Photographs and text by JFC Clarke | Contributions by Darryl Accone, Johnny Masilela and Zwelakhe Mthwethwa



Essays

Photographs


Of Dust and Dreams
Darryl Accone

Dust. Sometimes red, sometimes brown, ever present. Heaping thin invading lines along the skirting boards of the long parquet passage of the semi-detached house; blowing into net curtains, stealing their newly washed whiteness and fading it quickly into sickly grey. Nowhere is safe: bookcases, wardrobes, sideboards, cupboards, shoes just polished, hair just washed. Hanging forlornly on the line in the tiny yard outside the kitchen, washing tries to stay free of masala streaks and paprika hues insinuated by even the ghostliest of breezes.

Dust whispering all around you. Dust you smell in the dry winter and the oven-baked heat of summer. Specks of it you taste on food or drink carelessly left unsheltered, and feel scratchily on bedspreads, pillows and the mosquito nets of summer.

It is from the Motlana bus rank across the narrowest of ways - a misnomer called Third Street - that the dust drifts, wafts and drives, sent up in eddies and swirls by passengers embarking and disembarking, and by the relentless departure and arrival of the grey, leviathan-like buses. There is some sanctuary. In shocking abundance, a golden shower creeper covers the twelve-foot-high chicken-mesh fence that nominally makes an enclave of our house, 151 A Third Street in Asiatic Bazaar, that province within that republic of dust and heat, those few square miles of humanity, hope and equality that are Marabastad in 1960.

Days after being born in the Marifont maternity hospital in Pretoria on 28 February 1960, I came to Marabastad. I left nine-and-a-bit years later, not knowing then what I learned only long afterwards: that it was a forced removal. Chinese, like the black, Indian, and so-called Coloured residents of Marabastad, had to go. My parents protected me from the cutting knowledge of that indignity and helplessness, but they could not protect themselves, could not resist eviction from a house, a home and a community that they loved. Nearly 40 years on, I recall and appreciate that world with equal wonder and love.

As the 1960s drew to a close, the National Party and the Pretoria City Council moved determinedly to rid the city of its last remaining so-called black spot: Marabastad, the Sophiatown of the north, the District Six of Pretoria. I was too young - and too sheltered - fully to understand the inhumane social engineering of the time. But I had not been sheltered from the many moments of Marabastad life, and the unique gifts of the place: a non-racial, multi-racial and multi-cultural haven whose people lived in shared humanness. Even today, in the new South Africa, 13 years after Apartheid's (official) end, I have not experienced the likes of Marabastad. I fear that I may never live in a community where the gradations that seem to mark the world - nationality, race, ethnicity, mother tongue, culture, colour, creed - are not divisive but cohesive; not feared but appreciated; not misunderstood but explored.

As a teenager, living far from Asiatic Bazaar, I read a lot of Gerald Durrell. His botanical and zoological universe was selfcontained, an idyllic refuge from the cares of the wider world. Slowly I realised that for his Corfu, I had my Asiatic Bazaar, my Marabastad. Indeed, for each of the Corfiot and Greek people and places that Durrell captured so well, I had my equivalents, and more. Our neighbours, in the adjoining semi, 151 Third Street, were the Noors, an Ismaili family, who were also our landlords. I spent many long afternoons and mornings playing with their children. Mrs Noor would often call across the trellised partition between the respective entrances to the semis with the succulent news that she had a curry which she'd like us to have. It was a tradition begun on my parents' first night in 151A, when Mrs Noor had welcomed them with curried fish.

Ismaili hospitality and the company of the Noor children made me curious about other aspects of our neighbours' lives. So it was that I would often walk, with either my father or mother, south (a very short way south) from our house, until we came to the corner of Third and Boom streets. Boom is the great trunk road that runs from the National Zoological Gardens in the east to Von Wielligh Street, west of Marabastad. Turning left at the corner, a further stroll would bring us to the mosque of Ismaili Khoja adherents, whose chief imam is the Aga Khan. To this white building with its elegant minaret the Ismailis of Marabastad would bring food every day, to be distributed by the imam to the needy and the hungry.

Right across the street was a piece of South African football history in the making. Soccer crazy, Poppy Moosa and his sons founded Sundowns, today still among the country's top teams. But it was as much for his work as a commissioner of oaths, which brought him into contact and kept him in touch with the people of Marabastad, that Poppy is remembered with huge affection.

Our other immediate neighbours, in a free-standing but low-roofed house, were a Chinese family. Their father, Kwan Kho, ran a fahfee game but was altogether more intriguing for me because of his dimensions. Seated behind the wheel of his white saloon car, his head rose up enormous; not for nothing was his nickname Makulu Kop, Big Head. But it was his tummy, which brushed the steering wheel, which most drew my amused attention. On top of his stomach, Kwan Kho always placed a handkerchief to prevent the rim of the wheel incising a mark on his shirt. There was (and is still today) another large Chinese entity in the area. Makuloo Hopaan - derived from makulu (big) and hoppaan, the Chinese ginger beer brew, a sort of fake alcohol - a remarkable emporium, with everything imaginable, from gramophone needles to knobkerries. On school day mornings, I'd walk with my mother up to Makuloo Hopaan. There I climbed into a small blue Ford driven by Henry, kind and moustached (and now that I think back, straining, so-called Coloured), to go to school with other Chinese children, including Hilton, the son of King Biu, who ran the shop. If now I can't remember what King Biu looked like it is because as a child I saw not the man but his defining feature: a leather apron which, though tough, seemed to grow a little softer and smoother with each passing year.

