Niq Mhlongo


Niq Mhlongo (1973) is a South African author who studied African Languages and Political Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. After this he started law studies in Cape Town, during which he started writing his first novel, Dog Eat Dog (2004). It describes the experiences of the Kwaito generation, referring to a music genre in the South African townships that comments on the political climate. Niq Mhlongo's debut became a tremendously popular account of his life as a young South African of the post-apartheid generation and has been translated into Spanish and Italian. In his second novel, After Tears, the main character, Bafana, faces a dilemma: confessing to failure at university or embracing success by buying a diploma. It was shortlisted for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2008 Sunday Times Literary Award, the 2008 MNet Prize and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize. Besides prose, he also engaged in writing screenplays, short stories and articles. He has taken part in literary conferences and residences all over the world, including Ghana, Mozambique, the Netherlands, Germany, USA, Spain and Belgium.

During his residency at Passa Porta he worked on his third novel.



Authors' text


A little mound of disgusting steaming dog shit is what I stepped on as I came out of the crowded Brussels Central Station that cold Friday morning. I had just disembarked the train from the Brussels International Airport with Ilke, my host at the Passa Porta Writers Residence where I was going to spend one month.
‘Shit! Welcome to the chocolate and cheese city, the capital of Europe' I thought to myself as I pulled my burgundy travel bag to the waiting taxi by the station.
‘Will you manage?' asked Ilke as I loaded my bag at the boot of the taxi. On my shoulder I was carrying my laptop bag. I don't think she had realized that I had dog shit under my lime Converse shoe.

Ilke had braved the cold Brussels morning to come and meet me at the airport that day of the 28th of November 2009.
‘I'll be fine' I answered while scanning the pavement for a secret place to remove the irritating dog shit. Unfortunately, the taxi driver's eyes were fixed on me and I was afraid to clean my shoe in case he thinks I had brought the shit from Africa.
‘46 Dansaertstraat ...' that was all I could hear from Ilke, as the conversation between her and the driver was in French.

With the shit still caked on the sole of my left shoe, I sat at the back of the taxi with Ilke. It did not smell much; and I don't know whether that was because of my blocked nose. But as we passed several shops on the street selling chocolates and cheese, the answer came into my mind. I was thinking that the reason Brussels dog shit didn't smell much under my foot was because dogs were fed chocolates and cheese, unlike in South African.

We were now approaching Dansaertstraat, my new home for a month, but my mind was still preoccupied with the dog shit. It took less than ten minutes to go there because of the traffic, but within that short distance I counted about six dogs on walkies with their owners along streets.

Well, that was my first impression of Brussels. The love for the Dogs is very strong. Dogs are that city's best friends. Sometimes if you're lucky you can tell by the shit on the pavement, just like I did. That observation automatically forced itself into my mind when I thought about where I come from, Johannesburg City. I spent most of my life in my Jozi City Centre, but unlike in Brussels, you are more likely to be robbed of your cell phone at knife point there than stepping on dog shit. The only place where you are more likely to see or hear the barking of the dogs in South Africa is behind huge walls in the yards of massive suburb houses, where dogs are mostly used as instruments of protection against the rampant thieves. Oh, I forgot, you may also see dogs at the O.R. Tambo International Airport as they sniff at your bag for drugs.

Back to Brussels' Dansaerstraat, and Ilke took me to my flat, which was next to the Atlas Hotel. I must confess that I've been to several residencies around the world, but so far my Passa Porta flat is the most impressive. Besides the fact that it's almost twice the size of my family house in Soweto, it was equipped with everything conducive for a writer. I could not believe that I was to stay there alone. Before she left, Ilke gave me the map and a little orientation about Brussels by circling important places such as The Mall, Grand Place Grote Markt, and The Royal Palace. I was a bit tired after about twelve hours in the flight from O.R. Tambo to Zurich, and then Brussels. I immediately took a nap as soon as she had left.
‘See you on Monday' she said

At about five in the evening I woke up and left to the grocery shop. On my pockets I had the map, my digital camera and some Euros. As soon as I came out of the door, damn, the chill violently attacked my face. It was below zero and I nearly went back inside my cozy flat. There were multitude of people wearing scarves, hand gloves and heavy jackets, which I didn't bring along, and they were idling about the street. Some of them had their dogs with them. The only time I had seen such a magnitude of people was some few weeks ago when I was staying in Broadway's Millennium Hotel in New York City for a week.

At the nearby Rue Ste-Catherine in front of the big Church there was a mini stage, and the loud music was blaring out from the speakers. Thousands of heavily-dressed people were standing by the kiosks watching some dull performance by some old white people who looked bored themselves. Next to that stage, another crazy competition was going on. Some group of lazy or mad people were trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records by staying the longest inside a below freezing point container. I left that place just after witnessing some drunk-looking man removing his clothes and entered the freezing container with only his jockey on his body.

