Talla Niang is different from most of the other African traders who’ve made a craft market out of a dark corner near a highway in downtown Johannesburg.
He doesn’t want to return to live in the country of his birth. Ever.
“I’ve been here now for more than 10 years. I really miss Dakar (the capital of Senegal), but Jo’burg is now my home, for always,” he declares, in the shadow of a wall of wooden masks, some baring razor sharp carved teeth, others with scowling faces painted in gaudy colors, others with stringy animal hair hanging over their heads.
Niang’s adamant that the Senegalese government, unlike the state in his adoptive country, isn’t investing in the arts.
“There’s no place anymore in Senegal for culture, for artists like me,” he says. “That’s why, even with all the hardship here in South Africa, at least the state encourages culture. It makes us feel welcome to sell our stuff on the streets of Jo’burg.”
‘It’s evil; it’s the devil….’
Niang sources his goods mainly from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
“I go there about once every six months. Then I buy stuff, and I send to South Africa,” he says.
Niang’s income comes mainly from sales of West African masks.
“I am the man of masks here!” he guffaws, gesturing towards his wares. “That one is a bete guerre mask. This is a warrior mask. So they used to use these masks before they go to war, for luck and to be more brave.”
It does bother him, however, that some Western tourists refer to his goods as “ritual art.”
“Yes, there are the ritual aspects to it, but I don’t believe these masks were created purely for rituals. If they were, there wouldn’t be all these details on the masks, all these patterns and colors. No, it’s art. Not ritual art,” he emphasizes.
Niang’s also “disturbed” that some visitors to his stall recognize “something demonic” in his masks, voicing their “fear” of the objects.
“When they see…. horns on the mask, they say, ‘No, this is evil; it’s the devil.’ And that’s not true, because (for some West African ethnic groups), the horns (symbolize) power.”
In addition to his daily work, Niang has made it his mission in Johannesburg to overcome such “cultural misunderstandings.”
‘This country is still very tense’
In the wake of the violence against foreigners last year, Niang has established an organization that tries to foster “goodwill” between South Africans and their fellow Africans residing in Johannesburg. The group, the African Diaspora Forum, is especially active in Alexandra, the area of the city where the attacks first started, and the place Niang now calls home.
In cooperation with schools in the area, the Forum is taking South African pupils on visits to African embassies in Johannesburg, and to the private homes of foreigners -- including Niang’s house.
“With their teachers they come and experiment with Senegalese food and Senegalese way of living and stuff like that. It is a beautiful project,” he says. “The whole purpose is to make it fun, to let these youngsters see us as fellow human beings, to increase their knowledge about us.”
Niang maintains that “ignorance and arrogance” are the drivers of the ongoing tension between South Africans and foreigners.
“When I say ignorance - they don’t know us and we don’t know them. And arrogance – we’re not trying to know them, they’re not trying to know us,” he posits.
“Everyone is living in enclaves here. Go into a Congolese restaurant. It’s all Congolese. Go into a Kenyan restaurant. It’s all Kenyans,” he grumbles.
Niang is emphatic that such separation has to end.
“Us Africans, we like to shout ‘Africa is one!’ on Africa Day. And then the next day, we go back to our separate lives,” he laments.
Niang’s convinced that the more South Africans and foreigners know about one another, the less likely the violence is to flare up again.
“Human beings, they attack that which they don’t know. It’s fear. They’re afraid of the unknown.”
‘Petrol for the fire’
Bad service delivery and lack of development in slums where South Africans and foreigners live, Niang stresses, is “petrol for the fire…. The State (is) not doing what they are supposed to do in the ghetto. In the ghetto, it’s just like in the old days, in the apartheid era.”
He says South Africans, angry with their government for not creating jobs and improving conditions in places like Alexandra, are venting their frustration on vulnerable foreigners.
“They cannot oppose their own powerful government, and its soldiers and police, so they oppose us,” Niang reasons.
But he also blames foreign-born Africans for the situation.
“We come here and we do not make the effort to learn the local languages. We – including myself – only learn English, because it is the language of the economy here. So we fight, because we don’t speak a common language.”
Niang’s Forum is also encouraging foreign residents to “integrate more,” and to “show more respect” for their hosts by at least learning an indigenous language.
Unscrupulous business people in South Africa, who hire desperate foreigners as cheap labor, aren’t making his task any easier.
“The South African government is not controlling these entrepreneurs enough,” Niang complains.
But he’s adamant that it’s “unfair” of South Africans to accuse his fellow African traders and artists of “stealing” jobs from locals.
“Look at this market,” he mutters, turning and casting his eyes upon neighboring stalls. “We all started from scratch on the street. Ninety percent of the traders here are foreign nationals. So we didn’t take anybody’s job. Actually, we created jobs.”
Many of Niang’s colleagues have employed South African assistants. The foreigners are making and importing art and crafts previously absent from South African markets.
“We are providing a unique service here,” Niang says. “I feel valuable here.”
The sound of drums
Yet the trader continues to attach value, too, to the past that shaped him, however distant a mirage it has become in the humming modern metropolis that is Johannesburg. It’s a past that “dances alive” in his memory to the beat of a traditional Senegalese drum, called a sapar.
“It’s a drum actually, that they play with a stick,” he explains, removing the instrument carefully from its grimy hiding place under a shelf.
Niang begins beating the drum. A soft smile feathers his lips. His eyelids close slowly like sunflower petals shrinking from sudden darkness.
Niang beats the sapar when he wants to remember the streets of Dakar. Tourists have offered him money for it, but he refuses to sell.
“Selling it would mean forgetting my past in Senegal. I don’t want to live in Senegal, but I don’t want to forget the place either,” he says, as the drumming lesson ends.
In South Africa, though, it’s hip-hop music, and not the sapar, that’s become Niang’s “great passion.” He’s even recorded a CD of his songs. He bursts spontaneously into a rap from a song on his album, entitled “From Slave Trade to Brain Drain.”
Niang yells, “Taking the best! Leaving us with the rest! We gotta wake up!”
The sudden outburst attracts curious glances from traders and customers. But Niang isn’t finished.
“I’m in showbiz!” he shouts. These are my people here! In Jo’burg, I am wearing my skin!”