Refugee brings love and beauty to Delft

One woman’s strength and pas­sion bridges the cul­tural di­vi­sions around her, write ALEXANDRA SHONEYIN and GADEEJA AB­BAS SO­CIALS: Who has be­ing do­ing what and where Page 17 Soc­cer unites peo­ple, writes Ry­land Fisher Page 19

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PUZZLES -

NOT even gale force winds could de­ter 11 women from crowd­ing into a ship­ping con­tainer in Delft this week, which serves as a hair salon. The warmth of Jean­nette Uwiragiye’s smile wel­comes her clients. With an an­i­mated greet­ing in isiXhosa, she ush­ers them into her tiny salon. Her elab­o­rate African at­tire from her home coun­try of Bu­rundi, stands in con­trast to the doekies of the women she calls her sis­ters.

In the pre­dom­i­nantly black and coloured area of Delft, a com­mu­nity of women have come to know Jean­nette not only as the enigma with “magic hands” who can en­hance nat­u­ral beauty, but also as a moth­erly fig­ure who builds bridges that unite her clien­tele.

“Hello Chom­mie,” a passer-by yells as Jeanette opens for busi­ness. Peo­ple trust her, and so she has earned the name Chom­mie, col­lo­quial for “friend”.

When first meet­ing Jean­nette, you wouldn’t know that the 29-year-old mother of one had ex­pe­ri­enced enough to fill four life­times.

Dur­ing the eth­nic war be­tween the ma­jor­ity Hutu and mi­nor­ity Tutsi in Bu­rundi, Jean­nette and her older sis­ter wit­nessed their mother be­ing hacked to death with a ma­chete. It was 2001 and she was just 12. Scared for her life and that of her sis­ter’s, Jeanette fled for shel­ter. In the con­fu­sion, the two sep­a­rated and have never seen each other since.

Jean­nette was taken in by her neigh­bours, a young mar­ried cou­ple. “I can’t even re­mem­ber if my mother was a Hutu or a Tutsi. When I saw my mother be­ing killed, I was cry­ing, I did not know what to do. The male neigh­bours would try to sex­u­ally as­sault me. It was a con­stant fight (for my dig­nity). My one neigh­bour, whom I called un­cle, tried to rape me. I tried to tell his wife (about the at­tempted rape) and that is when we fought. He ac­cused me of ly­ing and his wife be­lieved him. He beat me then.

“He told me he was go­ing to kill me. I was only 19-years old,” says Jean­nette.

It took her four years to save the money and de­velop the courage to cross the bor­der to South Africa. Along the way, she trav­elled through Malawi, Tan­za­nia and Zim­babwe, while fac­ing the on­slaught of un­wanted sex­ual ad­vances, xeno­pho­bia and misog­yny. “You know when you don’t have (any) money, you can’t go any­where. So, you are sup­posed to work hard to save money for trav­el­ling. There were men who tried to ne­go­ti­ate sex work from me in ex­change for help. I did not fall into this trap. I was still trau­ma­tised by my neigh­bour who tried to rape me.

“Some said: ‘If you sleep with me, I can help you to jump over the bor­der’. I never did that. I used my hands, and my brain. I looked af­ter chil­dren, cleaned houses,” she said.

Jean­nette’s story is not unique.

In 2014, there were more than 65 500 refugees and 230 000 asy­lum-seek­ers in South Africa, ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics South Africa. The United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) re­ported that more than 61 000 Bu­run­dian refugees ar­rived in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries in 2017.

When she ar­rived in South Africa in 2012, Jean­nette was 23. “When I came to South Africa, we (for­eign na­tion­als) ex­pe­ri­enced xeno­pho­bia, but there was noth­ing we could do. They (South Africans) said: ‘Go back to your coun­try’. In my heart, those words were painful be­cause I know why I can’t go back. We started be­friend­ing lo­cals for pro­tec­tion at first, then the love grew.”

Armed with a ma­tric qual­i­fi­ca­tion and

high hopes for the fu­ture, Jean­nette learnt how to twist, weave, braid and re­lax kinks and coils in a for­eign coun­try.

“Some of my clients love me to teach them how to han­dle their hair,” she says. Tak­ing the skills that she ac­quired in hair­dress­ing, she gives back to the com­mu­nity by ed­u­cat­ing women in the art of tex­tured hair. “I love it when my clients tell others: ‘I am, be­cause of her’.

“Clients come to me when they are hun­gry. If I do have money, I give it to them to buy food. Some women come to do hair on credit and pay me at the end of the month. Others speak about their boyfriends that beat them. Clients who are with­out jobs, I give them ad­vice (on how to get em­ploy­ment).”

Noloy­iso Nalomo, 32, is one such client. Af­ter sur­viv­ing a do­mes­tic at­tack, the mother of twins was com­forted by Jean­nette. “My boyfriend beat me be­cause he was drunk at the time. He said it was a mis­take. I came to Jean­nette when this hap­pened and she gave me money to go to the hos­pi­tal. She ad­vised me to (file) a pro­tec­tion or­der.” There are others too, like Nolufefe, who re­ceived a job op­por­tu­nity from Jean­nette. Hers is just one of many stories of so­cial co­he­sion slowly de­vel­op­ing be­tween for­eign na­tion­als and South African cit­i­zens within com­mu­ni­ties – many of which might or­di­nar­ily be op­posed to in­te­gra­tion.

Se­nior trainer at Sonke Gen­der Jus­tice, Miche­line Mi­nani, says Jean­nette’s story is im­por­tant be­cause it shows that all African women ex­pe­ri­ence the same so­cial is­sues such as gen­der-based vi­o­lence, dis­crim­i­na­tion and male priv­i­lege. “As a refugee woman who man­aged to in­te­grate into a com­mu­nity where xeno­pho­bia is rife, and as­sist other women in that same com­mu­nity, it is tes­ta­ment to how vi­tal so­cial co­he­sion is. As African women from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, we all ex­pe­ri­ence the same so­cial ills and dis­crim­i­na­tion be­cause of our gen­der, that’s why it’s im­por­tant for us to be a source of strength for each other.”

In Jeanette’s case, it took one woman with a pas­sion for hair to forge last­ing re­la­tion­ships among the women of Delft, many of whom would now brave storms to get a touch of her magic.

Alexandra Shoneyin is an in­tern in the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Strate­gic In­for­ma­tion Unit and Gadeeja Ab­bas is a Mul­ti­me­dia Spe­cial­ist at Sonke Gen­der Jus­tice. Sonke is a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion work­ing across Africa. Its Refugee Health and Rights

Unit works to en­gage refugees and asy­lum seek­ers in ef­forts to pre­vent and re­spond to HIV and Aids, gen­der-based vi­o­lence and hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.


Jean­nette Uwiragiye braids a client’s hair in her ship­ping-con­tainer hair salon.

Jean­nette Uwiragiye with a client.

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