Molossus is happy to announce a new feature, in partnership with World Literature Today. WLT Selections will appear monthly, as full length essays, interviews, poems, or stories selected by WLT Editor in Chief Daniel Simon from the current issue. This first story appears in the September – October issue of the magazine.
“Home Affairs,” excerpted from Nigerians in Space, a larger novel in progress, follows a father and son as they attempt to penetrate the notorious Refugee Reception Office in Cape Town, South Africa. The father, Wale, has fled both his native Nigeria and his second home—the U.S.—in search of his dream to go into outer space. His son, Dayo, wonders why they left at all. But Nigerians are rarely welcome in South Africa, and refugees often get the cold shoulder. The story emerged from Olukotun’s work as a refugee attorney.
The bullwhip went up and snapped back in a flash, giving Wale just enough time to duck. The guard was angry—he’d been aggravated by a Tanzanian, fresh off the smuggling truck and waving a paper in his face—and finally, he’d had enough.
“Three lines! Twenty-Twos, here! Twenty- Threes, here! Twenty-fours, here! Three lines!”
When Wale and Dayo didn’t move, the guard came at them hard and fast, stepping back to stretch the full length of the bullwhip.
“Get it up, Dayo!” Wale shouted. “Raise the shield!”
Clumsily Dayo raised his basket cover, a makeshift shield, and whap!-whap!-whap! the guard rained the whip down, shooting bits of bamboo into the air. Father and son huddled together like a Roman turtle, raising their shields over their heads until the guard, furious, moved on and cracked the whip at a group of Congolese men chattering in Lingala, seemingly unaware of the commotion.
The rest happened rapidly: the whip snapped, a pair of spectacles—glinting silver in the sun— shot into the air, one of the men fell to the ground clutching his temple, and his companion in military fatigues hurtled himself at the guard, wrestling away the whip. He had been a commander the Ninjas in Bouenza, he shouted, and wouldn’t let the guard treat him like an animal. And while more guards joined the fray to retrieve the whip that the commander had taken, Wale spied an opening in the security gate and they were running fast, fast, fast past the hundreds of others, through the turnstile and the beeping radar detector and into the gloam of the old Customs House.
Inside the long, dark foyer there was a corridor that led to the elevators. A stale haze hung in the air, obscuring their vision, and they began to sweat. They put away their shields and were about to press the “Up” button on the elevator when the guards entered dragging the military man by his shirt.
“Stay calm,” Wale instructed. “Let’s go to the stairs.”
The elevator door opened as the guards approached with their captive. Wale pretended like he had just exited the elevator, looking at his watch as if late for an important meeting. The guards pulled the man into the elevator without noticing and waited calmly for the door to close.
Wale and his son walked briskly to the stair- well, where the steps twisted up interminably into the mottled haze.
“What will they do with him, Dad?”
“This is Home Affairs, Dayo. In here we will mind our own business. We get in and get out.” He stepped over to Dayo, who was hunched over, his mouth slightly open and looking stupid, and pressed a thumb into his spine. “Stand up straight. Close your mouth.”
There were no windows in the stairwell, and the air felt as if it had hung there for decades.
“She’s on fourteen.”
They began to climb. Dayo broke out in a full sweat by the mezzanine of the stairwell, and the numbered floors did not begin until they had already climbed five flights. Wale tramped up, sweating too, holding the hems of his flowing agbada on the landings. They burst out of the stair- well into an empty corridor striped with mauve, fuchsia, and wilted sunflower paint. The fuchsia was the biggest stripe. There were exposed struc- tural beams and air ducts from refurbishing and each door had a plastic placard with a number on it.
“Mrs. Craxton is in four-point-thirty-five- point-sixty-two-point-twenty-one,” Wale said. “Or was it point-twenty-three?” He took a note from his pocket.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
“Point-twenty-two. You ate too many yams. I told you not to eat so many yams.”
They followed the hallway for a good two hundred meters, twisting and turning, until they were back at the stairwell. The only people they passed were security guards whom they wished to avoid. Cautiously, they trailed a custodian and came to a window where a reception officer waited behind wrought-iron bars.
