/ 24 September 2019

Caught in a diplomatic crossfire

Nigerians, who were evacuated from South Africa after xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, arrive at Lagos airport, Nigeria. (Reuters/Temilade Adelaja)



Earlier this year, I commit to doing a workshop and attending the premier literary festival in Northern Nigeria, the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KabaFest). How was I to know that a week or so before my departure, South Africa will be in international news for yet again another spate of Afrophobic attacks, which this time seems to have a strongly anti-Nigerian sentiment?

On arrival to Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos, the immigration officers go out of their way to be solicitous and gracious, even after seeing my passport. It’s as though they are silently taking the moral high ground. I clear immigration in less than ten minutes.

I am the first writer to take part in a book chat with Nnamdi Oguike ably moderated by Sada Malumfashi. Nnamdi’s debut short story collection, Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country, is an ambitious with each story set in a different African country, showing the reader that we are more alike than we are different. It’s a fitting kickoff to the festival. The text that’s on focus for me is my last novel, London Cape Town Joburg. I read a journal entry from one of the characters during the Afrophobic attacks of 2008. It’s a fitting read and an indication, if any is needed, of history repeating itself. During the question and answer session, a man stands up and asks me the oft-repeated question that many South Africans are familiar with on social media. Why are South Africans killing Nigerian and other Africans “after all we did for you to fight apartheid.” I reply that when someone is at the bottom, they look for someone else to step on. I speak of the safety of the likely illegal immigrants in Bedfordview who are the drug masterminds and are of paler hue and are therefore not affected by the attacks. But I also feel it’s important to highlight that I hoped countries that helped South Africa during apartheid did so because it’s the right thing to do and not because they hoped to get something from it. It’s a smooth festival thereafter.

My trip gets a little more interesting when I am leaving the country. An immigration officer holds on to my passport. “You are South African?” You are holding my passport sir, what does it say, I want to say. But I can’t afford to be cheeky. So I try to look as contrite as I can for my fellow countrymen and say, “Yes. Yes I am.” He throws my passport back to me after inspecting it, “You people are provoking us o.” 

I pick up my passport and depart. After I clear security, the immigration official who brings the tray with my laptop says to me, “Are you from Nigeria?” He has overheard me gisting in pidgin to another official and hasn’t seen my passport. I am tempted to lie but I do not. “No. No sir. I’m South African.” It’s as though he reads my embarrassment because he says to me kindly, “It’s not your fault. There are some among us who deal drugs in your country. And there are some among you who are xenophobic. This too shall come to pass.” 

My eyes have what my son calls ‘balancing tears’. I almost want to hug this kind man but I fear protocol may not permit me. So I say “Amen,” smile and walk away.

When I am boarding, another official looks at my passport and says “tell your brothers…”

I ask her, “Are you not my sister?”

She answers in the affirmative.

“Are they not your brothers too, my sister?” I ask.

“Look, they will listen to you because you are their sister with the same nationality.”

At that point there is a serial killer on the loose in Rivers State. On October 19, he’s finally caught after killing eight women. But at the time I’m talking to my sister immigration officer, women in Nigeria are on particular high alert because he hasn’t been apprehended.

I ask this my sister, “In South Africa our sisters are protesting because they are being raped and killed by these same brothers. Here, there is a serial killer on the loose in Rivers State. Do you think you and I can tell the serial killer, who is our brother, to stop killing us and he will listen? What makes you think our brothers in South Africa will listen to me?”

“You are right my sister,” she says.

She hugs me and asks me to have a safe trip.

As we hug, united in our sisterhood, I think it occurs to both of us that we have more in common than we have differences. Unfortunately, not enough of my fellow South Africans seem to realise that, as we other fellow Africans.