Olakunle Olafioye, Henry Okwonkwo and James Ojo Adakole
Sylvester Tete cut a picture of a distressed person. And like someone in darkness, he groped for the right word to describe his regretful sojourn in South Africa when he landed in Nigeria on Wednesday, September 18, 2019. Tete was one of the 315 Nigerians that made the second trip from South Africa in the aftermath of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in the former apartheid enclave. Reports had earlier claimed that over 320 returnees would be evacuated during the second trip, but there was a shortfall when the plane conveying the evacuees touched down at the Murtala International Airport, Lagos.
Tete’s seven-month-old son, Dominion, and his wife were two of the expected returnees that could not make the trip. “It was very devastating getting separated from my wife and my little boy at the point of taking off from South Africa”, Tete said in an emotion-laden voice.
The Delta State-born Tete could only make do with the word ‘darker’ as against the word ‘green’ in the elusive greener pasture he had gone to seek in South Africa, when asked to describe his experience. But as ‘darker’ as his experience was in the hostile African nation, the father of two said leaving half of his family behind in South Africa cast much darker memories of his sojourn in South Africa on his mind.
Upon graduation from the Delta State Polytechnic, Tete set off for South Africa in the hope of finding a more comfortable life outside the shores of Nigeria. But no sooner had he landed in South Africa than it dawned on him that life was not greener in his country of sojourn. Rather, according to him, “it was darker. Everything and every day was a struggle. I tried to go into business, but nothing worked. Every month end left me with bitterness and anger because before the end of the month you discovered that you have incurred more expenses than your income. So, to pay rents, to provide for the family became a major challenge.”
But in spite of this massive cross he had to carry, Tete said he was determined to brace the odds and live up to his responsibility as a father and husband until few weeks ago when the hostile South Africans bared fangs of aggression on Nigerians and other black Africans in their country, forcing many of them to consider beating a retreat to their countries of birth. But Tete’s preparation to sail back to Nigeria was not without a snag. He is married to a Zimbabwean woman. So, at the point of leaving for Nigeria, the Nigerian consulate informed him that his wife would not be able to make the trip because of her nationality.
“My wife couldn’t make the trip because of her nationality. She is a Zimbabwean. At the point of departure, the consulate said there was no provision for foreigners to travel to Nigeria with the evacuees. So, painfully we have to divide ourselves. I decided to come to Nigeria with our first son, Praise, while my wife and our seven-month old son, Dominion, stayed back in South Africa. It was very distressing to see them not leaving the country where life was made unbearable for us. My wife was ready to come with me, but she was stopped at the airport. I hope one day I will be able to raise money for her visa so that she could join us in Nigeria with my second son. It’s really devastating,” he declared.
Disturbingly, some other Nigerians have stories of their separations from their families more complicated than Tete’s.
Onyebuchi James Udoka is one of them. The Anambra State native is married to a South African woman and the couple has two children together. But despite being married to a South African, Udoka claimed he was not exempted from the inhuman treatments Nigerians and other black Africans were subjected to.
His first bitter experience came in 2008 when his shop was broken during a xenophobic attack. But in spite of the setback, Udoka still managed to gather the courage to forge ahead.
He would later marry his South African heartthrob in an ostensible protection-seeking move. However, after the recent round of attacks, Udoka made up his mind to relocate to Nigeria, but the plan met a brick wall in his wife.
“My wife turned down my proposal to return to Nigeria together with me. Since she refused, I decided to run for my dear life. We have two children together. She reported me to the police in South Africa over my plan to relocate with my children. The Nigerian consulate did their best to help me get the children, but the South African authorities frustrated my efforts, claiming my children are South African citizens. I don’t have any intention of returning to South Africa, but I hope that when they grow up, they will have to make a decision on how to see their father. They are seven and four years old respectively, a boy and a girl,” Udoka disclosed.
For Elvis Idele, another returnee, the inability of his wife to make the trip to Nigeria remains a great source of bitterness. The deflated look on his face and his palpable struggle to handle their four kids show just how much he missed his heartthrob.
“I am happy to be back in Nigeria with my children alive, but for how long do you expect me to be happy when my wife is nowhere to be found?” Idele queried.
According to him, his wife’s whereabouts remained unknown to him since recent xenophobic attacks against immigrants reached its peak in South Africa.
