Using my body for freedom

Date: November 27, 2009
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As I sat in the taxi my mind flashed back to the day I left Zimbabwe for South Africa. Coming from the dire situation in my country, South Africa seemed to be the land of opportunity, and I was desperate for a chance at a normal life.

I thought I’d just the driver I’m a foreigner and he would leave me alone. But that didn’t work. “Uyathetha?” “Uyakhuluma”, “Wabulabula?” None of these languages was my mother tongue; what was I going to say? The coloured man next to me, in his heavy Capetonian accent, said, “Driver, can’t you tell she not from here, man?”

As the taxi stopped to pick up another passenger, the taxi driver turned to me and asked “Sisi, where are you from?” This was the worst question I could possibly be asked. I am a born and bred Zimbabwean, and am as proud as can be – or at least I used to be. But since I left home in 2006 I am not sure about exactly who I am or where I am from…

When I left, my heart felt like it would stop at any minute for the entire journey, there was no time to catch my breath. There were so many of us running away from what had become to seem like a foreign place, not the place we had grown up in, our home. We were running away from the torture, poverty, starvation and exploitation, in search of anything remotely better.

While I have never felt like I belonged here in South Africa, I have always felt that I was safe. At least that’s what I thought, until I heard screaming in the townships, and I saw the Somalis run for their lives. The word travelled fast that “they were after us next.” What had we done wrong now?

This was supposed to be our only hope, our chance to have a decent life; but now we were being blamed for AIDS, the drugs, the crime… they say the men took their wives, and now we must all go back to where we came from.

The apprehension I experience here in South Africa is different from what I felt at home. I do not have to hustle for food or for a job, because such things are readily available. Instead, I have to hustle my way out of landing up at the police station or being deported, or worse, bumping into someone who realises I am a Kwere Kwere and decides to show me that I do not belong.

Whenever an official of some sort asks for my papers, I always ask in return if there is anything I can do for him. The issue surrounding my status in this country disappears after simply performing a few “favours” in a store room or in a dark alley. The darker the place, the better – that way I don’t have to see his face, and as soon as it is over I can go about my business until the next time…

I used to have hopes and dreams that I would come to this country and be welcomed with open arms. I dreamt that we would no longer hustle to survive, that we would all be able to be free to work and live in this new South Africa. Instead, I left one form of imprisonment for another.

If had remained in Zimbabwe, I would have had to worry about what and when l would eat, I would worry about my home, the son that left with my parents, and when I would get a decent job so that I could take care of them. Here, I worry about how I will send them money, or when I will see them again. I dread the next time that I am noticed as a foreigner, and I find myself using my body to buy my freedom, whilst losing my dignity bit by bit.

So when taxi drivers ask me, “Iintoni ingxaki,” which means, “What is wrong with you?” in Xhosa, do I say that I am just trying to get to a destination? Or do I tell him that I am a victim of political violence and economic turmoil? Do I keep quiet for my own safety and hope that he relents? Either way, he won’t realise and probably will never understand what he is asking me, and why I find it so difficult to give him an answer.

*not her real name. This story is part of the “I” Stories series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.



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