Home away from home on the Avenue of Africa

Finding the perfect dish that will fill your belly, along with a pinch of nostalgia, is no longer too difficult a task on Louis Botha Avenue with ‘the Place of Help’.

“LIJO tsa hao li lokile, o je masutsa a hao ha monate!” exclaims Madame Maggy. These are just the right words to make any hungry person happy. They are the words heard regularly by customers of Thusong Place Restaurant, a local eatery on Johannesburg’s famous Louis Botha Avenue. They are Basotho for ‘bon appetit’.

Thusong Place is the only restaurant on Louis Botha Avenue for Basotho (Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi speaking) people. It is deep in the belly of an avenue full of businesses including auto spare suppliers, upholsterers and pawn shops.

Mme Maggy serves her customers at Thusong Place Restaurant on Louis Botha Avenue on a daily basis, not of a smie on her face and she caters for every customer. Photo: Lineo Leteba

Deeper into the place of help

Condiments accompany every meal that is served at restaurants. These are the condiments placed on a vintage plate at Thusong Place Restaurant on Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Lineo Leteba

The street is also crammed with salons and beauty shops for diverse options when customers are looking for that fresh cut or new braids. Among more than 10 international African cuisine restaurants on the avenue, Thusong stands out with a sign written in a local language on the outside and images of local dishes on the glass windows around the entrance.

Along the avenue leading from the famed Hillbrow, a mural one can describe only as an artistic summary of Louis Botha Avenue stands out. It stretches through different suburbs with images of vehicles, street vendors, African women in traditional regalia – and food.

The meeting place for Basotho on “Louis Basotho Avenue”, and one of only two known restaurants in Johannesburg that sell lijo tsa setsu (a traditional Basotho cuisine), Thusong’s name means “the place of help” in Sesotho.

The mother of Louis Botha Avenue

The restaurants on Louis Botha Avenue come in a wide variety to suit the different palates of different cultures: Nigerian, Ethiopian, Zimbabwean, Italian, Jewish and many others.

Finding a restaurant catering to any of these cultures is like finding a needle in a tailor’s shop: It is not difficult at all. Finding local South African traditional food, on the other hand, is really like looking for a needle in a haystack – but for Thusong Place.

Mme Margaret Oganne (also known as Mme Maggy) is a 62-year-old Motswana woman who moved in the early 2000s from North West to Louis Botha Avenue, where she stayed for about five years before transferring to Houghton Estate Observatory, where she is now living with her family. 

Mme Maggy is always behind the counter with a wide smile on her face as she waits to take orders from her customers.

“Your food is ready, enjoy your delicious food” are the words she says to her customers when she hands them warm plates of delicacies prepared by her with the help of her shop assistant, Emmanuel Maphanga, and occasionally her husband, Mr Oganne.

The traditional keeper of Louis Botha Avenue

Louis Botha Avenue is condensed with many restaurants that sell international cuisine dishes. A few shops stand out on the avenue for selling local South African food, though still encorporating international dishes to unite the different communities on the avenue. Amapelepele Spices for Africa and Thusong Place Restaurant bring us into their kitchens to learn more about culture and tradition. Produced and Edited: Lineo Leteba Sound: Rose Shayo and Sisanda Mbolekwa

Occasionally Mme Maggy will walk into the seating area and speak to her customers, asking them about the food and their wellbeing. In a low tone she will ask, “ho joang (how are you)?” and the usual response from most of her customers is, “I am okay mama.”

“I opened up the restaurant in 2017 when I noticed the lack of local South African cuisine restaurants in the area,” says Mme Maggy. “I made sure to include delicacies such as mala mogodu (tripe), papa le sechu and other traditional Basotho dishes on the menu. I also added some western flavour to the menu with dishes such as french fries and fried chicken. We serve sphatlo (kota), which is a local township dish, as well as magwinya (fat cakes).

“I want my restaurant to be inclusive of all people, although it mainly serves the palates of our Basotho people. I want everyone to feel as if they are at home, because that is how we are as Basotho and I want to bring that spirit to Louis Botha through my food,” she said.

I walked into the pungent smell of vinegar over French fries as the 23-year-old Maphanga was cleaning the restaurant. He is a shy young man who stays behind the counter on most days, hardly interacting with his surroundings or with customers unless he is offering his waiting skills. Soft kwaito music comes from a phone on the service counter. The TV, hanging from the ceiling at the corner as you enter the door, is tuned to Supersport 4.

Africa united through food on Louis Botha Avenue

Sister Sonto sells food at Amapelepele Spices for Africa on Louis Botha Avenue and she is holding a bucket of chakalaka that she prepares for her customers everyday using amapelepele. Photo: Lineo Leteba

According to Maphanga, who is originally from Zimbabwe, “a lot of people come here, but it is usually Tswana, Sotho and Pedi speaking people who come. Other people from other cultures do also come to enjoy the food we serve. We have everyone walk into the restaurant. I myself am Zimbabwean, but I enjoy working here because I get to learn more about Basotho culture and I improve my dialogue by interacting with the customers.”

A man, seemingly the only customer this morning as cleaning continues, sips water from a glass which he refills from a yellow vintage jug while he attentively watches the programme on TV. He moves around the restaurant as Maphanga is cleaning, so that he can get a better view of the TV. He does not order any food or speak to anyone, just sits there with no emotion on his face, adding more water to his cup as he watches TV.

