This phrase, Every Journey Begins with a Sowetan, was once on a billboard inside the Johannesburg Park Station, colloquially known as epaki/rotunda. I would see it whenever I passed through the station on a long distance bus trip or a short trip on the Gautrain. This simple sentence has meant a lot to me over the past nine turbulent years.
It’s a sign which always evoked an involuntary warm feeling inside me. A feeling of home. Whenever I looked up at it, it often felt like I was having my own come to Jesus moment ala Simba in the 1994 Disney Blockbuster, The Lion King. The words sounded just like Rafiki’s voice in my head when he admonished Simba to “Look, harrrder” into own his reflection on the river.
It almost served as a wake up call from an unconscious paradise of “akuna matata” adolescent attitude – it was pushing me to the path of the archetypal hero as an adult, so to speak. It reminded me of who I was, where I came from and who I could be.
Yet, the bill board itself was not about me, in fact. It was advertising the Sowetan – a daily English-language newspaper first published in 1981 as the voice of the liberation struggle. Since then it has and continues to chronicle life in South Africa after apartheid, including politics, culture, sport, business and more. In the early 80s though, the paper was freely distributed to households in the segregated township of Soweto, my birth place.
I liked this advert because not only was it super clever and simple; it nudged me to reflect deeper about own life journey.
It is an impressive mix of metaphor and a call to action sales pitch.
You can’t take a journey without the Sowetan because every journey begins with information, you have to know where you’re going. It implied a great journey if you bought the Sowetan Newspaper, because what you read could take you on interesting journeys with through many people including Sowetans featured in the paper.
The sentence invites you to buy the paper while highlighting the history of the township and it’s significant role in the struggle for liberation from the racist apartheid-regime.
If there’s anything I have been unequivocally proud of in my youth was knowing that I was from the birthplace of heroes and heroines known and unkown to the world. At times I thought, I could one day grow up to be one of them.
Of course my feelings about being a Sowetan have ebbed and flowed between extremes; sometimes I have felt proud and at times I would be immensely ashamed or self-conscious about this part of me which can be xenophobic, hateful, rough and bloodthirsty.
But being from here, regardless of how I have felt about it in the past, is a permanent fact of my life. Of who I am.
It’s the first address I had to memorise in my first year of school; It’s the first place I was taught to think independently and be independent.
Our Soweto home where my great-grandparents raised their 11 children; one of whom eventually gave birth to my mom, who gave birth to me, may not be what people look for when they visit the township but that’s the place I think of when I hear the name Soweto. I hear, Home.
I see the apple tree where the only surviving picture of me as a baby was taken. A tree on which I projected my dreams and aspirations while chewing on raw, half rotten or ripe green apples depending on the season.
I think of the games which we played in the yard with my siblings, cousins, aunts, grand-aunts and uncles. I think of hide and seek, amithini, hop-scotch, skipping-rope and di-keto. I think of the trampolene in Meadowlands and the number of children whose foreheads bled and whose teeth were broken from falling off of it. But who would go back again the next day or as soon as they healed because jumping was so much fun. I think of Uncle Tom’s hall and the school choir competitions. I think of the Phefeni train station and the terror that would engulf me whenever we walked past or hopped on a train with my grandmother.
I would be sure that the train would swallow me alive.
I think of Sherbets powder sweets which we used as lipstick, flowers from trees we picked and wore as earings on our ways to buy bread from Maponyas’. I think of the Jerseys we wore on our heads as “hair”; Di-skopas, di-Ice our after school snacks, dancing to Brenda’s mid do do song which told us to take one step back and one stop forward, turn around and clap our hands while holding on to our dreams. I think of magwinya, le Mangola and snoekfish for breakfast. I think of achar le di-chips. I think of grains of rice, which we would be forced to sift one by one on my grandmother’s green kitchen table before she would cook a seven colour Sunday lunch. I think of all my childhood friends and everyone who animated our home; making it dramatic and colourful, full of humour, laughter, games, stories on the radio, those we invented and told through stones or pen and paper or re-enacted in midnight play, and those which happened in front of Amehlo,am’.
It’s a place which was a melting pot of diverse languages, people, fashionable American trends, cultures, styles, movements and even races. It’s the place I learnt about separation and discrimination. It’s where I first learnt the difference between poverty and wealth, of all kinds. Of pain and how it can tear loved ones apart, sometimes forever.
The Soweto of my childhood is a place full of excitement, where things continuously changed, moved, shifted, evolved. It was a happy, scary place. A fast place. My place. Our place. I belonged, here.
Each time I saw that sign, Every Journey Begins with a Sowetan it always resonated with me in a visceral way. It confirmed the validity of my experience on whatever psychological or physical journey I was on.
Even though the Sowetan newspaper and the Soweto of my childhood have changed drastically over time, both form an integral part of who I am today. They are a foundation on which I will forever stand, for better or worse.
Wherever I end up in the world, I will always think of myself as a Sowetan, on a journey.