Shards of light shoot through a severely cracked window, crawl across the dusty floor and creep up the lap of a woman cradling a dinner bell in her lap. Initially it seems as if the bell is inadvertently keeping the beat of the train as it starts to chug to life, but then a man in his early thirties starts a chant and the wrinkled woman brings the bell to proper life.
Smoke from a rail-side braai, exhaust from the locomotive and smoldering trash mingle just outside the doors, spilling into the car along with a surge of commuters. It is rush hour in Joburg, the train is packed, making it difficult for a hawker to shuffle his way through the mass, but slither through he does all the same. His bag is overflowing with 1Rand Halls Singlets, but his calls for his product are drowned out by a woman bellowing in what sounds like Setswana further down the car. Regardless of the tongue it is an unmistakable lament for someone or something lost. Expression transcends language, and even though I cannot make out which woman is singing in the crowd I can still feel the wrinkles of her brow and the wringing of her hands as she breaks into her cry.
Another hawker silently attempts to move fruit upon the people. He is not Setswana, carries himself more like a Zulu, but remains silent all the same as the elder holds court. Another station stop yields ten new entrants, seemingly broken from their day of wage labor for little reward, along with three more hawkers moving toilet paper, shampoo, tubes of super glue and tiny security locks. As the elder moves passionately through her song I think of the woman on the A Train in Manhattan back in June. I felt the power of her remonstrations of those who refuse to solely look to God for guidance much the same as I do now, but sadly I joined the others in expressing our frustrations to her cries via rolled eyes, confused stares and sarcastic confirmations of statements such as, “that’s why God created iPods”. Another seven weeks in Africa have left a mark.
At our third station stop a truly beaten woman enters the car hunched over with an expression of determination-masking-pain reminiscent of my 95 year old grandmother who still refuses supports of any sort. She takes a deep breath as the train starts to chug along, and a young man smartly dressed as if he just stepped out of a Vodacom commercial doesn’t even hesitate to offer up his seat. She happily accepts. Another deep breath.
The elder’s chant shifts into what sounds like a prayer and a man starts to rhythmically pound his palm flat against the soiled plexi-glass, creating a shallow, somewhat flat surface beat that perfectly backs up the prayer. The emotion builds as the woman downshifts and reveals a baritone voice. The crowd around her follows her lead and backs her up with their hands and feet. Two young men in their twenties ignore the song and instead discuss girls while sitting indifferently a few seats away from a crowd that has circled and doubled in size. Their conversation shifts effortlessly in and out of Zulu, Setswana, English and Africaans as they ignore the spectacle to the far side of another hawker struggling to maintain his balance with a twenty pound bag of raw potatoes.
Suddenly the bell, which had dropped off, returns to the fray as does a handful of revelers who clap to a secondary beat. Feet stomp on the fragmented floor serving as bass as we reach New Canada, and I gain my first confirmation that I am in fact on the right train to Soweto. By the time the train staggers back into motion the car is engulfed with a collective chorus of moaning emotion.
A sharp light illuminates the dusty scratches in the plexi-glass and details the profile of a man holding two large bells above his head as if working out his delts. A similar flex of his brow and a biting of the lower lip finishes the near perfect comparison. Another group enters the train and without hesitation joins the circle, with both voice and action, as if they had timed their arrival for that specific moment in the production. Suddenly we are upon a truly traveling production with actors, both principal and supporting, awaiting their turn upon the dusty stage. As they stomp and clap overhead the screeching of the train along the rusty rails momentarily drowns out the rest and takes a solo to remind us all that she is in fact the indispensable protagonist of this daily tale. The elder’s lamenting softens into a monologue with a somber and exhausted, slow-running moan.
Bars of knock-off Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate are made available for 4 Rand 50, but three teenagers who are puzzled by my presence, laugh at the prospect of voluntarily paying just as much for chocolate as they did for their necessary ride home. Just as the car slows into another station, and the screeching wheels subside, the elder takes her cue and fills the void with a begging moan that explodes into an oratory that demands the dutiful attention of the car. The bells return, as do the claps, with a quicker tempo complimenting the power of her words as she holds the car entranced.
Orlando Stadium slides by just behind the burnt reeds, as do the Towers, and the fragmented, faded, corrugated rooftops shimmer in the setting sun as the sky turns a hot, electric pink. The letters of Mphomolong fight through the speckled plexi that obscures a crisp focus lost long ago. I reach for the doors as the car slows inverse to the pacing of the happy mayhem within. The smell of a freshly stoked Braai invades as I step out onto the dusty platform, feel the retreating sun’s final offering, and know that I am home.