The signs are plastered all over this part of the city. They have the look of the Roneo machine – hand-operated printing with its faded purple and blue inks that reminds me of geometry tests. Except these have no questions, just statements. “Penis enlargement”, ”Lost lover back in 3 days”. Around us Joburg’s Saturday morning traffic – human and vehicular – jostles with hawker stands selling cellphone chargers, fake branded soccer merchandise and plates of potatoes. A large church group, all dressed in pristine white robes with deep blue sashes gather on the corner for a meeting. They fit in. Most thing do here. I realised that when driving through Joubert Park taxi rank one Saturday morning, trapped in gridlock, watching a man wheel a shopping trolley past my window with a bull’s head in it, it’s eye seemingly fixed on me, it’s tongue hanging out the side of it’s mouth, looking more at home than me.
We were bound for an “Ethiopian Cultural Walk” led by Ishvara Dhyan of Ancient Secrets, a boy from Greenside who became a chef and for want of a better description, cultural walker. It was his interest in authentic ingredients that first drew him to this corner on Jeppe Street, one block from the Joburg Sun – once a prestigious hotel address and now a mothballed skyscraper. “This was the Sandton City of the 80s”, he says, his voice trying to rise above the sounds of traffic and the insistent security guard who kept interrupting to tell us to move along. A large group of mostly white people in this part of the inner city on a Saturday morning – more incongruous than a bull’s head in a Checkers trolley.
Each building holds its own secrets and the Medical Arts building on Jeppe Street (across from number 217 and a row of wholesalers) is an exemplar. We enter, and like Alice slipping down the rabbit hole, we have travelled to another universe, into a warren of shops selling Ethiopian spices, coffee, cloths, homeware, religious artefacts, newspapers, hair products and ouzo. T-shirts emblazoned with Coptic crosses and the face of Emperor Haile Selassie adorn the place and if you are a wannabe Rasta this is the place to make that dream real. There’s also a few barber shops, a music store where you get to choose which songs to be burned onto a CD, internet cafe and a restaurant overlooking Jeppe Street with a great balcony, on which sat two enormous speakers belting Ethiopian pop songs into the street. We meet Netsi, a beautiful Ethiopian entrepreneur whose store on the first floor contains most of the items mentioned and take part in a coffee ceremony in the back of the shop. I like the ritual which includes a bowl of popcorn to go with your muddy cup. It’s all very cultural but it’s a short walk and more of a shopping trip. But still, a good opportunity to sample this part of the city.
After much browsing we make our way to the top floor restaurant (also Netsi’s) for lunch. It what looks like someone’s former wood-panelled office about 35 of us huddled around small tables taking it in turns to walk through Netsi’s compact kitchen to select lunch. The food – traditional – definitely warrants a return visit. Injera (spongy flatbread) accompanied by different stews, fresh, delicious, and varied in flavour. After lunch we skipped back out into the chaos and noise of a Saturday morning, savouring the winter sunshine, the noise and the chaos, and made our way back to the quiet of the Northern suburbs (all of 12 minutes away) where on some days the only cries you hear are from the hadedas and that insistent ticking of electric fences. * Ancient Secrets also offers cooking courses – Indian, Sephardi, Ethiopian, among them – catering and other cultural tours. Find them at www.ancientsecrets.co.za or join Ishvara on Facebook for the latest updates. Netsi’s store is at Shop 123, Medical Arts Building, Corner of Jeppe and Troye Streets, 072 493 3380.