You can count on one hand the number of times you’ve breezed through passport control, with little beyond a cursory glance and a robotic stamp, sometimes even a “welcome home” that you never bothered to correct. That kind of ease is unusual.
From as early as 5 years old, you knew that the Zambian passport, black and gold, meant a separate line that grew quickly and moved slowly. At 13 you graduated from simply being a name, sex and date in your mother’s passport to having one of your own, and learnt about three month “visitor’s visas” to South Africa that were constantly renewed – necessary for Sunday mass, cross-border shopping trips, music classes, and anything else you couldn’t get while living in the strange, small country within a country.
When you turned 17 the passport had a makeover; dark green and gold, “beautiful, like our country”, said the official at the High Commission, unable to contain his pride. You couldn’t say, or even feel the same, so you just nodded.
Unfortunately, the upgrade did nothing for going through immigration. In fact, for you it coincided with hard lessons on just how much of a difference that little document made. The hands that handled it seemed to grow more suspicious, and constant flipping through pages and double checking on screens became the norm. Sometimes you’re tempted to ask exactly what they’re looking for, but you know better than to provoke them. You’ve heard enough stories of missed flights, accusations of bought visas, days spent in cells, and – the big one – dodgy deportation.
And you’ve had encounters of your own…
The queue that always takes much longer comes to a complete halt one Sunday, an hour or so before midnight. You are pulled into one of those notorious back rooms in the immigration centre of the airport and instructed to wait with all the others.
Thirty panicked minutes pass before they finally shout your name. They lead you into another room where you’re told, harshly and with no room to question or explain, that your visa isn’t in the system and so has to be fake, and they’re “sending you back”. Never mind that you left the country on that very same visa, from that very same airport, just a week ago. You wonder where they plan on sending you. According to the paperwork, you, at 27, are property of a country you last lived in 22 years ago.
You ask to make a call.
“You can call whoever you want,” is the uninterested answer. Considering the time, they probably don’t suspect that “whoever you want” will be of any help, and, to be honest, you have your doubts that she will even answer.
She’s confused with sleep at first but quick to switch to her sharp legal alter ego at the words “fake visa” and “sending me back”. She asks to speak to the official who shouts, “I’m not talking to anyone”. The advocate – who insists you use her title when dealing with them, for effect – gives you instructions; sections to quote and names to drop. But they don’t have the same weight when delivered in your shaking voice and the officials won’t hear any of it.
You hang up. Now what…?
You’re imagining the worst when you catch the advocate’s voice snapping through the phone in the immigration officer’s hand. You don’t know how, but the advocate found the number she needed to call and is now giving the defiant official no choice but to speak to her. You watch the official’s face contort while she tries to get a word in. Apparently, she never said she was sending you anywhere – even though she told you she had already started the necessary paperwork.
This is what home feels like.
It’s a feeling you get used to. This being where you don’t belong while belonging somewhere that you don’t know, and trying to find your place somewhere in between. You accept your own ambiguity, and the official forms and processes that come with it; the applications, the waiting, the visas (if you’re lucky), the appeals (if you’re not). Repeat – with more or less anxiety at the discretion of Home Affairs. The system is inefficient, corrupt, confused, and confusing. But this is news to no one. What might be surprising is the idea that, compared to those who have never been uprooted and disconnected, it has an easier time understanding your situation. It deals with comings and goings and has (or at least should have) a record of when you arrived, how long you’ve stayed, and when, if ever, you left.
In your case, it shows a first visa at age 15, the dependent of someone with “exceptional skills” – a doctor – and therefore a necessary, if inconvenient, guest. There’s a record of your shuffling back and forth between the Mountain Kingdom and your new host country for three years; unavoidable because you didn’t want to trade an international high school diploma for the matric certificate with questionable standards. This is the reason you led with, but truthfully, the thought of a new school (it would have been the seventh) in a new country, and the idea of a new language, Afrikaans, as a subject, were motivations too.
Next, your record should show a study visa to attend university, since a dependent only has permission to stay, nothing else. You remember collecting your passport from the Home Affairs office – this was before the process was handed over to flight attendant-like officials in clinical, computerised VFS offices around the country – and realising that for your 3-year course, you had been issued a 10-month visa. Protest on your part resulted in a scowling woman crossing out the date and writing in a new one – now it expired in 4-years.
You had to explain the crossed-out visa on campus, at the airport, bank and anywhere else the document was requested, but this won’t be on the system, all that follows is a row of multiple short-term visas, ranging from 3 months to a year.
Anyone looking at the many entries in your record would easily conclude that you have spent the better part of your life here, leaving only a handful of times for no longer than two weeks each time. If they chose to go back a little further, they would see a similar record of long stays in a nearby country, and short, rare absences. What that makes you, in terms of identity, is irrelevant to the system, as is what language you do or don’t speak. These are more the concerns of people you meet. They must be able to place you, make sense of you for their own peace of mind. It starts the moment you talk and sound. It seems to bother most people. They search for something familiar beyond your skin. Some inflection, an exclamation. But nothing comes. You’re a loose blend of all the languages, the places and the people. Never having fully embraced, or been embraced. Only coming close enough to not leave untouched.
