Technically, I am committing a crime every moment of every day. Fear of southern Africa’s courtrooms, trials and potentially prison for existing sans-Visa motivates a journey to Windhoek, the capital city. I seek papers that don’t exist.
I can’t cross any borders with my expired visa. Leaving would bring attention to my status; staying is illegal too, safer, but the risk of jail time grows with every day. I spend mornings in sweltering offices, smiling, crying, begging and apologizing. The American consulate can’t intervene, the agency my employer hired lost all of the papers and the agent keeps asking for money as I scramble back and forth, trying to find someone who will listen. I came as a two-month volunteer in Ovamboland, the tribal north of Namibia, a country defined by drought and the highest wealth disparity in the world. I stayed as a teacher for six months. Then, broke, I got a private job working for white lodge owners in the south. Now I am volleyed from agency to department to consulate to ministries for five days, until a dignified lump of a man on the top floor of Home Affairs tells me to leave and not come back.
Suddenly, the looming prospect of things only getting worse turns into urgency to leave as soon as possible; it’s time to go. Walking into the airport, tickets are purchased in cash and I join the line at immigration. I’m sweating, hands are shaking, haven’t eaten all day. I sidle up to the desk and hand over my passport.
“Here, meme. How are you today?” Smile. I can hear the blood pumping in my ears, my hands are numb. Everything will be fine, I tell myself as she looks up. I’m wrong, everything is not fine; her eyes betray her hesitation.
“No, no. What is this? You were to be out months ago, Miss.”
I tell her the whole story. Still no, but considering it; she consults her colleague. No. It won’t do.
“You are working here without a permit! You have to stay and go to court and pay the money.” The conversation continues. I offer to pay the money; explain, and then cry. No, no. Her eyes grow hard and unforgiving as I make excuses and questions. I no longer have my passport. I feel naked; it has been with me every day here.
I am told to sit on the ground off to the side. The other passengers on my flight walk by, some staring openly, though most look right through me.
The line is gone now; there are no more witnesses. Finally my mind starts humming and I breathe, looking up at the meme. “Please, meekulu, where are you from?” I speak awful Oshikwanyama and pray that Windhoek hasn’t stolen her tribal knowledge of universal family. We exchange names and her eyes begin to turn. “Ame omulongi womo Ponhofi. I teach English to your grandchildren; I love them; I love this country, but I need to go home. Do you have children? My parents are missing me. Please, meekuu.”
I stop, realizing I am begging. I sit again on the cold tile floor and call the consulate. The meme looks over, spurred by this development. The Foreign Service Officer again says that they can’t do anything, but they promise to call the immigration supervisor to try and work something out.
“Come.” Barely audible, she asks me how much I will pay her to let me leave. I make an offer. She takes it, rolls it in her mouth, doubles it. She knows how this works, I think; might as well make a tidy profit on some missing papers.
She returns and waves for me to rise and meet her couanter-side. We make our arrangements, money changes hands, my passport is stamped. She tells me how lucky I am that she is my officer, another wouldn’t be so understanding, she isn’t going to ban me from the country like protocol demands.
She’s right. In Ovamboland, my name is Nelao Ndangi – ‘thank good fortune.’ My passport is returned.
“Tangi unene, meekulu!” I call, already walking away. Her eyes had changed completely with the fold of money. I didn’t look back, pushing into the idea of leaving behind an entire life so suddenly.
Laughter accompanies the realization that I have bribed my way out of a country that adamantly swore off corruption years ago and it bursts forth, tumbling across the runway as I hurry to board the waiting plane.