Travel writing: a pinch of salt is definitely needed

Late last year, a colleague in the tourism industry told me that there was this great article on Yeoville Bellevue in a well-known airline magazine. In fact, he kindly gave me his copy. The article focused primarily on a Congolese restaurant called Kin Malebo, but also made reference to Yeoville Bellevue as a whole and to other restaurants and establishments in the area.

We welcome newspaper and magazine articles about our neighbourhood, especially if they are successful in attracting people to the area. We do believe that the economic future of Yeoville Bellevue lies in promoting the area as a pan-African destination in which people can experience a variety of African cuisine, African music, arts and craft, ethnic clothing and African literature. However, we are very concerned when articles paint a false picture of what is actually happening. It seems that, in this case, the writer did his research on Kin Malebo reasonably well, but used very old information when he spoke about other places, giving incorrect and misleading information to the readers. We can only assume he did a desktop search for additional material to back up his main story and he didn’t check to see if it was still current. He also didn’t refer at all to some of the socio-economic challenges in the area which means that visitors who might have come to Yeoville Bellevue on the strength of his article could actually have put their lives and possessions at risk. These are some of the things he said that are wrong or misleading:

‘Yeoville’s main feeder route (is) Rockey St’ – this is a common misconception, but one which should be picked up by a serious writer. Rockey St is not in Yeoville. There is a long street which starts in Berea and ends in Bruma. It goes through a number of name changes along the way. In Yeoville, it is called Raleigh St. In Bellevue, it is called Rockey St.

In talking about the culturally eclectic nature of Yeoville Bellevue, the writer mentions Burundi, Angola, Egypt and Tunisia. But these are probably among the least represented in our area. Nigeria, Congo and Zimbabwe are by far the most present. Others that would be relevant well before the four he cited would be Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Cameroon etc.

He goes on to talk about a number of establishments in the Times Square building very near to Kin Malebo. However, sadly for those ‘whose taste buds yearn for something French’, Cafe Joie Patisserie and Coffee Shoppe long ago stopped selling anything vaguely linked to France. I think if you go in now, you will find only beer and pool tables. Times Square Cafe and it’s ‘Yank’s generous portions’ still has a food menu, but I doubt it has anything to do with the United States. The focus here is also much more on alcohol. The Londoner Pub long gave up its pretentions to anything vaguely ‘English’.

The material on Kin Malebo seems to be pretty accurate. However, it is on Raleigh St, not Rockey. The comment about ‘high levels of cultural tolerance and a better quality of life’ as a reason for people coming to Yeoville Bellevue is at least debatable. There are elements of both, depending on where a person was before he or she came to the area. It could also be argued that people come to Yeoville Bellevue because there are so many of their compatriots there and so it is familiar, and because the levels of urban management and law enforcement are so low that it is possible to do just about anything here without consequences.

Later on in the article, the writer once again promotes attractions that don’t exist. Charro’s, with their ‘authentic Durban curries and bunny chows’ closed down seven or eight years ago. Tandoor started in the 1980s as a reasonably authentic Tandoori chicken outlet. It has long given up that persona. It is now a rasta joint, more famous for dope-smoking, alcohol and loud music than ‘spicy food’. La Conglaise hasn’t been operating for around 10 years, while The Zone is no longer a single place, but a building housing a number of different businesses. Rockafella’s – like Tandoor, La Conglaise and The Zone, not actually in Yeoville, but Bellevue – is more known for being a night club than for its food.

So, in summary, the article gives a very skewed and uninformed picture of Yeoville Bellevue. If the writer really wanted to write about food in Yeoville Bellevue, he could have written a much more interesting piece, but it would have required him actually walking the streets of the area and not relying on someone else’s information. There are a number of interesting ethnic restaurants – Ethiopian, Nigerian, Cameroonian etc – which he could have discovered and used to give more meat to his article.

But I am learning that travel writing is not necessarily the reflections of a writer’s own experiences. I was recently approached by a well-known travel writer who had been asked to write about the Yeoville Market (which, by the way, does not have an ‘international section’ as the writer of the Kin Malebo article suggests – it is merely a market which has, scattered across it, traders from a number of different countries in the world).

This travel writer wanted to visit the area and asked for my assistance. However, she ran out of time and so sent the following message to me: “Have been down in the Cape so only now getting to my emails. My time is so-o short and my deadline is soon. I think I can write the article (only 300 words) from other articles and a flying visit I paid to the market years ago, but do you have any pics of the market in particular? If so, could you email them to me?” And for this she was getting paid!!

The problem with all of this is that, in the publication which has the Yeoville/Kin Malebo article, there is also a piece on Mumbai and another on Abidjan. I have been to neither place, although I recently read a compelling book about a slum in Mumbai and discovered a  polar-opposite picture of Mumbai in the magazine article. My experience of the Kin Malebo/Yeoville article (and my interaction with the travel writer who was asked to write about the Yeoville Market) means that I now don’t trust the authenticity of the articles on Mumbai and Abidjan. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Finally, while I would love to see an increase in visitors to Yeoville Bellevue because it would help to boost our floundering economy, I will not pretend that it is a safe and easy place to come to. The problem with the magazine article is that is gives no inkling of the fact that Yeoville Bellevue has a number of socio-economic challenges, some of which include abuse of alcohol (and other substances) and unacceptable levels of crime (partly related to the afore-mentioned substance abuse). The area is quite dirty and finding parking around Kin Malebo and other places can be a challenge. I certainly wouldn’t discourage people from coming, but I would prepare them for what they will find when they get here. The article in question does not do this at all and so, in short, I consider it to be a bad article which does not reflect accurately the reality of Yeoville Bellevue, nor does it reflect well on the authenticity and integrity of articles of the publication. Given that it is a flagship publication for many visitors to Johannesburg and to the country, I would think that this should be a cause for concern.

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4 Responses to Travel writing: a pinch of salt is definitely needed

  1. Brett McDougall says:

    Hi Maurice, I look forward to your new blog posts! As for airline magazines, they are not worth the paper they are written on… I do hope that you’ll send a copy of this to the editorial team of the publication.

    • yeovue says:

      Hi Brett
      Thanks for the response. I did send the complaint to the managing editor of the publication and, to his credit, he has responded by saying that he views it as a serious issue and that he will follow it up and come back to me.
      Maurice

  2. Marta says:

    Hi Maurice
    I am a journalist trying to writer about Yeoville. But don’t worry, I spent some days and night there and after reading your post I think I must come back once again because I didn’t know some of the places you mentioned! I liked your style. Marta

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