WELCOME TO HILLBROW

Day one in one of South Africa's most dangerous neighborhoods

Anytime a true adventure begins, the adventurer in question is called to some scary places. Most of the time that’s metaphorical. People in the middle of a big challenge will go down roads that go through self doubt and insecurity.

Other times, your adventure will take you to a scary place in the literal sense. A place like the crime capital of South Africa with one of the highest rates of violent murders.

In either sense of the word, our response is usually to try and avoid or escape scary places. Contrary to our instincts, however, these are the places that most need our presence.

After I had bought my plane ticket to Johannesburg, I sent a copy of my itinerary to Pastor Mike. I got this response from him:

Thanks Philippe,
May you experience God's power to help face all the challenges for the new year.
Will begin toget thingsready for your arrival
Unfortunately unable to pick you up at airport   .Taxis are available and safe    CENTRE ADDRESS;  MITCHELL STREET ,BEREA,  JOHANNESBURG

If you plan to go to rural areas you need to be aware of malaria and take necessary precaution.
Looking forward to your involvement

Since it looked like I would need to make it from the Johannesburg airport to 5Cees on my own, I decided to start researching Hillbrow, the neighborhood where the orphanage was located. I didn’t think much about the immediate surroundings of the center, only the fact that it was in Johannesburg.

All it took was “Google Search: Hillbrow” to discover that this place had more than just a seedy reputation.

“I believe anyone who cares about their safety, should not go to Hillbrow.”

“Hillbrow is the Crime Capital of Johannesburg. This place is filled with legal & Illegal immigrants ranging from Nigerians , Zimbabweans an so forth. There is alot of Muggings , Robberies , Murders and Prostitution that takes place there.”

“Absolutely avoid the quarters of Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea; I went there, but I was in a minibus, the doors were locked and the guide was driving FAST.”

These were just a few of the things I read online to help paint a picture of Hillbrow. Violent. Overrun with gangs and criminal activity.

Apparently, back in the 1980s, the area was the thriving heart of the city, its central business district. Whenever you look at an image of the Johannesburg skyline, most of its distinguishing buildings emerge out of the city blocks that make up Hillbrow. The pointed phone tower. The cylindrical apartment building. Usually when you think of a rough neighborhood, it’s sequestered to an edge of the city, like the Bronx or Southside Chicago. In Johannesburg, the rough neighborhoods were in the geographical equivalent of Times Square or Michigan Avenue.

Indeed, Hillbrow used to be a business-centered area of commerce during the time of apartheid. Once that had ended, many low-income residents moved into the center of the city. Many of them included refugees from Nigeria and Zimbabwe. This resulted in a the “white flight” phenomenon, where the neighborhood’s white and middle class families took off for the suburbs. Over time, more black South Africans also began to leave and the area became so predominantly Nigerian that it earned the nickname “Little Lagos.”

A lot of the Nigerians who wound up in South Africa were not terribly great representatives of their country. They gained a reputation among locals as criminals, drug lords, and gang leaders who had been forced to leave their country. They reestablished their operations in neighborhoods like Hillbrow, effectively bringing down the value of these neighborhoods, and the reputation of many immigrant populations. I read about how walking around the streets of Hillbrow as a non-black was almost an invitation to be mugged. The thieves also weren’t known for being merciful. Just because you complied and handed over your phone or wallet didn’t guarantee you would walk away unharmed.

My internet research had also led me to visiting the center via Google Street View. I typed in the address and used the arrows on the screen to have a look around. There was a child-friendly mural painted on the side of the wall, marking the building where I would be staying. Almost all of the buildings on the street were made up of poured, pink concrete. There was a sign for a restaurant on the other side of the street, but nothing that looked like a restaurant. Behind the orphanage was a hotel, with a bright yellow sign. The Google Street View images had managed to catch a few people standing around in front of the buildings. It didn’t look glamorous, but it also didn’t quite look like the “dark alleyway” that the search results made it out to be.

I started to wonder how dangerous this place could actually be? I mean, if its online reputation was correct, then yes, it would be the most shady neighborhood I’d ever been to. But I had been to a number of shady neighborhoods.

When I was on tour, we went through Detroit, and I insisted on recording a rap video on its notorious 8 Mile Rd., obviously in homage to Eminem. The area was empty, urban, and kind of dreary looking. But I didn’t feel very threatened, and we recorded with my camera.

In college, I had studied abroad in Buenos Aires, and there were a few neighborhoods and train stops there that would have previously held the title for being the most shady neighborhood I’d ever been to. Still, I felt safe enough to make my way around town on my own, just being more vigilant about my wallet, and less flashy with the things in my backpack.

•••

I don’t know how I initially came to become fascinated by South Africa, but I know it happened in middle school. I distinctly remember telling a teacher in the eighth grade that the places I wanted to visit the most were Brazil and South Africa.

