A Slight Fever
The journey to discover a new sense of self in a new place is often filled with unexpected turns and events. While some find their real selves some others disintegrate and encounter unbearable tragedy. But the sense of adventure that fills such journeys is part of what makes life worth living and what reduces the tyranny of ennui, routine and a monochrome existence. The move into new, unaccustomed spaces and foreign lands may be a bold attempt at casting off pain and trauma or a heart-felt search for new companions and experiences. In plain terms, such a move might be prompted by a quest for a better life which from a remove sometimes resembles the kind of fate that befalls the throwing of a dice. Migration has all the characteristics mentioned above; excitement, love, uncertainty, self-discovery, pain and loss. These are the grand yet simple themes and features that best delineate the rhythms of life.
I had left my home country for a better life. In leaving, I shed a huge chunk of my identity in order to fit into a new country. Or perhaps it was more of a case of my host country chewing up and spitting out chunks of my identity. It had to make me recognisable and manageable. At first, things were good and I had a wonderful job only that it was a fixed-term contract. One always hoped that a contract position would be changed to a permanent one. It does not always happen that way. Living life on contract jobs had taught me to have minimum necessities. The bourgeois life was a mirage that could not be sustained. Even the traditional family- man, wife, a couple of kids and a golden retriever – appeared to be a false aspiration. How does one maintain a proper family on the basis of holding a series of contract jobs in diverse places? I did not have the patience to find out.
I lived in a piecemeal fashion so I had to find interests and people that could fit into a way of life marked by uncertainty, abandoned relationships and transient beings and things. It was a transient kind of existence and as such there were to be no long term commitments to anything. One had to be able to walk away from anything since nothing was certain or stable.
I made friends with all kinds of strangers knowing we would soon lose touch with each other. In spite of this, I still held on to a commitment to basic human decency without which no community is possible. Taxi cab drivers were some of my best friends. They knew the towns and places of interest. One could invite them to bars for drinks. They knew the underbelly of cities. They knew places where the dead were resurrected. They knew spaces of shadows littered with rare and vintage bones. They knew the niches through which life shot through the towns in a hail of stars. They were guardian angels who could lead you to a glorious grave amid a parade of glitter and raucous fanfare.
One such taxi cab driver I tried to make my friend was called Jacob. He was a short, pot-bellied man of about fifty. He had dreamy eyes and drank copious amounts of beer. He spent days in taxi ranks without having a bath. His family lived in a poor township twenty-five minutes away from the city. He seemed alright, human and caring. He called me from time to time to say hello. I invited him for drinks in my apartment. He took me to various townships on sight-seeing trips. I gave him presents and money. He introduced me to his wife, kids and younger brother. I discussed plans of helping out with his sporadic taxi business. I thought I had found a friend. Someone I could run to in time of need just as he kept coming to me for petty cash to get him through hard times. I had thought we had an understanding based on apparently not so simple principles of sharing and giving.
I didn’t read the signs properly. Jacob was filthy, undisciplined and negligent towards his family and job. Instead I saw the human side of him, the part of him that was always ready for a chat even when he was working. I was absorbed by the part of him that never refused an invitation for lunch or a drink. I was seduced by the part of him that was ready to share and participate in communal rites. I had thought this part of him made up for other glaring flaws of his personality.
