Xenophobia and the Nigerian Kwerekwere in post-apartheid South Africa
It is crucial to start with a very fundamental definition. “Kwerekwere” is the derogatory term that black South Africans use when referring to unwanted foreign blacks, especially Nigerians. A very insightful 401-page book, The Kwerekwere Testament: The Complete Chronicles authored by Kenneth Chukwuka Madiebo, and published by ArtRelated, Lagos, in 2011, undertakes an original meditation on the clear and present danger of xenophobia in modern-day South Africa with particular regard to Nigerians.
The Kwerekwere Testament: The Complete Chronicles is autobiography-disguised-as-fiction, even though the author and his publisher would want the work to be seen and taken as pure fiction. The book is classic memoir, as per the rage of the moment in publishing circles in Britain and America. I will elucidate on this later.
The author of The Kwerekwere Testament Kenneth Chukwuka Madiebo is the son of Major-General Alexander Madiebo (rtd), the Nigerian military’s first Artillery Commander and the erstwhile Biafran Army Commander who authored the pivotal book The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafra War. It’s essential to underscore the pedigree of the author, especially as he studied veterinary medicine in Nigeria before venturing into Swaziland to sell clothes, only to end up in South Africa for all of thirteen-and-a-half years! He lays it all bare at the end of the book with these words: “I should know all this, because I was a kwerekwere for thirteen-and-a-half years.”
In the prologue, it is explained that another alias for a foreign unwanted person other than “Kwerekwere” is “Ngangawane” but both terms translate to insults such as white South Africans calling the blacks “Kaffir”, or whites generally addressing blacks as “Niggers”. The darker the person’s skin is the worse kwerekwere he becomes such that “even bona fide black South Africans especially from the Venda and Pedi tribes, have been arrested for being too black, with the immigration officials labeling them Zimbabweans.” The xenophobia in South Africa was such that Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka was in 2005 denied entry at South Africa’s Airport for eight hours until Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel had to intervene.
The protagonist of The Kwerekwere Testament, Orakwe, flies into Swaziland at noon on December 13, 1994 to sell Nigerian traditional attires in the company of his friend, Tony Okereke, who had snared him into the profitability of the trade. Tony’s contact in Swaziland, the Tanzanian named Mohammed, who had earlier said he would pay cash for the goods ducks out of the deal, thus leaving the Nigerian duo stranded. In his thatch mud habitation in rustic Swaziland a distraught Orakwe ruminates on what his dad had told him in Nigeria: “This is a senseless move you are about to make, son.” He recalls also how his father had earlier in his life advised him back in Nigeria not to undertake an Alsatian puppies’ business that doomed him to bankruptcy. Orakwe had in 1993 secured provisional employment in the Drug Enforcement Agency of Nigeria as a dog veterinarian only to be denied and kicked out unceremoniously. It’s against this background of graduate unemployment that exporting traditional attires – and even snake skins to Swaziland – becomes a veritable lure.
Stranded in Swaziland, Orakwe resorts to basically hawking the wares with his companion Tony when no big-time buyer could step forward. He desperately makes a phone call to his Swazi in-laws who had only recently been in his Nigerian hometown of Awka to see their daughter married to his cousin, but no dice is forthcoming. Now trapped and knowing that his plans to be back in Nigeria for the December 1994 celebrations is at best unreasonable, Orakwe decides to survive on the brink with shady characters like Saul Slave-Trade who is involved in human trafficking of the sex trade variety. Orakwe gets the task of travelling into Mozambique to ferry back a prostitute, Patricia, who had some immigration problems, but comes back empty-handed and unrewarded as the selfsame Patricia had somehow found her way into Swaziland.
Orakwe meets up with 30-year-old Ndubuisi Akunwata who sold off his two restaurants and transport buses in the eastern Nigerian city of Aba for the journey to South Africa. Ndubuisi had lived with his friend Okoroafor Freedom in South Africa, to whose family in Nigeria he had paid $1000, but the man reduced him to a slave before kicking him out in the cold, but he had somehow managed to pilfer the wicked master’s $5,000 with which he ran to Swaziland, and eventually back to Aba.
Orakwe becomes exposed to the mules on the drug runs to Brazil and Europe such as Chima who gets jailed in England and later in Columbia. He fortuitously makes contact with his classmate, Mike Dagogo, who had graduated at the top of the class but is now a big Johannesburg baron who advises that he should immediately cross over to South Africa. The crossing to South Africa is done by Osaze “Swaz”, past the dangerous pass at Ermelo and onto Johannesburg.
The beauty of the white cities does not hide the ugliness of the black shanties even as Orakwe gets a heroic welcome from Mike Dagogo, only to soon learn that everything for the “kwerekwere” comes down to survival of the fittest on “The Streets”. It’s instructive to note that his former lecturer “Dr. Azubuike, who has PhD in veterinary pharmacology from the University of the South-East, sells pinches of cocaine in Berea.”
