The celebration of the OHI day for the Greeks is considered as a second national day after the Independence Day of the 25th of March. It commemorates the refusal of the dictator Metaxas on the 28th of October 1940 to subdue Greece to the phasist forces of Mussolini’s Italy. The epos of the Greek army is celebrated in an atmosphere of national pride and my experience from the manner this happens in Khartoum prepared me for what I would see this morning at the premises of the Greek Orthodox Bishopric of Johannesburg with the adjacent Greek Cultural Centre, and the building of the old Greek school of the town.
To get to the church we had to drive from the ‘safe’ neighborhood of Melville to the heart of Johannesburg in areas where one would not walk alone that easily – however, I’d love to be able to prove such fears wrong… The building is as old as the church in Khartoum, but thanks to the existence of a more organized system of appreciation of the modern cultural heritage in South Africa, the church in downtown Johannesburg is part of the official City’s Heritage.
The Greeks of Johannesburg claim that the architecture of the Cathedral dedicated to STs Constantine and Helen is imitating in a smaller scale the architecture of Saint Sophia in Istanbul.
Irrespectively of whether this is an exaggeration or not, there are quite some treasures kept in its interiors, the most important of which perhaps is an icon made by the renowned Greek painter Photis Kontoglou.
During the Mass, it was very interesting – and somehow touching – to observe the humbleness of praying and devotion of some locals who have embraced the Greek Orthodox faith.
Some of them have entered the ranks of the clergy and it seems to me that this is such an important element in the cultic practice here.
But the day had a national character, so after the Mass the congregation moved out of the church and stood in front of the memorial for all those Greeks who had fallen during the War of Independence and during the Second World War, so as to commemorate them.
I stepped aside and photographed the old school behind the church from the entrance of the compound.
Later on, I found out that there are plans to use it again for teaching afternoon classes of Greek language. It seems that the coordinator of education here is a person with the best of intentions. During discussions after the more social festivities that followed the official celebrations, I realized that there are members of this diaspora community who would do their best to help him in his plans for a most effective schooling for the Greeks in Johannesburg.
The festivities took place at the hall of the Greek Cultural Centre and it was inevitable not to notice the composition of the choir that reminded the audience of songs related to national memory and the memory of war.
Of course, the most interesting discussions took place when the microphones were turned off and the voices could be heard without disturbing the rest of the fine grouping that celebrated today in Johannesburg the OHI day.
We talked mainly about the archives of the Greeks of South Africa, a repository of documents and knowledge that goes in pair with the Grecoafrican academic activities that will be one of the two focal points of the conference that starts tomorrow. And in the spirit of the festal day, we wished that in the future beside the traditional celebrations, some input from the particular relation of the local community with the memory celebrated should be included in the program of the day (e.g. lectures about the role of the Greeks of South Africa in the Second World War, photographic exhibitions of the life in the 1940s in Johannesburg etc.). Or even that more often than just in the two national days, the Greeks of Johannesburg could gather to hear narratives from the history of the Greeks in this corner of Africa that stretches back to the 19th century…