Monday, 9 December 2019

Jozi: The City Under the City

© Pierre Blignaut

“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams.”
― Neil Gaiman, Worlds' End

Eish, Jozi . . . Ja, neh . . . Jozi, that great city where dreams and their dreamers are swallowed up whole more often than not. To survive in Jozi you don’t necessarily need the right tools, you need the creativity to make the wrong tools work for you. Like many major cities around the world, Jozi is made up of layers. The top layer is the rough and tough face of its everyday business, that mainly being people going about their business at a furious pace. The first lesson my mother taught me about this city is to keep moving and not to speak to anyone. On its surface, this warning always seemed like it was about avoiding being a victim of crime but it also served as a warning about something stranger. The warning sometimes included the word amasilamusi. A word that both intrigues and frightens me to this day. A word that made quite the impact on Twitter last week.

The great city of Jozi has a mystical layer that appears on the surface every now and then but that usually exists under everything else or on the fringes. In Neil Gaiman’s novel, Neverwhere another London exists below the hustle and bustle of the familiar one on the surface, a mysterious and magical London Below. Inspector Tyador Borlú finds himself trying to solve a crime that spills over into a city that occupies the same space as his city in China Miéville’s novel, The City and the City. A city most can see from the corner of their eye but avoid focusing on. In Jozi, too, below its bustle and grime, there exists another Jozi. One most of us have heard about but tend to look at only from the corner of our eye, if ever at all. The citizens of Jozi learn to navigate the city around its strange elements.

© Austin Malema
One of these strange elements made an appearance on Twitter last week with Noluthando Zuma’s Tweet asking if people know about the taxi from Fourways to Bree that’s driven by a cat. Her Tweet blew up as others came forward with their own stories of this taxi driven by a cat looking to make ends meet. More people came forward with other equally strange experiences or stories from sources like cleaning ladies at work. In my own experience, cleaning ladies at work are an excellent source of all things weird and to do with witchcraft. The story with the cat makes for great memes but what stands out is how many people seem to have encountered this cat driving his route between Fourways and Bree. We might not be sure if this cat plays Maskande or Amapiano on his drive but we all do believe the story on some level. The concept of isalamuzi or amasilamusi came up, with people reporting having had their heartbeats stolen by a driver that made sounds like a baby or purred like a cat.

My mother’s warning about Jozi was also a warning about amasilamusi, whose powers seem to change according to whoever tells the story but there are overlapping elements in all the stories. One of my mother’s experiences with these people, creatures or whatever they are, happened in the late ‘90s. She was coming out from the now infamous Smal Street Mall when she was stopped by an old lady asking for directions. My mother made the rookie mistake of stopping the hear the lady out and fell under some spell. She says she lost control of her wits and found herself going to an ATM with this lady and withdrawing her daily limit. The whole thing was like being in a dream. Next thing she was in an alley with this woman and some men carrying a suitcase filled with money. The old woman told my mom to hand over the money to the men and take the suitcase from them. The idea was that the two of them split the money in the suitcase. My mother obliged and made the exchange. And just like a dream, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi from Faraday to Turffontein. The suitcase was now a Checkers plastic bag in her lap filled with cut-up newspaper. She told the people in the taxi what had happened to her and, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, they told her it was the work of amasilamusi.

© Thandile Zwelibanzi
Apparently, some amasilamusi are so powerful that they can steal all the money on your person by merely touching you and when you get home all you have is worthless paper where the money was. This only happens if you talk to them, though. That seems to be their one binding rule, that their powers can’t affect you unless you speak to them. Most of us have a blueprint to navigate this other Jozi because our parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents told us these stories but it becomes buried in our subconscious at some point, operating in the background. Noluthando Zuma’s Tweet about that industrious cat has taken the world of amasilamusi and introduced it to Twitter. The result has been largely hilarious and a bit frightening but my thinking here, eyam’ iworry is whether amasilamusi are ready for Twitter? Can their world still exist in the shadows with Black Twitter’s finest on the lookout?

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