Beans pushed our luggage and I limped on my crutches as we checked in at Oliver Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, when my time came to leave South Africa. When I first landed at that airport more than two weeks ago, I could not have imagined that on my return trip I will be on four legs. I was bubbly, strong and healthy. My mind was wholly on my mother’s poorly health. I did not expect so much change of fortune on my way back. I was a defeated woman, despite overcoming the crocodile and the hyena. That showed how much clueless I was about my future. I believed that my experiences of the previous two weeks would certainly shape my future and I had no doubt. Life does not throw you in at the deep end and then return you to normality again, or does it?
Beans and I stood in front of an immigration officer who took his time to scan me from head to toe with suspicious eyes. He had only one glance at Beans, and then he devoted all his attention to me.
His eyes saw a different human being, from his imagined person. He appeared not to believe that my crutches were real. He just said “hallo” and that was all from the immigration officer. He left his eyes to do the talking for him. His eyes had seen all and sundry. The eyes that took human trafficking by its horns and tamed it at that airport and they could have prevented 9/11 in America. But I did not shrink faced with his inquisitive eyes. I looked right into his eyes. I fought eyes with eyes. I could tell from his body language that he felt his job was very important, that he saved lives.
When his eyes could not find faults with me, they fell on my passport and he went through it with a fine-tooth comb. He took his time. He owned the airport and forced the time to stand still. There was nothing wrong with my passport either; therefore I would not be intimidated. That was a real passport. If he wanted a bribe he could try his own mother, not me, I was squeaky clean.
A little bird in my mind whispered; ‘This is Johannesburg airport and many people have stories to tell.’ The little bird did not say ‘Oliver Tambo International airport,’ it did not want to soil the name of a great man, who fought gallantly and selflessly for black emancipation in South Africa. A man, I believe, was turning in his grave day and night, each time the immigration officers took a bribe.
A friend’s daughter in transit to Zimbabwe was once forced to buy another air ticket to Bulawayo, because her original air ticket had her surname and first name transposed. She had travelled from Heathrow airport in London, via Charles de Gaulle airport in France without problems and all her difficulties only started and ended at Oliver Tambo International airport. On her way back to the United Kingdom she used her original ticket that was initially refused by corrupt officials on a South African airline without problems. Was I about to tell my own story?
Eventually, the passport officer ordered me to follow him to a private office. I was aghast to say the least. There was nothing wrong with my passport, I assured myself. But why should he call me into an office for whatever was wrong with my passport instead of discussing it with me right there in the open? When Beans meekly tried to follow us he ordered him to stay put. He watched helplessly as the officer escorted me into a very tiny office, so small that I doubted that it was officially used as an office at all. If it was not for the two tiny windows it could have passed as a bribe room. It was empty; serve for a table and one chair.
“There’s no need for me to ask you to sit down, with your crutches you might be unable to get up again.” He said as we enteredhis office and closed the door behind us. I did not know what to take of his comment. Was it a joke or he was plain rude? I just gazed at him and he continued, “I hope you are healing well from the crocodile wounds.” That comment did not only take me by surprise, it also shocked, dumbfounded and staggered me. I wondered how he came to possess that privy information. No one knew that information, except Beans, the border escorts and I. Was Beans a sell out?
“I was attacked by a hyen...”
“Don’t give me that crap mama,” he interrupted me putting on a serious face: a face of a man in authority not tainted by bribes. He knew something about my injuries, had he sniffed at them like a dog and realised that they were crocodile not hyena inflicted? He looked me straight in the eye, and I blinked first. He did not blink. He knew the truth and trusted his informer. He went on, “they might have bought your hyena story and ‘ I can’t remember’ approach in hospital, but you can’t fool me. I have no time for liars. How much did you pay the doctors to accept your flimsy lies?” How much did he know was the question I asked myself? I decided to test the waters.
“But I was attacked by a hyena.”
“Are you sure you want to play games with me Mrs Sibanda? Never play games that you know you would lose. That’s my free advice to you.” That confirmed that he did not know that the hyena attacked me too and why did Beans leave that bit of information out?
“If you want to catch your flight start talking now. It’s your choice. Don’t forget I know everything about how you sustained your injuries. You hold a passport that doesn’t allow you to enter Zimbabwe and to circumvent that you illegally crossed the Limpopo River, so stop lying. You were attacked by a crocodile and rescued by your escorts. When you passed out they dumped you for dead a few kilometres from the Limpopo River.”
But why did Beans want to come with me if he had sold me out, to cover his tracks, perhaps? What would he gain out of this? Nothing made sense. The way things were going, the officer would tell me the design and the colour of my undergarments! I did not know what he wanted from me. If he knew for sure that the crocodile attacked me, what did he want? But there was a glimmer of hope that I might catch my flight if I admitted to the crocodile attack, as he seemed to suggest, but in exchange for what? Otherwise he could have easily turned me to the police. Any slip my return to United Kingdom would be doomed. I could not be deported back to Zimbabwe because I would not survive in Comrade Moment of Madness’ Sodom and Gomorra.
The immigration officer made himself comfortable in the only chair in the room. He was too fat to stand longer than five minutes, a corrupt, fat, lazy man. When Beans finally entered the cubicle, I was on the verge of a breakdown, mentally, I was already broken physically. I looked him straight in the eye and he did not blink. I explained to him what the officer was saying. He did not even look the officer in the eye, he sighed, shook his head and said to him,
“OK, five hundred pounds, then.”
“You might be carrying a British passport mtakwethu, (mate), but you still remember the African way of life.” He smiled before he continued, “You can take the boy out of Africa but you cannot take Africa out of the boy. Two thousand pounds and save this poor woman.”
“I don’t have that kind of money with me right now.” Beans pleaded with the officer.
“You see that building with unusual brickwork,” the officer said pointing towards the departure lounge, “There’s an international bank in that building.”
But as my eyes followed his directions through the tiny office window, they came across the Limpopo River woman with puppy eyes. I could not believe it! I was stunned and puzzled. I remained rooted on the spot as my mind temporarily deserted me.
Eventually, Beans woke me up from my stupor when he returned and paid the officer the bribe, which he had negotiated down to one thousand pounds. I had even failed to follow their negotiations that led to the reduction of the bribe or see Beans leave the office as my mind wrestled with the sight of the short woman with puppy eyes. The officer had remained in the same room with me but he did not realise that I was sweating from every pore of my body due to the apparition I had just seen, I suppose he was only concerned about his bribe.
I was surprised that the Limpopo River woman was at the airport too. But was she the real woman or someone similar to her? I could feel that I was getting obsessed with her sightings despite questioning my sight and mind.
I could not help Beans to raise part of the money for the bribe because my purse was emptied in Limpopo when they left me for dead. Once the officer received his dues, he returned to his desk with us to complete our check-in. As soon as we finished the checking-in I asked Beans, “How did he know that I was attacked by the crocodile?”
“How would I know? I’m as disappointed as you are.” He responded with his eyes fixed at me. Despite my suspicions, there was nothing in his eyes to suggest that he was lying to me. With the sight of the short woman hounding my mind, I could not trust my suspicions either, therefore I decided to let the bygones be the bygones, after all the bribe was not paid from my own pocket and Beans will have to discuss his money with Ice.
Eventually we boarded our plane back to London, back to the Promised Land.
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