by Sinikiwe Mqadi
In a part of Johannesburg, that feels like a part of Somalia, one man and his family are searching for a better life. This is the story of Ebrahim Mohammed Ali, one of thousands of Somali immigrants trying to make it in the City of Gold.
On the corner of Albertina Sisulu Road and Somerset Street, in the small enclave of Little Mogadishu in Mayfair, Johannesburg, the smell of dark, roasted coffee fills the air. “Qakwo!” calls a man, above the hubbub of traffic and business at the spaza shops, cellphone stores and food outlets.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and Ebrahim Mohammed Ali has just came back from mosque. He is wearing a kurta, a long-sleeved, ankle-length white robe, and a kufi, the knitted skull cap for Muslim men.
He is sitting on a chair made from old tyres, at a table hammered together from wooden crates.
Qakwo means coffee in the Somali language, but it is also the nickname by which the owner of Qakwo Coffee Shop is fondly known. Ali is a stout man, a Somali Bantu, with tightly curled hair and broad shoulders. He is 49 years old and is respected as an elder in the community.
He walks over to the table, carrying a tray of biscuits and coffee. I order a cup. It costs R5. The qakwo is bitter and smells like cooked bark. Without sugar, it could be mistaken for a traditional medicine.
“You drink it when you wake up in the morning,” says Ali. “It’s the first thing you drink. It makes you strong.” I ask him how he makes the qakwo and he laughs. “It’s my secret,” he says. “Do you also want to open a business?”
Ali’s coffee shop is decorated with Somali crafts and artefacts, including a coal iron, enamel kettles and paraffin lamps. There are laminated Somali banknotes and newspaper articles on the wall.
Ali laughs as he tells the story of a Chinese man with 34 wives and 94 children.
“You were shocked when I told you I married many times, but you see this man can have 34,” he chuckles.
Ali dreams of opening a franchise of his Qakwo Coffee Shop. “Me, I know how to work,” he says. “I know how to cook.” But, for now, he is struggling to rebuild his life and business in an area of the city that feels most like home.
Ali left his war-torn homeland in 1991, in search of a better life for himself and his family. He has 17 children, 11 boys and 6 girls. “When I came to Home Affairs,” he says, “I took my children, and they gave me a form to fill in. This guy called the manager, saying there is no space. There was only space for two children. That manager said I must write the others at the back.”
Ali, like many of the Somali community in Little Mogadishu, is a survivor of the xenophobic violence that erupted in South Africa in 2008. At the time, he was running a small panel-beating business in Newtown. The xenophobic attacks destroyed his business and also took the life of his brother, who lived in an apartment at the site.
Ali left his brother there at the close of business one night during the attacks. When he returned the following morning, he found his brother dead and all of his cars, his customers’ cars, and the tools, had been stolen. His entire livelihood, worth about R800 000, had gone up in smoke.
He had come in search of a better life. Instead, he found trouble, fear, and misfortune.
There are an estimated 50 000 Somalis living in South Africa. Ali is among the approximately 6 000 who live in Mayfair and surrounding communities in Johannesburg.
Ali believes his life in Somalia before the war was better than it is now in South Africa. “Here my life is so difficult,” he says. “Now I don’t have holiday and weekend. I don’t even relax, that’s why I’m getting old fast. My boys only help me when they are not at school.”
But the Qakwo Coffee Shop keeps him busy, and helps him pay the R12 000 a month for the two houses he rents for his two wives and six children in Mayfair.
One of Ali’s houses is one street away from his coffee shop. His younger wife, Khadija Masuwa Aweys, takes care of the house and children.
She sits on the sofa with three Somali women. Aweys is wearing a short, silver shirt and a long sarong. One of the woman is telling the story of why she divorced her husband. “He was taking a second wife,” she says. “I didn’t want to share him.” The other women laugh.
Ali is back at the coffee shop, with two of his sons. A third son had come to show us the house.
Ali’s status as an elder in the Somali community gives him a responsibility beyond his family. It earns him respect, and he is often called on to give advice and resolve disputes.
He is considered the chief of Mayfair’s Somali Bantus, because his grandfather is a king of the Bantu clan in Somalia. People who need help come to him. Criminal cases are referred to the police, but when there are disputes concerning culture and religion in the community, people look to him for help.
“I have resolved a family issue between the two guys fighting over a business. I told them to sell in different places, not to share one,” Ali says.
Jordaan Musesi, the ward 58 ANC councillor, knows Ali well. “When I have some questions about the community, I go to him as one of the elders,” Musesi says.
Although no Somalis serve on the ward 58 committee, this doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice.
“When we have meetings we invite everyone in the community,” says Musesi. “We consult with the organisations that represent them. In cases where there is a language barrier we try to find translators.”
Language is among the challenges Somalis face in their process of integrating into South African society. Amir Sheikh, chairperson of the Somali Community Board of South Africa, says the board tries to help members of its community deal with challenges they face in South Africa.
“Language and religion are the key factors why it is hard for Somalis to be part of the larger South African society,” says Sheikh.
