By Viwe Mazwana
On the corner of Shilakwe and Khumalo Street in Thokoza, east of Johannesburg, a 31-year-old man sits elegantly next to his vegetable stand on a chair made from old tires with his back straight and legs crosses over each other. He is wearing a log sleeve crop top, and he loudly greets everyone who passes by and calls all of them “chomie”.
Jolio Ramau Sithole, affectionately known as Jojo, is a Mozambican street vendor. He was born and raised by his sister in a small village called Spanini, near Maputo, Mozambique. "Climbing trees, picking figs and playing house under the shade produced by our fig trees was the best of my childhood". At the age of 9 that's when he realised he was different. " I loved playing with dolls and playing dress up", he said.
Growing up in Rural Mozambique, where homosexuality was not yet accepted due to cultural and religious beliefs, being openly gay was not an option. At the time, it was still a norm for homosexual children and family members to be thrown out of family homes. Things have gotten better since 2015 when homosexuality was only decriminalised in the country. But the stigma still exists. "Fortunately for me, my mother and sister accepted my sexuality". His father initially found it difficult to accept him, but eventually started coming around.
In 2021, JoJo left home in search of a better life and employment in South Africa. He made his way to Thokoza, where he had a family member who had been staying there for years.
Having fled rural Mozambique, where the community was very much hostile to the LGBTQI community. "I was looking for a solace place that's more open to diversity, different lifestyles and have better economic opportunities". He fled abruptly and did not have time to gather his documents and cross the border in a regular, safe manner.
After arriving in South Africa with no documents, he knew that looking for formal employment was futile, and instead he worked as a street vendor for his cousin.
As soon as he had saved enough, he opened his own vegetable Stand. People started coming from different parts of the township and even neighbouring townships. It was not just the vegetables that made people travel to his stand, it was also his personality.
On any given day, you will find at least three people gathered at his stand. After buying, his customers stick around for conversations, laughter and some – Jojo magic.
"People come to me for advice, some want to know how I get the courage to live my life as I do, being openly gay. Some customers quickly notice my sexuality, some walk away shuddering in disgust, but most especially women admire my personality.”
"JoJo is a wonderful person, he understands people and their struggles, at times he'd give a financially-struggling customer veggies on credit especially towards month end," explained Mama-Izy, JoJo friend.
Jojo says he grew up in a community where ubuntu was a core-shared value. This, he says, is what draws people to him. JoJo is optimistic about the future, he wants to buy a house, a car and importantly live happily with his partner – whom he has been with since he came to South Africa.
"Thokoza is my home, I have found love, made friends, and importantly I have the freedom to go about my daily life as I wish".