A social space in-between business practices

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Some of the most insightful moments I have had about Ethiopian and Eritrean activities in Jeppe Street have been from encounters and social events outside of Jeppe Street. At weddings and music festivals, suddenly, if still somewhat restrained, I was treated more openly. People were friendlier: They wanted me to dance and to drink. I went to two events, and at both these events, there was a large presence of Ethiopian and Eritrean nationalities. The first was a performance of Helen Melle, an Eritrean revolutionary singer that fought for human rights. At the performance I was told that she is loved by both Eritreans and Ethiopians because of her humanity, that she was willing to fight for what is right. The second event that I went to was an Eritrean wedding celebration and reception. Weddings, I was told, are often highly public events for networking and publicity reasons. Some people are more popular than others, and some people are more successful than others. These large social gatherings, then, are used as places to reinforce business ties within the larger Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. For this inherently networking reason, I was told, my presence at the wedding made sense, and was acceptable.

At these events, the extraordinary stories of getting to South Africa, of trying to get by in Johannesburg by conducting business, and of living here, became apparent as being part of a life which has many other aspects. Some people make families, some people are still looking for a person to marry. Some people have arranged marriages, with brides sent from the home countries. In Johannesburg, there are many single men, and that there are not so many women. Although there are many young adults, there are not so many teenagers and kids. Between all these people who know of a past life, however, I saw a first generation, young children who were born South African.

The importance of Ethiopian and Eritrean traditions become apparent in these events. Particular food, dress, ways of telling stories, dancing, greeting and handling strangers remains definitive
aspects of people’s lives. Religion is one such cultural aspect which could not be investigated in this project. God, a Christian Orthodox God, and Allah have a strong presence in some people’s lives. The idea of good and evil, right and wrong has often been a topic of conversation, and so has influenced an undercurrent of judgement and support which travelled with us through Jeppe Street. Being focussed on a business area, and being quite distant from churches, this religious aspect, however, is something which this project could not really penetrate deeper than several short
conversations.

The sense of displacement also becomes apparent in these cultural encounters. In these more family orientated events, the importance of family life can be seen, yet many people do not have any
family or other stable social structures. This has been something which we could not really engage with because of our focus on Jeppe Street, a predominantly business area, and particularly because of our distance from the community. It would also be a difficult area to engage in from primarily a visual arts background, and would require a closer collaboration with another socially orientated research area.

Another aspect which I realised in these social encounters was that there is a very high alcohol usage in this community. This is something widespread throughout South Africa, and could not be
looked at in this project.