Buying umbhaco for Baby

Baby’s colleague Tumi was getting married and we had cracked the nod. It was to be a township wedding at Tumi’s home in Refilwe, outside Cullinan. “Dress: traditional,” it said on the invitation.
The night before the wedding, Baby said we’d have to swing by her friend’s house the next day so she could borrow a sari.
A sari? No, no, no, no, no.
As a white dude of mixed ancestry, I could get away with wearing a suit to a traditional wedding. But Baby is a lovely Xhosa maiden. I was having none of this sari talk.
She would be wearing traditional Xhosa dress or nothing. We set out to find authentic isikhakha, or umbhaco, in Johannesburg on Saturday morning. We had exactly an hour to find it.
We’d seen clothes shops on Louis Botha Avenue, so we headed down there. Our first stop was at a hole-in-the wall shop run by a West-African man named Daniel.
His dresses were of the shiny, green, nylon, party-dress variety, not the thick, cotton, five-piece ensemble in bright red that Baby had in mind.
“No problem,” said Daniel, “Come up to my room and see if there’s something you like.”
We were taken up to this Nigerian guy’s room and there was a moment of, “I hope this is okay,” as we left the lift on the third floor. Luckily Daniel was cool, unluckily his back-up dresses were worse than his front-of-house selection.
He recommended we try Braamfontein.
Braamies is in downtown Jo’burg, where the Mandela Bridge leaps the Park Station tracks across to Newtown. It’s also the site of a Business Improvement District, so it’s a pretty safe neighbourhood.
But still, it’s downtown Jo’burg. And any place where you need an armed security guard on every corner isn’t that safe. Especially not for a couple wandering about and gazing down alleys wistfully, wondering if there might be a dress shop down there.
All morning, Baby ran a cellphone investigation. As we left Ibrahim Tailors in Jorissen street, we got a call back from Penny in Alexandra. She said traditional dresses were usually made to order, with a two-week waiting period. But we might find something at the Market Theatre flea market.
Skeptical, and a little demoralised, we gave the cheesy tourist market a cursory visit. It was exactly as we remember it, awash with clichéd trinkets, paperbacks and woodcarvings of eagles.
By this stage it’s 10.30am, two hours till wedding time. It’s time to go.
Forlornly, we make a parting query of a drum vendor down the final alley. “You don’t know where we can get isikhakha?”
“Down the alley on the left,” comes the instant reply.
And there it is, as promised: T&T fashions, owned and managed by Sisi Thandi. Like a saving angel, she welcomes us into her shop and presents the only ready-made umbhaco in the place.
It’s a bright-red Xhosa dress, complete with voorskoot, iqhiya headscarf and matching handbag
Within two hours, Baby would be the most beautiful lady at the wedding. Well, the second most.


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Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

(6) Comments

  1. It's actually west of Pretoria. You can drive there from Joburg. I've got some pics of Baby's umbhaco. I'll track wm down and add them. Good idea.

  2. Hahaha! This is a lovely post. “Baby” looked great! Congrats on the arrival of your new bundle of joy! May she bring you all the happiness AND some more. Xo

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