The fascinating breakthrough photographic tour of Soweto
“Known the world over for its role in the struggle for democracy, Soweto hums day and night, and its vibe is electrifying. It’s Gucci and ghetto, Hummers and hip hop, Loxion Kulcha (a sought-after local fashion brand that originated in the townships). Plus livestock, glamour and gogos (grannies).” ~ South African Tourism
I sit in the passenger seat alongside Ilan Ossendryver a photojournalist. We motor down a lively main street, Chris Hani Baragwanath Drive towards the heart of Soweto (South Western Township). Staring out of the window there is a fleeting upturn to my mouth, and excitedly a laugh escapes as I know we plan to get ‘lost’. And no, not ‘lost’ in the literal sense of the word, but in all of its contradiction with a sense of purpose, exploring a discovery of new things. For today, with Ilan, I will experience Soweto as a photojournalist!
I respond positively to the intricate rhythms and harmonies playing from the radio via a male choral group – Lady Smith Black Mambazo – whose music is about inspiration. While absorbing the melodies, Ilan relays, “Imagine a land empty of colour!” Of course, this seriously hits home! Because sadly, during the apartheid regimen, this was Soweto – sandy-cracked barren roads empty of infrastructure, and by night a township wholly in darkness. Although on the outskirts I can see it is in a progressive state, it certainly still clutches a primitive element! In fact, a large part is still poverty-stricken and unchanged.
Ilan, in good spirits, winds down his window and brings the car to a halt. For he has spotted a sangoma (known as traditional healers in Africa through a special calling that they receive. They are given instruction from their ancestors through the spirit world to heal).
Enthusiastically, (although I with trepidation, as I am nervous) Ilan approaches the small blue-brick house. A friendly looking lady sits on top of the stairs (and I am immediately put at ease), while a tiny beige mongrel with pointed ears tip-taps around us, and yaps! Reaching down to pat him, the lady exclaims, “He is excited to see you”! She introduces herself as Makhwelenta, the owner of the consultation, and her dog as Spiky. She says she has been in the house for 15 years, but when we ask if we can chat further, she replies, “No!” Both Ilan and I are startled!
But then she kindly suggests that we chat to her apprentices. Intrigued, we wander off back and seek out 3 more ladies in a courtyard tucked away behind the house. Not knowing what to expect we introduce ourselves and learn their names – Nomfula, Lwandle, and Nkomanyamba. Ilan is excited to explore and learn! Of course, I follow his lead…
Curiously, Ilan takes a step, and bends, and near crawls into the wee-sized consulting room crammed with paraphernalia. But through a chorus of earnest please they stop him! Bewildered, we look to them, wondering why? They explain it’s because he has not removed his shoes. I ask Nomfula “Why does he need to remove them?” Politely she responds, “It is because our ancestors walked here barefoot”! So, respectfully Ilan takes off his shoes. Then he walks beneath a cow skull, hanging above the door into the room alight with candles.
Interesting in the sangoma belief is that ancestors need to be shown respect through sacrifice and light, hence their skull and candles. Nkomanyamba is in her traditional beaded headdress as she happens to be graduating, and demonstrates bone divination by tossing various sorts of bones, shells and nuts onto sheepskin. Before throwing the bones she says, “I must summon the ancestors by kneeling, giving snuff, clapping and chanting a song. And then through the symbols produced by the arrangement of bones thrown I am able to translate the health of my patient”. Finishing her demonstration we thank the lovely ladies for their time and say our goodbyes. Makwelenta says we must call again when in Soweto.
But for now, Ilan has another mission…
A common trend in Soweto is that many of the locals carry umbrellas, and by this Ilan is fascinated. I question him regarding this, and without hesitation, he replies “I have seen many people with them and decided I would like to watch out for them, and then to photographically capture them in different scenarios.” With this goal in mind, we lurk about Soweto in pursuit of ‘locals with umbrellas.’ We come across interesting people – Sarah one of the locals sports a large purple umbrella, (alongside her friend and children) and in the midday heat is very slowly strolling up a steep hill, away from the famous Wandi’s Restaurant. She stops and poses for us, beaming a beautiful smile that wins me over. We chat to her for a while, and on leaving her I am zealous to head into the shanty part of town.
But first, Ilan spots a lady heading into giant green reeds at the bottom of the road. He hollows loud to stop her, and dashes from the car to photograph her. Shyly, she poses for him! Finally, we break away and make it into the shantytown, but don’t need to drive too far.
First, we find a corrugated tin shack, and although it seems to have the luxury of a security gate there is not much else to it. Outside the shack sits a lady on two spindly foam mattresses, the other standing next to her. A baby sits on the hard concrete floor playing with an old laced shoe. They welcome Ilan with friendly smiles and umbrellas to snap away at…They talk to Ilan, seemingly astonished by his interest in them.
I can feel Ilan’s admiration for all people, cultures and colours. One thing is for certain, I am sure all his trips to Soweto are different but exciting, and accommodating to his guests. Ilan says, “I want visitors to understand the Soweto people, who are proud of their township, and that it’s a great place to visit with the hospitality & culture of the African people.” As I process today I realise I have been enthralled through a visual trip into the past, as well as present-day Soweto, and have been honoured to see things through the eyes of the locals.