We are on Yeoville’s Raleigh Street at Kin Malebo Village. The doorman greets us in French. The rhythms of Congolese singer Fally Ipupa’s “Bicarbonate” escape the bar into the crisp winter night, as the door swings open. Inside it’s warm and inviting.
The table next to us eyes us with curiosity, ordering another round of beers. A group of young men, they huddle, drink and then get up to dance in a sexy and show-offy way. As a man with a microphone raps over the song, their pelvises slowly gyrate, their leather jackets held open. Big smiles on their faces, and furtive glances at us through half-closed eyes tell us they are enjoying an audience.
It’s still early. We had just watched the sun set from the Yeoville ridge, a few blocks from here. We sipped green tea that came from a flask and ate no-name brand lemon creams and marvelled as pinkish hues played with the skyline to create a perfect Jo’burg postcard., framed of course by Hillbrow’s landmarks, Ponte and the Hillbrow Tower.
On the ridge we walked carefully among the rocky parts, avoiding being tripped up by short poles and tape demarcating different prayer territories. Our soundtrack was a man entreating the spirits, on bended knees, his eyes closed, his plaintive chant ringing out across the evening sky. It is said that the closer you are to nature the closer to God. For most city dwellers, the ridge is the closest one gets to nature, prime god-squad territory.
We were there on invitation from Dlala Nje (“Just Play” in Zulu) who offer walking tours of Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea. Based at Ponte, one of Hillbrow’s most infamous highrises the walk leaves from the eponymrous community centre opened in October last year by journalist Nickolous Bauer and strategy consultant Mike Lupak. It winds its way across Joe Slovo Drive and into low-rise Yeoville. Bauer and Lupak, two white boys that have made Ponte their home, are devoted to the kids of the Ponte community, and to turning around perceptions of the much-maligned building and surrounding suburb.
Up to 800 children live in the 52-floor cylindrical block during the week and until Dlala Nje started there had been no focus on recreation. The centre is buzzing, bright and cheerful. Kids play pool, foozball, and hang out near the video games. The walls are covered in artwork and on one a chalk-drawn advert invites them to join in the karate lessons on offer. In summer, there are swimming lessons – at the Ponte pool, which for years stood unused. Using the centre as a base Bauer and Lupak offer walking tours of the area. These boys fit in, and the walks they offer are of the immersive variety, rather than the urban safari type. The idea is to walk the streets, meet the people, eat the food.
Back at Kin Malebo space was being cleared at our table for dishes of perfectly rounded domes of fufu, a sauce of spinach and peanuts and delicious hunks of roasted fish, tails and heads with sharp little teeth. This was a snack stop. Fortified we went back out into the cold night onto Yeoville’s throbbing pavements, walking among the hawkers and vegetable sellers and me lamenting a return to the blacked-out silent northern suburbs. Yeoville was once my home. Down Rockey Street we headed for La Camerounaise, home away from home for the city’s Cameroonians, where we sat at a long table in the courtyard eating tasty fish straight from the braai, and fries with chili sauce.
Later we climbed into a mini-bus taxi headed back to Ponte for a nightcap at the 52nd floor apartment of photographer Jono Wood, who works with Lupak and Bauer. At that height, you are on top of the world, mesmerised by the view of Hillbrow, the lights like thousands of sparkly jewels, with the otherworldly blue of the Telkom sign on the Hillbrow tower rising into the darkness. From that angle it’s not hard to see what keeps Lupak and Bauer tied to this place. Lupak showed me a photograph taken one morning when the top of the tower was all that was left of Hillbrow, as his apartment windows looked out onto a carpet of clouds. An extraordinary image you would normally associate with the view from a plane journey. It’s funny thinking that they literally have their heads in the clouds.
* Yeoville night tours cost R300 p/person and include a beverage at each stop and all meals. For Dlala Nje information and tours find Dlala Nje on Facebook.com or mail firstname.lastname@example.org