“There’s a lot of crime in both those places,” she commented.

I think I must’ve seen South Africa for the first time in a movie. I couldn’t remember which one, but I’ll bet I was initially intrigued by there being a country in Africa that didn’t match my broadly stereotypical impression of the continent informed by the Lion King. Like many kids, I figured Africa was all orange skies and zebras. Then suddenly, I realized there was a South Africa, with urban metropolises, a large white population, and modern ways of living. I know it now sounds like an ignorant thing to be unaware of, but that was me up until age thirteen or so.

My interest grew as I got older, I began to ask more philosophical questions about life. I started to really value forgiveness and second chances. They became core to everything I believed in, including my faith. In college, I started taking the teachings of Jesus more seriously, because I agreed that loving and forgiving our enemies was the only way to really change the world. In a more contemporary setting, I saw this while growing up alongside Nelson Mandela’s rise to power. The way he enacted those ideals affirmed their worth.

I knew it would be a matter of time before I went to South Africa, and when I discovered my church supported an orphanage there, I knew I would eventually go. I consumed movies about the country. Invictus was one of my favorites. Tsotsi was another. That one followed the story of a child who grew up in gangs and slums in South Africa. It did a terrific job of humanizing both the gang leader and those who were afraid of him. Some of the scenes in the film were so alarmingly violent, though, and I remembered one scene in particular of a violent train robbery escalating into a murder. Suddenly I started thinking I should perhaps take some of the stuff I’d read online a bit more seriously.

•••

•••

The day before I was supposed to leave, I got all packed up. I brought a Lonely Planet guide, a few computers I gathered to be donated to the center, and malaria pills. I planned to get an early night’s sleep. I was a bit nervous about arriving in Hillbrow. In spite of all the trips I’d taken in the past, the internet had managed to instill a bit of trepidation.

I checked my ticket before bed– hold on! I noticed I had misread the date all along. My flight wouldn’t leave until the day after.

That bonus day felt so, so long. It was one more day to enjoy some of the American suburban comforts I took for granted. Being able to walk on the street with less attention on my wallet. Being able to get myself pretty much anywhere I wanted to go at any time. I called up my cousin Ivy and we got dinner at a Russian restaurant. I let that day pass slowly. I often feel like time goes by too fast, but sometimes you can find days that manage to linger and it’s amazing.

The day after that, my flight came around.

The flight to South Africa was a very long one. There’s virtually no way to get there directly from Southern California. My route would take me from San Diego to New York, New York to Amsterdam, and finally, Amsterdam to Johannesburg. My layover in Amsterdam was about seven hours. I wandered up and down their airport, which was practically a theme park. They had giant Dutch porcelain cups, a cultural museum, a multi-faith chapel with its own meditation room, and a central foot spa where little fish could eat the junk off your feet. I didn’t indulge in many of these, but I did get myself a nice Dutch snack of stroopwafels while in the airport.

In Amsterdam, I looked at my itinerary and realized that my flight would be arriving in South Africa around midnight. Not the best time to try and make it to Hillbrow with no sure means of getting there. I debated possibly just spending the night in the Johannesburg airport, and waiting until the next morning until it was safer. At the same time, I started to feel internally embarrassed about how much I was letting Hillbrow’s reputation get to me. I had taken a bit of pride in being adventurous. I hitchhiked in Argentina and Turkey. I lived in a van for months. And yet, I was honestly nervous about what could happen. Hopefully it wouldn’t be like Tsotsi.

Thirty-six hours after I left San Diego, I finally arived in Johannesburg. I decided my journey had been long enough. Taking my chances with a midnight journey into Hillbrow would be preferable to a night spent in an airport gate. Besides, I’d be in a taxi, and then I’d go right into the center. It’s not as if I would be strutting into town on foot. I followed the signs. I figured the taxi would be overpriced from the airport, as they usually are for foreigners in many countries. But still, after thirty plus hours of flying, it would be worth it.

I hailed a cab and got in. The cab driver started driving off and away from the airport before I even got to give him directions.

“Where to?” asked my cab driver, as he entered the main highway.

“15 Mitchell Street,” I answered, spouting off the center’s address from memory.

“I don’t know where that is,” he shrugged.

Hold up, I thought. No GPS, no glove compartment maps, no nothing? How on earth do you make it as a taxi driver, man?

I figured I couldn’t let him just keep driving with nowhere in mind, so I rattled off the full address.

“15 Mitchell Street, Berea, Gauteng,” I spouted off, giving the center’s full address. Gauging was the state, and stating that would have been as necessary as telling an L.A. cab driver that your destination was in California. Then again, this guy really needed some help.

“I know Berea,” he said calmly. “We go through Yeoville.”