“Mrs. Craxton isn’t coming into the office today,” she said.
Wale rustled in a bag of his. He produced an appointment slip and a Tupperware container.
“Please send her our compliments of the season,” he said. “Some dudu for you.”
“Doo-doo?” she chuckled.
“Plantains. A typical food from my home country.”
The receptionist smiled, now looking at the appointment slip. “I see, yes, it’s for today. She’ll be right here, Doctor.”
They waited patiently, Wale looking agreeable but not sycophantic. Wale was wearing a honeydew-colored agbada which, slightly starched, hung out from his belly like a maternity dress. He had insisted that Dayo wear a blazer and a burgundy silk tie over a white shirt. Whereas in the queue below Wale’s mannerism was humble and anonymous, his posture now conveyed a life accustomed to being treated with dignity. Mrs. Craxton arrived a half-hour later with a supermarket bag in hand, spoke briefly with the receptionist, and looked suspiciously in their direction. Wale smiled warmly.
Grimy windows ran the length of Mrs. Craxton’s voluminous office, and a fuzzy blob of Robben Island could be seen in Table Bay. Some sailboats finned through the water. It was a sunny day outside, but there would be no way of telling in her office. Along the window ledge, a line of black crows was cackling and cawing softly, looking out at the water. There were a few posters on the wall of the travel agency variety: washed out photos of Cinque Terre, Nepal, and Vic Falls. You could tell by the make of the vehicles and the flared jeans that the photos were several years old.
Mrs. Craxton was a fleshy, fifty-something white woman wearing a batik Mandela print dress. She had a necklace of orange plastic beads around her neck, and very full, healthy cheeks. Her watery light-gray eyes were hidden behind some plastic bifocals, and she had a slender, forward-bent neck. If it wasn’t for a disdainful expression one might have imagined that she had enjoyed a carefree youth. But the lines had been created from a lifetime of frowning.
Wale adopted a thick Nigerian accent as she entered his information, including his CTR number, into the computer. She typed laboriously with her index fingers as if at a typewriter. Her own accent was an even mix of Afrikaner and South African English.
“Ah, Doctor,” she said, reading from the computer monitor, “I remember now. You were one of the few Nigerians who met the criteria for persecution. You know your people can be awfully devious, with the drug syndicates and all the rest.”
“There are always a few bad eggs in the batch,” Wale smiled.
“For Nigerians it’s more than a few, isn’t it? I reckon it’s the climate. People will do anything to get out of the tropics. Of course, the tune’s changed a bit: now they claim they fled because of the Delta problem. I had ten men come in here yesterday saying they were leaders of mend. Only one could even point to Port Harcourt on the map. I sent them all packing. You were one of the few who made it through, Doctor. You’re a model refugee.”
“By the grace of God,” Wale said quickly. His son Dayo was staring out the window. Normally he disliked it when Dayo didn’t listen, but for once he hoped he would remain in his own world so that they could get through this as quickly as possible. Dayo had a way of overindulging in things, pressing the point. Wale deftly steered her toward the purpose of his appointment, applying for a biometric identification card, which Mrs. Craxton had forgotten.
“Unfortunately, the IDs aren’t ready yet. The worst part of my job is managing expectations. I’m assuming this is your son, Day-Oh?”
“Die-oh. Like diology.”
“What is diology?”
“That is how it is pronounced, Mrs. Craxton.”
She asked a variety of questions about Wale’s work status and his skills, all in order to get out of dealing with the biometric ID. He explained that he volunteered at the Royal Observatory and ran a bamboo business to put his son through private school. In the end she begrudgingly accepted the application.
“Your son is quite handsome, Doctor.”
“Don’t be fooled, Mrs. Craxton!” Wale laughed. “He’s a troublemaker. Children are always greener on the other side. Especially the knees.”
Mrs. Craxton laughed, enjoying watching the father put the son in his place. A gust of wind rattled the foggy window. The crows lining the ledge suddenly took flight in a black cloud, beating their wings, and then swept out into the bay. Mrs. Craxton typed away on her keyboard. Somehow lifting her fingers made her break out in a sweat, and she began eyeing a shopping bag, where a bag of crisps poked out. Wale reached into his bag and extracted a very large Tupperware container.
