Street View: Coordinates of darkness

"Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it."- Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

When I was little I was scared of the dark. During school holidays, I often went to our rural home, which had no electricity. Days were an idyll, nights a nightmare.

The day's routine normally involved playing football in the plain, interspersed with looking for wild fruits or herding cattle or swimming in the river. Once, I foolishly tried to look for the source of the local river. 

Although pylons obscured our skyline (to supply the neighbouring commercial farmers with electricity), the village didn't boast a single streetlamp – the pylon's dwarfish child. So the moon was our source of light; but the moon is full of caprice, big and white today, thin and sickly tomorrow. 

On moonless nights, I sat by the fire, legs folded and hands stretched, afraid to step into the night. The toilet, the bedroom, the granary seemed to be a world away. You couldn't go anywhere without avoiding the darkness: the darkness was the medium, the darkness was also the destination. And in moving, it was the fire and lamp light that I was being forced to leave behind. All the shards of terrifying thought from the day came together at night; so a piece of wood became a python and a man lighting a cigarette became a ghost.

"What did you put out there that you are scared of?" my exasperated mother, grandmother or aunt would often shriek as I held onto the door, timidly peering into the darkness, trying to locate a kitchen utensil I had to bring into the house. The idea was to dash like a commando, rescue a pot, pan or plate from the darkness and quickly retreat into the light, intimacy and safety of home.

When I drove towards a street lamp on Park Street, next to the Mai Mai market, in downtown Johannesburg, it seemed the fear of my adolescence had gone before me. When I got to the lamp post, the fears of my childhood stood waiting for me, gyrating the seven heads that jut out of its slippery, elongated body (you don't mention the snake by name at night). "It's dangerous here. Is it?" My companion stared at me without reply.

I got out of the car and contemplated the street. It was dark. The street lamp wasn't flickering. It was dead. The streets wore a menacing grin. And a hoodie. And sunglasses.
I stood looking at the streetlamp, head swivelling, one minute facing this way, the next that way. And then suddenly, emerging from the menace, two broom vendors trudged past, making small talk… 

Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts and features reporter, who loves walking the streets of Johannesburg. Follow his column Street View to meet the characters he encounters.

This was originally written for "Streetlights", a project conceived by conceptual artist Vaughn Sadie meant to explore Johannesburg using  its lighting strategies. "The project examines the role artificial light plays in shaping and defining the way people either move through, or occupy, these public spaces," he says.  Other writers involved include theatre director, Neil Coppen, journalist Scott Smith and poets Phillippa yaa de Villiers and Lebohang Nova Masango. Sadie asked these writers to visit a street lamp at night and write a "response" of between 400-500 words.

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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