Bottoms, Busstops and Identity part I

There is gross abuse of yansh (bottom) in this place! That was my friend Kunle’s first impression of South Africa ten years ago. I remember that comment now thinking about Doung Jahangeer and the DALA city walk.

Let me come back to all that.

This morning l listened to a Europe-based German-Nigerian artist and then to Yinka Davies. It is unfair to compare the two in terms of talent as Yinka is simply an anjonu (powerful sprit living in forests). I noticed that my 9-year-old put on noise cancelling headphones while the former played but jumped up to dance when Yinka came on. I asked her what she thought of both. ‘This one is more, more…it has more”. l understood what she was struggling to articulate, Tunde Kelani (respected Nigerian cinematographer) had once at a film conference described it as the need for cultural reference to give depth to Nollywood’s film making process.

There is a contemporary wave of cultural bravado that unfortunately once you scratch the surface, hides all the old self loathing. The journey to non-faddish cultural confidence is a slow painful one.

It was the morning of July 2nd the Dutch were playing the Brazilians that day so when l turned up at the swanky Musgrave Mall for the famous DALA city walk, l was impatient to get it over with so l could see the Dutch get thrashed. My co walkers were a united nations of people from Europe, South America and Africa. Most of the Europeans were Dutch and l gleefully taunted the youngest man in the group about their imminent ouster from the World Cup. There was also Brazilian photographer Miguel who had done some recent work in Lagos but would not be drawn into the debate, as well as Rike Sitas, sociologist, artist and co founder of DALA. Lastly there was Doung.

Doung is a powerful, turbocharged presence whose excursions through the city is a performance almost as hypnotic as it is energizing. He is a Mauritanian architect who started the city walk as his own personal journey out of fear. Eighteen years ago he arrived in Durban and was told how dangerous the city was. Like many tourists and visitors he remained confined to the safe areas and felt his essence dissipating. One day he got up and walked from the suburbs and gated communities into the city and discovered the most colourful people and that the truth lay in between.

Doung is obsessed by the phenomena of in between and directs a very animated, very articulate, highly illuminating and sweaty walk to explain the ways in which nature, man and societies struggle to find expression in repression and the messages those expressions reveal: grass sprouting through pavements; tree roots cutting through asphalt; Warholesque bird droppings; street artists, street children, street beggars. Doung has very fascinating explanations for the natural patterns and architecture of human behaviour and the ways in which buildings, cities and structures are thermometers for the socio political ideology of a city.

Believe me, it’s more riveting if you can hear Doung spewing and see his restless arms and quick feet.

We started at the very posh Hillbrow mall where even our small group attracted suspicion and questions from the security agents. We went down the leafy economically segregated areas to the highway and bridges, with Doung explaining the social construct of the gradual impoverishment of infrastructure.

The farther from the gated communities and suburbs we moved, the poorer the infrastructure but also the richer the human experience and interaction.

I had been in Durban three days and was bored with the genteel, cold, blandness of the shiny roads, malls and homes. As we descended the bridge toward Mills Street life exploded at us. It was at this point that Doung made the comment about unused bus stops because whoever designed the seat did not take the behind of the average mama into consideration.

As we turned into Mill’s crumbling, achingly beautiful colonial building with its old men and Cuban flair, we entered the exuberant streets of Warwick Triangle. Music blared out of shops with colourful signposts and wall art. There were fruit hawkers and all sorts of traders on the road leading into the market where the traders displayed vegetables and fruits beautifully. Finally, l was in Africa, breathing, heaving, sensuous. People shouted greetings at Doung, walked up to pump hands, catcalled and whistled. They smiled, they laughed and passed comments, not once in the suburbs had anyone cracked a smile at me or said a word to me in the time l have been here. Actually, this is the first time fellow black people made eye contact with me and laughed or simply, gleefully eyeballed me. At my two hotels the black people were domestic helps and they never once looked directly at me.

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