The restaurant that I am sitting in has no name. It exists on the back street of a back street in Soweto, South Africa. In search of a traditional black South African meal, our guide and resident knower-of-all-things Soweto, Richard, assured us that this place was “the place.” In fact, it was so genuine that Richard needed to stop a couple of passers-by in order to get directions. Once through the front door, we were greeted warmly and ushered to a vast buffet of hot-pots, saucepans and skillets all busting with stews, soups and starches of every kind.
“These are very traditional,” warns Richard, “all of the insides are here, very nice!”
“Insides?” inquired Ash innocently, no doubt looking for possible Lily options.
“The insides of the animal,” answers Richard, virtually salivating all over the buffet as he piled livers, tripe and tongues onto a huge plate of potato and rice. Being open-minded people Ashley and I made sure to take a portion of everything on offer and returned to our seats; sure to order a couple of extra beers in case of emergency mouth washing needs. Many of these dishes were created at a time when “the finer cuts” of meat were not available to the residents of Soweto, so being innovators, they came up with way to cook that stuff left behind. Looking over at me with an expression that read, “Is this really necessary?” Ashley carefully poked at a full black tongue jiggling on her plate amongst the carefully disguised livers and rubbery, scalloped tripe.
“Go on then,” I said, wisely waiting for my turn until I have a chance to witness her expression. After all it was I who took the first bite of rancid shark at the beginning of this trip. Recalling this shark was a good decision as the expression on Ashley’s face mirrored hers on that sunny day in Reykjavik.
“Nope,” she said, pushing aside the remainder on her plate, “I tried and failed.” Richard looked faintly sad as he waffed down his portion, and then turned to me expectantly. I could see his eyes tracing the fork’s journey to my mouth, and then waiting patiently for my impressions as I chewed. It tasted like grass, animal poo… and very faintly, feet! I worked the portion down and after looking over at Richard, and seeing his proud expression, as if to say, “See what I mean?” I smiled and said, “That’s great, what spices do they use to give it that unique flavor?” And dove in for more!
That’s the kind of considerate guest I am, you see. When someone shows me something that they are proud of, I am grateful. Even if it is something that might digress from my upbringing of… well, normal food. After our difficult time coping with the poverty that had surrounded us for two weeks, we approached Soweto with some trepidation, knowing that the famous township was one of the centers of culture, history, and hardship of black South Africa. Created to house a workforce for Johannesburg’s gold mines, Soweto – or South West Townships – was the center of resistance against apartheid. Home at one time to Nelson Mandela and still to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is a sprawling city of something like 1.3 million people. The thing is, no one knows how many people actually live in Soweto. Although a few wealthier sections look solidly built and well-kept, many other residents still live in miserable shanties made of trash, and consequently are not the type to submit to a census taker.
Soweto, it turned out, was a revelation! Poverty was certainly present at various levels, but there was also pride – pride in a city that has played a major role in ending the law of apartheid, and pride in housing men of such character as Mandela (whom they call Madiba). We visited the Regina Mundi Catholic Church and stood in Mandela’s footsteps, trying to imagine the courage it must have taken to spend 27 years in jail and still come out steeled with the resolve for equality. We went to the Hector Pieterson Museum and learnt about the 13-year-old boy who was shot by white police for protesting against school being taught in Afrikaans; a language of which he and the majority of his fellow students had zero understanding. Then we went to Mandela’s house on Vilakasi Street and looked on as hundreds of school children lined up, waiting their turn to shuffle through the small brick dwelling and learn about the man who led the movement to ensure that they would grow up with the same civil rights as white children. As Lily looked on saying, “What’s that?” I took a photo of my daughter looking through the iron bars surrounding Mandela’s house. The sight of that little red-head in such a place almost drew me to tears; soppy old bastard that I am.
But it was Richard who caught our attention. Quiet, polite and rail thin, he has lived in Soweto for 15 years. As we walked through each sacred location, I saw that Richard read each information plaque with genuine interest (even though he must have seen them hundreds of times before), and constantly drew my attention to details on photos that I would have surely missed without his gentle nudge. He was plainly proud to be a tour guide in this particular town, and his pride humbled us. As a Zulu he understood our impressions of his home state of KwaZulu-Natal and acknowledged our concern with a shrug. “It has always been this way,” he said, “but it is getting better every day.” His adamant resolve that things were improving was a breath of fresh for us after so much widespread gloom and pessimism. This resolution, the way things are – are how they are, was beginning to be how we thought South Africans approached life. We had seen it in magazines and on television… even in the willingness of South Africans to submit to extreme scientific experiments while on working-holidays in England; I’m not kidding about that last one. I know guys that would let a medical student amputate a finger just to learn how to sew it back on again. The things people do for a couple of thousand quid! But Richard was something else. He renewed my hope, restored my belief that the horrible poverty was, albeit slowly, improving. Throughout the day one question had been bothering me, and it took until the final drive home to our hotel to ask. “Do many white South Africans come on this tour?” I asked him at the end of the day.
Gazing out through the windshield a smile broke over his face, “More and more every year,” he said proudly.