Walking these streets

I couldn’t help but find myself singing I’ve been walking these streets so long as I wondered the Streets of London in the pre-Christmas season (November), although you would have thought Christmas was the next week given all the sights, sounds and bustle around. What struck me though was another link with Africa.

We’d been led to believe back in South Africa over 20 years ago that the UK was a first world country and that (as apartheid was collapsing) in order for South Africa to compete we would need to open our shops and cinemas on a Sunday. Surprisingly though, on arrival in England, a walk through London on a Sunday revealed that most shops didn’t open and if they did, mostly pubs, it was for a few hours only. The other surprising thing back then was how much more advanced South African banking was to that in the UK. I think this is still the case although the gap between the two is not as great as it used to be.

This view of Africa in general being ‘behind’, ‘developing’ or ‘third world’ is one that has been, and is still, regularly brought to our attention. But recently, walking the streets of London and New York, I was struck by some of the similarities:

  1. Hawkers – a common sight on the streets of African cities and towns, but also on the streets of London and New York, the latter selling from more ‘upmarket’ boothes but still hawking their wares – scarves, sweatshirts, souvenirs, roast chestnuts, hotdogs etc.
  2. Beggars – I was surprised at the number of people begging in New York, many interestingly wearing a hat or armband indicating that they were war veterans. It’s also been incredible to note that there are far more people sleeping and begging on the streets of London this year (at least that’s my impression – I’m sure someone will have statistics on this).
  3. Power cuts – this is a subtle one. In East and South Africa the power is generally known to go off for a few hours a day a week (or longer) depending on how unlucky you are. What brought my attention to the power cuts in London was the vision of a man walking home using a torch as the street lights in many residential areas and along some major roads have been switched off as a result of cost cutting.
  4. Overloaded vehicles – is there really any difference between an overloaded taxi (daladala, matatu etc) and a London tube carriage? Even some of the overground trains are becoming unbearable with overcrowding

As a colleague (@NorthwoodArts) recently noted, life hasn’t really changed over the last 100 years – we were talking about a shopping project – what has changed is the way we do things. No longer does the horse drawn carriage deliver bread to my door but rather a major retail delivery van does (if I so choose). Rather than send a mtoto (Swahili for child) to the market to buy some necessity, I click a few buttons and, hey presto, it’s either delivered to my computer or my front door.

And so I can go on, but I leave you with my, to date, best experience of Africa in London: it was one thing walking home and seeing the head of a giraffe peer over a wall (it turned out to be a wood carving which a shop down the road had sold – they also had elephant and a gorilla) but I definitely hadn’t expected to see a woman walking down the station stairs carrying a set of antlers all wrapped up in bubblewrap! Perhaps I should have asked how this came to be, but I didn’t want to shatter my illusion of Out of Africa, a Karen Blixen look-alike and a reminder of World War 1 African ‘war-trophies‘ (taxidermy).

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