Monday 23 June 2014

Pietermaritzburg - The Alma Mater

Just over 17 years ago, I first set foot in South Africa for a year's study at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.  I was really excited to come back to the city and see how things are these days in the quiet old "sleepy hollow" town.

Well, it was a bit of an emotional shock to come back, really.  Things have changed!

When I first pulled off the N3 onto the Church street exit to roll into town centre, I couldn't believe how busy the street was.  Minibus taxis honked wildly and jostled with each other as they darted in and across traffic to pick up fares.  Cars double parked at odd angles everywhere.  Loud music blared out from vehicles and shops, and tons of people just flooded the streets on foot.  Pedestrians wandered across the busy traffic and I couldn't tell if most are on their way somewhere or just ambling about.  It was definitely NOT the sleepy hollow I remembered!

I felt a bit sad.  It's hard to see so much rubbish in the streets, thousands of flyers plastered haphazardly on all surfaces promoting backstreet abortions for R100 with cellphone numbers - "pain-free with free womb cleaning".  When we drove by the city hall, I saw that some glass from the great clock was broken, and that the Tatham art gallery was closed.  Even the old Church of the Vow - one of the most important structures in Afrikaner history, had scars of having had flyers tacked to its walls. Ghandi's statue's glasses were stolen.

But then, as we walked around - I felt better.

There WERE people around town enjoying the centre.  The faces have changed, perhaps - we saw three white faces and perhaps a dozen Indian faces all afternoon.  But - the town is probably more alive than ever before.  The shops were busy and well stocked, and through there was some rubbish about, there were no graffiti-covered derelict buildings or giant potholes.  It's just become a lived-in place.

Upon checking the Tatham Gallery, we saw that it was indeed closed - but only because it was Monday.  Peering through the glass, I could still see nice paintings and exhibitions neatly mounted up for everyone to enjoy. The broken glass I spotted in the City Hall clock tower - was the only broken pane.  The clock still worked, and the well-presented smiling school kids walking by still glanced up at it to check the time.

So yeah, the place has Changed.  But it seems quite alright.

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