When I was eight years old, my dad took me to see the movie Gandhi. I suppose Dad thought it would be an educational experience. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything about the movie except that it was long (there was an intermission!), Gandhi always seemed to be dying, and the bloody riot scenes made me cry.

Before I moved to Joburg, I didn’t know that Gandhi once lived in South Africa. In fact, he lived here for 20 years. Gandhi’s passive resistance movement wasn’t born in India, but across the ocean in South Africa.

I recently spent the night in a house where Gandhi lived more than 100 years ago. I think I absorbed some of Gandhi’s spirit there. After all, he was a Jozi expat just like me.

The Satyagraha House in Norwood, where Gandhi lived in 1908-1909. Gandhi’s movement was called Satyagraha, roughly translated as ‘truth force’.

From 1908 to 1909, Gandhi lived with his friend Hermann Kallenbach (a Lithuanian-born architect) in a thatched-roof house in what is now the Jozi suburb of Norwood. In this house, Gandhi and Kallenbach pursued a life of simplicity and worked with Gandhi’s inner circle — his Satyagrahis — to develop the passive resistance movement. Read more about Gandhi’s time in South Africa.

After decades of private ownership, the Norwood house was recently purchased and restored by a French travel company called Voyageurs du Monde. This year it opened as the Satyagraha House, a guesthouse/museum that is a tribute to Gandhi’s life in South Africa.

My visit couldn’t have happened at a better time. I’m on a serious quest for peace and tranquility right now. And the Satyagraha House delivered.

An aerial view of the Kallenbach Cottage, my home for the evening. It was built by Hermann Kallenbach himself. The cottage sleeps four but I was the only one staying that night.

The Satyagraha House guest rooms are luxuriously simple, conveying Gandhi’s message to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’. The furniture is comfortable, the decor attractive yet purely functional. There is nothing extra. I slipped on some Gandhi-style thongs and spent the afternoon snoozing on the bed and reading books about the Mahatma.

These are the most comfortable shoes on earth. (Note: Photographing your own feet is really hard.)

My Gandhi-chic bathroom. The shower head (unseen) is the only thing I didn’t like at the Satyagraha House. It sprayed water every which way, in a fine mist that dampened the room but didn’t get me clean. The staff have promised to fix it.

When I’d had enough solitary reflection, I wandered the main house and learned about Gandhi. The walls are covered with old photos and captions recounting Gandhi’s life in South Africa. I like museums that cover well-contained topics like this. You can read everything in an hour. I learned a lot but didn’t feel like I’d been run over by a truck afterward.

Gandhi loved Joburg, too.

Dinner was vegetarian and alcohol-free. (Sorry boozers, we’re living like Gandhi here.) I had my own cozy table in one of the smaller rooms of the house.

Clockwise from top: African rice, mashed butternut, fried soya strips, and spicy mixed vegetables. I also had a starter of creamed spinach soup with mushrooms and a scrumptious apple crumble for dessert. 

Every staff member at the Satyagraha House is incredibly nice and I received impeccable service. At dinner I had a lovely chat with Mike, my cheerful waiter, and Hope, the talented chef.

Hope and Mike.

And after dinner, my favorite vacation perk: turn-down service.

I expected a dark bedroom with sheets still wrinkled from my afternoon nap. Instead I found soft lighting, neatly creased covers, and my overnight bag stowed in the corner (rather than the middle of the floor, where I left it). Ahhhh.

The next morning I had a 7:00-a.m. meditation lesson. I regretted my decision when the alarm went off. I was nervous. What if I couldn’t meditate?

It turned out to be the best part of my stay. I meditated in the Satyagraha House loft, where Gandhi himself slept. Tony, my teacher, made me totally at ease and I felt peaceful and focused during the first 25-minute meditation exercise. (Never mind that my foot went completely numb at the end. Tony and I had a good laugh over that.)

Tony and I discussed many profound things during my lesson. He’s a great person and a fantastic teacher. If you’re interested in scheduling a lesson or want to learn about Tony’s other projects, you can find him here: www.lowtech.co.za.

During the second exercise, Tony spoke quietly as we meditated. He talked about Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence and promoting peace. He spoke of the influence Gandhi had over Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Then Tony spoke directly to me.

‘Think about the peace that Gandhi taught, which you’re feeling here in this room,’ Tony said. (I’m paraphrasing. I couldn’t record Tony’s exact words while meditating.) ‘Take Gandhi’s peace and strength inside of you, and hold it there.’ I kept my eyes closed and tried to feel strong and peaceful.

‘Now, think of a person in your life — a family member, a close friend, even an enemy — who is suffering and needs peace. Focus on that person. Send that person the peace that you’re feeling.’

I knew just the person to think about. I hope he gets the message.

When I opened my eyes, there were tears in them.

My meditation room, restored to look as it did when Gandhi slept there. Did Gandhi really wear yellow-tinted glasses?

Thanks, Mahatma, for sharing your peace.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

Rates at the Satyagraha House range from R750 to R2300 (roughly $100-$300) per room/cottage, including breakfast. Meditation, yoga lessons, and dinner are available at extra charge. The museum is free and open to the public. 

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