Immigration to South Africa from Greece and Cyprus was at its highest after the Second World War and again in the 1970’s during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Most of these immigrants were young men from villages, leaving their homes and families to travel across the world. With limited English and skills, they were hard working, and soon moved from being employed, to owning their own businesses. Word spread back to their homelands of their success and soon brothers, cousins, nephews – and entire families – came to seek a better life in the new country.
Naturally, they gravitated to each other, and Hellenic communities were soon formally established, usually around the building of a church. These communities provided support to new families and provided a place where social and religious events were celebrated. In this way, cultural, religious and linguistic heritage has been strongly maintained.
Every day in the Orthodox Church is dedicated to a Saint or martyr. The Saint that a church is named after is celebrated with an annual ‘panayiri’ – a festival. I remember as a young child, sitting under a hot marquee, in church grounds from Springs to Krugersdorp, surrounded by a sensory feast of amplified and jovial greetings as adults re-connected, the aromatic smoke of the lamb souvla and colorful costumes of traditional dancers.
The Benoni Hellenic community fêtes St Athanasios Day at the end of January. From early morning, the men gather at the fires. Fragrantly spiced lamb and chicken pieces are skewered and placed on the rotisserie. The hot coals need to be kept going all day for souvla to feed over a thousand people.
The kitchen is a noisy frenzy of salad-making, potato-turning, plate-dishing and a dash of Mediterranean temperament. Tables and chairs are set up inside the community hall, and outside under a marquee. A market area selling trinkets, pumpkins and ice cream fronts the tables where ladies set up a mobile kitchen and are making lokoumades. Little puffs of dough are scooped into hot oil and fried until they are crisp and golden on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside. Quickly dredged through syrup, they are sprinkled with cinnamon – and best eaten soon thereafter.
When the food queue clears, the hall becomes a platform for traditional dancing. The sweetest little girls, in floral headscarves, hold hands and remember the steps while parents photograph and cheer them on.
Most of the older dancers have been part of a dance group since childhood, practicing these traditional dances under the watchful and expert eye of the late, legendary Mary Vassiliou. Their pride is evident as they leap and hoist each other up, in an impressive display of passion and strength.
Before I head home, I go into the church and light a candle. The interior is calm and ornate. Late afternoon light filters through the windows of the dome, igniting the colours of the icons. Leaving the church, it strikes me that the blue is a reflection of both the African and the Mediterranean sky.