By Derick Matsengarwodzi
Man is undoubtedly a survival being, certainly not by choice but in nature. So that each time resources are failing in his place of birth, he will always seek a new environment with more opportunities to thrive on. And sometimes it matters less how risky or lengthy the road to salvation might be, for as long as some of his desires are at least met. Among the list of needs, is the will to leave a lasting presence in the form of children. One individual who has responded to this common mobile trend is Salim Banda who could have deprived his children of their true identity and belonging with his preference to relocate to a foreign country.
Banda, a Malawian that has been in South Africa for a decade came from a polygamous family in a far off rural village of Malawi. While growing up, he tended to his father’s livestock with unequalled loyalty. He, too, wanted to eventually raise a huge family and possibly move to the capital, Lilongwe, to join other millions of youths in search of scarce jobs. Sadly, his lifelong ambitions would slowly vanish each time more siblings were added to the already large family.
“A family is an important part of my culture. Most families are big and I would like to have my own one day,” he explains.
In fact, relocating to a foreign country and raising a family there, which violates his societal beliefs, only became an option after a famine destroyed their subsistence maize plot cleaning out the family’s sole source of income. One by one the beasts he addressed by name gave in to the persistent drought leaving piles of hides and bones in the paddocks as a painful reminder. As for Banda, only 16 then, it meant an early conclusion to his promising education.
“There was nothing left for me in the village except to look for employment,” revealed the illegal migrant. Without further education it meant his journey beyond the borders of his trusted village thus began prematurely. Like many of his youths, he did not own many belongings so his preparation took modest effort. With his lucky charm safely tucked, a perforated pair of trousers, a remnant of a previous Christmas, he was ready to face the impending challenge. The day he bade farewell to his village, his mother embraced him whilst she offloaded her lifetime wishes in a stream of tears.
“Please promise me you will come back home, get married and start your own family. I would like to hold my grandchildren before I die,” she had desired. “I will come back for you, mother,” he assured her. Soon after, his two week dangerous and illegal journey facilitated by sweetening fraudulent immigration officials manning the national boarders thus began. For days, their destination still far, the battered truck loaded with boarder jumping juveniles meandered through the nearly 3,000 kilometres passage spanning through four southern African states. First, it was Malawi then Mozambique. Zimbabwe proved to be a challenge but with their bribery pouch still intact, the police just waved them on wishing them a safe passage. Here, the Botswana pula to the greenback is permissible tender.
South Africa was now a reality. Along the way, joy and hope melted into despair as police operations insisted on ‘instant spot fines’ to facilitate a secure trip for the ‘delicate load’. At most roadblocks, the driver peeps through his window to address authorities with an added tone of respect: “How are you officer. How was your day?” The burly cop conveniently ignores his greeting and proceeds to inspect the lorry. “How many boarder jumpers did you bring this time?” He grins first to show his remorse mixed with obvious guilt. “Just a few ‘load’ officer. You know boarder jumping is not allowed by the law,” he reveals his misdeed to seemingly tone down the blame. “You mean boarder jumpers, eh?” The conversation comes to an abrupt end as they lead the driver away from his ‘load’ to negotiate a fee for his ‘crime’. Along the way, with regret some ‘excess baggage’ lost its privilege to enter the Promised Land as the bribery sack thinned with more stretches of the journey still to complete. “Guys, from now on you are all alone. If you are caught you must know what to say to the authorities,” the driver had suddenly pronounced to his ‘passengers’ in Musina recalls Banda. After prolonged hours of uncertainty, their destination, Johannesburg, is finally a reality. Now in the “City of Gold”, it was time to establish himself, gather wealth, duck the law and return home for his matrimony. But fate had other options far beyond his primitive verdict.
Migration experts consent that young people such as the Malawian have always represented a large share of world’s migrants and still do. A 2006 report on migration of young people by United Nations Population Fund stated that: “The proportion of youth from developing countries who cross borders represents about a third of the overall migration flow, and about a quarter of the total number of immigrants worldwide.”