'It has been thirty eight and a half years since I stood at this exact spot, looking west over Third Street towards the bus rank. That was in February 1969, when I stood in front of the driveway gate to our semi-detached home before we left it for the last time, on our way to a different house and another life.

So much has changed about the old house, 151 A Third Street. The chicken-mesh gate has been replaced by a keep-in and keep-out corrugated iron one. What used to be a roof garden that ran the length and breadth of our semi and the neighbouring 151 has been reduced to make way for the set of rooms that you see behind the 'discount' sign and running along the edge of the building.

Virtually all that seems to remain of the old house is the front wall and window, though the latter is much larger than the standard-size double window of my parents' former bedroom, which looked out on to the pathway leading to the front door. That entrance is now part of the interior of the building, further along the cement slope that is visible in the photograph running from street level into the building.

I'd forgotten how narrow the street is. It's even narrower today - not because as an adult I'm taller (not by much) but as a result of the street vendors on the opposite side. Their stalls obscure the view of Poppy Moosa's house and that of the fishmonger Sharief and his family. Sharief would visit Chinese and Catholic households on Fridays to let them know what fresh fish he had in stock.

Things are dusty as ever, but the smells are more pungent, even rank. Maybe that's to do with the woman selling tripe and other offal at the edge of the bus rank. Maybe it's that I've grown out of the comfortable familiarity of the aromas - and stenches - that were the olfactory signature of Marabastad. One smell I miss is that of bread rising at the African Baking Company, ABC, run by Ramtula, who married Sherine, the second-oldest daughter of our neighbours in 151, the Noors'.

Top: Darryl and his mother Jewel Accone outside the house at 151 A, 3rd Street in 1961.
Bottom: Darryl Accone standing outside the gate at 151 A, 3rd Street, Marabastad, September 2007. (Reproduced by permission of Jewel Accone)

Nearby stands the Miriammen temple. I went inside once, with my father, but what an occasion that was: a Hindu wedding, the floors strewn with flowers, the aromas of a feast scenting the air. That day is impressed on my memory as one of colours and textures, aromas and tastes sweet and savoury, cool and spicy hot.

On Saturday 1 September 2007, the first day of spring, I visit Marabastad with my wife and John Clarke. It is probably 40 years since I was inside the temple, but in the circularity and symmetry of fate, a wedding and wedding banquet have just concluded in the Miriammen. The bride and groom - she South Asian, he Caucasian - are walking in the street near the temple. A mixed-race marriage would not have been legal in the South Africa I grew up in, I recall with a start. But then I remember that as a child, Asiatic Bazaar and Marabastad formed a palette of people colours that I saw without being conscious of colour. As we walk back to Boom Street from the splendidly repainted and well-preserved Miriammen temple, the past whispers to me, engendering memories.

Down along Boom Street are the Empire and the Orient: cinemas my parents and I walked to on sweltering summer evenings and mild spring and autumn nights (in winter my father would relay my mother and me on the back of his motorcycle). Unlike the temple, their glories are gone; no longer places of dreams, they peddle ordinary consumer goods.

So too with 151 and 151A Third Street. Gone are the golden shower and the mesh fence, the built-in flower bed and the adjoining steps leading to the front door of 151A. The trellis, through which the Noor girls used to peek and wink, and the boys smile or pull faces, is dust, if that. The two semis have been converted into one clothing shop. Stepping inside, I try to find the contours of rooms that once were: the bedrooms, the lounge where I used to listen to long playing records, the dining room where the round table my mother still has used to sit, decked with fine food. Gone, all gone - not even, curiously, any vestiges of the bathroom and toilet.

But, at the corner of Third and Boom, there is a clothing shop whose owner recalls my parents, my father's motorbike, and our boxer dog, Russ. This man and I may even have played together; we are roughly age-mates. Looking out from the shop across the street, I see back across the years too, to an eight-year-old boy and his father. They walk past cycle shops selling gramophones, gramophone needles and records, and basic bicycling essentials. From within stream the sounds of maskanda, jazz, and penny whistle.

The boy and the man stop at a corner cafe further down the road for a Coke and a samoosa - "Don't tell Mom you had one" - oozing delicately minced meat and spices. Asiatic Bazaar and Marabastad will never die, because the idea of them lives on, in the boy's memory and of others, all once boys and girls in those days of dust and dreams in the golden age of Marabastad.

Darryl Accone is the author of All Under Heaven: The story of a Chinese family in South Africa. 2004. Cape Town: David Philip

Hussen Mohideen and Darryl Accone in conversation with Geerish Manga outside his fashion business Liberty Stores in Boom Street, near the corner with Third Street.

"I remember your father and his motorbike, and the dog," says Geerish. It turns out that Geerish and I grew up in Marabastad at roughly the same time. His father, who established the clothing shop, apprenticed Geerish in the family business. Younger siblings went to Wits University and excelled in medicine and other professions.

Although Geerish professes himself "not a learned man" I think the opposite, and say so. He has a gentle, wise demeanour and his humanity seeps through as we talk of Marabastad's heyday. Bustling Saturday mornings, bicycle shops and the music that flowed from them, the three bioscopes, the grand old tea room building, now just a façade that seems in danger of crumbling into Boom Street.

Pointing towards the counter inside, Geerish mentions that his daughter will soon be off to university. I see a young woman in relaxed conversation with an older woman, possibly her mother. This might be the last generation of the Manga family to run this stalwart business, which has clothed, shoed and hatted so many thousands of people in the past fifty years. I thank Geerish, say goodbye and walk away, and then turn back to steal a last glimpse at the beautiful window display of shirts, jackets, shoes and hats. It's those snazzy hats that most recall the sharp, exuberant style of the Marabastad I know and love still.



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