Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mzoli's Meat

The South African "township". This is a term that triggers in me mixed feelings and images. The home of most black South Africans. The home of matchbox houses and dirt roads. No sanitation, high unemployment, poverty, violence. Yet, the township is also the historical battleground of the freedom fighters; the place where oppression was met with resistance, where hope vanquished the infamous apartheid. Is this a place that I can visit as a citizen of the world, a place where I can feel welcome? Tomorrow, I am going to the "township".

Allen picks me up around three in the afternoon. It is hot and suffocating on this Sunday in Cape Town. I met Allen a couple of days ago. A waiter during the day, business student at night, his energetic naivety is enticing.

We drive for about half an hour to the outskirts of Cape Town. The air here becomes breathable. Allen is naming for me the various townships that we are passing. Some townships still look like those of the apartheid days with the electric poles as the only sign of improvement. Yet, these townships are doomed to disappear entirely according to Allen, and, although the process is slow, there is indeed some progress. Matchbox houses are being replaced by houses with concrete walls. Littering is becoming a thing of the past. Roads are being paved.

We come to a crossroad which is suddenly busy with cars and people. The place is not conspicuous. No tall building to signal it. But the electricity in the air is palpable, which tells me this is the place to be on this Sunday afternoon. Hundreds of people are crowding in a space no more than a hundred feet long. This is multiplied by the dozens of sport cars and motorbikes weaving through the crowd and whose engine rages “I'm here, I'm here”. My first impression is this must be a giant party spread over several blocks. But I am wrong. It is only a single block that vibrates. And it all revolves around "Mzoli's Meat".

Mzoli's Meat is, technically, a butchery. They offer a wide variety of meat. All sorts: beef, chicken, lamb, steaks, ribs, sausages. Because I do not eat meat often and it has been over ten years since I've been to my favourite French butcher, I am a little taking aback. Allen chooses the meat which is put in a large bowl. Seventy rand, about ten dollars. Not too bad. We then walk swiftly into a long and dark corridor, at the end of which we find the heart of the Mzoli's Meat: the barbecue.

The barbecue occupies two rooms of unequal size. Both rooms are dark, hot, full of smoke that barely escapes through small but wide windows located just below the ceiling. The service is a rare example of organized chaos. At first, it looks like it is a complete mess. People are yelling. Bowls of meat are being passed from hands to hands, more out of exasperation than out of any rational decision. A tiny piece of paper with your name on it is left on the side of the bowl. The juice of meat holds it in place. This is the only evidence that this meat is yours. The boss comes in once a while to yell at everybody. At that time, everybody becomes quiet, employees and customers; even the fire stops crackling. Then, quickly, chaos regains control. Watching this scene for some time, I realize the crowd of customers is constant; in the frenzy, bowls of meat are constantly being handed to the sweaty and exhausted customers who can finally leave and enjoy the party. As they leave, new hungry faces enter. Meats are flowing through the building; they enter cold and fresh and exit cooked and juicy. On this day, though, Allen and I are not so lucky. Our meat gets lost, and it takes us two hours before seeing it again. For the record, let's say that we are the exception that confirms the rule.

The real party is outside. There are about thirty tables under a green mezzanine, not enough to accommodate the crowd that spills onto the road. A DJ in the corner keeps the rhythm of the party alive, as if the people's pulses, waves of excitement and drunkenness are not enough. Allen and I succeed to make our way through and find a semi-quiet spot where we can finally enjoy our well deserved food.

We dance, talk, and eat for hours. Even once the sun is set, the butchery closed, the DJ mute, the street keeps rocking. A neighbour restaurant has taken the lead in blasting the music. It is dark now and feels like a nightclub under the stars. It is time for Allen and I to go home.

This Sunday's afternoon, in the township, all of my fears were laid to rest. I was welcome with warmth, smiles and happiness. Another victory of humanity.

(thanks to Anthony Dachille for the editing)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

La France, terre d'accueil?

"Si la France ne figure plus parmi ce qu'on appelle les Grands, il lui reste encore un moyen pour s'imposer à l'histoire: c'est d'être le dernier pays où l'homme exilé, désolé, désespéré, recontrera, sans qu'il ne lui soit posé de questions, une main qui se tende à lui, un foyer où refaire sa vie."
Emmanuel Mounier, Combat, 11 Mai 1946.