They’re not alone in their searching. Those who made you and moved you do it too.
Your mother tries to find something of herself in you. Not the small frame, wide nose and “too soft” hair that you inherited. Something of her life and experiences. There is more of those places and people in you, and not enough grounding and faith in things that promise to never change; home – simple, solid and definite – and God. This is what keeps her going, and returning. You started questioning both a long time ago, so for you there is only going and not knowing where, or when, or how long to stay. For your father, the deep green and gold booklet that fits perfectly in his hand, confirms exactly where he belongs. Home is everything, despite being thousands of kilometres and all those years away. It’s in his skin, it weighs down his tongue and coats his words. Sometimes, often in fact, it hums. Soft, faint tunes from long ago, sad and yearning. If you asked him why he left all those years ago, the response would be a combination of the obvious (there’s more money and a better living to be made here), and the not so obvious (you wonder how many other people have crossed multiple borders to escape their in-laws).
Another question asked often is why that small country first. It was clear that it could not contain all his aspirations, and they eventually overflowed into the country that surrounded it. The plan had always been to follow the potential that it promised, even if this meant waiting close by for a few years and, like the rest of the world, watching to see if the newly formed Rainbow nation would prosper, or spiral into something darker than what had passed. A few years turned into 10, a fair part of which was spent on the back and forth paperwork needed for the move; this was before “exceptional skills” like his were deemed “critical”, and fast tracked by the system. Finally, the move was made, but 12 years later home still shines through his eyes. It sits up excitedly at economic progress, new buildings, and football matches won while he watches in his green, red and copper paraphernalia. He’s tried many times to draw the same kind of enthusiasm out of you, or to instil it in you.
His attempts are much milder and less frequent now. In the early days, you would often come home from school and start another set of lessons. There were no tests or marks here, just the gently worded insistence that you learn, and remember, the 10 provinces in Zambia (now you can only name two), the national anthem (you start to mumble after the first verse), and what the flag means (only the eagle stands out). This distance learning could only be so effective, especially when you lacked the practical experience, so his efforts didn’t last long, even if his hope did. You also had some of this hope, for a short while. Your first visit “home” on your own was anticipated as something that just might trigger a connection, even if it was yet another unplanned trip for a quick visa renewal. You arrived excited, wondering when and how the sense of belonging would set in.
The strange faces gathered around pulling at your arms, your bag and your dress. They raised their voices shooting words in a language you recognised but couldn’t understand; the precise meanings may have been lost but their eyes and gestures told you all you needed to know. However unintentionally, you had offended them, and this was your punishment.
What seemed like hours earlier, you had simply stepped off a taxi in the city’s main station. Almost immediately, you realised that there were far too many eyes on you as you weaved through the tangle of blue cars. Pedestrians and drivers alike exclaimed as you walked past them. Trying to escape all the attention, you cut across the car filled lot and stepped into the next street.
“But she has nice legs,” you heard one man say.
The street didn’t provide the escape you had hoped for, just another audience more intimidating than the last. On one side, a line of women sat next to carefully constructed piles of red tomatoes and brown onions, rows of green leafy vegetables, mounds of groundnuts and other market goods. As you walked past, your footsteps landing only centimetres away from their wares and colourfully wrapped legs, the women continued the shouts and exclamations you were trying to leave behind. One after another and without fail, each step signalling a new part in some twisted banshee’s round. This space was turning hostile quickly. Then you noticed the men, unsatisfied with simply shouting, they were now following, closing in on you. Unco-ordinated dancers to the horrifying chorus. You slowed down thinking that if you could only stop one person and explain that you didn’t understand what was being said or what was happening, then it would all be over. Your eyes stopped on one of the shoppers, an elderly woman. Amidst the noise and with the crowd still gathering around, you said to her,
“Please help me, I don’t understand what they’re saying.”
She narrowed her heavily lined eyes and said,
“Put on some clothes” as she walked away.
Now, you were surrounded and scared, and they could sense it. They tugged at the bag on your arm and jostled you back and forth. A pair of toughened hands latched onto the hem of your dress and pulled it up, exposing you to the market. You were quick to pull the skirt back down but that moment was more than enough. You’d heard the stories and read about the naked women paraded in front of jeering crowds. It was happening to you. The tears streaked down your cheek as you tried in vain to push away the hands clamouring for pieces of you.
There was a small break in the commotion. One man materialised from the faceless crowd. He held onto you more forcefully than the others, shouting as he pushed you towards one of the large, corrugated market halls. Through the tears and flailing, you realised that unlike everyone else, he was speaking to you, not at you. As the hands continued reaching and pulling, he shouted above the noise,
“Go inside, I’ll help you.”
