Bridging Borders
Burundian Jeannette Uwiragiye, 29, uses her skills and talent as a hairdresser to promote social cohesion in the community of Delft, Cape Town (Photo: Gadeeja Abbas)

Refugee brings love and beauty to Delft

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.