Idele, in an interview with Sunday Sun said: “On the very day the uprising started, my kids were on their way to school when suddenly I was called to come and take them away. I have to lock my kids inside the room. As I am speaking now, I can’t find my wife because I don’t know where she ran to during the fight. You can see how they inflicted a deep cut on my hand (showing this reporter a gut-wrenching scar on his hand), if I undress my trouser, you will see a bigger wound. In all of these, my inability to locate my wife till now remains a headache for me. I don’t know her present state now, death or alive, in good condition or writhing in pains. I can only hope she’s in good condition wherever she is at the moment. Only God knows her present whereabouts.
Like Mr Idele, Mr Thompson Obi is yet another returnee whose family has been separated by xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
He narrated his ordeals in a chat with Sunday Sun: “There is nothing like being at home. However, for me, it is like I am still in South Africa languishing in pains and regrets. I am yet to find my only daughter since the incident happened,” he said.
Also speaking, another returnee who simply identified herself as Joy said: “I am presently the most distressed person in the world. It is really difficult trying to pretend that all is well when in reality nothing is all right. Before this unfortunate incident happened, my husband and I had lived in South Africa for 24 years. We struggled together to build a better future for our children and ourselves. How all that disappeared in a flash still baffles me, but none leaves me as worried as my husband’s absence. He had to risk everything to ensure we are here. Whether he is safe now or not remains a puzzle for me. My greatest fear is whether I will even see him again. I won’t be able to live without him. I pray he comes back safely to meet his kids again,” she said.
As the sad stories of families split by the xenophobic incidents continue to pile up, there are also some returnees that see their repatriation as an opportunity to return to the soothing embrace of their families. One of such persons is Livinus Onyemaechi, a native of Njaba in Imo State.
Mr Onyemaechi was away for over 18 years and he is very happy to be brought back home as he said that he couldn’t wait to see his grown-up children.
“I am delighted to be back because I’m very eager to see my family. I lived in South Africa for over 18 years, leaving my wife and three children back here in Nigeria. They live in the village in Imo State. I’ve been away from them for so long. Honestly, I can’t even recognise my children when I see them now because I left them when they were very young. I understand my eldest daughter is about to graduate from Alvan Ikoku College of Education. And I’m happy to be back because it’s an opportunity to reunite with my family here in Nigeria,” he said.
Onyemaechi who looks to be in his early 60s said that he was operating a mechanic workshop in Johannesburg until he lost everything to xenophobia. “I went to South Africa with the hope that I’ll stay there for at most three years after which I’ll come back to my family in the village. But things were a bit rough there because of the level of intimidations we get from the South Africans. They keep coming to threaten us at our shops, abusing us and telling us to go back to our countries. It is a very terrible experience and I was even planning to return home when the latest attacks began. I wanted to stay a few months so that I could save enough money to train all my children up to higher institutions. But the attack became too much. But I thank God for everything and I’m happy to be back to my country,” he said.
Like Mr Onyemaechi, Mr Ikemefuna Okereke is another returnee in ecstatic mood over the prospect of reuniting with his family in Nigeria.
According to Okereke, an native of Bende in Abia State, the quest for greener pastures kept him away from his family for over five years.
“I am married and my wife and my two children are here in Nigeria. I used to trade in auto spare parts at Mgbuka-Obosi in Onitsha, Anambra State while my family stayed in Aba, Abia State. But I decided to travel out because I thought business would be better for me over there in South Africa. So, I went to Johannesburg with my capital to establish my business and I lived there for five years. I’m happy to be back to my country and to reunite with my family. They live in Omuma road in Aba, I’ll go and stay with them. I’m not afraid of starting afresh here in Nigeria. And I believe that God will be on my side as I get ready to start life afresh,” he said.
Mr Okereke while recounting his losses said he’s delighted to be alive to come back to see his household.
“I am glad to be back home alive. When the attacks started, if I hadn’t escaped, I don’t think I would have been alive and that would be a big tragedy to my wife and children. My motor spare parts shop near the motor garage area of Johannesburg was looted and destroyed. There are many Nigerians like me that didn’t peddle drugs or involve in any immoral acts, many of us are genuine traders over there. It is because of the wickedness in their hearts that made them see every Nigerian as fraudsters”, he said.