“Some pepper soup for you, Mrs. Craxton, compliments of the season.”
“Bloody hell,” Mrs. Craxton said, opening the lid. “Not so much soup in there. More like broth with meat. Just how I like it.” Then she held up a glob of yellow grain in plastic wrap. “What is this? Mealie pap? Do you eat mealie pap in Nigeria?”
“It’s called gari. Made from cassava. You can dip it in the soup, or mix it together, as you like.”
“I’ll try both,” she replied gleefully.
He did not have to mention the ID again, for, invigorated by the pepper soup, she put his name at the top of the list and gave him an appointment at the Barrack Street office where the IDs were being issued. They said goodbye, promising to get the inexplicable—but required—chest MRI at the hospital. Wale rose from his chair feeling that he’d done well for Dayo.
But of course that wasn’t good enough for his son, who suddenly rested his eyes on Mrs. Craxton. His posture had reverted back to its usual cowering form. “There was a security guard using a whip outside,” he said.
Mrs. Craxton snapped the lid on the Tupperware container and put it into a drawer in her desk. “Pardon me?”
“The security guard outside was whipping people in the line. He whipped us as well. Then they beat this guy up. Are you going to do anything about it?”
“We call it a queue in our country.”
“We call a line a queue.”
“They whipped us in the queue.”
She frowned. “What did he look like?”
“Small, broad shouldered.”
She waved her hand. “Oh, Themba. He’s a Zulu. I suppose you don’t know what that means, young man. Here we’ve got tribes. Zulus, I love them to death, but they do have a history. Have you heard of Shaka?”
“Themba’s a Zulu who manages the queue”— she drew out the word like an elementary school teacher—“but it’s not always what you think, young man. We at Home Affairs hate abuse as much as the next one. No, you can say we hate it more, because we see what it does to our clients and how it humiliates them. I was the secretary of the Sea Point Black Sash, to give you an idea.”
Wale cleared his throat, attempting to salvage the bonhomie he’d garnered with the soup. “Please excuse my son, Mrs. Craxton. He’s—pardon the pun—out of line. We know you’re busy, we’re both very grateful for your—”
“No, Doctor. He has a right to an answer. That is also something I believe in. Total transparency. It was probably the sound. Do you know the sound? Kind of like tchi, made with the tongue on the back of the teeth. Tchi, tchi, tchi, like a hummingbird. Well, that sound is a supreme insult to Xhosas and slightly less so to Zulus, but certainly enough to take offense. Many of our francophone clients do it without thinking. I’m sure that’s what happened.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Dayo insisted. “He was being whipped.”
“There’s no doubt it was the tchi. I’ve seen Themba resist all manner of insults, but that’s his soft spot. For a Zulu he is like Christ. Unfortunately, tchi is a natural display of dissatisfaction for the francophones. We’ve tried to post signs but you can imagine it’s a very difficult message to communicate.”
“The guards took a guy away in a military uniform,” Dayo said.
She said that UNHCR had promised to task their linguists with developing good signage.
“All I want to know is if that man’s all right.”
“Call UNHCR. Here’s the number.” Mrs. Craxton scratched a number on a sticky note and gave it to Dayo.
The ride home. Tumultuous, a braying of insults and accusations, all amplified because Dayo had nearly ruined it for them both. This was an ID-obsessed country, Wale shouted. Did he want their home to get robbed again? If you didn’t have an ID you didn’t have a bank account, and if you didn’t have a bank account you would be robbed because you had money in your house. Did he want to sabotage the bamboo business? You couldn’t travel and you couldn’t secure a loan to buy anything like a car or a shop.
But Dayo seemed not to have heard him at all. He waved Mrs. Craxton’s note in his father’s face.
“I’m going to ring UNHCR.”
Wale snatched the paper from his hands. He tore it up, his son’s face awash with horror.
“No, you’re not!” he boomed. “This is South Africa, Dayo! One of these days you’ll know what that means. Without an ID you don’t exist.”
Deji Olukotun grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey. He writes about fiction and human rights for Fiction That Matters. Nigerian American, he graduated with an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Cape Town.