Wednesday, January 4, 2012

my Soweto birthday

Burger dinner at a roadside stand down the street from Lebo’s

We were playing poker to kill time until it was a decent hour to go out. We didn’t have any poker chips, so we hunted through the hostel for anything that we could use as chips instead. We found lentils and condoms. We decided on the condoms. They were being given away for free in order to advertise the BazBus. I was winning, cleaning out everyone’s stash.

Just as I was wondering what on earth I could do with a hundred condoms, Phil got a call from his buddies inviting us out to a street party in the Orlando East part of Soweto. By then, it was midnight and my birthday. The boys told me that I was welcome to join them for my birthday celebrations. I told them they can’t have my birthday party without me. Although, to be fair, my family back in Canada did the same.

We first stopped by at a house party being held down the street from where the boys live. The boys told the host that it was my birthday, and all of a sudden I found myself surrounded by a bunch of girls all singing Happy Birthday to me in Zulu. I could tell it was going to be a good birthday night.

We left for the next party, walking along the side of the road under the streetlights.

“So, last week, there was another Chinese girl, and she wanted to go out,” Phil told me. “So we took her to a party. She was a little weird.”

“I’m a little weird too,” I replied.

“No, she was weird in a not good way,” Phil said. “She was, like, very weird.”

I nodded, wondering why he’s telling me this. It’s the most he’s spoken to me all weekend.

“So anyway,” Phil continued. “I’m telling you this because our friends at the party might get confused and think you are still her.”

Ah, that was it. Gloria Guns has a reputation to beat.

This street party was the biggest street party I’ve ever been to. It was clear that it had started out as a house party but grew so big that it was spilling out into the next yards, and the yards next to that, and filling the streets. You could hear the beat of the music pulsing from miles away. Guys were climbing up storey high electrical boxes and stomping out their dance moves at such precarious heights while the people below cheered them on.

Phil and Timo have spent enough time here to miraculously blend into the crowd of entirely black kids, despite the fact that they are uMlungus. They’ve made the right friends, imitate the right mannerisms, know the proper Zulu greetings, and let’s face it, they’re guys. China Guns, on the other hand, sticks out like a sore thumb wherever she goes. As I tried to make my way through the thick crowd, I was constantly greeted with excited salutations of “China!” and “Konichiwa”, random disembodied hands reaching out from the crowd to touch my hair, girls rushing forward to kiss me and get a photo taken, men pushing each other out of the way to introduce themselves to me. It seemed like everyone was thrilled at the chance to meet an Asian girl. Eventually Bonga had to grab me by the hand and rescue me as we moved through the yard to a less crowded spot of the party.

everyone wants a photo

I met all sorts of interesting characters at the party. I met the boys’ buddy Shaun, a sweet guy who designs Soweto clothing. There was one charming charlatan who kept assuring me that he had singlehandedly thrown this whole party together, and that he was an MP and an ambassador of safety, and that if I ever needed anything, he just needed to make one phone call to the right person in the government and he could make it happen.

I also met one man in a wheelchair who had also been recently called to the Bar, just like me. He told me that when he was younger, he had been caught up in bad things, and when he was sixteen, he had gotten shot, and that was why he was in a wheelchair. By now he had turned his life around, become a lawyer and opening up his own chambers, and thinking about doing a masters. His name was Gift.

Soon the chill of Johannesburg summer nights kicked in and it was time to leave the party. As we walked home, we passed by some graffiti on the street declaring SOWETO in large letters. Phil was really proud of his work and was looking for more spray paint. It made me realize just how young the kid is and it made me feel old.

We stopped by Shaun’s place, careful not to wake his sleeping grandmother, and in his room he showed us the new merchandise he’d designed. And then what really made my birthday night – besides winning a hundred condoms at poker and being sung Happy Birthday in Zulu – was when he gave me my own Soweto shirt he had designed, as a birthday present.

By the time I went to bed, it was past four am. I was only four hours into my birthday and had already partied myself out. We’d see what the next day would hold.