I could be forgiven for thinking I was in India. Everything had an Eastern flair, yet I was just ten minutes out of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. I was in the multi-ethnic suburb of Fordsburg, close to the Johannesburg CBD, exploring a new (for me) and dynamic area.
Fordsburg is a major centre of Indian and Pakistani culture in South Africa, with new communities coming in all the time – most recently Somali, Bangladeshi and Ethiopian. Although primarily a residential area, there are more traders than residents, and the beautiful old houses seem to have been taken over by stores and restaurants.
I listened to the beautiful voices of the Muslim worshippers reciting the Koran. It was the month of Ramadan, the most holy holiday for Muslims, and even though most people were fasting, the streets were still spirited and lively, pulsing with life.
The women bought clothing and tested perfumes while the men smoked and played board games on the pavements. Children shrieked and giggled, looking with huge eyes at the colorful sweet shops. There were Barbour shops and tailors, and I loved the street vendor hacking coconuts and selling the sweetest of juices.
It’ s pretty overwhelming in Fordsburg, with chaotic traffic, paper recyclers and even donkeys. The area has a turbulent history and was originally a mining village. After the ‘Red Revolt’ in 1922 (white miners stood up against the employment of cheap Black labor), the area became a close-knit community of Indians, Coloured’s and Chinese.
It has retained its reputation for multi ethnicity. I wandered from Fordsburg into neighboring Mayfair, to an area known as Little Somalia. You know you’re out of your comfort zone when the Travel agents advertise air tickets to Mogadishu! Recent times have seen an influx of Somali residents, and they add a certain exoticism to an already dynamic area.
The tall men in their beautiful white robes, the women in colorful saris and the delicious smell of coffee beans captivated me. I sat for a while in a local restaurant, bought some spices and watched a magnificently tall woman bake bread. The Somali people were extraordinary, wanting to chat and talk about ‘home’. I cannot imagine how hard it is, being in a foreign country, but they do seem to have an amazing community here in Jo’burg.
The Oriental Plaza is Fordsburg’s ‘Mall’. It’s an ‘all in one’ shopping centre, where you can buy fabric, jewellery, brassware, curtains, home décor, shoes, silk flowers, everything! It’s a great place to have a suit or a wedding dress made, and also to stock up on samoosas. The Golden Peacock always has a queue, and the chicken and corn samoosas are irresistible.
I left Fordsburg before it got dark, but only because I had to. On a Saturday night, the markets bustle, the Dosa Hut is full, and Bollywood movies play in the parks. It’s definitely worth a visit. There are some amazing restaurants, and while the Dosa Hut is my favorite, the choice is huge. Al Makka, Istanbul (both on Central Avenue) and Bismillah’s (Mint Avenue) have brilliant fare at brilliant prices, and all have that Fordsburg atmosphere with stubbled patrons smoking shisha (waterpipes) outside.
Go to Fordsburg. Don’t eat before you go. Take your camera. And your time.