By Brian Ihirwe Kamanzi
Was the time as I flicked open my phone rushing into the train cabin with a group of people I was charged to accompany on my way to the Open Streets day in Langa on the 29th of March 2015. With a volunteer shirt scruffily fitted on my body and the taste of my morning coffee keeping my eyes open I began to take in the first moments of the day.
The train ride.
The first class cabin was fairly clean, the seats and windows not as dusty and covered with graffiti as many I had seen before on the trains. The cabin we sat in was filled almost to its seated capacity with curious faces that nervously looked around; several children restlessly peeked over their seats to entertain themselves. A young boy with a tuft of blonde hair bobbed his head in and out of sight a few rows ahead of me while his mother, half-paying attention, tried to settle him down. I remember wondering if this boy had ever been to Langa. I wondered if he had ever taken the train. The cynic in me wondered if he would ever have to take it again. Not long after I had drifted into that spiralling angle of thought the group I had arrived with had encouraged me to join their conversation.
You know, it's amazing. We've been on trains across Italy but I've honestly never had this kind of experience, said a woman excitedly, seated on my left.
The conversation flowed between the group of passengers who were a mixture of European visitors and local South Africans. They shared stories of travels across Europe and made tentative comparisons of the public transport systems they had encountered. By this time I was having difficulty paying attention, having a desire to be present watching the scenery pass behind our heads through windows to the city that steadily changed from pretty to gritty; these conversations seemed somehow disconnected but perhaps this was more about my feelings of disconnectedness.
Before too long, with a screeching halt of the tired brakes of our passenger train we had arrived at Langa station. As we disembarked and exited the station one of the members of the group had his sandal tear at its strap leaving him looking sheepishly around for a solution. Taking it in his stride we assured him there would be spaces to purchase new shoes close by. Within a matter of minutes we had arrived at a shoe repair shop that slotted into a series of stalls that stood at the foot of the station. Reggae blared from the sound systems in the stalls as red, yellow and green painted the posters that advertised their wares. With brief negotiation, a needle & thread and a smile worth its enormous intangible weight in gold, the shoe was fixed and we proceeded to the Open Streets route.
Now separating from the group I had ushered to the space, I said my goodbyes and began to walk through the space at my own pace. The atmosphere was phenomenal, approaching midday the streets seemed to be picking up with activity. The Rosa choir on my right were organising their instruments and volunteers and children alike ran, rode and skated past me in excitement. They raced from one end of the street to the other, guided by a thirst for stimulation. In a whimsical distracted fashion I played with some young girls who were playing soccer on the street meters away from the more boisterous older boys who were playing in front of us.
As time went on I gathered my things and continued to walk down the street, stopping intermittently to take in the wide array of music and dance performances. From break dancing and hip hop to skilful violins to the liberating rhythm and rumble of drums and bells tied to feet that danced unrestricted, free.
As I moved along I was struck by how different this was to the Open Streets held in Bree Street, in the heart of the glittery city. It seemed clear here that the residents of this space had a different relationship with their public space; many seemed more than comfortable to take ownership and control of space. For sport. For Art, Dance. Really you name it. When it comes to interrogating the lessons one can take from the Open Streets experiment my intuition tells me much can be learnt from what was witnessed in Langa in particular.
Now, after checking in at the Open Streets headquarters at the centre of the main area, Washington Street, it was a relief to see the volunteers and organisers in a relaxed joyful posture. Many of them on bicycles eager to move between the crowd that painted the streets. Many playing with children while on the go, offering lifts on bicycles and even on the ends of skateboards. Here at the centre of activity it was easy to see how diverse the people who attended were. An uncountable flurry of languages travelled through the airwaves, the universal language of laughter remained the most dominate sound throughout the afternoon and yet, I had in the shadow of my mind, some growing concerns, as enjoyable as this was I did not want to arrive here with the intent of forgetting the injustice that underpins the very structure of where we stood. The streets now covered with colourful paint and the chalk drawings encouraged my gaze to focus on the ground and not beyond what was just beyond that Sunday's Open Streets.
Now moving along, I walked towards the end of Washington Street furthest away from the train station. Much to my delight I stumbled across three separate age groups playing Street cricket. Moving through the street I passed countless people carrying cameras with long lenses half the size of the children many of them attempted to capture. In a midst the carnival-like chaos that most definitely warranted efforts to document and remember the different textures of this experience, I felt an anxiety that this often crossed to the territory of voyeurism. Township tourism. You name it. You coin it.
The games of cricket on the street captured my full attention for much of the remainder of the afternoon. Not many words were exchanged between the players; it was a non-competitive game enjoying the basic elements of the sport while enjoying the company. These kinds of grounds use different kinds of language to engage with dialogue. Connecting people who would have otherwise never met, creating space for an interaction that needs not the limitation of language translation.
Now starting to feel hungry as the game began to dissolve and the sun slowly sank cooling down Open Street, I made my way to the Ekasi Caf for lunch. The queues were long but the manager was swift, witty and skilful with how she managed the swarm of hungry visitors. She coordinated the kitchen, along with the team managing the braai for the meat outside while calculating everyone's totals without so much as a notepad in sight for her calculations. A feat I had rarely seen in my Engineering school on the Hill so close yet so far from where we stood in Langa.
After meeting up with several friends who had arrived at Open Streets, I grew cautious of the time as I prepared for my next engagement for the day. Saying warm goodbyes to my friends, both new and old, made throughout the day, I rushed back towards the station to catch the 5 o' clock train. After arriving just in time, I jumped into a cabin just as it started moving and balanced myself in the space, ready to go home. It was quiet. This was a second class cabin with half as much seating compared to what I had taken that morning. There was a tired atmosphere around me and as I looked around I was confronted with how different this trip would be. Juxtaposed to the wonderful diversity and joy experienced a moment from where we left, I sat in a coach of black South Africans, many of whom appeared to be on their way to work. Security guards. Attendants. The scene was so much in contrast to the predominately white, chattering excited cabin that I arrived with that morning.
I got the feeling that there were two bubbles gliding against one another that day, standing so much closer than the age old architects of the city ever intended. Breaking bread with one another in ways that are rarely seen in this city, this I hoped. I hope. Will be the start of a dialogue between peoples and spaces whose relationship to one another has for far too long been limited by the racialized class divisions of labour.
Going forward we will need open hearts, open minds and surely too, Open Streets. See you at the next one.