As I get nearer to the front of the queue, I realise it’s not going to work. I have rehearsed it many times. I can say ‘Molo bhuti’ with confidence but decide that I won’t. I fear that the immigration officer might then say Molo sisi and then other things I won’t be able to understand and then I would have to resort to ‘Please, I’m here to see my sister’, to own up that I’m actually Zimbabwean. It’s been like this for as long as I can remember. All my brothers and sisters and the other kids at school were always quicker with explanations and answers and especially with denials. I also have a stutter.
Someone shouts ‘next!’. My heart lurches and I jerk involuntarily.
There are four counters. I’ve been trying to work out which of the four officials would be best. I decide, not the woman, because her voice is so loud that everyone can hear everything.
‘Hee, you lost your passport ne? Yoo, you people think I was born yesterday. Now what must I do? I must magic a passport for you ne? Or I must just stamp the visa on your forehead?’
Every time she says ‘must’ my heart thuds painfully. I think if I get to be served by her, she will say, ‘Now, what must I do with your story ne? I must sit here and listen to you tell me this filimu ne? Hayi, I wasn’t born yesterday mhani. Don’t Bring your filimu.’
I’m not worried about the other people waiting in the queue laughing at me. They have their own filimu scripts to worry about. They just might wonder why I don’t have a better story, something more imaginative.
If it works out that the woman has to serve me, I will pretend that I need the toilet. I would have to join the queue again but that would be better, I decide.
The young man at the desk next to the woman seems to be too meticulous ─ checking everything, narrowing his eyes until they’re almost shut to peer at documents, straightening them out, holding them up to the light and occasionally leaving the desk to confer in hushed tones with the large woman sitting away from the counters. She must be the boss. She’s not wearing the uniform, but a simple flower-patterned dress incongruous with her unsmiling efficiency — it stands out amongst all the green uniforms and the grey filing cabinets. She also peers and straightens, and turns the papers over, occasionally walking to a large machine in a corner, to place the documents under the UV lamp.
I don’t want my papers to be put under the light. Some people get summoned to a side room after their documents have been put under the light. I don’t want to be taken to the side room.
Of the two older men, on either side of the woman and the young man, I prefer the one with the bulbous belly, the one who looks people up and down as they approach his window, not the one who keeps his eyes fixed to the desk even when he is not looking at any papers and shouts ‘next’ but does not bother to check who approaches. I wonder how he will know when there’s no one left and he doesn’t need to shout ‘next!’ No, I decide the other one would be better. He sweeps his eyes from the tips of your shoes up to the top of your head so you feel like running towards the counter to prevent him from looking a third time. You hope that when it’s your turn, he will look only at your hair and not at your chafed shoes and your loose fitting black dress which had seemed like a good idea for looking nondescript but now, you realise, makes you look like you’re in mourning. But, I would rather him, I think.
When someone shouts ‘next!’ again I realise it’s not him because he is still serving the young white man lugging a filthy backpack that’s almost the same size as him, telling him to enjoy his stay and to make sure he visits Kruger National Park before he leaves, and that he could always come back to have his visa extended.
The woman behind me in the queue taps me on the shoulder. I turn round, momentarily confused. She says something.
I dash towards the door.
I take a few racewalking-like steps before breaking into a run. I run past all the people in the queue, ignoring their open mouths and quizzing eyebrows, and past the woman handing out tickets that give you your number in the queue. I toss my ticket at her shouting ‘askisi sisi’ as I pass her. I know ‘askisi’ means ‘I’m sorry’ in one of the languages — Tsotsitaal, I think. I’m out the door before she can stop me but the sun hits me right between the eyes and for a second I can’t see a thing. I can hear my heart pounding buum and taste the bile rising in my stomach.I don’t know which would be worse—throwing up or fainting. I force my eyes open andthen everything comes slowly back into focus.
‘Heyi! Heyi!’someone is shouting from inside.
Suddenly I feel light again so I take off, ignoring an old man sitting on the steps just outside. He asks, ‘Hezvo, kwakanaka?’
