Fleets of garish minibus taxis prowl Rockey Street, the chaotic hub of one of Johannesburg’s oldest inner city suburbs, Yeoville. The speeding vehicles mount pavements to drop off and pick up passengers. Rows of traders sit on sun-bleached blankets and decrepit chairs, selling an extensive assortment of goods - from clothing to food to toys. Police patrol the road, ready to pounce on people selling counterfeit products.
Yeoville is home to thousands of immigrants from all over Africa. But it’s the Ghanaians who are by far the largest African community in the area.
Usually, Accra-born Kwaku Jimmanuel Asamoah sells second-hand shoes along Rockey Street. But these days, he often abandons his stall in favor of another mission. Sauntering through the frenzy of haggling traders and customers, he screams, “I am mobilizing my people to support the Black Stars!”
Asamoah is known by residents as the “craziest” Ghanaian soccer supporter in all of Yeoville. Locals laugh and shake their heads as he continues to vent his passion for Ghana’s football team. “I’m supporting the Black Stars! Black Stars is going to semi-finals or finals [of the World Cup]! I promise you! Mark it on the wall!” he screams.
Asamoah is teaching whoever he meets to sing a traditional Ghanaian football song - "Da no ase" or "Thank you, God, for victory." He wants them to welcome the 5,000 Ghanaian fans expected to travel to South Africa for the tournament in a “great way!”
The legendary Uncle Ben
Asamoah may be a well-known Yeoville eccentric, but it’s another Ghanaian here who’s considered a legend among the African community. Ben Foxwell Owusu – known by everyone in the suburb as “Uncle Ben” – was one of the first African expatriates to settle in Yeoville. He says he arrived here from Accra in 1991 with “empty pockets,” but has since transformed his life.
“Soon after I got here, I saw all the African immigrants streaming into Joburg and I thought, ‘Hmm, all these people will want to eat food from their home countries.’ With my wife being a professional caterer, we decided to open a food business,” Owusu explains.
In the kitchen of his restaurant – fittingly called Uncle Ben’s – Owusu’s wife, Nana, cooks Ghanaian chicken stew. She uses spices like coriander and cumin, liberal sprinkles of red pepper flakes and dollops of peanut butter. “People in West Africa love peanut and pepper flavor; two of our staples are peanut soup and pepper soup,” Nana tells VOA.
But the eatery doesn’t only serve fare from West Africa. “Almost every African [living in the area] comes to my restaurant to eat,” Owusu boasts. “My wife and I have studied African recipes to a great degree. We know a lot about different African tastes. We cater for them all.”
Uncle Ben’s is truly pan-African. For Zimbabweans, the Owusu’s make sadza – maize porridge; for Ethiopians they make injera – spongy flatbread; for Kenyans they’ll whip up a healthy plate of nyama choma – barbecued meat – on an outside grill …. Their culinary repertoire appears endless.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Food critics say Uncle Ben’s is probably the most authentic, quality African eatery in Johannesburg. But it’s not in the best of areas … It’s situated in the middle of Times Square – once a chic gathering place for South African intellectuals and politicians, but now a relatively rundown corner of Yeoville.
“People see Times Square [in Rockey Street] as a place that they will not dare to come,” Owusu acknowledges. “But Times Square is one of the most peaceful places I have ever known,” he emphasizes.
Yet district police say violent robberies and even murder are common in Yeoville. They describe Times Square as the local drug trade’s epicenter. Owusu, though, remains confident the area will attract “bunches” of visiting football fans, and especially Africans, during the World Cup.
“Many international tour groups have visited Uncle Ben’s and there has never been a single incident of crime against the foreigners,” the restaurateur insists. “I promise the soccer visitors they will never see anything evil here. All that will happen to them is they will have the biggest party of their life in Yeoville, which is South Africa’s center of African culture.”
The area remains very shabby in places, but the authorities did recently begin a clean-up. Local residents say Yeoville’s looking better than it has in a long time. Spanking new nightclubs have opened just in time for the football festival.
And then there’s Germany
In addition to his food, people in Yeoville also respect Owusu for his deep knowledge of football. He says Ghanaians were among the first people in Africa to embrace the sport. In his obvious love for the Black Stars, Owusu can’t resist taking a swipe at Ghana’s bitter West African rival, Nigeria.
“[Ghana] have won the African Cup of Nations four times, to Nigeria’s twice. And may I remind you that one of Ghana’s record scores, in the 1950s, was against Nigeria, when we beat them 11 – 0?”
But the Black Stars won’t be battling the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the World Cup’s first round. They’ll be playing Serbia, Australia and Germany. Owusu’s a worried man. “Serbia is not a cheap team. I won’t be surprised if they top the group. Australia have beaten Ghana on a number of occasions,” he says.
But the encounter it seems all Africans in South Africa are looking forward to will happen in Johannesburg on June 23rd. That’s when the Black Stars meet the might of Germany – one of the best teams in the world and a triple World Cup winner.
He says, ominously, “People think Germany is the most toughest side of the group. But if care is not taken [by them], they will be the last in that group.”
Too many fans, too few tickets
With Ghana being one of the most highly rated African teams, with midfield maestros like Sulley Muntari ready to work their magic, tickets for Black Stars matches have been in high demand. “There are 40,000 Ghanaians living in Johannesburg alone,” Owusu explains, “but most couldn’t get tickets for Black Stars matches because the tickets were too expensive and the cheaper tickets were bought by South Africans.”
The 95,000 capacity Soccer City Stadium – the largest in Africa – is sold out for the Ghana / Germany match. But Owusu has one of the prized tickets. “I’ll be there in my West African mask to frighten the hell out of anything that’s German!” he laughs.
For those who can’t be at the games, the enterprising businessman has a plan. He’s renovating his restaurant to make it larger and has erected a big-screen TV in a nearby closed courtyard where fans can gather to watch matches.
“At Uncle Ben’s we have decided this will be a place for all African supporters to gather, not just Ghanaians,” Owusu tells VOA. “We all are coming together this time around to support that particular African team that is playing that day.”
Owusu insists that for an African team to take the trophy, the continent’s football fans must forget national rivalries. “To come together is the only way we are going to come close to winning the Cup. Whatever African team does well, it will be a victory for the whole of Africa. This is Africa’s World Cup!” he shouts, to great approval from the customers gathered around him.
Arthur Musah Mahama, one of Uncle Ben’s regular patrons, says “even if Nigeria plays in the final, Ghanaians will be behind Nigeria.” Then Asamoah chimes in to say, “Hey, Arthur – maybe we should not take it so far, hey?” And the assembled Ghanaians burst into laughter.
Africa versus the world
But Owusu stands firm in his appeal for Africa to unite during the World Cup.
“Brazil, Italy, England and Germany and all those other fancy teams must realize when they land here in South Africa that they are not only playing single African countries," he said. "They must know that they are playing against an entire continent, with its population of one billion firmly behind it … The Cup should remain in Africa.”
Back in Uncle Ben’s kitchen, while a cook mashes yams into traditional West African fufu, the establishment’s effervescent owner is finally ready with his prediction for the World Cup final. “People will laugh at me,” Owusu whispers, “but I have always looked on the bright side of life.”
A mischievous smile creases his face.
“How about Ghana versus South Africa?” he poses. “Now wouldn’t that be something?”