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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Annie Gagiano on Going Home by Simăo Kikamba (2005)

Annie Gagiano - 2008-06-25

Going Home attracted considerable attention when it was published (in South Africa, in 2005, by Kwela), winning the Herman Charles Bosman award for its author in 2006. What it measures and vividly portrays – the experiences of an African forced to flee from a country elsewhere on this continent where he has citizenship, but who faces persecution or life-threatening danger and who, after arduous journeying, seeks safety and a livelihood in South Africa – is so bitterly topical for re-displaced, re-victimised Africans in South Africa now that it presents itself as the necessary choice for discussion in this African Library entry.

Literature as lived and living history-made-present works very effectively in Kikamba’s both straightforward and heart-wrenching narrative. His wryly apt, deliberately ambiguous title expresses yearning as well as a sarcastic accusation against this continent’s recurrent ejections of its own people.

The narrator of Going Home is Manuel Mpanda, a MuKongo born in Angola, whose parents had to flee the land of their birth when a devastating civil war made staying there unbearable and unbearably risky. They manage to make a decent although precarious and meagre life in Kinshasa, in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Even though he manages to acquire a university degree and becomes a teacher of English, life there holds so little satisfaction for Manuel that he decides to return to Angola. He goes despite his father’s wishes and against his cautioning – that the supposed peace settlement between the MPLA and UNITA in Angola is precarious and untrustworthy. Manuel has no personal memories of life in Angola and no relatives there, except for a cousin who lives somewhere in Luanda.

Kikamba has a gift for writing vivid, detailed descriptions, especially of urban scenes and sights encountered while travelling. Manuel Mpanda is a completely convincing observer and a character whose benign doggedness one comes to respect. While he is neither an angel nor a hero, he is a person who does not easily let go of the idea that human normality should be a state where decency, fairness and efficiency are communally accepted norms. Almost everything he encounters in terms of officialdom, all along his travels and during his periods of settlement (in Angola as well as in South Africa) contradicts this belief, but it is never entirely shattered – perhaps because a number of individual encounters reveal to him that many people in their personal capacities share and also enact those same beliefs.

Sometimes one begins to think that the network of novels (and other literary forms) on this continent form an unofficial record that is the only real charge sheet against its evil or merely corrupt men in power and in uniform (and their female adjuncts). If our leaders and their police and army followed a primarily and recognisably protective ethos as their duty towards their subjects, then thugs and predators, mobs and gangs would be rather less daring in their conduct. It begins to feel as if in many parts of the continent bullies are ones that thrive informally while (and because) the powerful and the wealthy buy the safety and luxury that screen them off from the ordinary struggle for survival. The selfishly uncaring harshness at the top is replicated at every level of society.

Kikamba’s narrative has a circular design in that it begins with the protagonist in a detention centre well outside Johannesburg (where he had lived), feeling both ejected and entrapped. The story he tells a fellow detainee of how he, an Angolan with legitimate refugee status, happens to be there, takes us virtually to the end of the text, where Manuel faces yet another of the numerous ejection experiences around which his tale is construed.

The novel’s epigraph comes from Achebe’s meditations on Home and Exile; Kikamba uses a small citation – “sitting in the back of the truck and facing what seemed the wrong way, I could not see where we were going, only where we were coming from” – a statement which in Manuel’s context takes on the ironic resonance of contrasting the exile’s known past unrolling before him, while he is hurtling towards the future unable to plan or influence his course. It also suggests a further resonance: that this is all too true for many, many of this continent’s ordinary citizens.

