learnt living and growing up in Beatrice and Lorne Streets, would be valuable lessons for today….
Growing up in the Casbah in Durban was a salutary experience. Despite the ravages of Apartheid, Muslim, Christian and Hindu lived cheek by jowl in almost perfect peace, with the only exceptions possibly being gang wars and some limited crime, generally not more than muggings, drunken fights and stabbings (often linked to gambling), and very few guns… Sure, the stresses of poverty were sometimes visible, but the cultural differences were all equally celebrated, with everyone enjoying fireworks during Diwali, which was big in the Casbah, given the large number of people who followed Hinduism. One of the joys of the firework displays was that all, rich and poor alike, got to enjoy them together – none of this “I let off mine, you let off yours” in little pockets of space, but an open, shared and enjoyable time for all.
Who else remembers looking out for the light at the top of the minaret of the local mosque that signalled the end of the fasting day during Ramadaan? “Bathi hargi, roza kolo” (the light is on, break your fast) we would cry, vying to be the first to spot the light coming on, Hindu, Muslim and Christian alike.
The sharing of food was a normal occurrence, with one particular experience sticking in my brain…
I must have been about 10 or 12 years old, and my mom asked me to take a pot of food to a neighbour a few doors down. I was greeted by the son of the house (the Dad had passed away), and was taken through to the dining table, where the family were sitting down. “Oh good,” I thought “in time for their meal”. Upon placing the pot on the table, and explaining that my mom had sent some food, the lady of the house broke into tears. As a young child, I was afraid that I had said or done something insulting or wrong, but it turned out that she was about to explain to the children that there was no food in the house. Unbeknownst to anyone, a group of housewives had decided (my mom amongst them) to cook a bit extra in turn, and share with the recently bereaved family, each one once a week, so the family would never go hungry. What a wonderful thing – no fanfare, no meetings and boasting, just getting on with it.
Neighbours sent us treats at Ramadaan, we sent them some on Diwali – oh how tasty they were, almost all homemade, with love, care and blessings in every mouthful… or sharing a beans bunny on the bonnet of a car…
How many of us even know our neighbours today, or shared a meal with them, far less knowing any way in which we could help them?
Playing in the streets was the norm, with cricket with a tennis ball, or gili dunda, or flying homemade brown paper and bamboo kites, or just kicking a ball around. If we did something naughty, or misbehaved in anyway, any local adult would, without hesitation, discipline us. I remember going home in tears because a local aunty had disciplined me. When my mom asked me why I was crying, and I explained, her response surprised me: “Good,” she said, “now I am going to discipline you too!”
A parent today would be horrified…
But we also had a lot of fun, naughty though we often were… one practical joke that sticks in my mind, was a neighbour across the road who would get into trouble with his wife for coming home drunk. Early one Sunday morning, a group of us lifted his little Mini Cooper and carefully placed it between a street light pole and a fire hydrant, impossible to park there otherwise… when his wife woke up and came into the yard to sweep, she saw this, and screamed at her husband for being so drunk that he even parked on the pavement! Watching him scratching his head in a hungover state trying to work out how to get it out (and how he got it there in the first place) was very funny.
But to get back to more differences from today…
Despite sharing the same surname as wealthier people in the Casbah, I consider myself privileged to not be born into a family with wealth – fortunately, my parents made sure we never went really hungry, and they ensured that we understood all religions and cultures that we were surrounded by. I think I still hold the record for being the only Gujurati Hindu (although I no longer “do” religion) that went to Madressa – that reflects the level of tolerance within our community. In fact, either Apah (my teacher) or my mom would tweak my ear, even in public, if I did not say proper salaams to Muslim elders! I remain irritated to this day if Muslims do not return my greeting, in the belief that I am a “kafir” and therefore do not warrant a salaam in return – which I cannot find mentioned in my copy of the Holy Quran.
