Letter from Johannesburg 3

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Letter from Johannesburg 3

Yewande Omotoso thinks about how belonging to a city is more than just living in it.


Illustration by Sarah John

‘I’m a Jo’burger at heart,’ I remember my friend said that once. I felt that, at the time of the conversation, he hadn’t lived in Johannesburg in years. In fact, he was living in a different city – I can’t remember which.

His words reminded me that we know a city as a place outside of us, but we also know it inside of us, in our hearts. You could live in London but carry Dakar inside you. When my friend spoke about how much he was a Jo’burger, it made me think how much I was a Jo’burger. What does it mean to be a Jo’burger at heart?

The first thing I thought was that like many other cities, the typical Jo’burger has a unique sense of fashion. I think I know this really well because I don’t follow fashions. I never feel I can play the real Jo’burger; my nails aren’t done, my shoes aren’t high and they aren’t strappy because I prefer comfort and not style.

Next, I wondered if Jo’burgers are naturally friendly. This is perhaps because of an experience I once had in New York. I remember when I was in Brooklyn and I went up to a worker in the subway to ask for directions. He stared through me, said not a word, and continued with his job. Later I felt that it was very ‘New York’. Possibly because of ideas about tourism, a Jo’burger might be much more ready to help with directions. Helpful perhaps but maybe friendly is the wrong word

If you want to be a real Jo’burger, you need to like house music, partying, and endless fun. This same appetite for fun I see in my own people, the Yoruba. I’ve always thought that the Yoruba have a real love of celebration but they are not good with grief. It seems that, for them, enjoyment – and not death – is a natural part of being human. But, when I think of grief in Jo’burg, I remember Toloki in Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying. Toloki is a professional mourner in an unnamed city. I am sure it is Johannesburg. Toloki’s job is to cry, with deep feeling, at funerals. This job makes me think it shows the way Jo’burgers can mourn. They can feel loss, the many kinds of loss that South Africa’s history is full of.

I went back and asked my friend what he meant when he said he was a Jo’burger at heart. He said he meant that it didn’t matter where he lived, he would be in that place but not of that place. Once again I felt that he’d changed his relationship to a city from a place we live in to a place that lives in us. I liked that idea very much. Now I live in Johannesburg but I will keep wondering what city lives in me? I am not as certain about that as my friend.



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)