I could stop. He speaks my language, he’s from home and he looks concerned but I just run past him and past the cars in the car park in front of the building. I feel guilty that I can’t stop to say ‘kwaziwayi baba, I’m fine, thank you. Just a headache’, so that the old man doesn’t have to add me to the other worries etched on his leathery face. I just keep running. I even wave to the guard sitting in a little wooden cabin just inside the big gate when he shouts ‘uyaphi sisi’? There are two more security guards walking up and down the street in front of the big gate. One of them gestures to me to stop. I know they carry guns but I don’t think they are allowed to shoot without permission.
I think I can hear the immigration officers shouting after me and telling me they will find me, they will find all Makwerekwereand send them back home.
I just throw my head back and laugh. My handbag and scarf are flying behind me like they do in the movies, where people run like it’s the best thing. I feel like Lola in ‘Run Lola Run’. Except Lola didn’t have a handbag. She had a scarf, I think.
I run like Lola all the way back to my grandmother’s home in Chiundura, through the open plains where wild flowers of all colours spread like an endless carpet and the savannah grass hides you from your older brothers so they are annoyed and worried, and when they eventually find you they slap you so hard it feels like someone has made a fire on your cheek. We are running to go and wash our clothes and frolicin the cool, dark waters of Gweshuro. Nobody can catch me. Not even Tariro, who they call chihwerure because when he is running, he winds one arm around as if he is coiling the strings of a chihwerure ready to uncoil it at lightning speed. This seems to work for him but even he can’t catch up because I’m light and unburdened by the desire to win. It’s not a race for me. I’m ten years old but I know that if you run in anger and frustration, it slows you down. When they get to the stream, I’m already in, splashing and rolling and laughing.
Then I’m twenty and the riot police are everywhere. They’re in the lecture rooms, in the library, in the halls of res and even in the Great Hall where the Agric students are sitting their final exams. I’ve seen the riot police more times than I’ve seen some of my lecturers. I’m sprinting across the University Green, with teargas searing my eyes, tongue and chest. I thud past the new ‘international standard’ sports arena built for the All Africa Games in 1995 and past the rugby field where all the students who went to the former whites-only, ‘group A’ schools meet on a Sunday, away from the soccer field where the rest of us like to go. Other students are running with me past the sign that says ‘Welcome to the University of Zimbabwe’ and past the ‘lovers’ green’ where couples like to sit on the grass by the stream on Sundays when the rest of us are singing ourselves hoarse at the football pitch and the former ‘group A’ students are chanting ‘Lomu! Lomu! Lomu! because singing is not something they do.
We run towards the fence and jump over it ─ left leg onto the middle rail that crosses the vertical metal posts first, then right leg onto the top rail. There are spear-shaped spikes on the top, to stop students from leaving campus to go on protests. It’s like one huge, open-plan prison where we’re encouraged to learn the importance of freedom, to dream about it and to understand how to free ourselves from the shackles of oppression, like our great forebears before us, but we’re forbidden from daring to put any of it into practice. The spikes don’t stop us from trying though. I’m on top of the fence with both legs straddling a few spikes. The jump down is easier. You twist your body so that you’re facing the direction you came from and lift the left leg from the middle railing on the other side and jump backwards and down. I’ve done it many times before. We help each other up, with the riot police fast approaching. They are not running. They never run. They just march in a horse-shoe formation like Tshaka’s impi, beating a rhythm on their shields with baton sticks. It would be impressive if it wasn’t menacing. They always catch us. They radio each other and always manage to surround and round us up, all without running a single step.
Our running is not light. It’s burdened with the anger and frustration of unrealised dreams. We think we are running fast but the rage just weighs us down. It’s like we’re running on the same spot — legs burning, chests heaving, and eyes and tongues protruding but the effort not enough to increase the distance separating us. I know this but I can’t help it. It’s the slow realisation that it doesn’t matter that you understand what the Chimurenga was about; that you cried tears of understanding when Samora Machel was killed by the South Africans, and danced in the streets with your friends when Mandela walked out of prison; that you’re proud to be black and that black is beautiful and all that. All that doesn’t matter because the police can beat you up and tear up your ‘By Any Means Necessary’ t-shirt, they can throw you into the back of a Santana and fondle your breasts while your friends look on powerless and that when they finally allow you back on campus, ‘October 4’ is shut and you can’t sit around and have drunken arguments about how inappropriate ‘October 4’ is as a name for the campus pub.