Indeed, 10 years afterward, now a resident in the coastal city of Durban, Banda has seemingly deserted his mother’s aspirations thereby confirming the 2006 UNPF findings. Today, he has fathered two children with his South African girlfriend Mbali, with that reducing his chances of relocating home. Every time he looks at his children, his mother’s final words come flooding back. “I have tried to teach my children my own native language but it has never worked. The two also have friends from South Africa and also use their mother’s name to get birth certificates and access social grants to supplement our income,” he adds, “they all laugh at me whenever I speak in my native language with my friends. My language is strange to them and they will never accept it as their own. I would have wanted them to follow my religion but my girlfriend objects the idea strongly. I have sent my mother photos of her grandchildren. She is happy to see them but every time we talk she always asks me when I am coming back home,” he mentions.
Regrettably, the family share little in common except their blood lineage and a tiny crumbling tin shack in the populous township of Umlazi. The situation becomes more complex with the friends they have adopted. Amongst their peers are some from Somalia, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and neighbouring Zimbabwe. Two of these came from Harare with their parents in 2006 before the onset of Harare’s March 2008 general elections. Then Peter Mutero knew the dilemma that could fall to his family if he remained. The education system was rewinding back to Stone Age while inflation was spiralling towards wicked figures engraving dubious economic records, while new tender notes were churned with troubling regularity. In 2007, he became one of many asylum seekers denied the status by the South African Department of Home Affairs out of 170, 865 applicants. Only 36, 736 passed the test. This proverbial chapter has taken its divisive toll on many families including the Muteros’ who selected South Africa as their sole alternative destination of protection. Back then in 2006 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had noted: “In Africa, roughly half of the refugee population is comprised of children and adolescents...” While he wished to save his family from the impending harm and possible starvation, Peter included his family to UNHCR statistics. The outcome is more negative outcomes.
“My children are behaving differently than before, but I will not blame them because they are growing up in a different environment. They are getting new ideas and culture and I can’t expect much from them. Today they have difficulties in reading in my own language which is not taught in local South African schools,” he says. His observation is spot on as studies reveal that: “migration to a different culture can give rise to intergenerational tensions, particularly when children adapt to a new language and culture more quickly than their parents.” This statement notes Mutero, “was coined specifically for my family.” At least he can rejoice in his trials, he is not alone because each day the Beitbridge border post is saturated with more families like his.
The border demarcates Zimbabwe and South Africa with the Limpopo River serving as a constant and convenient separation for the two republics. This river teeming with man-eating crocodiles remains the only passage for undocumented populace from adjacent sub-Sahara nations. Here, people facilitate a safe passage for prospective clients for a fee, but often the course is often riddled with daring moves. As they trade through the mass of roaring waters, jumpers join hands to form a human chain. Any slip up would be tragic. A dim episode is told of a man who left home with his wife for South Africa. It is said they ran out of cash before they crossed into the Promised Land, therefore they could not pay for services rendered by these ‘helpers’. The husband was instructed to leave his wife with the notorious crowd to source for the deficit. The man vanished forever, thus the legend was concluded. No one bothered to find out what befall the spouse. The gist of the tale: always respect proper channels. For the fortunate ones, after the Limpopo mystery, they now embark on the last phase of the journey competing for wild berries and sleeping space on tree tops with primates.
With each passing year Mutero and Banda count their fortunes of safety against glaring losses of depriving their families a right of belonging. The later is an eternal challenge. The Malawian always speaks of returning home one day but the passage is always challenging just as the initial one, a decade earlier, he tells. “I do not have proper documentation to stay or travel so if I return home I might not come back to see my children. Legally I am not their father so I cannot travel with them to meet their grandmother in Malawi,” he laments. As for their children, they have to learn to resist daily discrimination and xenophobic remarks from their local peers because of their distant background. In as much as they seek to incorporate into their new-found society they now attempt to call their own, their new friends will always sadly remind them of their evident foreign origins mostly noted by a ‘dark and alien’ Kwerekwere complexion.
“I wish to return home but my father always tells me that the time is not right yet. Here, everything but our association is limited because we are always treated with suspicion, observed one of the ‘lost generation’ youths. Although their journey is sad, at least they still have caring parents unlike some of their play mates who are only reminded of their far-off fathers by scars embedded on their mothers’ bodies after they came home cleaned out and hopelessly drunk on a pay day while patronising local shabeens. Soon a fight would erupt within the quarters confirming it was indeed a Friday. Come hate or prosperity, just accept it, the ‘lost generation’ may be your next door neighbour.
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Derick Matsengarwodzi is a Zimbabwean journalist currently working in South Africa.