Being seen in inner city Jozi

Conversations by Sam Nhlengethwa - Cyclists Mural, 2012

One of my great joys when moving from the suburbs to town almost nine years ago is that I was suddenly ‘seen’ again. Instead of a relatively anonymous existence behind suburban walls, I get to meet and greet my neighbours and the building staff as soon as I leave my apartment and so many more people when I set out on foot in my neighbourhood.

My regular walks to get a coffee, a meal or my shopping are accompanied by a pleasant rhythm of hello Ma’s, sawubona’s and how are you’s. Enjoyable engagements with the shop owner who tells me that the price of candles has gone up again. The sing song greeting from the tiny lady in the arcade who sells vegetables for 5 rand out of cardboard boxes. The ‘hello hello hello’ from the cheeky car guard in Helen Joseph Street and the shy ‘sawubona Ma’ from the lady roasting mealies on her pavement grill.

But then, before I reach the boisterous taxi marshals at the corner of Commissioner and Pixley ka Seme, there used to be this pause in the rhythm that took me back to my suburban days. However friendly I greeted him, I felt ignored by the older gentleman guarding the entrance to one of the many muti stores in the neighbourhood. Wearing shorts no matter the weather, always smoking a cigarette and presenting an angry face to the world.

Never afraid of a challenge I decided to persist and continued to offer him a smile and a greeting. Imagine my joy when after months I first received a grunt in reply! Over time the grunts turned to grumpy greetings and the day he first smiled back at me, I almost danced the rest of the way.

Today my mind was on other things and I walked past without greeting him only to be called back to the present by his very loud ‘good afternoon!’. His way of showing that, like me, he enjoys being seen.

Josine Overdevest, 22 July 2022

Artwork: Conversations by Sam Nhlengethwa – Cyclists Mural, 2012

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