Misplaced nostalgia in La Rochelle

Is it possible to visit a place for the first time but feel like you’ve been there before? That’s how I felt on a walking tour around La Rochelle, one of the oldest southern suburbs bordering the city of Johannesburg.

Tucked into a corner between Wemmer Pan and Turffontein Race Course is where you’ll find this neighbourhood.

Why did it feel familiar?

I grew up in Durban but spent many school holidays visiting my grandmother at her house in Turffontein. My parents would take my brother and I on an overnight train from Durban to Joburg

In cold winter school holidays my gran would spoil us with homemade rusks, apricot jam on toast and instant jelly with boiling water as something warm and sweet for us to drink.

My grandfather, while he was still alive, would make big pots of soup and sometimes my uncles would make homemade pizza.

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My gran and I in her backyard in Turffontein, around the mid 1980s, judging by our clothes it must have been summertime

We never ventured north, but visited friends and family in Rosettenville and Ridgeway. We spent our holidays playing in the garden, walking to the local park or down to the corner shop to buy sweets.

Back then the mine dumps looked to me like big, white mountains, I didn’t know they were full of toxic uranium-rich sand.

The winter fires on the side of the road frightened me. Afterwards everything was so black and dry – nothing like the leafy green suburbs of Durban where I grew up.

La Rochelle is close to these areas so I guess this explains the nostalgia I felt on the tour, even though it about a different, but similar place.

Last weekend the Johannesburg Development Agency sponsored a number of walks around the city as part of a #Joziwalks weekend walking tour event, aimed at connecting people with less well-known communities of the city.

The La Rochelle tour was organised by Tsica Heritage Consultants and led by Judith Muindisi and Calvin Montgomery.

La Rochelle is a suburb with many layers. To use Calvin’s words, “It’s a transient community.”

After the discovery of gold on the main reef of the Witwatersrand in 1886, La Rochelle, Rosettenville and Turffontein sprung up as camps for the migrant communities who came to Johannesburg for mining.

La Rochelle, even though named after a town in France, became home to migrants from Portugal.

Walking around the streets of La Rochelle it’s clear that things have changed. Many families moved out to Glenanda and other new suburbs of the south in the 1970s.

This left a vacuum and in the 80s and 90s a new wave of migrants from central and west Africa made La Rochelle their home.

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Portuguese bakery on the left, Nigerian restaurants across the road

Today’s it’s a mix of both. Signs of the Portuguese community are there if you look closely.

The faded and broken tiles marking the entrance of Dias mall, which was built in 1988 as a commemoration of the Portuguese community’s contribution to the area.

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Broken tiles at the entrance of Dias Mall in La Rochelle

Today the market is home to informal traders who stock ingredients like dried fish, cassava and palm oil – more frequently used for cooking dishes from other parts of Africa.

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A sign advertising a pan-African supermarket in Dias mall
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A typical layout of goods of an informal trader at Dias mall. I believe the orange stuff in the bottles is unfiltered palm oil

A handful of excellent Portuguese restaurants and a bakery still remain, the owners proud of their heritage and loyal to the neighbourhood.

Charming old houses in Edwardian style and farm style with wrap around verandas also still stand.

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Old grape vines still exist in a few backyards. Apparently it was common for Madeirans to bring vines with them from Portugal and grow grapes for their own table wine.

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This tour of La Rochelle reminded me of what I love about Johannesburg, the rich mining history and the cultural diversity.

It also reminded me about the problems of big cities and urbanisation, a city unable to cope with the influx of new people.

Street corners are covered in rubbish and it’s well known that there is a major problem with drug dealers and human trafficking in the area.

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Old-school public art. This tiled wall in a park in La Rochelle is in tribute to the Portuguese heritage of the area.
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A detail of the tile art, depicting Portuguese explorers and Vasco da Gama.

Calvin says that today there is a growing spirit of activism in the southern suburbs, where  residents want the criminals out and have resorted to burning down drug houses themselves.

Thanks to the organisers for a great tour. I left a little piece of my heart in the area – attached to my memories of school holidays in the south.

I felt a sense of pride of the resilience of the people who want a cleaner, safer neighbourhood for their families.

I hope the feedback from the tours will motivate a greater effort from the Johannesburg Development Agency and the city to pay more attention to improving public facilities and keeping the streets clean in La Rochelle and other suburbs like this in Johannesburg.

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La Rochelle on a plate. We were treated to a lunch of Portuguese, Zimbabwean and Nigerian dishes after the tour.

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