Some Lessons About Connected Societies From Johannesburg’s Hillbrow Neighborhood

As someone who always dreamed (and still dreams) of seeing the world, online travel advisory warnings mean nothing to me when I encounter the opportunities to fulfill those dreams.

Rather, they appear to me as one of those tools the West publishes to remind itself of the differences between its "secure" territories and the rest of us under-policed regions on God’s green earth. My perception notwithstanding, they are probably well meant.

On the other hand, born, bred and living in Nigeria, a country that is often at the receiving end of these travel warnings lies the similarity to mainstream media, which takes isolated incidents and blows them out of proportion akin to a whole city burning. If we believe everything we hear or read online, the result can be being an overly security conscious traveler that robs herself of the peculiar experience that a host society has to offer.

Analysis Of How Africans In The Diaspora Access News About The Continent

Perhaps, I’m crazy for living by the principle that physical reality trumps online media reality. By extension, believe everything the media sells and sadly, you’ll never experience life for what it truly is.

But it wasn’t always like that?

Even in my short travel experience, I started out with that fear too.

Chi Town!

Prior to my trip to Chicago last year, my Internet searches somehow turned up the term Chiraq drawing me into stories and videos of Chicago’s notoriously violent crimes.


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The more I read, the more conscious I became. It hadn't been any different from my brief stay in Arlington, Virginia where one of my cabbies insisted I avoid a certain part of Baltimore restricting my experience of the DMV to the safe havens of Pennsylvania Avenue where my counterparts from the USAID conference were gathered. Hence, when I raised the issue of Chiraq with my host to-be in Chicago, she advised that I get a hotel accommodation around O’hare airport where I’d be landing. At that time, it didn’t seem abnormal; nothing that would rob me of a great experience I was looking forward to. Only in hindsight did I realize that, had it not been for her good company, my memory of Chicago would have been no more than watching rooftops, haulage trains and planes flying in and out of the O’hare airport from the window of my room at the motel nearby.

So much for an experience because I was scared!

Thankfully, her 45 minutes ride to and from downtown Chicago to pick me up over the course of my stay ensured I enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the city, meeting and partying with fellow Nigerians, enjoying the best of Ethiopian cuisine and other interesting attractions.

Around The World

While the views of infrastructural edifices and standard of lives conjure up mixed feelings of sadness and inspiration relative to the homeland, a part of me yearned for places I could connect with.

Through all this scenery, I still missed the reality of what makes up any society; balance. I needed to experience places I could relate to my background. I needed to see how communities with semblances to where I was coming from manage to thrive despite peculiar odds differentiating them from the securities and privileges of standard-class urban areas.

To be fair and to some extent, stories from the South Side and West Side of Chicago didn’t seem any different from the stories I hear about Lagos or Nigeria from the media. Stories that make for a mix of sadness, excitement and amusements considering the reality that I know.

City tours by my guides seemed cosmetic and I needed to see those on the other side; usually interior communities locked out by urban policies from the views of passersby.

World Within

My motivations are not isolated. Rather, driven by a desire to connect my system with what obtains elsewhere.

Societies are largely connected and I needed to see how folks in these communities across the world live and thrive within them.

A learned friend had once stated that the problem of mainstream media is that it foists its narrative on us. So, mainstream media would report about communities and systems from the point of view of a cliché narrative reinforcing views that spell gloom and doom in those places. Whereas the people who find themselves there often not by choice but circumstances have learnt to thrive there.

I wanted to be in the shoes of these folks even if by walking past those communities. I felt there would be valuable lessons around how businesses thrive in such societies; how those self-contained ecosystems simply work in a nutshell.

How with crimes, drugs, infrastructural decay and systematic poverty, people thrive on the same opportunities to excel.

Jozi!

Johannesburg held the biggest test for me to realize my yearning. Hence, when I touched down at the Oliver Tambo International Airport for a six day stay, I didn't need to be told anything worse than I had seen or heard online, and yes, the advisory warnings did come albeit verbally. Staying in Braamfontein, it came in form of statements like, “You can go all the way to xxx but don’t cross to the other side. It’s no man’s land”. I was determined though. I started asking about Hillbrow the very night I met my guide for the trip. Enter DlalaNje! DlalaNje offered me an experience of Hillbrow, a residential neighborhood infamous for bad things. I use the word experience rather than view for it held more than a view after spending time with Lupy and his crew. Finally, I had a sense of a neighborhood I could connect with. Here was a connection between much of the Lagos I know in planning, living standards and infrastructures. I wasn’t alone.

DlalaNje

DlalaNje - Johannesburg Inner City Adventures and Cultural Emporium at the base of Ponte City, in the heart of Hillbrow. | DlalaNje

Reinforcing the connection he felt, a Kenyan counterpart on the tour remarked that you could easily swap African cities and still feel at home.

How Jozi could indeed make for Lagos or Nairobi. It had to be more than the familiar faces of millions. It was the surrounding view around the Ponte apartment laced with its history. There was a peculiar connection in its systematic odds, yet people thriving in spite of them.

Even more, coming from where some of us were, an analogy of our very lives or journeys. I saw Hillbrow for what it truly was from the eyes of my own experience. Not to dispel of the crime etc. but I didn’t experience such. Rather, in DlalaNje‘s narrative of Hillbrow, one interlaced with their visions for a continuously improving community. I saw people who take it upon themselves to inspire change. I heard how tragedies continue to inspire change.

I experienced kids having a life within the rot. Pretty much the same back home.

Cover Image, View from the Ponte Apartment, Hillbrow. | Adebayo Adegbembo

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