The narrative begins during a routine crime crackdown in inner-city Johannesburg, and Manuel knows that in his area this involves police attempts to net primarily those foreigners involved in drug peddling or crime syndicates. He is unworried – as an Angolan war refugee, he is in possession of papers that are in order. Strolling home with the standard fare of the urban poor, three bread rolls and a packet of sugar, he is confronted outside his place of accommodation by “two black policemen in uniforms, guns in holsters and chests bulging with bulletproof vests”. They search him and, upon reading in his permit where he is from, one asks: “What the hell are you doing in South Africa?” (11). His "provocation" is to ask a counter-question: “Is it a problem being in South Africa?” (12). Indeed it is, to the hair-trigger temper of these policemen. One of the men tears up his refugee permit while they both proceed to fling him into the back of the police van – a vehicle which has become a cruising "pound" for collecting easily recognisable foreign blacks. Their guilt is assumed, and their protestations of innocence are piffling to a machine that has been set in motion against them for their foreignness. The brutality of this attitude is summed up in the stark "explanation" for tearing up his permit and illegitimately arresting him which is articulated by one of the two policemen: “You have no right to be here. ... This is not your country” (12).

References to globalisation and to postcolonial or African solidarity in contemporary academic discourse need to be balanced with awareness of the intense and eventually even murderous local possessiveness and resentment that gets built up in the poorer sectors of society against incursions from elsewhere. Are we at the stage where moneyed foreigners from Asia, Europe and the Americas are welcomed as investors while needy yet worthy fellow Africans are hated and expelled? Yet the "circulation" of the needy poor because of violent eruptions is as much a fact of our 21st-century continent as the overwhelmingly evident embassies, trade delegation investors and foreign experts who move in from moneyed societies for profits taken back to their home countries.

When he goes "home" to Angola, Manuel does so as an entrepreneur on a minuscule scale: he takes with him a bag containing fifty pairs of sandals, the selling of which will (he hopes) finance his journey. Apart from this he has nothing but a chewing stick, soap, a spare shirt and one extra pair of trousers. As he sits on the bus taking him towards the border, Manuel recalls his father’s warning that being shot is worse than being “reviled as refugees”; he told Manuel not to make the crocodile’s mistake of running away from rain only to dive into water (33). He did concede, though, that at twenty-four Manuel could not be prevented from making his own decision about where to live. Yet even on the bus to Angola, passengers express distrust of the supposedly newly achieved concord between the country’s rival leaders. “Dos Santos and Savimbi are not tired of fighting,” someone says: “There won’t be any lasting peace until one of them is dead" (34).

Manuel strikes up a friendship with a young woman called Isabel. She is working between Angola and Zaïre (as the DCR was then known) and has a house in Luanda. Disappointed that she won’t be going all the way to Luanda on this particular journey, Manuel is nevertheless pleased with her company on this first long bus ride. She even invites him to save money by offering him temporary accommodation with her in a house she rents in Mbanza-Kongo, where there is a break in the bus journey. Isabel had lost both parents at a fairly young age. Her father, a military officer, fought in the anticolonial Angolan war and then in the civil war (on UNITA’s side), and was killed on the battlefield; her mother died of grief. In various light touches, Kikamba conveys what a brave young woman Isabel is, how dignified and humane.

After imbibing rather too much wine on their second evening together, Manuel takes advantage of an equally inebriated Isabel to overcome her not-too-serious resistance to his sexual advances. He is nevertheless so embarrassed by what he has done (on waking up the next morning), that he flees her house without greeting her, to secure a seat on the military aeroplane leaving for Luanda – the only available safe transport in a still volatile country. Even as he first sets foot in Luanda he is warned by locals that the musseque (slum area) where his cousin supposedly lives is highly unsafe, because “there are lot of illegal guns around” (47). His cousin no longer lives there. Desperate to find food and shelter, Manuel is dragooned into doing housework and being the bed-mate of a fierce local woman. As Manuel learns afterwards), her own story is a sad one of childhood sexual abuse by a relative, but she is a harsh person and Manuel never really cares for her.

When he gets offered the chance of teaching English in a private school (with free lodging thrown in), he is delighted at the opportunity of freeing himself from his demeaning employment. Eventually he locates his cousin Maria Joana. Laconically, she tells him why she had been mentally disturbed (as a neighbour near her home had informed him): after she was gang-raped by soldiers, her husband had abandoned her! The brutalities of life in Angola begin to creep closer into Manuel’s consciousness, but he still hopes the peace will last. His cousin’s one serious caution to him is that in Angola, “You get involved in politics, you risk your life” (76).