He was supposed to be my link to the community, the grassroots. He was supposed to be my ears and alert me to seasons when hatred for foreigners blew in like tempestuous gales. Since he was familiar with the townships and the taverns where miscreants plotted the execution of foreign nationals under the influence of home-brewed beer, he was supposed to provide adequate security when required. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if he understood fully the dangers associated with being a foreigner. When I went with him on excursions to townships to feel the pulse of the land he would take me into the seediest joints and not care that I could not speak a word of any of the local languages if addressed in greeting. This particularly bothered me. Language provided an entry into the community, it was also a marker of identity, a powerful resource that broke down barriers and generated easy banter and laughter. Jacob did not fully understand the dangers of my position because he operated solely within the confines of his community. He had every reason to be complacent and easy-going. I didn’t. I could be assaulted for the sin of not speaking the local language. I therefore didn’t belong and should not be allowed to partake of the benefits of the community. Instead I was an intruder, a freeloader who had come to deprive a dispossessed community even further. There was only one treatment meant for me; I should be brought under the blows of clubs, I should be stamped by angry feet into the dust, a burning tyre should act as my necklace, my blood should run on cracked grubby alleyways and my flesh devoured by angry stray dogs. I had seen these kinds of scenes on television. I had seen the angry faces of men and women calling for the blood of foreigners because they took away jobs and terrorised the wealthy residents of gated communities with incessant robberies. I had heard drunken discussions where foreigners are branded as parasites and cockroaches. When you assailed constantly by such denunciations you tend to walk with your tail between your legs. You tend to stray into the shadows where you hope you don’t fall under the angry blows of anonymous clubs. It was then you began to suspect arguments announcing the arrival of the global community as at best partial and at worst spurious. Such views can only be held by people of power and privilege. Jacob did not seem to be aware of my fears that ate my insides each time he took me to some out of the way tavern for a beer. He seemed to be seduced by the purity of his own laughter. But was this really the case? Was he more devious than I was willing to allow? I recall an incident when he had to borrow a large sum of money from me. He had said he needed the cash to pay for one of his sons’ school fees. I had had to meet him at the city centre near a bar. Some minutes later a man who he introduced as his cousin arrived. He said his cousin was a police man. Jacob began to order large bottles of beer for both of them. He was spending the money I had given him for his son’s school fees on beer. I was too flabbergasted to respond in a meaningful manner. All kinds of thought started to go through my mind. Perhaps his cousin would make up for the difference or perhaps someone owed him a sum of money and would pay back. But his so-called cousin didn’t make matters any better. There was a devious air about him. There seemed to be something sinister and serpentine about his manner. A smile that told you he knew something that you did not. A smirk that told you the joke was on you. And perhaps the joke was really on me as the merriment continued as I sat on the fringe excluded by language, temperament and identity. If I had told him I wanted my money back he could have said I was acting in bad faith, that I was to presumptuous and that I had insulted him in front of his cousin. So I desisted from demanding my money back. Money he was blowing right before my eyes. His devious-looking cousin seemed to read my thoughts and the half-grin continued to hover around the corners of his eyes. They seemed to be asking me, you don’t get the joke? Whatever the joke was clearly drove me crazy.
As I mentioned, I knew his wife, children and brother. I knew some of his colleagues at the taxi rank. I thought I knew enough about him. At his township home, I had been introduced to his hungry-looking dog and said hello and it responded. The long-suffering face of his reticent wife remained ingrained in my mind. I knew many of his girlfriends. Vicky, one of Jacob’s lovers, sat at the back of his car while he drove all night from tavern to beer den uttering only a few words the whole time. I remember him receiving calls from various girlfriends and telling them blatant lies, making promises he never meant to keep. I remember some of the taverns he took me with their tacky interiors. I remember some of the scarred faces of the gangsters that saluted him as we walked inside bars. They were pretending to be decent people and he was always trying to show me off to them. It was as he was trying to make a point that he knew one or two decent people. All of this was not so clear to me then. I have quite distinct memories of Jacob’s face, his droopy eyes defined by excessive liquor and chronic exhaustion. I remember the dark brown trousers he liked to wear for days on end. I remember a tired and faded red T-shirt he wore to match. I remember the specks of grey in his four-day old stubble. I remember dreary sleepiness of his eyes, the rustling hesitancy in his voice as he spoke. I roll all these disparate fragments of memory in my mind and turn them around as if trying to fit together pieces of a puzzle. Where I come from, there is a saying that those closest to you may be the greatest threat to you. These were just proverbs you heard in moonlight tales, granny stories and popular songs. You hear them and let them pass because they carry little validity until something of that precise nature actually happens to you. You assume it never would. So you go on with your life and those words, proverbs and parables gather dust like old semi-abandoned relics in a museum in a third world country.
His taxi rank was close to the department of home affairs and he had told me he knew some officials who worked there. My temporary residential permit was about to expire. I asked him if he could introduce me to a reliable official of the department who might be able to help with the process of the renewal of my permit. He said it was no problem.
One day he took me into the department to look for a woman who was supposed to work there. We did not find her. Minutes later she appeared on a street and said she had been at an official meeting and now wanted to talk about how she might be of help to me. She demanded the official fee for the renewal of my permit and followed me to the bank to collect it there and then. My heart was throbbing. I had never conducted official business in that manner before. But I trusted Jacob. Jacob would always look after my interests. He would not throw me to the wolves in a brazen manner. Just as I took care of him he would do the same for me.
