Today, when some in our world seem hungry to divide people violently along racial and religious lines, I find myself thinking about growing up in Apartheid South Africa. In Durban in the late 60’s, I was not supposed to go alone to the Indian Market, in the heart of the city. Intensely jostling, with thousands of Zulu and Indian people shopping in the maze of shops and stalls, it held endless attraction for me, as forbidden things usually do. Here I discovered community in shops, arcades, and markets. Locals willingly taught me how use exotic spices, make chili bites and dhal, how to drape a sari, about Hindu ceremony and traditional African herbs called muti. Salim became a good friend and we visited most Saturdays in Madrassa Arcade, talking about the Koran, the mosque, music, movies; the usual things young people chat about. Salim, invited me to his traditional Muslim wedding and I was the only non-Muslim there. Durban’s Indian market area was the genesis for my love of fabrics, baskets, spicy food and an abiding desire to visit India one day. I still use my market basket like the ones shown in the photos above, for my weekly foray to the Lunenburg Farmers’ Market, a world away.
Fabric was cheap and the shopkeepers willing to bargain hard. The Indian community here is one of the oldest and largest outside of India and they formed the backbone of the merchants and infused the country with a love of curry and markets gardens. I’ll write more about the fabrics later. For now, I’d like to tell you about the Indian markets at Grey and Victoria Streets – it was a seminal part of my growing up. My world was expanded and enriched by those years of Saturday forays to Grey Street, I loved the rich culture that I found there. The Indian and African market areas endure as favorite places to visit when I take my tour group to Durban each year. It is an essential cultural experience of South Africa.
Last year I met Mrs Reddy at a spice shop at Victoria Market. Her shop has been in her family for over 100 years. We discovered a link. Her uncle had worked at my husband’s family sugar mill at Illovo 3 generations ago. We were both delighted with the connection, however tenuous, our conversation helped me pick up a thin thread of connection. I left this city 40 years ago, yet I am stitched into this place. I now visit her each time I’m at the market on tour.
Fond memories bubble up when I see the palm trees at the mosque entrance, or smell the curries and bunny chow mingled with incense and diesel fumes from the many buses, the thumping loud music blaring from speakers. It is hectic, very hot and remarkably unchanged. A recent New York Times article about Durban curry will give you some insight to my old stomping grounds and explain what a bunny chow is. Be sure to take a whirlwind tour of this area with a taxi driver in a video at the end of the blog.
Here is my tour group exploring the African clothes sellers market where dresses and pinnies are strung up in curtains of colour and prints.
One of the most mysterious areas is the African Medicinal Herbs market. Indigenous plants are used by traditional healers for potions and cures. Often there are dried snakes, lizards, innards and bones in bundles with herbs for various cures – and sometimes spells. The patterns, textures and aromas are strong. I’m looking forward to going back next April.
Take a whirlwind tour around Durban with the taxi driver to get a real life flavour of Durban: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNjU3DXMgcY