Fighting to love their Nigerian men
The Nigerian man said the sheet’s colour was red; his South African wife said it was rust. That discrepancy almost got the Nigerian man deported.
Thelma Okoro (née Dee) and Kenneth Sunday Okoro had gone to a home affairs office for a routine interview to have their new marriage officially recognised.
Because he was a foreigner, authorities had to satisfy themselves that this was indeed a legitimate couple and not a case of a South African woman accepting cash to help the Nigerian to get South African citizenship by virtue of being married to a local.
The interview went swimmingly, until the matter of the sheet cropped up.
"My husband said the sheet was red; and I said it was rust," said Okoro. "But this is to be expected. Men are generally colour-blind, or imprecise when it comes to colours. But the officials latched on to that.
"They said the discrepancy in our answers showed that we were not living together, that I had been paid and was being used to facilitate and justify his stay in our country. I was ridiculed and insulted as a gold digger. They said I was helping a foreigner to abuse our system."
One of the officials proceeded to say – in the presence of the Okoros child – that he would deport "the dog" and detain the South African woman.
Another day, another government office: Okoro was accompanying her friend, Lindelwa Uche, to a human settlements office, where the latter wanted to apply for an RDP house.
"One look at the name of the applicant, the official angrily said: ‘We don’t deal with foreigners!’ But when my friend stood her ground and pointed out that even though she was married to a Nigerian, she was South African, the official said: ‘If you want a house, you will have to divorce that man.’
"It was crazy. We stormed out of the office stunned, embarrassed, angry. But we were powerless; we had no recourse in any organisation, or any institution," said Okoro.
It was an accumulation of scenes like these that inspired Okoro, Uche, and a few other women to do something.
In October, they launched the United Nigerian Wives in South Africa (Unwisa), a support group for local women married to Nigerians.
Okoro tells me women are coming out of the woodwork now. Many had been embarrassed to mention that they were married to Nigerians. They had no one to share their pain with.
"It’s difficult to fight some of these battles as an individual but when you do so as a group, it helps. It also shows the South African community that you are not just a ‘prostitute’, as some of them think of South African women married to Nigerians," says Okoro.
"It shows that we are responsible women, we are wives, we are mothers. We are committed to our husbands, and doing so as a group adds weight to our efforts."
Unwisa has branches in Johannesburg and Cape Town. But the aim is to have a presence all over the country because Nigerians, the entrepreneurs and risk takers that they are, have spread their wings all over South Africa, in search of their pot of gold in the Rainbow Nation.
The organisation attracts women from all walks of life – nurses, teachers, traffic officers, police officers, street hawkers. Membership is about 60 in Johannesburg alone, according to a magazine they have just published.
The organisation wants to act as a lobby group to challenge those sectors of South African society that seem determined to punish these women for the decisions they have made.
The ostracisation, said Okoro, sometimes starts with the woman’s own family who question her wisdom for marrying a Nigerian.
Okoro, a native of Randfontein on the West Rand, did not have such a hard time. Her father used to work and travel in many parts of Africa. As a result, he was open-minded, and for him to have a foreign son-in-law was not an issue.
The Okoros have been married since 2008. They have two children – seven-year-old daughter Ngozichukwu (God’s blessing), and four-year-old son Ogechukwu (God’s time is the best).
The Okoros do not fit the South-African-gold-digger-woman-and-rich-Nigerian-drug-lord stereotype: they live in a modest flat in downtown Johannesburg.
She works just down the street as a beautician, and he sells clothes from a street corner.
Their children go to one of the independent schools in the city centre.
They have come to accept the reality that they occupy the twilight world of being half South African and half kwerekwere: one day the local kids are enthralled with the tales the Okoro children are telling about their father’s country, the next they are reminded that their father is really not a real person "like us", as Okoro recounts.
Sibongile Nwazulu, who is a nurse and a member of Unwisa, says stigmatisation has become commonplace at her place of work.
"The minute a Nigerian walks in seeking help, they call me to attend to him or her because they claim they do not understand their brand of English," she says.
Unwisa not only wants to offer a shoulder to cry on for these marginalised South African women, but also to start a series of workshops through which ordinary South Africans can learn not only about Nigerians, but also about other foreigners. Wary of being seen as forming an elitist club removed from the South African reality, members of Unwisa try to get their husbands integrated and involved in local community efforts. For example, they recently raised funds for a local old age home and hosted a lunch for the inhabitants.
At a vigil outside Mandela’s house at the end of last year, I saw a huge Nigerian delegation that featured members of Unwisa, Okoro among them.
In August 2013, in the face of perceived hostility towards Nigerians in South Africa, the feisty Vanguard newspaper of Nigeria editorialised: "It is high time that the federal government took firm measures to force a change of attitude towards Nigerians, their families and sundry interests who have legitimate presence in South Africa.
The country stands to lose more than Nigeria if matters should come to a head.
"South African businesses are thriving in Nigeria, and not a single case of molestation of South Africans living in Nigeria has been reported. Nigeria is a very friendly country which welcomes foreigners with warmth that is uniquely Nigerian."
Trade between the two countries is worth R36-billion and the 2011 census figures show there are 24 000 Nigerian nationals who live in South Africa.
What is happening at the grassroots between South Africans and Nigerians has not been helped by recent tensions between the two countries at a diplomatic level.
In 2012, for example, 125 Nigerian travellers to South Africa were expelled for not having valid yellow fever certificates.
In retaliation, Nigeria expelled 56 South African businesspeople.
This prompted the two countries to enter into discussions around easing travel and visa restrictions between the two countries as a way of enhancing bilateral relations and trade.
The discussions paved the way for South Africa to waive visas for diplomatic and official passport holders – but the rest of the citizens will have to wait.