An Excerpt from "Apartheid in my Rucksack"
Patiya was adamant that I shouldn’t fly to Dar. She said that the Tanzanians couldn’t be trusted. They’d probably lock me up as soon as I arrived.
Since leaving Kyela borderpost, I had travelled all the way down Malawi again as far as Lilongwe. I had spent a night in a squalid Mzuzu rest house, sharing a room with two Dutch spinsters. Even though they were both antagonistic towards South Africa, they gave me the chance to explain what I thought of my country, and it seemed to me that by the time we parted the next morning, their attitudes had changed just a little. I wished I could have spoken as easily and open-hear-tedly with the Kyela officials.
Now resting up at Moira’s place again, I had to consider the next step of my journey, of alternate routes through Africa. I was faced with the considerable problems the Prohibited Immigrant (PI) stamp would cause me the further north I tried to go. The most sensible thing to do, it seemed, was to fly somewhere north of Tanzania, and then go by road from there. Airports, however, would be tricky. If any immigration officials would be sticklers for proper procedure and would be on the lookout for PI stamps, then they would be airport officials. At any customs post I reached from now on, I would be faced with the same dilemma: would they overlook the PI stamp or no
I decided that my only option lay in Tanzania. If I wanted to have a less troublesome trip through Africa, or any trip at all, then the safest option was to try to have the PI stamp removed. Because there was no Tanzanian embassy in Lilongwe, I went to the second best, the small Air Tanzania office in Capital Hill. They didn’t seem too busy and the head official was more than eager to help me once I’d explained ‘the terrible mistake’ the Kyela officials had made, and that I dearly wanted to fly to Dar. He said he would send a telegram through to the capital, explaining that they should give me a visa on arrival. It sounded good, but I wanted a second opinion, Moira’s.
Moira also worked on Capital Hill, in an office that was not only South African but was also, it so happened, situated right above Air Tanzania’s. I had a problem. I couldn’t walk out of their office and head straight upstairs. They’d know where I was going. Having spent an hour explaining that I wasn’t a South African, how would it look if I went to a South African company right next door? If I did, they would find out.
Instead I went to a public call-box, phoned Moira, explained the situation and asked her to meet me in the square outside. The subterfuge seemed ridiculous, but Moira came out. She brought her friend Patiya with her. Patiya, an Asian, said she knew Tanzania well. Both she and Moira insisted that I shouldn’t fly to Dar.
‘I have a lot of friends there,’ Patiya said, ‘and the stories are not good. You never know what they will do. They will probably lock you up.’ Moira pointed out that, despite the airline official’s promises, arriving in a country with a PI stamp from one of their own officials did not seem wise.
We stood in the square, indecisive. All the while I was hoping that the Air Tanzania official wouldn’t walk by. As it was, we were already subjected to conspicuous attention, what with the square and parking lot being the favourite spot for the vendors who pestered tourists with their trinkets of ivory and malachite. Patiya and Moira looked concerned. The possibility of my flight to Dar seemed to be fading fast. I didn’t know where to go next. Redemption arrived at that moment in the form of two Americans I’d met on the lake, Scott and Sue. We explained the situation and they immediately thought of a solution. They were flying to Nairobi the next day. Why didn’t I go with them?
‘Strength in numbers,’ Scott laughed. Patiya and Moira nodded their consent. Under the circumstances, they thought it was the best idea. Patiya gave me the addresses of some friends in Nairobi in case I had any trouble getting in. I bought an air ticket and that night the five of us had dinner together at Amina Alli’s Golden Peacock restaurant. I felt safe with Scott and Sue.
We took off from Kamuzu International Airport the next morning, my sense of anticipation and suspense as raw as it had been in Karonga a few days before attempting to enter Tanzania. I knew that Kenya was almost as sensitive about South Africans as Tanzania was, and that once the immigration officials had seen my PI stamp, my fate would rest with them.
Several hours after touching down at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the immigration officials decided in my favour. But the decision hadn’t come easily or quickly. I didn’t trust the situation from the moment I arrived, and when the health official asked for my documents, the ones the nurse in Johannesburg had forged so carefully, I lied and said they were in my luggage.
Even though the airport was full of passengers arriving, crowds who might help me slip through unnoticed, I was quickly identified. When the immigration official saw my PI stamp and had listened vaguely to my explanation, he sent me to a nearby waiting room. I could see Kyela starting all over again. Scott and Sue were stamped through, but, concerned that their ‘safety in numbers’ ploy hadn’t worked, came back to ask what was happening to me. An official approached us and asked them what they were doing.
‘We’re waiting to see what happens to our friend,’ Scott said. The official suspiciously asked them if they had onward tickets. They hadn’t.
Now it so happened that they had this funny regulation in Nairobi. Sometimes they demanded an onward ticket before they let you in. Sometimes they didn’t. Nairobi being the continent’s mecca for cheap air tickets, most of the travellers arrived here not with a ticket but to buy one. Immigration turned a blind eye most times, and usually demanded onward air tickets from people they didn’t want in the country or who were in any way suspicious. By calling me their friend, Scott and Sue had become questionable. I felt responsible for their bad luck. Even though they had been stamped through already, they had been caught by coming back to see me. (I later found out that just in the nick of time the official was called to the phone and they had slipped through without buying the tickets.)
The chief immigration official called me in. He reminded me of the sadistic Turkish prison guard in the film Midnight Express. I expected the worst. He asked me about the PI stamp. I lied again. I don’t think he believed me, but he was reasonable. He said there were two options. If they were to let me into the country, Air Malawi would have to stand surety for me, or I would have to buy an onward ticket. Air Malawi, now that they had my money and the flight was over, weren’t interested in me. I would have to buy an onward ticket, even though I didn’t want to. Its purchase suggested the beginning of an unending and very costly procedure. I could picture the same interrogation happening all over again once I reached the next country. They would say: either get Air Kenya to stand surety for you or buy an onward ticket. And so it would carry on. I would never be able to afford travelling through Africa this way. But there was no time to argue now. This was my chance to get into Kenya. Before the official could change his mind, I bought the cheapest ticket I could find, to Kigali in Rwanda.
I went to stand in the immigration queue again. It wasn’t the same queue I’d first been in and this time the official smiled broadly at me. He had been watching the whole procedure for the past few hours — of me waiting, being questioned, being escorted outside to buy a ticket, being questioned again. When he opened my passport, he paged through it, stamped it and then, before I could race out of the airport and try to lose myself in the streets of Nairobi, he added a last observation.
‘They must have seen your name.’