Words & Photos: Jodie Peter
As I make my way to the Satyagraha House, in the residential neighbourhood of Orchards in Johannesburg, for a one day/night stay, I am filled with much enthusiasm of what to expect.
Let me explain: this is the home of the late Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, who evolved his philosophy of passive resistance (Satyagraha – a non-violent method of protest) when he stayed at this historical home for about two years.
Satyagraha House was Gandhi's home from 1908 to 1909, and was built in 1907 by Gandhi’s close friend, German architect Hermann Kallenbach. It has been restored and transformed into a heritage site, living museum, and guesthouse for those in need of a little time out. The house follows the lifestyle of Gandhi – vegetarian meals, no alcohol, no internet, and they try stick to organic products as much as possible. I decide to go full-techno Monty and switch my cell phone off as soon as I arrive at the retreat.
I am instantly greeted by warm smiles and soft words and led to the lounge area where I am served breakfast. In Gandhi’s lounge, I delicately eat my vanilla cup cake and sip my strong brewed coffee. I then move onto my omelette, and as I shake the salt over my eggs, the lid bursts open and salt gushes out, covering my omelette like a collapsed snow ball and spreads onto the table. In a sudden state of panic (and the guilt that Gandhi’s spirit is pitifully watching me make a mess in the first hour of my stay at his home) I shake the salt shaker over my left shoulder (my nerve-wrecking superstition kicked in) and the salt plague spreads to the couch. Talk about being passive.
The day moves on. My tour guide is a Darren Scott look alike, but his French accent soon dissolves my graphic illusion. We make our way around the guesthouse, which displays memorabilia of Gandhi’s time in South Africa alongside that of Hermann Kallenbach. Gandhi’s quotes are etched in his writing on the walls around the house, "My life is my message," is one of them. The house is a mixture of old and new decor – it has the combination of simplicity and luxury all rolled up into one.
Meditating in the loft where Gandhi preferred to sleep, I sit cross-legged and try to clear my mind. A theory pops into my head: people go on holiday to get away from their job; people go on retreats to get away from people. You can be unreachable if you choose to be. I have the luxury of having the guesthouse completely to myself, but previous visitors have included French foreigners and women on their own.
I know this is going to sound clichéd, but I can sense Gandhi’s spirit and energy in the loft. I feel a deep sense of serenity and peace. Hearing footsteps coming from the dining area, which is just below the loft, I take a peep but see no one, later on asking the house ladies if they’ve noticed anything spiritual in the house. They look at each other knowingly, so I urge them on and they finally concede. "This morning when I opened up, I heard someone at reception."
The other lady joins in, "I hear noises coming from the lounge area too." These are all great confessions because I am staying in a room named after Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, and I am told that the rooms are keyless: Gandhi didn’t believe in keys.
It’s 6 p.m. and I’m having my yoga/meditation session in one of the rondavels, and at this point I’m having technology withdrawals. Trying to clear my mind I feel somewhat like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love when she found it difficult to concentrate and was distracted by a fly buzzing around. My mind is wondering about emails, what the latest news on Twitter is, but my musings are interrupted when my yoga instructor gently urges me to come back and concentrate on my breathing. Nelson Mandela pops into my mind; he has spent numerous nights in hospital. It was in that moment that I realised how similar Gandhi and Mandela are: they both walked a long road to freedom. We’re nearing the end of the session and my instructor concludes by saying that we have just made good energy and I can share this with whoever I want. My prayers and good energy are for Madiba.
The meals are quite surprising and something out of MasterChef heaven. Excluding my salt-overdosed omelette, the haloumi and pepper sandwich for lunch and my rice, lentils, and stir-fry for dinner have changed my outlook on vegan food.
It’s no surprise I have a restless night due to my keyless situation, but besides that I enjoyed my stay at the retreat. I woke up the next morning with a beat in my step and a zest to get back into the real world: I am ready to go home.
As Gandhi himself said, South Africa was essential to his personal achievement. It is during the 21 years he spent in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914, broken by a few visits to India and England, that this timid young man, who had just passed the bar examination, became the man who would lead India to its independence and instigate the world movement of decolonization.
A routine procedure of the time at the Pietermaritzburg train station – Gandhi’s arrest for defending his right to travel in the whites only wagon – would later change the world. This event is what initiated Gandhi’s contemplation of racial discrimination, and represents the beginning of his philosophy of nonviolent protest and many arrests in the defense of Indian people.
This passive resistance: Satyagraha (of truth force in Sanskrit) was born and evolved in South Africa before coming to India and, eventually, the world. When, at 46, Gandhi left the country he also left a way of thinking and acting that found an echo in many of the country’s struggles, most notable that of Nelson Mandela. Even as Gandhi’s adventure in South Africa started in Durban, Johannesburg witnessed his main struggles. The Satyagraha House is thus a place that left its imprint on the life of the Mahatma.