Small, telling details accumulate during Manuel’s time in Angola to hint that the present political lull is untrustworthy. As one eloquent drunk declares (among other things): “Real peace means free and unrestricted movement of people and goods throughout the country” (82–3). His friend and employer, the owner and headmaster of the small private school where Manuel teaches, has openly associated himself (and the school) with UNITA, but even Manuel as newcomer is initially worried that in MPLA-dominated Luanda this is rather risky. Despite his cousin’s warning, he does nevertheless begin to join his friend and employer in campaigning for this party.

Seven months after Manuel’s arrival, Isabel locates him and, acknowledging their feelings for each other, they become inseparable. He leaves the school to assist Isabel in her trading. In the course of time, his skills as translator secure him a job at the Namibian embassy, although Isabel is opposed to his taking it. He also defies her wishes in helping his friend distribute UNITA T-shirts, because he resents “the long years of Marxism-Leninism” (95) of MPLA domination. Isabel is proved right when, amid accusations of vote-rigging and rumours of Savimbi’s death, the pre-election peace collapses into political mayhem and persecution of UNITA supporters. His friend is shot dead and Manuel becomes a hunted man, a refugee and fugitive in his own country.

Four months later things appear to have calmed down and Manuel resumes his embassy job. He and Isabel marry and have their first child, a daughter. But then he gets picked up by the secret police and blackmailed to compile a list of UNITA supporters in his region (under threat of incarceration and torture – probably fatal).

It is time to flee Angola. It is 1994, and Manuel decides to try his luck in the newly freed South Africa. The section depicting his arrival and subsequent experiences is titled “life and times of a black immigrant”. Yet, even as he enthuses about the “great country” to the taxi driver taking him into the city from Johannesburg International (as the airport was formerly called), the man warns him of the serious levels of “unemployment and crime”. Despite the country's being free politically, “the struggle is still on for jobs” (126). Manuel does not believe him when he adds that economic apartheid persists, until he is turned away from a white-owned guesthouse with an evidently false “no room at the inn” story.

Still financially well off initially, Manuel’s first real disillusionment comes from a fellow lodger’s sad story. A young, nineteen-year-old mother, she might be described as an inadvertent refugee. The father of her child had persuaded her parents that he would safely escort her, an only daughter, to Portugal for university studies. He had pocketed the money, brought her to South Africa and raped her. Entirely isolated, she was forced to stay with him and bring up their child with this man who has never married her. Manuel discovers that she comes to his flat to offer work because she and her child face starvation – the money from her parents having long run out and “her” man being unemployed. “I have been living in this country for the last two years," she tells Manuel, “and I haven’t come across a single refugee with a job” (134). The predictable consequences soon befall this small family: they are locked out of their lodgings since their rent is unpaid.

Manuel eventually reports to the Home Affairs office to apply for asylum. The queue warden spouts the typical unwelcoming words of his kind: “… no need to run, you arsehole! What jungle do you come from?” (143). The attitudes of apartheid-era pass law monitors have transmogrified into the “New” South Africa – against Africans from elsewhere. Manuel does get his temporary residence permit, but the stamp on the document states that he may not be employed in South Africa. Fortunately there is a good Samaritan who allows refugees to do temporary jobs as supposed students. When Manuel gets his permit renewed, it does now allow him to work legally. His confident hope of good, permanent employment is nevertheless deflated when a fellow graduate, working as a security guard, tells him that serious employers do not want employees for mere three-month stints. He is proved painfully right. Manuel has to resort to sub-letting his flat to make ends meet. A white friend takes pity on him and offers him a housecleaning job, but proves an unreliable and selfishly forgetful employer.

