Posts tagged ‘Nelson Mandela’

A man walks into a shebeen: a Sunday in Soweto

Soweto is overcrowded, dirty and noisy. It has high unemployment, a rickety infrastructure and a tangle of narrow streets lined with shanties fashioned from corrugated iron sheets. It’s also one of the most fascinating, joyful, high-spirited places I’ve ever visited.

We’re sitting on a patio at Sakhumzi, a restaurant just down Vilakazi Street from the small home where Nelson Mandela lived with Winnie before his 1962 arrest and 27-year imprisonment.

We’re drinking Castle Lager, a pale lager introduced in Johannesburg in 1895, and discussing how the smiley, a popular street dish in Soweto, got its name. A smiley, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is a sheep’s head, charred on a braai, or grill, that, along with eyeballs and brain, can easily feed the second row of rugby scrum. The name, we’re told by our waiter, comes from the toothy grin that remains after the lips of the sheep’s noggin have been scorched off.

Also on our conversational docket is the unlikelihood of two Nobel Prize winners living within blocks of each other on the very same street. Mandela’s home, now a museum with pictures, quotes and such memorabilia as the boots he wore on Robben Island and the championship belt given him by Sugar Ray Leonard, is on one side of Vilakazi Street and, a few blocks down on the other side, is Bishop Desmond Tutu’s home, still his main residence.

It’s a Sunday, and all over this township of 3 million, we see (and hear) church congregations, decked out in matching iridescent robes, singing and praying together under scrub trees, next to dry riverbeds and in the street beside the mechanics who are lined up to assist anyone needing a tire changed or an axle greased or an oil pan bolted back to its engine.

Like every day, Soweto’s genius is on display. With unemployment soaring at around 50 percent, entrepreneurs are as common as pill bottles in a retirement home. Across the street from the Sakhumzi patio, one such impresario, a juggler built like an offensive tackle, tosses beanbags, balls, knives, fire torches and zinging repartee, all of which he deftly fields before passing a hat to the fun-loving crowd.

Outside tourist museums such as the Hector Pieterson Memorial, a moving tribute to the Soweto student uprisings that led to the ending of apartheid, crafty businessmen sell frames made from discarded Coke cans, zebras carved from table legs and statues made from bottle caps. Street musicians sing, old friends tap-dance in unison, all hoping their near-professional efforts will coax a five-rand note from passers-by.

Soweto, an acronym for South Western Townships, is actually a cluster of sprawling townships southwest of Johannesburg. Like many things in South Africa, Soweto sprang up to accommodate segregation. It was established in the 1950s as a dormitory for black mineworkers, far from the “white” eyes of the inner city.

Before 1990, when apartheid was finally overthrown, blacks could neither own businesses or visit white establishments, so underground beer halls known as shebeens sprang up all over Soweto to sell homemade sorghum beer, pap, meaty stews and bread dumplings. Often closed down by apartheid cops, these makeshift bars continued to reappear because of their importance in unifying the community and providing a safe haven for activists and organizers.

We wander into one of these shebeens, run from the family living room, and get peppered with questions.

“Ah, the U.S.,” said one friendly patron, handing over the bet he lost to his drinking buddy. “I was just sure you were from Buenos Aires,” an assumption undoubtedly stemming from the stream of Argentians to the 2010 World Cup.

Perhaps the most well-known shebeen is Wandie’s Place. Opened illegally in 1981, Wandie’s is run by Wandie Ndaba who finally got an official license in 1991 and has since added a small B&B. Richard Branson, Evander Holyfield, Jesse Jackson and Quincy Jones have all shared a mug of umqombothi with Ndaba.

Like the shebeens that keep coming back, like the Nelson Mandela Museum that, when the Mandelas lived there, was burnt down and bombed twice (even the guard dog was poisoned after only one week), like the people themselves, Soweto continues on undaunted, resilient and ever-joyful.

Phil Collins “remembers the Alamo”

In his home outside Geneva, Switzerland, Phil Collins has pictures of himself with Nelson Mandela, the Prince of Wales and Robert Plant. But the one he values most is the painting of himself standing next to the ill-fated defenders of the Alamo.

Painted by Gary Zaboly, a noted historian and author who is co-writing a book about the Alamo with the seven-time Grammy award-winner, its called “Travis’s Line” and it hangs in Collins’ basement/museum. In it, an imagined depiction of the Alamo’s American garrison in 1836, immediately before the famous battle, Collins is wearing a military uniform alongside 184 19th-century American frontiersman.

Collins, who says he has been obsessed by Davy Crocket and the Alamo since he was a young boy, has one of the world’s largest collections of Alamo memorabilia including hundreds of cannonballs, a pouch once owned by Davy Crocket, a certificate proclaiming him an honorary member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas and a receipt signed by Alamo commander William Barrett Travis for 32 head of cattle to be used to feed the Alamo defenders.

Collins has served on Alamo history panels alongside professors and other notable experts and regularly shows up in San Antonio to hobnob with Alamo groupies, one of whom told him he was one of the defenders in a previous life. Carolyn Raine, a documentary producer, lecturer and Native American cookbook writer, took it upon herself to let Collins know that he was the reincarnated Alamo messenger, John W. Smith, the red-headed horse courier whose nickname was El Colorado and who later became San Antonio’s mayor.

Although he has gotten a lot of flack about it, Collins, like most kids of his generation, watched Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett on TV and pestered his parents for coonskin caps and toy rifles. The former Genesis’ drummer’s first solo performance, in fact, when he was barely 5 was of the famous theme tune “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”

This year, during the 175th anniversary of the battle made famous by John Wayne and, yes, Pee-Wee Herman, Collins agreed to play a free concert, but city red tape prevented it from happening in time for the March 6 commemoration, a yearly reenactment honoring the Texas heroes.

With or without Phil Collins, it’s a great year to visit San Antonio and the 18th-century mission church where Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and 188 others waged their famous last stand against the Santa Anna’s Mexican army. The most famous historical site in Texas, the mission has been restored to its original glory and offers tours, relics of the past and a gift shop with such memorabilia as John Wayne beach towels, chocolate Alamos and serious history books.

And while you’re there, don’t miss the San Antonio River Walk with its cypress-lined paths that wind past boutiques, galleries, outdoor restaurants and now, with the addition of the Museum Reach, a new 1.3 mile stretch of river walk, several of San Antonio’s best museums including the San Antonio Museum of Art, housed in the old Lone Star brewery. Unusual art installations, native plants and waterfalls line the Museum Reach which culminates at the former Pearl Brewery that has been turned into a culinary wonderland with a weekly Farmer’s Market, unique restaurants and the opening of the third branch of the Culinary Institute of America.

Colonial Spanish days comes alive at San Antonio’s five 18th-century missions and, after snapping a photo of yourself in front of the Rose window, you can wander La Villita, San Antonio’s first neighborhood that has been converted into boutiques, jewelry shops and restaurants.

For more on this city that has captured Phil Collins’ heart, click here. Or contact the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800.447.3372.

And if you don’t see Phil in person, you can hear his narration on a 13-minute “Alamo Diorama Light and Sound Show” at the History Shop near the former mission at 713 E. Houston St.