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Last Updated: 03/03/2008It Doesn't Rain, It Pours
Catherine Cheweza reflects on her experiences as a woman from Malawi travelling to Costa Rica.
It was Sunday 2nd September 2007 when I and my 6year old son, Noha, left Lilongwe, Malawi for Costa Rica. I was a bundle of nerves, not knowing what to expect but Noha seemed to be enjoying every minute. I had persevered a lot of questions the previous weeks on where is Costa Rica and I found myself continuously saying “Yes Costa Rica, not Puerto Rico, it is one of the small countries that bridges North and South America” and “Yes it is a country, not an island” and I wondered if I had to play Geography teacher when all that mattered to me was what lay ahead. How to wind up at my place of work and write the handover notes. How to deal with all the immigration procedures and say yes am ready. Most of these questions were ignited by Noha’s excitement which made him tell anybody who cared to listen that he was going to Costa Rica with mum.
The trip was to take us to Johannesburg where we were to Connect to Madrid and finally San Jose. The first leg was uneventful. At Oliver Tambo International airport we had to wait for 5 hours before picking the next flight. During check in for Madrid I was shocked when the man at the check in desk told me I could not. I asked why and was told that he would know if I would be on after everybody had checked in. I again asked him why and was told I was on waiting list. I was confused, my ticket was certified OK, and no part of my trip was on the waiting basis. How could I take such a risk to leave Malawi when I knew I could be stranded in South Africa? I told the man that I am not on waiting list. He assured me that my ticket is OK and he was also surprised as to why he had received instructions that he should make me wait until everybody has checked in.
Something blocked my throat and I don’t know if this sensation is unique to me but when this happens it shows that my tear glands are about to go to work. I told myself this was not the time to cry but think. Reality hit me very fast that it was the colour of my skin working to my disadvantage. The next flight out to Madrid would be in three days time and it meant three nights and two days at Oliver Tambo airport. I would rather take the next flight back to Lilongwe than wait for a flight to Madrid for three days, that was the reasoning I got from my heart. Luckily my head was still doing the thinking. I asked to speak to the person in charge and when I did, we got nowhere as she also told me that she did not know why I was put on waiting list but she could not do anything to change it. I tossed my son in as a trump card and told her I have a small child with me and can not spend three nights at the airport, I should have known she wouldn’t have cared even if I had told her I had with me 1 week old twins. I discovered that the airline is managed by Swiss Air on this airport and decided to talk to them. They will look into it, I was told and after a grueling 45 minute wait I was told I was on. Sigh. But still angry.
Noha and I were the only people with colour on this flight and I could not believe the attention we got. It seemed everybody was interested to see what we were doing. If I coughed every body looked. If I stood up to go to the bathroom I was sure over 40 pairs of eyes were following. I was surprised because this flight was coming from South Africa, which meant most of them had been in that country regardless of how long and that they had seen people like me. In trying to find possible answers I thought, maybe it was an issue that I was on this flight going to Spain, a country that ‘receives’ a lot of illegal immigrants from Africa, maybe that was the reason, but I was not on a dingy crammed boat, I had passed through all the necessary immigration procedures, I thought to myself.
In Madrid we disembarked and as we moved to the passenger lounges the colour of my skin stood out again and I was immediately spotted by the Airport Police who stopped me to check all my documents and passports. I was shown a place to sit and wait until they had cleared my documents with their boss. I sat there for almost two hours and kept wondering what would happen to us if the Police man did not bring the passports in time for our flight. I panicked. What if the Policeman does not show up at all, ever? Don’t ask me what was going through my head. It was terrible. I sat there and waited. Fortunately when the Policeman came back with my documents, I was let go with no more questions. Sigh. This time not angry, just disheartened.
Ever heard of the proverb “it doesn’t rain, it pours”? It did not rain for me on this trip but like a Costa Rican September afternoon, it came pouring down. We were on the flight to take us to the Juan Maria International Airport and after about 9 hours flight we were just a few minutes to landing. An accident at the airport made it impossible to land and we had to land in Panama while the crew waited for information. After an hour we were told the wreckage at the airport could not be cleared and we will have to spend the night and start off again the next morning. Due to their experience with Panama hotels the crew decided we would spend the night in Guatemala and that was where we were headed. We were told not to worry with immigration documents as this was an emergency landing.
At the airport in Guatemala I saw everyone in front of me pass through immigration hassle free until my turn came. They asked me to hand in my immigration documents; I explained that we were told not to worry as our final destination was Costa Rica. In any case everybody before me just had their passports stamped, nothing more. They told me if I was not ready to produce the documents they would leave me there. I was told to stand aside. Even as I am writing now, six months down the line, I can still feel the rage. I was angry but could not do anything except step aside, after all I had something that all my fellow passengers did not have. I had colour. I am a person with colour! Ha!
I stood there, with my son who seemed oblivious of all that has been happening. What confused me was that if I wanted to migrate illegally or otherwise, would it be to Guatemala? It was not my final destination after all, and just like everybody else I was found there because of reasons beyond my own doing. I remembered I have colour. I saw the immigration officials pack their stuff and leave the desk, leaving me and my son sitting there like we did not exist, like we were not there. I felt like a worm. Crying will not help, I told myself again, but believe me all I wanted to do was scream. Meanwhile the other passengers were in a bus waiting for me on the way to the hotel. Tired, they decided they had to intervene and so they demanded my release saying I was under the same conditions as everybody else and that I did not have any documents to submit. I was let free. I was very angry and drained by all this. I kept thinking of how I was left there, as a criminal. Does my colour, make me a criminal? It seemed at the time.
The next morning at 10 o’clock we left Guatemala for Costa Rica. I kept thinking of what I had gone through and dreaded what lay ahead. Touch down. I dreaded going through immigration procedures. It was a long queue; I was at the far end. Suddenly a Policeman appeared. “The lady with the kid, follow me”. He said pointing at me. Oh my God, not again. I thought to myself and reluctantly followed. He took me to a very short queue for special cases, the likes of old people and pregnant women. He did not single me out for my colour but because I had a child with me. This was one place where the colour of my skin did not count. I sighed, looked to the heavens and thanked God for a place like Costa Rica and her wonderful people. I sighed. A very very long sigh.
Thinking back, I have not found any answers to my questions. Why should my colour, my beautiful black colour bring all the negatives you could ever imagine? Who is to blame? There must be someone responsible for all this. Who started it? Who decided that the person with colour should be subjected to all the prejudices by those without? Certainly not God for He tells me I am made in his own image. I am so thankful He made me this way, and neither do I blame my parents for giving me their wonderful black genes. But there should be someone, somewhere and one day they will have to give account.
I know other women of colour have told worse stories before me, but this is mine.
Catherine Chaweza is a Master's degree candidate for the Media, Peace and Conflict programme at the UN Mandated University for Peace; she comes from Malawi.