Thursday, January 2, 2014

Humour on Wheels


“Johannesburg is the most tree-planted city in the whole world. There are about six million trees in all, but, honestly, I don’t know who counted them”

The Ali Baba of Soweto
He looks like a mine boy. What else can he look like, anyway, with his close affinity with gauta-eng, the city of gold? Yes, Johannesburg, the city sitting literally on gold, has produced many like him. Kenny, for that is his name, is an educated, yet street-wise homeboy of Soweto, the diminutive for Johannesburg's South-West Township. Wherever he goes the neighbourhood guys seem to know him. A finger salute and a clenched fist are enough to suggest that the Sowetans still imbibe the spirit of solidarity that pervaded the land during the nationalists' struggle for freedom.

Kenny was, therefore, the most appropriate tour guide in the circumstance, to lead a group of Nigerian journalists and their hosts on a tour of Soweto this Monday afternoon. January 10, 2005. The reason is apparent. Nigerians are known for their boisterous lifestyle and huge sense of humour. They appreciate same in others. Kenny was no disappointment. Both in content and style, he made the visitors' day with his political anecdotes and exclusive wisecracks. As the party took off from the Holiday Inn in Sandton City in downtown Johannesburg. Kenny was quick to point out an unusual feature of the metropolis, the dense vegetation cover. “Johannesburg is the most tree-planted city in the whole world,” he told the tourists, and added what they thought should be the clincher. “There are about six million trees in all but, honestly, I don’t know who counted them.” It was a comical anti-climax. As the journey progressed to the outskirts leading to Soweto, Kenny took his listeners down memory lane. He reminisced on the bloody struggles by the African National Congress, ANC, to break down the walls of apartheid and how the then racist Pretoria government used every means at its disposal and even at the disposal of others to mow down every opposition, including school children when they rose in 1976 against a policy that compelled the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. He took the tourists down to the Hector Pieterson Museum in the heart of Soweto to see history in motion, both in audio and visuals.

They saw Steve Biko talking. Winnie Mandela gesticulating and Desmond Tutu, in his famous cassock, preaching the gospel of non-violence. They heard and saw police shooting at protesting school children in the nighbourhoods. They also saw the famous photograph of a fatally wounded Peterson, 13, being carried by a sympathiser, accompanied by his wailing sister on that fateful June 16, 1976, when hell was let loose on the streets of Soweto.

A solemn occasion truly demands sober reflection. Throughout the stay in the apartheid museum, Kenny kept his ‘big mouth' shut only to remove the chains on getting to Tutu's residence in Orlando West. The brown-brick-wall house, fortified with security gadgets plus spikes and barbed-wire on top of the fence, was a veritable butt of joke to Kenny. "This is the man who always says it is only in God he trusts," he said as a way of introducing Bishop Tutu. Everybody burst out laughing.

His jokes may be caustic but the eternal truth cannot be easily waved aside just like his comment on a cemetery located at an intersection on the outskirts of Soweto. Said he: "Everything there is dead, including the trees." Indeed, the trees had withered and no one needed a coroner to attest to the fact that the inhabitants of the graveyard were as lifeless as cadavers. Was the man poking fun for the fun of it or just playing to the gallery?

What kind of man is this who turns virtually everything into a joke? Kenny, at a closer observation, knew what he was doing. Some of his jokes were apparently tailor-made for the consumption of the micro-rainbow composition of his audience: black South Africans, white South Africans and the visiting blacks from Nigeria. It was left for each group to know which joke scored a homerun on the field of his socio-political past.

How about a joke on segregation? Kenny had just taken the tourists back to the Walter Sisulu Hall (former Freedom Square where he said the ANC Freedom Charter was drafted) when he saw a pack of black chickens placed on top of white ones by the roadside and pointed the attention of everybody to the fact that "there is even apartheid in animal kingdom!" Then he laughed a kind of laugh that always induced other people to laugh. His baritone is almost as deep as that of the legendary singer, Barry White.