Despite Manuel’s resentful disappointment, this man resurfaces in his life and buys him beef and braai equipment, telling him to set up as a sidewalk food-seller. This proves highly successful. Just when things start going well, however, a group of young thugs steal all his meat and maliciously break his equipment, telling him to “go home to your own fucking country” (164). Another small job (dishwashing) ends when the immigrant owner is killed by a South African.

Manuel is now penniless and is evicted. He finds shelter with a fellow asylum seeker, but is soon made unwelcome there, too. At another place (unsavoury as it is), money Isabel had sent him is stolen; at the next place the landlord taunts him with being an illegal immigrant. When his family in the DRC writes asking him for money for an operation his mother needs to undergo, he tries even more desperately to accumulate some savings. The only apparently available method is criminal: illegal phone-tapping. Of course, they are caught, but his associate manages to bribe the policemen and they do not have to face court and jail. The next attempt is also criminal: storing stolen goods for a cut of the profit. But after another brush with police Manuel gives up this venture, too, after barely having started in it.

Manuel now moves (in a small way) into the trade in forged passports. This works better, and Manuel makes ends meet, ever careful and alert. The sophistication he has acquired makes him spot the flaw in a young friend’s faked passport. This young man aimed for the UK, proclaiming, “In London, asylum seekers have free accommodation, free food, and free education" (189). Maybe so, but he first has to get there, and of course the badly forged passport is discovered. He, too, ends up working as a security guard – at the harbour in Cape Town.

Now relatively prosperous, Manuel is to be joined by his wife and daughter. They have been separated for six whole years.

Just when he is in the lull of expectation of becoming a family man again, Manuel yields to the pleas and pressure of a beguiling fellow Angolan refugee, Fifi, who tells him a fake story of an uncle she cannot find. She is one of an evidently sizeable group of female refugees who use sex for survival. Although his reunion with Isabel is joyous, Manuel is plagued by guilt about his bout of sexual infidelity with Fifi. When a letter from her arrives for him, he confesses to Isabel. She is horrified, devastated and furious, but is eventually persuaded to forgive Manuel for his transgression. Reunited, their next problem is the refusal of South African schools to enrol pupils, like their daughter, who do not have birth certificates. They are forced to split the family again, for in Luanda their child can at least get an education.

The last chapter of the novel is only five pages long. It contains an important statement, though, formulated by Manuel Mpanda and five fellow detainees in the Lindela Detention Centre to which he was taken, as described in the novel’s first chapter, after an illegal arrest. The other five are from Mozambique, Angola, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa respectively. The South African had lived most of his life abroad and was detained “because he could not name body parts in Zulu” (218). The joint statement by the six men is a desperate measure taken by those unable to pay the R800 bribe (a head!) by means of which other detainees bought their freedom. Their petition (on toilet paper) is smuggled out to the South African Human Rights Commission. Acknowledging the validity of a crime crackdown, the men indignantly mention the “humiliation” they are unjustly enduring, because anti-crime measures have deteriorated “into the indiscriminative arrest of black immigrants, legal or illegal” (218). Two weeks later a Human Rights official comes to see them and after two more days Manuel is set free and issued with a new refugee permit. He goes back in relief to his room, only to be told that the landlord has changed the lock on the flat. He told the other tenants that “he did not endorse criminals”; in any case, the rent had not been paid. Manuel has no recourse. Defeated, he walks out into the street, “wondering if he would ever belong” (221).

Some readers might feel that such an unending relation of the often terrible and occasionally merely banal realities of an African immigrant’s life is not "literature", even though Kikamba writes competently and his text is well structured. His style is vivid but not "poetic"; the straightforwardness of his narrative manner is, however, wholly appropriate to its subject and narrator. Manuel interweaves his own tale with those of many others in similar circumstances.

As we know, the importance, validity and relevance of this text have been all too bitterly confirmed. What a pity that the heartfelt pleas and accusations implicit in the novel, and its exposure of the ugly side of contemporary South Africanism, were not heeded earlier. Until our continent’s various inhospitalities are addressed, all too many of those "going home" will never arrive in a sheltering social space.