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Metropolitan nomads

A journey through Joburg’s Little Mogadishu

Mayfair, a Johannesburg suburb, is a place where the lives of hundreds of Somalis intersect; a space of opportunity for some, a place of refuge for others, and a home away from home for the Somali diaspora in the city. This is a multi-layered site where Somali migrants, as urban refugees, renegotiate their cultural practices in a foreign, metropolitan context; where spaces and customs that were left behind are recreated in the daily life of the neighbourhood.

Electric fences and high walls are a common view in Johannesburg, a city where public and private space are violently demarcated by physical boundaries that only make more apparent the social and racial divides of the post-apartheid city.

South African Indians started moving to Mayfair, a white working class suburb under apartheid, in the late 1980s. Somalis also began to settle in the area in the early 1990s because of the religious connection with the Indian Muslim population.

Most of the Somalis living in Mayfair are refugees or asylum seekers. Hodan Gabo, a singer who left Somalia after the civil conflict escalated, travelled overland from Mogadishu to Johannesburg across East Africa. After two failed marriages and losing the custody of her children, she now makes a living by singing buraanburs.

Goods, money and people circulate constantly in Mayfair. The connections between Nairobi and Johannesburg are especially relevant as most of the Somalis currently living in Mayfair have transited or lived in the Kenyan capital before and traders import many of their products from Nairobi.

Mayfair has changed significantly in recent years. Through their commercial activity, Somalis have transformed the urban landscape.

The Somali community also reproduces cultural and religious practices in the daily life of the neighbourhood.

Muslim Ethiopians also inhabit Mayfair’s streets, bringing their own cultural practices to the neighbourhood.

The transformation of the urban space occurs through the recreation of physical spaces and also through social, cultural and religious practices, routines and street life.

These expressions of ‘Somaliness’ transform spaces into very distinctive places, in which collective identities transcend national borders.

Business activity and everyday life in Mayfair have been deeply affected by the waves of xenophobic violence against foreign migrants in South Africa in 2015. Hundreds of Somalis moved to the area, which is seen by many as a home away from home, an island of peace or a protective nest because of the large number of Somalis residing there.

Shortly after the xenophobic attacks of January 2015 the neighbourhood started to empty, as dozens of Somalis left the country in search of a better life somewhere else. 

Text: Nereida Ripero-Muñiz


Photos: Salym Fayad

Using photography and an ethnographic approach, Metropolitan Nomads: A Journey through Joburg’s Little Mogadishu takes an intimate look at the everyday life of Somali migrants in Johannesburg, where collective stories of migration and survival interweave with the individual desires and hopes of seeking a better life outside a country shattered by decades of internal conflict.  It is a collaborative project between PhD candidate Nereida Ripero-Muñiz and documentary photographer Salym Fayad, supported by the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at Wits University.