From Mogadishu to Mayfair: Somali diaspora finds home in Johannesburg

During apartheid, Somalia took in South Africans fleeing from an oppressive government. In recent times, South Africa has had to pay back the favour, taking in Somali refugees running from a civil war. In Johannesburg, particularly, Somalis have found a home in a bustling neighbourhood where their entrepreneurial spirit can thrive: Mayfair.

Ebrahim Alli in his coffee shop in Little Mogadishu. His walls are adorned with art, crafts and pictures that remind him of Somalia. (Image: Sinikiwe Mqadi)

Sulaiman Philip

Somalia offered South African activists safe harbour during the liberation movement. Now, a small section of Johannesburg’s Mayfair neighbourhood offers sanctuary to Somalis fleeing the war in their country.

Little Mogadishu is a three-block wide slice of Somalia. Its streets are lined with restaurants and Somali-owned shops offering money transfers, travel and clothing. Spicy aromas from Somali restaurant kitchens and boisterous chat from their communal tables follow you as you walk down Eighth Avenue.

Turn left onto Somerset Road and you find yourself at Qaxwo Coffee Shop, Ebrahim Alli’s coffee and juice store. Alli has been in South Africa since 2000 and has witnessed the best, and worst, the country has to offer.

Ebrahim Alli has found a home and success in Mayfair. (Image: Wits)

“This is a welcoming place,” he says of Mayfair. By his own estimate, there are between 60 000 and 70 000 Somalis in the diaspora. Spread across South Africa, they all see Mayfair as the heart of their displaced community. “Somalis have true affection for South Africa. A real love despite the anxiety we sometimes feel.”

Alli lost his business in the violence that targeted foreign nationals in 2008. A successful panel beating business, it was stripped before being torched. He found himself in Mayfair among other disheartened Somalis, a place they saw as a refuge. Alli was determined not to be cowed.

“We Somalis are inspired by two decades of hardship to be entrepreneurial. We have learnt to persevere in spite of hardship,” he says. He bought two flasks and began selling coffee on the street. Slowly he rebuilt his life and is now a leader in the Somali diaspora.

“I believe we can benefit from each other. South Africans are skilled and educated. We Somalis are entrepreneurial. South Africa offers us opportunities to start businesses. This freedom is not available to us in Europe and the US.”

The Somali civil war has made it difficult to hold on to his country’s history, but Alli works at it. He collects memorabilia, art and crafts and shares Somalia’s history with his children – who were born outside his homeland – and people who visit his store. “It’s important to me to preserve our culture, to help my children recognise an identity they don’t know.”

Alli’s story is mirrored in the people you speak to on the street in Little Mogadishu. People like Mohammed Jama, the owner of Towakal 2 supermarket. His shelves are stocked with familiar products in unfamiliar packaging. “My customers want a little piece of home; they want products they are familiar with. So I sell rice from India and Pakistan, dates and juice from Saudi Arabia and pasta from Italy – products we know from home.”

By the time he was 22, Jama was the breadwinner for his family. His father was long dead and his mother and younger siblings depended on him to provide. In a country where death was always present his options were to join a militia or flee. Jama fled, hoping to build a better, safer life for his family. “For one month I drove and walked towards South Africa. When we got close to a border I would walk, try to find a place where I could cross. I have no passport, so even today I can’t go back.”

Jama is old enough to remember Somalia before the troubles. There are days when Johannesburg reminds him of home. “I like the stability of South Africa – the chance you have to make something with your life. Somalia was like that.”

Opportunity is the reason so many Somalis make the foot of Africa their home. Shops along Eighth Avenue are crammed into every little space. The shop fronts are adorned with bright billboards advertising the goods on sale inside. Competition is stiff, but friendly. Store owners stand at their doors enticing passers-by, strangers and friends, to come inside.

“I own this supermarket,” Jama begins. “This is possible in South Africa. Here, there is opportunity. I think this [is what] we can teach South Africans; how to build their own business. This is what we want to teach. We are tired of fighting and fear. South Africa has opened her borders for us and we want to give back.”

A young Somali man who fled to South Africa to escape the violence of Somalia. (Image: Wits)

In some of the restaurants you will still find bananas on the tables. Traditionally, the fruit is served at the end of every meal. At Qaxwo Coffee Shop the pavement tables are occupied by men intently discussing the day’s events or arguing about the performance of their favourite sports team. Thick Somali coffee washes down treacly sweet coconut biscuits or spiced meat pies. As the day wanes the argument becomes familiar. Who will have the honour of paying the bill?

“When people here argue, it is about the honour of being the host. At the shop it is usually the person who sat down first who wins the argument. Being welcoming to friends and strangers is a very important part of the Somali culture. We enjoy sharing company.”

i’ve been praying,/ and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god/i come from two countries

one is thirsty/ the other is on fire/ both need water.

later that night/ i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered/ where does it hurt? – Somali poet Warsan Shire

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