When I was a tiny child, growing up in Yeoville and then Observatory Johannesburg, there was the thing that I was the most afraid of and it was the Lala man. He wore a dress (kaftan) and a hard red fez with a tassle on it. He had a maraca style shaker and he carried an old, brown cardboard suitcase. And he sang, which is why I called him the Lala man, and that is what he became known as in my family. He would walk the streets of Yeoville and neighbouring Observatory singing, and I was absolutely terrified of him. I don’t know why. If I was at home and I heard him coming I would run inside and hide. I can’t remember if he ever actually came to the door, but I think I did understand that he didn’t want money, he wanted to talk. If I was with a parent in Rockey or Raleigh Street and we heard him coming, I would freeze and remain in the OK Bazaars, or Squires, or Kenmere Pharmacy until he had walked past. I couldn’t even look at him. It was too scary. My parents laughed, and laughed off my irrational fear, and probably dismissed the silly childhood fear fantasy, and yet it has stayed with me my whole life. I even remember having nightmares about the Lala man.
When I think about it now, the Lala man was obviously some kind of lay preacher, spreading the word of Christianity. But for a relatively sheltered Jewish child, growing up in Joburg in the late 60s and early 70s, there was no context for this strange black man and what he did.
There is this amazing, nostalgic group on facebook We Grew Up IN & AROUND YEOVILLE!Â and every time I visit I can’t help but think of the Lala man.Â I have no real idea who or what he was, and yet, when I think about those times I always remember him.