In Ali’s coffee shop, though, there are no barriers. “Everyone is welcome to my place, I love everyone,” says Ali. “When there are cultural differences, I help solve that. Even South Africans sometimes come and I show them some things about their culture.”
Ali is trying to make South Africa his home. He worked for six years in Tanzania, raising money for his journey, and another two years in Zambia before reaching South Africa in 2000.
Although Ali has no formal education, he arrived in South Africa with marketable skills in farming and panel beating. “Me, I never went to school, I don’t know English well,” he says. With help from two Somali men who had settled in Mayfair earlier, Ali started his first South African business.
When his businesses started to flourish, he brought his family to live with him in South Africa. He had eight children when he left Somalia. Six more were born during the years it took to reach South Africa, and three more after his family joined him here.
Zaheera Jinnah, an anthropologist and researcher at the Africa Migration Centre at Wits University, says religion and the location of Mayfair play key roles in attracting Somalis.
“Somalis were able to trade and do business when they got to Mayfair because it’s close to the city centre. When they came to South Africa they had nowhere to go, so they went to the mosques, and many of the mosques close to the city centre were in Mayfair,” says Jinnah.
“They were also able to access many faith-based NGOs, and many of them already had an engagement with the Somalis in their country.”
Naboweya Dollie, originally from Cape Town, has lived in Mayfair for the past 24 years. She is a Muslim and attends mosque with some Somalis.
“They are very loud when they speak and sometimes you would be scared, but they will never touch you. They are very peaceful,” says Dollie.
Dollie moved to Mayfair when her husband’s company transferred him to Johannesburg. “At that time the place had many Indians and Greeks, but now you see many people from all over Africa and the world. We even call it the United States of Africa.”
The South African Refugee Act guarantees refugees the same rights as enjoyed by South Africans citizens. And yet, refugees often suffer discrimination and life-threatening violence from South Africans.
During the xenophobic attacks in 2008, more than 60 foreign nationals died. Earlier this year, about seven died in an outbreak of violence. Somalis were often targeted in the attacks.
Jinnah says the South African Refugees Act is very progressive, but South African leaders and the private sector undermine the law with incendiary statements.
“We can’t really push more for our Refugees Act, it’s very good,” she says. “But government officials should stop saying the things they say.”
Despite the xenophobic violence, Ali says he has had few problems adjusting to his new homeland. His facial traits help him escape some of the negative attitudes to Somalis.
He says he can go to Soweto because he looks like a South African. “The only problem is that people speak their language, ‘hey madala, unjani?’ I just keep quiet and people think ‘oh madala is tired’,” he says.
Making a living in Somalia was hard after the collapse of the government in 1991 and the beginning of civil war. Homes and businesses were demolished. In 2001 there was a major drought.
But life in Somalia was doubly difficult for Somali Bantus, who form about 20% of the population. Their ancestors were captured from Bantu tribes taken to Somalia as slaves during the Arab slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. Even today, Somali Bantus are still discriminated against in Somalia.
Regardless of the challenges of integration into South African society, Ali works hard to pay for his children’s education.
His daughter Shikru Ibrahim Mohammed, 14, says her father is highly respected in the community. “I can go in the street at night and nobody touches me because they know my dad is a very strict man.”
But Shikru does not want to tell her father about the struggles she faces, because she fears for his health. “My father is diabetic,” she says. “I don’t want to stress him. I know if he knows he would be very angry.”
Shikru goes to Salvazione Christian School, because it’s the only school that was willing to accept her without a study permit. “Teachers really hate me at the school. They have accused me of watching porn in the computer lab. They know I wouldn’t do that. But one of them that I really like went to the computer lab to check history and she saw I didn’t do anything,” she says.
She believes teachers hate her because she is Somali and Muslim. Her mother advises her to wear a scarf when she leaves home and to take it off once she is close to school, to try and blend in with the other girls, and to do the same when she comes back.
“When I go to school I wear leggings underneath my skirt and other learners would ask me if I’m not feeling hot. My friends are cool, so they defend me and tell others that I’m Muslim.”
Shikru has adopted some of the vocabulary favoured by South African teenagers, such as “cool” and “awesome”. As she smiles, talking about her father, Shikru keeps pulling her scarf down, to cover part of her chest.
“In my culture you get married around 13 or 14. When I told my father that I don’t want to get married now, he didn’t have a problem. He told me I must get education. I want to do something like design so I can help him with his business.”
Shikru’s mother, Aweys, sitting on the sofa, smiles and asks for translations of parts of our conversation.
As Shikru talks about marriage, her mother says, in Somali language, “I would be happier if she marries a Somali man.”
Three of Shikru’s sisters are married. One lives in South Africa, and the other two are in Zambia and the US. They all married around the age of 14. “My father always tells me he doesn’t want me to be down like my sisters,” says Shikru.
Ali is building a better future for his children in South Africa but, if there wasn’t war in Somalia, he would go back. “I’m in jail, I haven’t seen my family for more than 20 years.”
Ali’s dream for the moment is to expand his business, so he can afford education for his children. For now, day after day, he serves the bitter coffee that has made a name for him in Little Mogadishu.