“Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray…”

Taking my dogs for a walk in the Ethel-Grey Park about 10 minutes’ drive from where I live is one of the few freedoms that Lockdown Level 4 has left me with. On a Sunday- and even sometimes during the week –  there are invariably small groups of people in African traditional garb praying and performing rituals in the vicinity of the ‘river’ (more like a trickle of water) that runs through the park, or on the west side of the park not far from the dam.  Once I came across a solitary pray-er performing a ritual with a candle in a hollowed out trunk of a tree.  People are praying in parks, on the Melville Koppies, alongside the Yeoville water tower- and in other parts of the city. This is how it is has always been.  Reflecting on this, I was reminded of a blog I wrote more than 11 years ago, when I lived in Bez Valley (http://melodyemmettsbezvalley.blogspot.com/2011/08/jesus-went-out-to-mountainside-to-pray.html). I decided to recycle it for the Chronicle.

Thanks to : https://www.jozirediscovered.co.za/2014/04/29/gods-land-yeoville-ridge/ – for some of the pics used in this post. Others were taken by me. 

On Stewart Drive a group of women with children signal that they want a lift up the hill but I am running late so I don’t stop. At any hour of the day there are people waiting for a lift up or down Stewart Drive, which has become fraught with crime.  Cell phones and cash are stolen at gunpoint by thugs who emerge from the bush and are apparently immune to the police. Women have been raped.

Richard and I begin our ascent up Observatory Ridge from Gascoyne Street, navigating the uneven, rocky terrain towards the Anglo-Boer War Indian Troops Memorial. It is difficult to imagine that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the ground was relatively even and a journey on horseback from Yeoville to Germiston would take approximately 40 minutes.  Year upon year of soil erosion has fostered the rocky surface of the ridge as it is now.

Litter; burnt, stubbly grass; human excrement; the occasional discarded shoe or forgotten items of clothing, and remnants of animal sacrifice are part of the geography.

Several members of African Independent Churches, doing the best they can in an urban setting to follow Jesus’s example of going up into the mountain to pray, are dotted across the landscape.  One man is wailing and pounding the earth with his fists; a group of women and children led by a young priest are holding a prayer meeting; and two men pray loudly over a crying child.  They  are from the ‘Church of the Apostolic Faith of Jesus Christ’ and the ‘Limpopo Rock Church’.  Further along the path, a solitary hermit, dressed in yellow, is staring out over the valley a short distance from a rough shelter he has constructed by draping shreds of fabric over a couple of rocks.

Only a few Protea trees remain on the ridge. Once there were many but they have been chopped down and used for firewood.

Small yellow and white veld flowers scattered spasmodically along the path, announce the beginning of spring.

Richard points out the remains of the rock circles that mark the activity of early smeltering dating back to approximately 1830.

The monument was erected towards the end of 1902 in honour of the Hindu, Sikh, Christina, Muslim and Zoroastrian Indian members of the British Army who lost their lives in the Anglo Boer War.  ‘Zoroastrian’ has been misspelt.  Originally the inscription was in Urdu, Hindi and English but only the English inscription remains. It reads:








We squat uncomfortably amidst the flotsam and jestsam of separatist church ritual. I take Ivan Vladislavic’s novel, ‘Double Negative’ out of my bag and read a description of the valley:

Stunned by the sunlight, we slumped against the rock with our faces turned to the sky, while Auerbach spoke about the history of the valley and the people who lived there as it passed from gentility to squalor and back again. You could still see some of the grand mansions on the opposite slope. Down in the dip there were houses that went back to the beginnings of the city that had survived the cycles of slum clearance and gentrification and renewed decline.


You think it would simplify things, looking down from up here…  but it has the opposite effect on me. If I try to imagine the lives going on in all these houses, the domestic dramas, the family sagas, it seems impossibly complicated. How could you ever do justice to something so rich in detail? You couldn’t do it in a novel, let alone a photograph…’”

‘Stunned by the sunlight’ like Vladislavic’s characters, Richard and I agree the description of the valley from the Kensington point of view applies as well to the vista from the Observatory side of the valley.

Driving back to Bez Valley down Stewart Drive, I give a lift to a young woman from the DRC with a baby on her back. She doesn’t speak any English and I am too preoccupied to conjure up my rudimentary French.  We abandon ourselves to silence.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


One Response

  1. I have seen these prayer groups all over, for decades. They used to pray at the water’s edge for traditional reasons, but also because they had nowhere else to go. During the apartheid era, they were also chased or of little parks in “white” suburbs. Times have changed. Much better now. Methinks that a negative aspect is that the litter and rubble have got worse. Sad.

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