I had prepared myself for a life of teaching. I didn’t have enough compassion to be a nurse. Any other occupation — doctor, lawyer, engineer or any of the other ones no one had heard of in the village like seismologist or archaeologist were guaranteed to consign you to a lifetime of spinsterhood. I was going to be a teacher. However, at twenty-six, I found myself singing ‘amai nababa, musandicheme kana ndafa nehondo’(Mother and father, do not grieve for me if I die fighting for Zimbabwe) and jogging through the Avenues past all the nice flats with balconies, where the not-so-rich white people, the expats and the young, newly-rich black people live. I feel powerful — fifty cadets, in blue tracksuit bottoms and white vests singing Chimurenga songs and waking the almost-rich people in the morning feels a bit like freedom.
I’m here because although it’s not as well paid a job as teaching, my boyfriend who got a third in his degree and couldn’t get a job because they all now go to women and Ndebele people, is joining the police force. I can’t be in a school, teaching and becoming too clever to be a good wife. My mother cries when I tell her. My father says, tell them to deploy you as far away from home as possible. That way, you won’t have to beat up the people you grew up with or your own parents. I’ll probably have a desk job is what I tell him.
When we do the fitness test to Domboshava, I even take a few minutes to admire the San rock paintings on the side of the dwala that gives Domboshava its name, but still manage to get back to the finish line in Harare before him and a lot other hopefuls. When the training starts I find that I enjoy it even though our relationship doesn’t survive Domboshava. The running is easy and I run faster and longer than most of my group. I especially enjoy the toyi toyi in the mornings, half-jogging half-dancing, half-protest and half-celebration. We leave KG6 barracks at five o’clock and head south along Josiah Tongogara Avenue then through the streets of Harare with batons at the ready. We particularly enjoy chasing anyone we see wearing red t-shirt with the words ‘Chinja’ emblazoned on the back. We like to tear their t-shirts off and beat them with the batons and kick them with our boots and ask them what change they would like to see. We beat them some more when they can’t answer. No one ever answers.
With time, I start to enjoy chasing in the comfort of a Santana and then just waiting at Harare Central Police Station for the younger officers to bring in the catch when the hunt is done. Although I can still run faster and longer than most, it is unbecoming for a woman my age and status. Once the younger officers begin to call me shefu or ambuya I decide the interrogations give me the same buzz as the chasing anyway.
I hate the screamers, they’re hard work — like running on a hard, uneven surface. The non-talkers make it easy. If only they said something. They never do. The end is the same — blood, urine, faeces, groaning, twitching and then silence. Sometimes we call an ambulance and when you’re driving around the streets months later, you think you can see someone you didn’t think had survived the interrogation. You know it’s them because they walk with more caution: they take a few steps forward then stop to listen and to look over their shoulders. Then there’s the limp and the scars.
Then it’s 2008 and I find myself running again, fleeing from a group of people wielding placards. Only I can’t jump over fences or bushes anymore. Teargas is burning my chest. Some idiot young cadet has let it off in panic. And, although they are not running, they’re dancing, but fast catching up to me. They are singing ‘Povo yaramba zvemadisnyongoro (the masses have had enough). There’s nowhere to hide. They sing that my name is written down in some book and that my time’s up. The commissioner says I need to find a man, a husband to protect me. He tells me the police cannot afford to protect me forever. He doesn’t think a woman like myself should go to waste. His eyes are fixed on my chest. I decide then.
That’s how I find myself here, not running but shaking before the South African immigration officer, fumbling in my bag — past the mace spray, past the other things — bits of droewors, nuts, the dumwa that my grandma made me, for good luck and past the other passport — until I’m clutching that small but all-important piece of plastic in one hand. It that says My name is Dineo and I come from Nelspruit. I’m not sure how to pronounce Nelspruit and I couldn’t pinpoint it on the map, but I’m sure South Africa is where my dreams will come together.