Written by Urzila Carlson


Letter to my hometown: Benoni – Son Of My Sorrow

Standard Issue writers are penning a letter to their hometown. In hers, comedian Urzila Carlson reflects on a childhood of rabbits, lakes and sun-kissed rebellion.

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Urzila (in foreground) and her brother and sister outside their new house in Benoni

My dearest Benoni,

I was nine years old when I first laid eyes on you: the jewel in the crown of the East Rand. The year was 1985 and as we drove into town for the first time we trundled past the lakes. It was summer, the sun was setting and we arrived in mom’s old station wagon.

As we passed the middle lake  called, well, Middle Lake  we were driving in total silence when my mom suddenly said: “I don’t want you kids swimming in there.” But as I looked out over the glistening water and the willow trees that surrounded it I knew there was no way she could keep us away from it all. And I was right. Looking back, it feels like my entire childhood was spent fishing and swimming in that lake.

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One of Benoni’s mine dumps.

Situated roughly half an hour east of Johannesburg, Benoni is surrounded by a halo of mine dumps from gold mines that have nothing left to offer.

Benoni is a Hebrew name meaning ‘son of my sorrow’ and many people have focused on this in the past, calling Benoni a sad town.

But it wasn’t. It was a lovely place to live and it catered to every need any child could ever have.

When I wasn’t swimming I spent my days playing in the clay that surrounds the lakes and running in all the open space until my chest burned.

I would also visit the Bunny Park, which is basically just a lot of rabbits (and an ice cream van) that the council tries to contain in a park in the middle of the city. To this day the park is a big attraction but looking back now as an adult I’m not sure why. It seems sad, really, but it was a great day out for a child. My primary school visited every year and I loved it.

Today, people no longer seem to refer to my hometown as Benoni: Son of My Sorrow. Instead, it’s better known as Benoni: The City of Lakes. It’s also the birthplace of Charlize Theron, Oscar-winning actress and all-round good sort as well as former Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock, the Princess consort of Monaco.

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Urzila’s mother in the family’s garden.

As I was reading up on the latter I thought: “This is fantastic. I should go see who else grew up in Benoni.” Googling your hometown feels like Googling your mom: you feel like you’re invading their privacy, but you’re also proud because you just know you’ll find something about them online.

I found myself on Benoni’s Wikipedia page and my chest swelled with pride. I also found Grace Mugabe (Robert Mugabe’s wife) so it’s not all wins for our fair little city but a good effort nevertheless.

One of the main streets is called Tom Jones Street. Legend has it that the Welsh crooner once came to visit Benoni and the town loved him so much it changed the name of the main street to honour him.

Sadly, this is not the case. It turns out the street was named after a town councillor. I don’t even think he could sing.

As far as towns go Benoni would probably be last to be picked for a game of tag. But it was a great place to live and it will forever live in my heart.

I will only ever say good things about you Benoni: The City of Lakes.


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Written by Urzila Carlson

Urzila Carlson a South African living in New Zealand, comedian, mother, radio and television person. Can cook, will travel. @UrzilaCarlson