But it felt so great and safe to be able to walk at night in the city; unlike in my crime-ridden Joburg. The cold, the dogs, and the loud music that sounded like was playing from an ice-cream truck, and the predominately white crowd were my vivid reminders that I was in Europe as I jostled my way into that St Catherine Square. At that time my mind was unwittingly playing some racial game called ‘Spotting your kind'. I know this may sound a bit odd, and some of you might justifiably accuse me of having internalized the racial apartheid politics, but it happens that every time I'm away in the European or American city, I start counting the number of black people that I see on the street. But unlike other foreign cities that I had been before, Brussels had a huge surprise in store for me. It had far too much darkie population, and no wonder there is a section of the city nicknamed Matonge, after a town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's just like our Joburg City section of Hillbrow that had been nicknamed ‘Little Lagos' because of the large population of the Nigerian people.

But Brussels was unlike the remote Northern Germany town called Westerland in the Isle of Sylt where I once had a residency. In Westerland I had counted less than five darkies for the whole month that I had been there. The rest were mono-lingual German people who were really talented in shouting at me with their questioning and disapproving eyes if I spoke in English. They always made me feel like I had done the rude thing of farting on the dinner table each time I uttered anything in a language other than German. But in Brussels I had observed that at least two in every five people could speak English, and in the pubs people smiled at me as if I was their dentist. That had made me feel welcomed.

I was now in St Catherine Square and I passed some few men peeing behind the Church. At first I thought it was the case of men behaving badly by peeing in public just like we always do in Joburg. But I soon realized that there were some urinals on the walls of the Church.

In one of the many kiosks that were in St Catherine Square I spotted a group of white people that I suspected were enjoying a beer orgy on paper cups. They were standing under what looked like a heated garden umbrella, having a conversation in French. Although I didn't understand what they were saying, something about them reminded me of Kubayi's Tavern in my Chi Township of Soweto along our street. I was tempted to join them, but their looks intimidated me, and I walked on towards the middle of the square where there was a Merry-Go-Round and the Wheel. Some people had brought their dogs and children, while others waited for a Wheel ride. The only place in terms of comparison, which comes closer to the activities that were happening in Brussels that night, is the Rand Easter Show in Joburg's Nasrec.

I left the square and joined Rue du Marche Street where I was nearly knocked down by a woman riding a bicycle. Well, I guess that's because I'm not used to seeing bicycles in the city as my Joburg is always congested with cars. As I passed the Boulevard Anspach towards the Bourse Beurs it started to drizzle. I stopped under the kiosk umbrella and bought myself a cup of Gluewein for two Euros. I waited until the drizzle faded, and then left with my steaming cup on my hand. Aimlessly, I followed the crowd that was walking lazily towards the fascinating Grand Place Grote Markt buildings.

I stood at the Grote Markt with thousands of other tourists listening to the fascinating sounds of the building while looking at the magical lights. I also imitated some two Japanese tourists that were squatting on the pavement while taking a picture of the great architecture of the gold building in front of me. A group of youths were holding and drinking Jupiler Beer cans in front of me while three policemen passed by. Strangely to me, the police ignored the youths that were apparently drinking in public. This was shocking since I come from a country where you could be arrested even for holding an empty beer bottle in front of your house.

For the first time I opened my map to locate the direction of the mall. Well, I was honestly disappointed with Brussels' idea of a mall. I was expecting a stand alone massive building with famous names like Macy's in the US, or Edgars in South Africa, not walking in some crowded Street with no name. Besides having some real good fashion shops, walking on the Brussels Mall reminded me of the window-shopping trips I used to undertake in Joburg's popular and crowded Small Street back in the early 90's. That was before we South African copycats adopted the American idea of a shopping mall.

While walking there, I young white man who spoke very good English stopped and asked me for the direction of the Central Station. I was amazed, but felt honored at the same time with the way he spotted me out of the thousands of people walking on that mall street. In my Joburg city for instance, you just don't ask a stranger about the direction, even when they are wearing a priest robe and holding a bible. You also don't read a map in public to locate a place because ‘big brother' may just be watching you with a sinister smile. The safest way would be to ask security guards, a lady (but be careful with Jozi women nowadays), policemen, or enter any building on your sight and ask from the reception desk. So you might understand when I say that the guy who asked me for the direction really made me feel Belgian, and welcomed on my first day. Because of that feeling, I didn't want to disappoint by telling him the truth that I was also new in that friendly city. Instead of taking my map out and study it with him, I found myself doing what most people in Durban are likely to do to you if you asked for a direction in that city. I unintentionally misdirected the poor fellow to the Bourse Station and hoped that from there he would be able to find his own way.

The time now was half past six in the evening although it looked as if it was very late at night. It had become dark so early at half past four in the afternoon because it was toward winter. Well, Ilke had advised me that most of the grocery shops closed at seven in the evening. I then decided to start walking back towards the shops that I had located not very far from my new Passa Porta home. Inside one of the grocery shops at the Boulevard Anspach, I bought myself a six pack of Jupiler lager and some few groceries. That was it for the first night.

Well, now you have it, my impression of Brussels. Dogs and dog shit on the pavements, many restaurants with good food, narrow paved streets, many pubs where one can drink different beer and lager brands, coffee shops, French and Dutch languages, no skyscraper buildings, chocolates and cheese shops, bicycles in the streets, lots of black people. The city is so diverse and I enjoyed it.


Passa Porta
28.11.08 > 23.12.08

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