By: Vula Mthimkhulu
I was cornered in Lagos for the sins committed in South Africa against Nigerians and other African immigrants.
I should have seen it coming but neglected to arm myself. And so I suffered in a corner with no reasonable answer to meet the confrontation which came with the question: Why are you killing Nigerians?
Its the hurt which killed me. The visible hurt in the faces of the people who popped the question.
I miscalculated badly. I thought that my borrowed serious-but-calm posture would see me through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport without dramas this time around.
The last time I was here, I was held at the airport for close to an hour by an errant immigration official. He accused me of being Nigerian. And I subsequently discovered that I fit the bill.
It’s actually easy to disappear into the Lagosian milieu if you are averagely tall and thin, light skinned and flat nosed with a small rounded head. You don’t have to be a dark skinned, broad shouldered cone head fellow. Many Nigerians are not.
And so you could say my errant immigration official was justified. Well kind off, if you take away my distinctly un-Nigerian tone of voice and his apparently nefarious objectives.
“Where did you get this South African passport;” fired the official in the most intimidating tone I’m yet to encounter from all my around the globe border control engagements.
And he added: “The last time you were here, you had a Nigerian passport and now you’re South African. How come. Where’s your real passport.”
I was timid in my protest that he is mistaken. He ordered me to stand aside. He’ll deal with me when he’s done with other people in a very long queue.
I stood there timidly for about an hour only to be saved by my Nigerian handler who had somehow figured out that I was trapped and managed to reach immigration from the arrivals waiting area. My handler had a three minutes conversation with my capturer and I was freed. Those were the benefits of being hosted by a big South African corporation.
That was then. This time around I left South Africa with full knowledge that I was on my own, well kind off. I’m here in a non-profit organization tap. There will be no handler waiting to save me. Just a taxi driver waiting for me outside the airport building.
And so I needed the serious firm face. It helped when two young policeman approached me with a strange offer.
“You must uncover your bag quickly (remove plastic cover) in case they stop you. But there is no time for that. I can help you. I can come with you and ensure that you won’t be stopped, said one of the policeman.” Added another; “let’s help you my friend.”
With my well-practiced firm gestures I declined the offer. The two young man disappeared, leaving me with a feeling of pride. “I got this Nigerian thingy,” I thought.
But then my acquaintance from the plane, a fellow South African, instilled an unexpected fear factor on me.
“By the way do you know the name of your taxi driver,” he asked.
“No I don’t,” I responded.
His mood flipped as if the world is about to come to an end.
“Oh that’s very bad. You need to know his name. What if he goes to the loo and someone takes his sign while he’s gone. It’s known to happen.
Phone your contact and ask for his name,” said the South African.
For a moment, I am taken by this guy but then my well-practiced calmness comes to the rescue. I tell him not to worry, I got this. That was until I met my Mr John who was bearing a card box with my name outside the Murtala Muhammed International Airport building.
The middle aged soft spoken gentleman, Mr John, wastes no time. He takes a minute or two to exchange introductory pleasantries and then launches the question three minutes into our drive out of the airport: Why are you killing Nigerians?
His was a calm but piercing tone. It was a question and tone that followed my ventures around ‘the land of the Yoruba’ for the next two weeks.
The question tells me I’ve been less than diligent, perhaps negligent, in my preparation for this visit.
I don’t have a practiced response. And so, I feel and appear like an accomplice to the waves of xenophobic violence that tend to flare up in South Africa. And worse, I’m encountering a view which treats South Africa as a killing field. I should have been better prepared for this. But I’m not.
What-The-Fuck! That was to myself in silence in response to Mr John.
He lets me process the question as if to focus on the job at hand, navigating the gigantic potholes that bless Lagos roads with his hand permanently on the hoot. You can’t really drive in Lagos without hooting. The first time I was here, I thought the Lagosian cars are powered by a hoot. Everyone hoots all the fucking time. But that’s a story for another day.
I must focus on Mr John’s question. I really don’t know how to answer his question. He realises that I’m stuck and gets apologetic, an un-Nigerian trait. “Forgive me sir if you think I’m too forward but this is something I’ve been wanting to understand. Why are our African brothers in South Africa killing Nigerians”.
I’m processing this question and weighing my answers. This is slippery ground.
I was tempted to be combative in Nigerian style. I’m allowed! I’m in Lagos: “I no follow kill Nigerians for South Africa ooohhh.”
That’s the plain truth. I’ve played no part in xenophobic violence that tends to engulf South Africa.
But I decided that obfuscation was not the best way out of this corner. And so I kept that thought to myself.
Another thought passed my mind. I could like many politicians have done, deny the xenophobia. I could say: Well Mr John South Africa has got a high murder rate that claims about 17 000 lives a year or 49 people per day. Most of these murdered people are South Africans killed by other South Africans.
Nigerians who are in South Africa get caught in this web of violence. And very few compared to the numbers quoted actually die as a direct result of xenophobic attacks.
But then I’ll come across like a denialist. The fact that Adolf Hitler’s rampage claimed a total of about 60 million people during the Second World War doesn’t cancel the holocaust.
And so I resolved to mumble the truth to Mr John. Ehhh you see there are some people in South Africa who feel that Nigerians and other foreigners are taking away their jobs.
South Africa is a rich country, the richest in Africa by far. But an overwhelming majority of South Africans mainly black people suffer from an economic depressions with roots that go back to the apartheid era. The current rulers are failing to restore economic justice. And so the suffering masses look for an outlet to express their frustrations. Like everywhere else in the world, the foreigners and mainly the migrants at the bottom of the pyramid suffer the most.
Mr John lets my long response settles in. I see, he says and takes a deep breath to launch another disorientating question: “We hear that South Africans dont want to work. They are lazy and rely on government handouts. Is this true that”.
That was that. I proceeded to have one of the greatest times of my life in Lagos where it would seem everyone went out of their way to make me feel at home.