The Hindu culture had and has its own problems – greed was never pushed by the belief system, but has become our default position – the more we have, the more “successful” we think we are. The truth is, the Hindu faith (and in my humble opinion, all others) is driven by simplicity in life, and a sense of duty above all else – no matter its failings, even that simple injunction is ignored by many today, be it in the ostentatious weddings held (NOT open to the public, which was the norm ‘in the day’) and charity has become something that is performed more for positive public relations, rather than just quietly getting on with it, the real reward being peace of mind that we have done something for those less fortunate than ourselves, no matter how little we might have.
As a member of both the Methodist Youth group (at the church at the corner of Lorne and Grey Streets) or as a member of the Catholic youth group (at the cathedral with its beautiful acoustics upstairs and guitars and songs to hear), it was refreshing to see the openness and acceptance of all….
Today, even between Muslims or Hindus or Christians, there seems to be less harmony than we had… our doors were open to all, regardless of race, language, religion or class (yes, almost all of us in the Casbah were differentiated by class, with certain families simply not entertaining a marriage between different castes, despite race, language and religion being the same!), and the rich diversity that we were exposed to has helped make people not only tolerant, but feeling well educated, beyond the sterile learnings of school.
Tarzan (or was it Samson?) and Chunky Charlie (characters in the famous picture books of the time) used to come to the area, as many of the “episodes” were photographed in Beatrice Street and surrounds, and despite these being aimed at primarily Zulu audiences, also had a following amongst non-Zulus. It was a thrill to go up to them and say hello. Speaking isiZulu was normal for many non-Zulus, in fact, one of my earliest and best friends was a young Zulu lad, whose nickname Mazambaan (potato) bestowed upon him by my late dad, stuck, even as we grew to adulthood. It became a family name, which he always enjoyed even more than we did.
The YMCA was also fascinating in and of itself. I suspect that few of us were members, but that was where I was privileged to see and hear some of the greats of our time perform – Ladysmith Black Mambazo (long before Paul Simon “made” them famous); Amapondo; Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens; and many, many more, were some of our rich early musical exposures, and helped shape my musicianship today. Not the bland American twang pop that we seem to have all succumbed to, with their fake bodies and shallow words, and more often than not, with quite truly bad music as accompaniment. The annual competitions were a great way to hear and see the performers of our time, be it Maskandi or Gospel, gumboot dancing or the latest Pantsula stylings… some of us have fond memories of Zulu men walking down the street strumming their guitars (tuned differently to the “normal” Western tuning), singing along, often mournfully… of home and the farm they came from… Their clothing has become iconic – as poor peasants coming to town to seek their fortune, they would need to patch their clothes, and turned their outfits into works of art. Today, one can have such an outfit made up in the Indian Market by Zulu tailors, though I doubt many wear them today! I treasure mine…
The wisdom and rich oral tradition one was exposed to in the Casbah was an education in itself. Whether one was sitting with the local kehla (old man) who was the guard at the local petrol station around an mbaula (fire made in a 25 litre can), or a granny who would regale us with stories from her youth, not only was ones imagination (political and cultural) fired up with all these fascinating stories, but also led to an understanding of who and what we were as a community. Some of those lessons remain a part of one, all these years later, and one is richer for them.
Culture is something we make, not something that is static and imposed. We seem to have fallen prey to the imposed American culture, with its mostly terrible music, the even worse accent, and the words that are quite frankly, indicative of a mentally colonised mind, like, you know, so totally awesome! Apologies, I could not resist… We take great pride in wearing Levi’s and Nike, eating at KFC and McDonalds, and trying to emulate the American Dream (which is more like a nightmare) instead of being proud of who and what we are, people in one of the most diverse countries in Africa.
It is up to us to decide what is important to us – whether we simply wallow in nostalgia, or take the valuable lessons from negative and positive experiences and implement them in our own lives and the lives around us. Failing which, we will become simple victims of mass consumer culture, with no real meaning to our lives…
For, after all, what is a life without meaning?