You didn’t believe him, but what other choice did you have?
He was joined by a market vendor who took off her bright wrapper, revealing a skirt underneath, and attempted to hide your offensive knees. The two worked together; her covering you and him fending off the mob whilst pushing you into the hall.
“No one will touch you. This is a peaceful place.”
The man who came to your rescue kept repeating this as he continued to push you further into the building. You wondered if he could hear himself or the irony in his words. What exactly did he mean?
“No one will touch you…” You had already been touched and touched again by many faceless, foreign hands.
“This is a peaceful place…” Did that mean these people might strip you but nothing more? Maybe that was their peaceful compromise.
He and the woman managed to get you into a small stall, some of the crowd had started to disperse but many still stood outside, shouting unintelligible words. You were told to sit down and remain there with the woman and a few others while the man disappeared into the noise, telling you repeatedly before he left that you wouldn’t be touched. In his absence, the women talked amongst themselves, you didn’t understand most of it but it was clear they were talking about you. They broke their circle briefly when one of them pulled at the wrapper you were now wearing. She took a long look at the offending dress beneath, and said in English,
“but it’s not even short, they are just being silly.”
You wondered what they would do in a more serious situation. And if a few extra centimetres of fabric was the only thing that had earned you any sympathy.
The man returned with company – two policemen in dark green uniforms. They asked if you were alright, and if anyone had hurt you or taken anything. They didn’t seem to trust the man and wanted to hear it from you. Satisfied, they asked you to stand – finally, you could leave. There were still people outside, but now they only stared. No one said a thing, or at least a thing that you or the conspicuously armed policemen could hear.
For months afterwards, your skin crawled whenever you caught sight of your own reflection. You heard their words, felt their hands in moments alone. You learnt to keep your head down, to avoid eyes, and prayed that you could move unnoticed. You could not speak about it, you did not know how. Your heart stopped when you stumbled upon Warsan Shire and discovered that somehow, someone knew.
“How difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair…I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.”
If it were up to you, there wouldn’t have been a next time. And as luck would have it, there was. Less than a year later, you made the trip back. Another visa application that couldn’t wait the many months it would take for overworked and ill-equipped officials to push it through the clogged system. The queues were shorter at the High Commission in Lusaka and you would have a result in a week or two at the most. So you went reluctantly.
It was your second time there alone and you openly hoped it would be the last. There was none of the excitement that accompanied the first visit. No enthusiasm to explore or secret desire to discover that feeling of home you were expected to have. You made sure that no one was told you were coming, and this made it easy to avoid having to go anywhere other than the hotel, the mall on the other side of the parking lot, and the High Commission that you visited every other day to check if the visa was ready.
To keep things familiar and predictable, you used the same taxi driver throughout what turned out to be a 10-day stay. He was pleasant, curious about the Zambian who wasn’t Zambian at all, and eager to explain how the city moved and worked as you drove – if he noticed how insistent you were on keeping it at a distance, he didn’t say anything. In between his many questions about where you had spent most of your life, he shared stories of his own, but for some reason you can only vaguely remember one; his first and only visit to South Africa. He explained a job that had him flying down to Durban on a free ticket, spending a few days in the city, and then driving an imported car from the port, all the way back to Lusaka where the car’s new owner – his employer – was waiting.
You grew anxious as the days passed, wanting each drive to the High Commission to be the last, only to return and pay for another night that you would be spending in the hotel room. It was the festive season and Christmas day was getting closer with each disappointing response from the applications counter. If there was anything cheerful in the air, it was lost on you, you were only there for one thing and needed to leave the minute you had it – flights allowing. The time spent waiting was filled with excursions to the mall, short ones for familiar fast food that was overpriced once it crossed a few borders, and longer ones when you grew bored of Wi-Fi, TV, and whatever book you had taken with you. Aside from cinema, the mall didn’t have much else to offer, but it was as far as you were willing to go, so you watched more movies in those few days than you usually would in 3 months – one of them twice.
Finally, the waiting ended. On Christmas Eve, an hour before the High Commission would be closing for 10 days, you were handed your green and gold booklet, with yet another sticker and number added to it. Your relief was incomplete without a ticket booked, but you had missed the day’s flight and would spend one more night in the hotel, and make one more trip to the mall. The next morning your unofficial chauffeur and somewhat friend dropped you off at the small airport making sure to ask for “a Christmas present” for his efforts. You gave him more than you should have, but you wouldn’t be needing the unfamiliar notes.
“When are you coming back home?” asked the smiling man checking your bags.
His Christmas smile wavered when you answered.
*** *** **
About the Writer
Originally from Zambia, Chisanga Mukuka was raised in Lesotho before moving to Cape Town, South Africa, where she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Media Theory & Practice at the University of Cape Town. She has always had a love for words and literature and recently took steps towards developing her own writing, both fiction and non-fiction.