During the peak lunch hour Thusong is packed with people from different walks of life, communicating in the language that is food, with a hint of Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi. A man, presumably Mosotho as he is clothed in a formal brown Seshoeshoe shirt with green denim pants and brown leather sandals, walks silently into the restaurant while Mme Maggy is at the counter serving other customers. The man joins the queue.

When it is the man’s turn to order his food, Mme Maggy asks with a warm smile, “nka o thusa joang papa (how can I help you, sir)?” as he approaches the counter with a hop in his step.

“Ke kopa papa ka li salad le nama ea khomo (may I please have pap with salad and beef),” replies the man. Mme Maggy takes a clean white plate from the rack below the counter, wipes it with a damp cloth and walks over to the warm silver pots to dish up a serving.

Lunch hour traffic in the hot Louis Botha Avenue kitchen

A cloud of steam billows out as she lifts the lid off the hot pot of papa ea Batswana (a soft, porridge-like pap cooked with water and no additives). She adds coleslaw and chakalaka to the plate. Mme Maggy opens the pot of meat, and within seconds the mouth-watering aroma of beef is diffused through the whole restaurant as she spoons it onto a separate dish.

A plate of beef stew and pap served with salads at Amapelepele Spices for Africa as the special dish for Tuesdays on Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Lineo Leteba

“Emmanuel, tlisa metsi (bring)!” exclaims Mme Maggy as Maphanga rushes from the kitchen with a bowl of water to offer the man to wash his hands before he digs into the food. The man washes his hands and Mme Maggy presents him with the food.

He slowly buttons up his shirt by the arms “kapa o shena matsoho” and takes a handful of pap, rolls it a few times around his hand, dips it into the meat broth and takes the first bite. With a look of satisfaction on his face he sighs deeply as he continues to eat.

“There are a lot of Batswana people that come here. I come here because I have known Mme Maggy for over 30 years now. We are both Batswana and I come here almost every day because I can relate to most of the people who come here through speaking the same language and enjoying the same food,” said 66-year-old Thabo Stephen Sereme.

With a cooling fan connected at the corner near an ice cream machine, the other customers walk in and occupy tables on the left hand side of the restaurant, as if in a separate room, drinking alcoholic beverages from the bottle as they wait to take away their food while others sit and enjoy their food.

A battle of convenience and tradition

Bernet Tau, a Mosotho originally from Ficksburg in the Free State, said, “I always eat here. It is like my home now. I do not remember when I came to Louis Botha because it was a very long time ago. 

“Mme Maggy practically raised me because I have known her since I moved here. I always eat fried chicken and pap and watch the news on the TV when I come alone.”

The culture of food is derived not only from the traditions we grew up with or from how we were nurtured through our tender ages.

Lincoln Nyoni, originally from Zimbabwe, works at Legese Upholstery on 109 Louis Botha Avenue, and said he eats at Thusong every day. 

“I buy breakfast and lunch there every day,” he said. “I buy there because it is nearby and the food is clean. I have been living on Louis Botha Avenue for about five months now. I started working here almost eight months ago and this is the only place I buy food. 

“For me it is not about culture; it is just because the restaurant is close to my work and it is hygienic. Almost all the other restaurants on our block closed down, including Food Express, which was located between our shop and Thusong, because people were not buying food from them,” said Nyoni.

ABOVE: Tswarelo Moboreketla makes and sells kotas on Louis Botha Avenue for a living when he is not selling atchaar in Pretoria in his local city, Soshanguve. Photo: Lineo Leteba
ABOVE: Kotas being prepared in what Tswarelo Moboreketla calls the ‘spitori’ influenced way on Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Lineo Leteba 

Enter the African chef’s traditional kitchen

According to 22-year-old international chef Thabo “The Chef with an Accent” Phake, “culture influences food in a big respect, whether it be through techniques such as slow cooking, which is pivotal to our African cuisine, or the Dutch influence from the Afrikaans culture, the British wine influence, Indian spices that have seeped into Zulu culture, and more.

“In my point of view all 11 [South African] cultures intertwine and influence each other when it comes to bringing nostalgia and good food experience.”

Etward Lebona, originally from Leribe in Lesotho, said he does not know any other place that sells Basotho cuisine on Louis Botha Avenue. 

“I see only one place that sells ‘lijo tsa setsu’ (traditional Basotho food) in [Johannesburg Central Business District] and it is called Lijong (the place of food). If I knew of a restaurant that sells our food I would buy from it because I love our traditional food.

“I would love to eat the food I was eating throughout my childhood. It is very important because I grew up eating it and now I cannot find it anywhere on Louis Botha Avenue. I would love to eat seketsa, papa ea mabele and likhobe again,” said Lebona.

Chef Phake, who specialises in African avant-garde cuisine, said he is not focused on changing the past but on “bringing the past into the present. My cooking is not centred on how I can manipulate ingredients or how I can play around with techniques, but rather on old traditions my grandmother taught me that are relevant to the new generation.”

The Place makes Louis Botha Avenue your home away from home, as it did for Tau. And it is also a place for convenience for many international and local residents, including Nyoni. It is the place that makes you feel at ease, like many of the residents of Louis Botha Avenue including Mme Maggy, by bringing your home delicacies closer to you in the big city. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Mme Maggy serves her customers at Thusong Place Restaurant on Louis Botha Avenue on a daily basis, not of a smie on her face and she caters for every customer. Photo: Lineo Leteba