Last weekend I wrote about the Ethiopian coffee that I enjoyed at Arts on Main. That post set off a series of fortuitous events, which ultimately led to my attending an Ethiopian cultural walk in downtown Joburg today.

I love Ethiopian food and coffee, and I’d heard rumblings of a place deep in Joburg’s city center where Ethiopian culinary delights can be found. It’s not an easy place to reach. I rode downtown with my intrepid new friend Jeroen, who maneuvered gridlocked streets teaming with pedestrians and minibus taxis.

Through sheer determination and some luck, we pulled into the parking garage of the (now closed) Johannesburg Sun Hotel and found Ishvara Dhyan, our tour guide, in front of the London Pie Company on the crowded street above.

The former Joburg Sun Hotel. One of the other women on the tour said she spent her wedding night there 23 years ago. Believe it or not, the hotel closed more than a decade ago and has been vacant ever since.

Ishvara has lived in the Joburg city center all his life and traveled all over Africa and the world. His tours are popular with locals because: 1) They’re cheap at R50 (about $7) per person; and 2) You can experience parts of the city that most people aren’t brave or knowledgeable enough to visit alone.

Ishvara herded together our group of about 30 and gave a fascinating account of Ethiopian life in Joburg. Ethiopians have been migrating here since the mid-1990s and have gradually established dozens of shops, restaurants, and businesses in the buildings in this section of town.

Our rag-tag tour group and its leader. Everyone looks a bit unnerved, perhaps because our lesson had been crashed by a very aggressive and stoned drag queen (unseen). Anyway, the art deco buildings in the background are filled with Ethiopian shops. We spent the majority of the tour in the green building on the left, which used to be called the Medical Arts Building but is now the Haile Selassie Building.

I was interested to learn that these Ethiopian shops cater to the growing number of local Rastafarians, who worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Being shrewd business people, Ethiopians sell Bob Marley kitsch and all kinds of Rasta paraphernalia to Rastafarians. The Ethiopians themselves, however, have no interest in Rastafarianism. We learned many other interesting things about Ethiopian culture but this is the part of the lesson that stayed with me.

It was time to go in.

View of the street just before we entered the Haile Selassie/Medical Arts Building.

The foyer of the building. The Medical Arts Building directory has been replaced by posters advertising a traditional Ethiopian shop and Bob Marley.

View from the stairwell.

We went up to the second floor, where we were taken into this flagship shop. This is what most of the shops looked like (minus the confused-looking tourists) – colorful cotton dresses on one side, spices and coffee beans on the other, and everything crammed in between. There was also a small space in the back where guests could participate in a coffee ceremony like the one we saw at Arts on Main. But I wasn’t in the mood for coffee and it was a bit difficult to squeeze back there anyway.

My president is still popular among the Ethiopians! Along with air freshener, banana gum, gold jewelry, and gin.

Posted outside a barber shop.

The best sign of all. Obama with Emperor Selassie, from beyond the grave. Yes, we can. (Special thanks to Jeroen for spotting this one.)

Local wildlife.

The tour concluded with a buffet lunch. This isn’t normally the way Ethiopian food is served – it should be on a huge round platter that feeds four, covered in rolled-out pieces of injera (the spongy bread) and topped with small portions of each of the different dishes. But there weren’t enough big platters so I had my own plate to stuff my face with. I don’t know the names of anything but it was all delicious. No utensils allowed.

This city is starting to exhaust me. My blog can hardly keep up.

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