A quick bit of info I gathered from all that online research– in addition to several townships, there are three urban neighborhoods in particular around Johannesburg that people should avoid. The center was said to be in Hillbrow, so that would be inevitable for me. Its address was technically in Berea, so that would be two of the three. Yeoville was the third place to avoid and the cab driver was taking us there. Hat trick!

But wait, I remembered the internet research I had done. Google Street View!

“There’s a hotel there. It has a yellow sign. F1. In Hillbrow,” I started describing.

“Yes, yes, Formula One Hotel. I know it,” responded the cab driver, calmly.

“I’m going across the street from there.”

Our cab ride still took us down dark streets, where I saw panhandlers, and crowds of people asleep under bridges. In Yeoville, a group of people were gathered in front of a convenience shop. There was fire coming out of a tin drum, and a lot of commotion. From what I could tell, this was just another night in Yeoville. At least we were getting somewhere, though.

We pulled up to Mitchell Street, and the cab driver went right up to the hotel. I looked across the street and found the center. I pointed right at the door so he would take me to it. A security guard was there.

“Ah, you are here,” he stated plainly. “I am Robert.”

Robert opened the front gate of the center.

I paid the cab and followed Robert upwards. In the dark, I felt us go up three flights of stairs. We were on a ledge that felt like a balcony. He led me to two windowpane doors which he opened with a skeleton key.

“You can be here tonight,” he informed me. “We’ll see if Pastor Mike or Pastor Ajith is in tomorrow.”

And with that, I was in bed.

•••

•••

It had been a long day, and I was ready for sleep. I didn’t know where the facilities were, but I didn’t need them as much as I needed sleep.

I put my bag in a wardrobe, and sat on the edge of the thick, hard mattress. The room was small, dim, and dusty. It was night, but the sky still carried the air of activity. Streetlights leaked in through the windows. The noise of people outside could be heard faintly in the background. The room felt rugged and yet, it was the only place I knew in the whole country. The center felt big, but I would have to wait until the next day to discover it.

As I sat on the edge of the stiff bed, getting ready to climb underneath its single sheet, I looked towards the thin, glass paneled door in between myself and the restless city's nocturnes. I thought about Hillbrow and about everything I had read about it.

Rough neighborhoods have a surprisingly special place in my heart- a bit unlikely considering my upbringing was unmistakably suburban, and my street smarts are average at best. I refuse, however, to accept the idea that some places are just bad because evil has geographical preferences. Sometimes being in that sort of environment can make you feel like that is the case, though.

Hillbrow is a prime example. Some of the stories I heard of awful things that had happened there were just so brutal I have a hard time repeating them. I heard cases of children who were abducted, raped, and slaughtered. When you hear a story like that relayed to you first-hand, you can almost physically feel the weight of darkness surrounding the area. That sort of horrific violence seems so unthinkable and so distant from the comforts of my westernized, suburban homeland.

And yet, here's the deal– I don’t think the Southern California suburbs are necessarily immune to such atrocities, history has simply given certain places an opportunity to outsource brutality.

Throughout history, certain people groups have ended up with power and they have used their power to disadvantage other groups, often times severely. Apartheid is fresh enough in the memory of South Africa so over there, this pattern is pretty apparent. But even in places as developed as the United States, there’s an ever repeated dynamic of different people groups, social classes, or ethnicity getting the short end of the stick, being denied many opportunities, and being practically funneled into poverty.

The links between poverty and violence are widely documented. The issue isn’t just being poor, but being desparate. When you’re born into a poor area that can't afford good schools, with a skin color that your legal system fails to treat equally, or with an ethnicity that isn't eligible for full citizenship by the country you live in, survival itself becomes a terrible struggle. The worst is what happens when a group gets so desperate that neighbor turns against neighbor in a competition for limited resources. Violence grows. Gangs rise. And then you end up with places like Hillbrow.

That’s why, as easy as it is to write off Hillbrow as a gang-infested neighborhood, I wanted to see it in a deeper way. I had to remind myself to see the city for what it was- frustrated, desperate, and unseen. As immigrants moved in, Hillbrow’s old tenants moved out, and paid little attention to the neighborhood.

The social forces that have shaped Hillbrow and places like it are so entrenched in history that no one person is going to turn it around. There is no easy answer to rid a place of violence, desperation, and poverty, but by ignoring such places, their issues will only grow. Any hopes to see places like these transform reside with those willing to engage such environments- not just with policies made from far away, but with human interaction, with getting to know the culture and way of life firsthand, and with a nonjudgmental heart.

As I fell asleep for my first night in Hillbrow, I realized I was no saint in upholding my own beliefs. Already I had acted on fear and my own reservations about this place where I had resolved to be present. I knew it would be scary. I still had my reservations about staying so long there. But oftentimes the “scariest” of places are the ones that are the most in need of attention. I knew my beliefs about dangerous places would have to be tested. If not, they were little more than a youthful affair with idealism.

Philippe Lazaro2013