An alien in Jozi

‘You are so lucky! Oh I wish I was in your shoes, leaving this dreadful country and its problems. I wish I could fit in your suitcase!” So they all said to me. My friends, my family, colleagues in the office, complete strangers at Harare airport immigration.

I smiled. I have no words for them because I have been out of the country on long stays twice before. I know what it’s like.

It is my first day in South Africa and not my lucky day. The fellow at customs orders me to open my baggage. He searches … very ... very slowly. Then he walks away from me, leaving my stuff strewn all over the counter. I repack with tears blinding me.

In Johannesburg now and I still don’t feel so lucky out on a short trip to buy fruit and vegetables. A South African police car stops right in front of me. I almost fall into it.

“Come here!” the white officer barks at me. I move towards him, while the black officer jumps out from the other side to come to me. “ID,” the white officer demands. As I hand it to him, he turns away, motions for me to give it to the black cop who grabs it and roughly flips through it.

“What you want here? When will you go back to Zimbabwe?” he barks. I am not sure how to answer this question. Does he mean what do I want at Dunkeld West shopping centre? Or does he mean what do I want in South Africa? I point at my two-year visitor’s visa. “This not working permit. Sisi, not working permit. Get working permit or we deport you. You hear me?” he asks.

I can hear him too loud and too clear. I can feel him too. So menacingly close to my chest.

I feel much luckier later in the day, when a taxi driver asks me where I am from. When I tell him, he gives me R10. “Don’t worry my sister, you will defeat him [Robert Mugabe] like we defeated the Boers. Here is a little something for you. Go well, my sister.”

Luck doesn’t seem to stay with me long. I am in a supermarket. Surrounded by what appears to be the entire management of the chain. I am being questioned intensely about the origins of my rand-denominated travellers’ cheques, what am I doing here?

I try to explain that these are from a local bank. They are legal tender. Nobody is convinced. They reject them. “We have had a lot of problems with many Nig ... I mean people from Africa. Just get proper cash,” says the manager. Nigerians, that is what she was about to say. That’s the collective name for those of us who are a different species from across the Limpopo.

Nothing much has changed since I lived here back in 1999. Occasionally, my sojourn in South Africa makes me feel like an unhappily married woman returning to a union she is not wanted in. I really can’t believe my ears, when my own mouth proclaims loudly, “I am doing this for the sake of my children. They will be better off. They will at least have a more normal childhood.”

There are some good things about my new life in Jozi. Joy of all joys, I am able to listen to the radio. (I couldn’t at home because it’s all state-run and mostly propaganda.) The same goes for television and newspapers. My Sundays fly past as I devour all the papers. Can someone remind me how I ever survived without a daily newspaper? I’m afraid the state-run Herald didn’t cut it.

Political exile. Economic exile. Company transfer. There are so many words to describe why you left your home. I feel all the dislocation of the emigrant. As I walk past happy South Africans having Saturday brunch, a group of men playing chess on the street and listen to their conversations, I am depressed and angry. I am here and yet I am not here. In moments like these I clip on my headphones and listen to one of our exiled singers, Lovemore Majaivana,

Umoya wami bo, ausekho lapha … ngisakhe ngikhumbule ekhaya … Ngabe bona basakhela amafekithali … ukuthi siyesebenza,

Gijima gijima mfana, uyetshela abadala, ukuthi mina ngithe ah ah.”

“My heart is not in this place … I am thinking of home … If only they [our leaders], could build us factories, then we could work, Run, run young man, go tell the old men, … I said no.”

I am a fish out of water, not a lucky fish.

Everjoice Win is a Zimbabwean feminist and winner of the opinion and commentary category in the recent Southern African Gender and Media Awards

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