Women migrants have carved out a peculiar niche in the strangeness of the city of Johannesburg – a part of it, but also apart
It is an autumn Tuesday in Johannesburg and I’m sitting in the sunlit Killarney apartment that Caroline Wanjiku Kihato shares with her American husband.
A small forest of potted cacti and succulents perch on the steps of what looks like an old-school metal pavilion, outside on the balcony.
Kihato is discussing her newly released book, Migrant Women of Johannesburg: Life in an In-between City, a rewriting of the research she conducted between 2004 and 2008 for the completion of her PhD. In it, she uses the stories of African migrant women – from Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Congo Brazzaville – to explore “the experience of living between geographies”.
The book is not only about the women. It is about place and identity, about living “betwixt and between”.
It is about The City. It is about where you come from.
Despite her 20 years in Jozi, Kihato’s voice still carries the lilt of her Kenyan upbringing. “Where do you come from?” is a central question of her work and the opening line of the book’s preface. A first-generation urbanite, she was born in Nairobi in 1971 but, at large get-togethers, the only right answer for her would be the name of her paternal grandparents’ village. The name of her maternal grandparents’ village would be gently corrected.
So not Nairobi? No.
For Kihato, this notion of erasure, particularly of urban life, is crucial.
“I was born and grew up in Nairobi all my life, but that was not the right answer, because nobody comes from Nairobi, nobody can come from a city. Good citizens come from a rural area with roots, with ancestors, with life.
“Not that I wanted to reject [that] but I resisted the narrative that what happened to me in cities, growing up, taking my first steps, going to school for the first time, kissing a boy for the first time, that that was all erased.”
She wants to focus, too, on the “everyday, mundane human experiences that are erased in the stereotypes of migrant women”.
“Either they’re victims, or they’re demonised as people who come and take other people’s husbands and jobs.”
Fragments of Kihato’s own life are present in her work, she acknowledges.
After graduating with a BA in economics and sociology from the University of Nairobi in 1993, she spent a year fruitlessly trying to find work. At the urging of a Ugandan friend working in Johannesburg, she decided to go south.
“I don’t know what gave my dad the courage. He bought a ticket for me, gave me a little bit of pocket money and he said: ‘Go and look for a job. But, if you can’t find a job, this is a return ticket. You can come back home. You don’t have to worry.’
“So I took a leap of faith and I arrived.”
It was August 1994. She found a job selling arts and crafts at a stall outside the Game store at Bruma Lake in Johannesburg.
Kihato laughs, as she often does during the interview. “I wasn’t very good at it but it was a job.
“After a month or so I realised this is not working out, this is not the gold that I came to get. So one day I walked into Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand]. I lived in Braamfontein at the time and Wits didn’t have all the fences and the security that it has now. You just walked in.”
She was approved for a master’s degree and her father agreed to send her the money she needed. After eight months of working as a street trader, Kihato began her MSc studies in development planning.
Her voice trails off. “I was lucky.”
The migrant women in her book are less so.
“There’s a lot about their lives that I immediately connected to. Life on the street is hard. Life on the street is bloody hard. You don’t speak the language. You land in the middle of Hillbrow and you have to find work. You have to find a place to stay. You have to find food. And I remember being hungry. I mean, my parents don’t know half of these stories,” she starts laughing again, “because I never told them.
“I was always at Harrison Street home affairs, trying to get my papers sorted out.” She pauses. “Still today I have this fear of getting to a police roadblock and then they ask me: ‘Where are your papers?’ It brings back memories of those days.”
During her field research – regularly meeting a group of migrant women at the Yeoville Recreation Centre – a story that stood out for Kihato was that of Sibongile: a waitress who told the group at their first meeting that she was HIV positive and feared she was going to die.
“So we said, ‘No’, wanting to console her. I mean, she looked absolutely gorgeous, full of energy, everything. And she was the life of that group. For me.
“One of the saddest, saddest days that happened to me” – Kihato’s voice thins, cracks – “I received a phone call. It was Sibongile’s number. The person at the other end of the phone, it’s a lady, she says: ‘I just got your name from Sibongile’s phone. I’m just trying to call you, to let all her friends know, that she died on Saturday’.”
Love and loss
She whispers. “I said: “What?’ I had just seen her a few days before. I said: ‘What happened?’ I knew that she had been sick, and it got worse. She was taken to Jo’burg Gen [Charlotte Maxeke Hospital] in the middle of the night. They refused to admit her; they said she was not sick enough. She came back home and a few hours later she was dead.”
She gives a heavy sigh. “It was very, very, very hard. In fact, the book is in memory of her. Sibongile is the only woman whose [real] name I used.”
There were also happy moments. “There were times when we would cackle with laughter. Oh my God. For me, that’s what the city’s about; it’s about these intense moments of joy, and you’re just screeching with laughter – and of loss. That’s what it means to humanise the city.”
Kihato’s work constantly refers to the in-between: the margins, the interstitial space, the liminal, a city in flux, the legal limbo of migrancy. She writes: “[This book] looks at what it means to live in Johannesburg, yet remain dislocated there; what it means to be in the inner city, yet aspire to live elsewhere; and what it means to be both visible and invisible in the city.”
As a woman who occupies that in-between space, Kihato’s sense of her own identity is complex.
“It’s something that I have struggled with all my life – that I’m an urban person who apparently doesn’t come from a city; the fact that I’m a Kenyan who’s actually in South Africa; the fact that I’m not really Kenyan any more, having left for 20 years, and I’m not really South African, because I’m not.”
Questions of comfort
Does it ever become comfortable, I ask. Is the in-between space home?
Kihato pauses for a long time. Then she speaks softly, as if to herself. “The in-between space is home. That’s nice. I have never thought about it like that.
“Maybe that’s the advantage of living in-between, the fact that there is comfort, but there’s also always a challenge to that comfort.”
In the book, Kihato talks about the sense of Home versus home. Where is Home for her?
“I don’t know.” The entire sentence is a sigh.
“Home is where your people are, right? And by your people I mean your blood. So right now the capital H is Nairobi. But in many ways, Johannesburg is where I grew up.
“I am who I am and I am everything; I’m South African, I’m from Johannesburg and Nairobi. I have come to find peace in my in-between life.”