A place called home. Someone said home is where the heart is, and indeed that is true. That is however, not to say that all places we make a home capture our hearts. Luther Vandross (or is it Dionne Warwick) says “a house is not a home.” I enjoy going to these little taverns around Johannesburg for a beer and to unwind. They are non-descript, decrepit, rough and tough kind of places on the wrong side of town. The beer is cheap, the crowd violence-prone and owners armed even as cops drive up and down the street. The patrons are loud, the music in full blast and laughter and banter abound. Pool table is the game of choice and the music selection is as unpredictable as it is diverse. Generally happy is the atmosphere; drunks from all social and economic classes mixing together in a melting pot of African cultural backgrounds and languages from everywhere on the continent. Happy one minute; then a violent outbreak of a fight that is quelled by friends and associates pulling the opponents apart and talking sense to them. Sometimes there is blood, sometimes flying bottles hurled and knives drawn out. I have heard of lives lost from fights that either started or culminated in these places. It is rough. I bet you are wondering what lies at the heart of these scenes? It is a longing for home.
From its very beginning, Johannesburg is a city of dreams. We all come here in search of our part of the gold. From everywhere around South Africa, SADC region and Africa. People come here looking for a better life than what they could hope for back home. In the current economy, this dream is quickly crushed by the reality of living in a congested, expensive and economically declined city long past its glory years. A city in a corruption riddled 3rd world country where the color of your skin determines your access to opportunities in a tightly contested market itself battling to grow revenue and profits. A city where those without powerful connections stand little to no chance of finding their part of the fold and living happily ever after.
With months and even years of disappointment, rejection, hunger and abuse; the people become despondent and discouraged. They see no way out of the quagmire of poverty, unemployment and economic gloom. They go to these taverns more and more to keep out a living from gambling while drowning their sorrows. They gamble on pool, dice, cards and anything possible. They fight for every point; every cent matters. They will bleed or die for it; it is the only way to put food on the table and send money back home. They will kill for it, their family livelihood depends on it. Hence the blood and the hurtling bottles whizzing past you in the air. Hence the drawing of knives and twisted faces with the look of murder. All they want is a chance to send money home back to mama so the children can eat. They want to impress girlfriends and wives who require weaves, manicures and most of all; food on the table. They want to eat. Hunger is not good for a man; especially one who is far away from home and his people in a cold, lonely, big city. A hungry man is an angry man.
I go to these taverns because they remind me of a my rural beginnings back home. I see in these people the faces of those who raised and nurtured me. Uncles, aunts, cousins and neighbors. I know these people also came here to survive, but the city has reduced them to a life below the breadline and on the outskirts of hope. They have given up their homes for a city that has now given up on them. A city that has rejected them to a point where they can’t afford to go back home anymore. They miss the place where they left their gentle, beautiful hearts full of dreams. Hearts now hardened and determined to just survive one more day. Every day…they miss a place called home where the food is scarce but the love is filling. Home, a place distantly etched on their memory and now unattainable. They come here, they gamble and drink. They risk their lives in the hope one day they will make it back home. Home, the place where their hearts can be pure again in the gleaming faces of loved ones happy to see them. Home, where the heart is.