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Friendzone: Helen Herimbi

I knew Helen Herimbi’s work before I’d even laid eyes on her.

It must have been back in journalism school or earlier, when I was still obsessed with SL, Hype, BPM and websites (AG) and

This was before I convinced my dad to get me what was considered a smartphone at the time: the humble BlackBerry.

So to get my internet fix, I’d get to the computer lab on the Soshanguve TUT campus and instead of improving my dismal layout skills or typing speed (which was the reason I was meant to be there) I’d spend hours in the Rage chat-room arguing with randoms or downloading rap music on AG and reading articles on Rage, which seemed to be on top of the latest news when it came to local arts and street culture.

I always used to look out for things written by Helen Herimbi, Maria McCloy or Phiona Okumu Twitter, Facebook, tumblr cape argus. In my head these were three Joburg culture / music journalists who were living the dream: being paid to party.

My lecturers at TUT (bless their little hearts) were obsessed with community newspapers, so we hardly learnt anything about online journalism except for the one time we an American lecturer who was literally paid to help us blog.

So I couldn’t really grasp how journalism can exist outside of print and how people could write article in a tone that felt conversational, and not the “super serious” tone that we were being taught would be required of us once we left journalism school.

Years passed. I moved to Cape Town. Started working at the Cape Argus. I found new internet obsessions like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and blogging.

I started following lots of journalists whose bylines I had read in the papers or whose work I had followed through the years. Some were interesting online but really horrible to young journos in (like me) in person; some were really shy in person and very relaxed after a few drinks at #PartyLikeAjournalist, our annual soiree for Cape Town journalist held at the Kimberly Hotel.

Helen was none of these things. A bit shy maybe. But she did not hang out with other journalists in the same way that I did. We worked in the same newsroom for a few weeks before I realised she had moved to Cape Town. This was mainly because she was hardly in the office, such is the busy life of the music journalist. So it was only after a chat we were having on Twitter that I realised that we now work in the same newsroom.

In my head, based on her working for Rage while I was still figuring this journalism thing out, I’d assumed she’d be this old journo who had seen it all and had the kind of cynicism that a lot of people in my newsroom (at the time) wore like a badge of honour.

So I was really shocked when this young woman, in the coolest sneakers I had seen, came to greet me and introduced herself to me as Helen.

And I guess this made her even more impressive to me, as a journalist, because while I was learning a lot of useless things in school, she was out there getting the experience, doing the work.

We started hanging out and although she wasn’t really into Cape Town like I was, she humoured me and came out with me for food or drinks or stuff.

What was really awesome, and the one thing we bonded over the most was our love for books and literature. To this day, we still spend hours talking about books that we love or hate; authors whose work we love or hate; the publishing industry in South Africa and what we love or hate about it; being a black female writer in this country (or in the world in general) and the number of hoops one has to jump through and what love or hate about our experience.

During the Open Book Festival one year, we went to the Book Lounge to have my copy of We Need New Names signed by NoViolet Bulawayo. I was a bit star-struck when she agreed to have a picture taken with me and Helen was there, so I did not feel too much like a weirdo even though I was wearing a jersey that belonged to my boyfriend at the time and it was so warm but a few sizes too big, which meant that I was a mess.

We laughed about it. She introduced me to Junot Diaz’s work and I bought all his books and have been obsessed with him ever since.

Basically, we are the sort of people who could use a rich benefactor to pay us to read and dissect books for a living, I think that would be the perfect project to work on with Helen and we’d have lots of fun doing it, maybe a podcast or something, I don’t know. If you are rich and reading this, get at me, let’s talk and make some dreams come true yo.

Ever since we’ve moved back to Joburg, I see a lot more of her and she seems a lot more happier, in general, which makes me very happy because it’s quite awful to be away from the ones you love in a city that you don’t really feel.

We hang out more, which means I get to bask in her chilled persona and bounce stuff off her. We talk more. Share our frustrations with balancing work and school. And she’s introduced me to the coolest little hangout spot in Hyde Park where everything I’ve tasted, so far, is delicious. So I am really looking forward to Joburg with her and what the future has in store for the both of us especially the weird twist about how the people whose work I used to revere as a youngin ends up being one of my closest friends. Life’s weird that way, I guess.


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