The woman invited me the next day to a bar to fill in my forms. She said two documents required for my visa application were missing. I needed an endorsement from the department of labour and a police report. She could arrange that for me for a fee. I paid the fee and we parted ways. She started to call at all times. She was at a hotel and would like to meet with me. She would order food for herself and her son and demand I pay. She would be in bars and call for me. She would be drinking white wine and demand I picked up the bill. She would be in the hospital and ask for me to send food to her. All the while, I was thinking this was just the price I had to pay for her working to get my residential permit.
When the time came to collect my permit all kinds of stories started to come up. She was ill and could not go to the office. The lady who was supposed to sign my documents was away. The office in which my file was kept had been locked. The stories just kept mounting up. Moreover, she had collected my passport and as such she had seized my identity. I deliberated during many sleepless nights about the nature of the formal loss and personal erasure. I was now below a state of statelessness. I had no identity. I pondered the question of my identity loss in all the ways I was capable. First, I had left my country in a bid to acquire a better economic status. In a way, I succeeded but only on a temporary basis. I had to divest myself of my former identity in order to fit into my new locale. But I could never become exactly part of the new locale because I was already mature and hence inflexible in some ways. I became a being that existed in a sort of cultural limbo, neither here nor there. My fixation on being Jacob’s friend was a way of clambering out of that unlit existential cave. It was part of a ploy to convince myself I belonged to my new locale at least to some degree. My quest for belonging had led me to seek acceptance from a lowly cab driver. It was a costly mistake. Jacob threw my offers of friendship right back at my face. Even more, he cursed me for ever offering friendship of the sort to him. To him, I was a perpetual outsider, a foreigner in a land that was, when all was said and done, teeming with outsiders of all sorts from different parts of the world. And I would always remain so. It was a bitter lesson. I had entrusted him with managing the flimsy basis of my identity but instead he had stripped me of the last vestige of recognition. After divesting me of passport, I had become a nobody, a being lower than a refugee. Jacob refused to pick my calls. For hours, his cell phone would be switched off. The few times I managed to get hold of him he would say he would return my call. He never did. When my calls became one too many he threatened me with death. That was when I gave up my attempts in trying to reach him. More nights of sleeplessness began. I would wake up in the mornings with my sheets soaked in perspiration and a bitter taste in my mouth. My heart was shrinking in a slow and painful manner. The violence of Jacob is something I have struggled desperately to comprehend. I tried to understand the flutter in his voice while he spoke. He had a hesitant way of speaking that was a camouflage for something deeply sinister. He would call me on a cell phone after not having had any contact for a few days and say;
Hey man, I miss you and wanted to say hello.
Nothing in that slightly tremulous voice demonstrated the mean streak I would soon discover in its broadest manifestation. I had stumbled upon that side of him before but as usual I had let it pass. I had invited him for a drink. After several bottles of beer, he had gone to my bathroom for what was a very long time. I opened the door and saw him wiping his genitals and armpits with my fresh white towels without having had a shower. As usual, he had not taken a bath for several days. The image stuck in my mind for several days and I had to endure the nausea of the repellant visuals for many weeks. I should have taken better note then but I didn’t. He had been telling me he couldn’t wipe his crotch with me. He had indicated to me that to be an outsider in his own land was a curse. Living in his country would be hell and death would come as a pack of hungry hyenas in broad daylight. Death would come via a mob armed with clubs and petrol bombs. And put simply, someone who was condemned to live that way could expect no mercy. Such a person had no identity and hence his or her life had no meaning.
After the worst betrayal of my life, during quiet evenings I roll the imaginary fragments of identity on my palm for what they are worth, I roll them like fragments of history, mementos of my numerous lives that are meant to serve as a guide to re-discover my own personal truths. They make sense to me so I have decided to keep them. As for Jacob, I continue to wonder how the combination of a pair of far-off dreamy eyes, a body gone to seed, a constantly hesitant voice and a concealed sinister streak succeeded in scamming me. It is a puzzle I might never fully understand.
Sanya Osha is a writer who had lived in South Africa for many years. He has published pieces on diverse subjects such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.Y. Mudimbe and colonialist anthropology. He is now trying to put into better use what he has learnt over the years from reading poetry. His first novel, Naked Light and the Blind Eye released in 2010. Dust, Spittle and Wind, his second work of prose was published in 2011.