Back in Soweto… On every street, there are latent signs of black youths trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps in the rainbow nation. The hairdresser, the barber, the welder, the mechanic, the food vendor, the butcher and the sportsmen. Whichever group you belong to, Kenny has a laugh-line for you. For the hairdressers, he cannot help wondering why women always want to change the natural order of things. "Those who have straight hairs want to make them curl. Those who have curly hairs want them straight!", he said as he mockingly stroked his own Kalahari (clean-shaven) head. Will he spare mechanics and welders, the new Soweto artisans? From the look of things, nobody was going to escape his telescopic lens. Well, suddenly, he pointed to a welder near a car-wash depot and praised him to the high heavens for what he called his expertise and creativity in welding a leaking exhaust and making sure he creates another point of weakness. The payoff? "He is not any different from the dentist who fills a hole and digs another so that you can always come back to fill his wallet." It was a coup de grace and the bus almost exploded. But that was a guffaw too soon. Kenny, apparently, was just warming up his humour machine as they later found out. He talked about the new air of freedom, the countless business opportunities that abound in the cities and the drive towards economic empowerment of the new South Africans, some of whom have had a smooth, jolly ride into the middle class in their state-of-the-art automobiles. Today, Soweto and Orlando are full of the ‘waBenzis', the new black aristocrats, so called because of their taste for expensive cars like the Mercedes Benz.

And the journey proceeded... At a corner shop in Dube, Soweto, is a one-storey building. The ground floor accommodates a butcher while a surgeon opens shop on top. Such a scenario would not escape Kenny's wandering eyes. "What a combination!", he exclaimed as he pointed out the unusual bedfellows to his audience. "The butcher and the surgeon can always assist each other. Can't they?" Everybody was too busy laughing to give a coherent response. But Kenny's jokes have not in any way beclouded the fact that many South Africans take pride in self-employment and going places with new ideas. Many have picked up the gauntlet to be truly independent by setting up small businesses. For example, two sisters are said to have come up with the idea of setting up, some kilometres north of Johannesburg, a health clinic called the Mangwanani Spa for women and by women alone. It is reputed to be one of the best in the country. This is seen by fellow South Africans as a shining example of black women empowerment.

So, jokes apart, what could Kenny, himself, have been doing in the new Soweto other than being a tour guide? A tie-wearing Johnny-just-come entrepreneur with a mission of beating Nigeria’s Ali Baba or America’s Bill Cosby hands down at his game in Soweto? Simple. He pointed to a veterinary clinic across the street and said his original plan was to open a Chinese restaurant opposite the clinic but all efforts had proved abortive so far because the veterinary people felt their dogs would no longer be safe with his presence nearby. Why? "They thought all their dogs and reptiles would disappear into my soup pots." You can't just beat Kenny. Then, the mother of all revelations, or so it seems. A sports centre donated by Evander Holyfield, former world heavyweight boxing champion, for the Soweto youths, was the centre of attraction when Kenny went down memory lane again talking about great Americans who had visited Soweto. He mentioned Sugar Ray Leonard, Rev. Jesse Jackson and former President Bill Clinton as the three he admires most. The first, apparently for donating his championship belt to ' the Madiba, Nelson Mandela, which is now one of the prime objects adorning the Mandela family museum at the Vilakazi-Ngakane corner In Orlando West, Soweto. The second for his height. “The man is so tall that I had to look for a podium to stand on in order to shake his hands when he visited Soweto.” And how about Clinton? Wait for this. “I love him for his dexterity on musical instruments, especially the SEXophone.” Everybody burst into a rancorous laughter. Lucky guy. Hillary was not on the bus. Nor was Monica.

If there is madness in Kenny's wit, at least there is method in it. He is cerebral, current, conscious of his socio-political milieu, quick to the draw with his jokes and something, undeniably of a phenomenal version of Nigeria's Ali Baba. He takes pride in showcasing the Soweto of his dream. He will readily point to a new school and talk about the importance of investing in education. “We now educate our children so that we don't have to build more prisons in future.” That's vintage Kenny leaving some food for thought for African leaders.

This travelogue was first published in TELL, February 7, 2005, under the title: Step Out, Kenny, the Ali Baba of Soweto

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