Mike Dagogo organizes Orakwe’s procurement of the paper to move around South Africa atop which is printed “Temporary Permit to Prohibited Person”, thanks to Section 42 of the United Nations charter. His mentor Mike has a shouting match with the white receptionist of their lodgings, Melanie Kruger, over arrears of rent, and she invites the police – bursting in on the Nigerians at the wee hour of 4am. After a thorough search, no cocaine is found. Then the Nigerians eventually get thrown out of the Apartment. Mike who earlier would not reduce his bosom classmate Orakwe to hustling drugs on “The Streets” now declares that he is “broke too” such that everybody has to find ways to survive.
Orakwe goes back to Swaziland when his old friend Tony informs him that a surefire job for a veterinary doctor is there for the taking. The job does not manifest, and he vainly tries out the business of selling the Croydon Diamonds.
He does eventually go back to South Africa where he is nearly beaten to death by racist white cops at Jan Visser Square where he had gone to save his acquaintance Romanus. Orakwe’s narration is hyper-realistic, thus: “To my amazement, they didn’t even hit Romanus as much, just the occasional slap here and there. Each time they approached him, he started screaming. I didn’t scream because I knew I had committed no offence. There were guns lying around the room carelessly and I was so tempted. If I had known how to use one I might have gone for it and tried to take out as many of them as I could because I was so sure I wasn’t going to leave the room alive.” He is after the ordeal charged with dealing in drugs which becomes reduced to illegal possession and, finally, bribery. He is granted bail for 3,000 Rands.
He is reduced to starting literally afresh. Against the grain of his impoverishment, he gets to learn that his friend who made him to come to Southern Africa in the first place, Tony Okereke, had got lucky by being handed cocaine sent through a courier company. Even so, they still live at the margins of society, and xenophobia haunts their daily existence.
In a marked reversal of fortune, Orakwe makes much money through the forging of documents. In short, he becomes the most artful forger in the land. He indulges in 419 letter-writing, duping the South Korean businessmen Kwon and Kim in league with the tag team of Oga-Yawe and Benita who would eventually cheat him out of the deal. The letter written to the Koreans reads: “My name is Asedu Sese Seko, third daughter of the fifth wife of the President Mobutu Sese-Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. After my father’s death, I came into possession of $25,000,000 (twenty-five million United States of America Dollars)…” After fleecing the Koreans and double-crossing Orakwe, Ogo-Yawe travels to Nigeria to marry Benita on the Easter weekend of 2001; then the couple would travel to Dublin en route London, only to return to South Africa, broke.
In the bid to make something of his life after all, Orakwe abandons “The Streets” for admission into the prestigious College of Medicine of the University of the West for a Master’s Degree in Public Health. His troubles do not end as he tangles up with the racist Professor “Asbestos Killer”. The racists attempt to make him not to graduate by not giving him a supervisor. He writes a protest letter to the black vice-chancellor and all hell is let loose. He in the end graduates in June 2007.
A remarkable incident in The Kwerekwere Testament is when Orakwe runs into his friend Obi Obiora who studied biochemistry in the same university as Orakwe back in Nigeria. Obiora is now leading others in the initiation rituals of the Inagba cult where a baby is killed, his heart eaten and he is pounded on a pot with pestles. The place strikes like a scene out of the cult covens of Nollywood movies: “I took in the scene. There were red candles that appeared to be placed strategically burning languidly all around the lounge. I saw six men, including Obiora, dressed in red robes with the insignia of what looked like an upturned star and little moon. His apartment had numerous stuffed lion effigies. He also had paintings and photographs of lions. Today, these images that I had always admired took a different dimension in what now appeared to be a dimly-lit shrine. I recognized only one other person. His name was Udoka. He was holding what looked like a doll baby by the hair. The only thing was that this was not a toy. This was a child that looked only a few months old. I took all this in rapidly.”
Orakwe refuses to be a part of the ritual of gore and blood, and ends up killing Obiora with the pestle in self-defence. It makes for sordid reading: “Without thinking, I swung my pestle like a baseball bat, hitting the Indian directly on his solar plexus. His scream was almost like the yelp of a dog that had been run over by a car. The revolver dropped from his hand and a shot went off as he went down grimacing, his face a mask of pain. Obiora made to grab me but I raised the pestle up and brought it down hard on the centre of his head. His eyes rolled back instantly. I thought I heard a crunchy, cracking sound beneath his red, turban-like headgear. I rushed to the large French windows and felt an intense pain as something came crashing down on my right shoulder. I jumped out without a pause, smashing the glass.”
After the gruesome killing, Orakwe goes to Durban to stay with his girlfriend Nosipho and then travels to Johannesburg Airport for the travel back to Nigeria, with only 20 Rands in his pocket: “At the Johannesburg International Airport, I had just R20 to my name, almost $3. Thirteen-and-a-half years ago, I came with $100 plus $5,000 worth of merchandise and now, I was leaving with nothing. I had my bicycle with me, hoping to find any stranger travelling light who could add it to his luggage. Just like, when I came out south for the first time and I was looking for a traveller to help carry some of my excess luggage. History was almost repeating itself in reverse, because this time, no one agreed, and so I sadly abandoned my bicycle and helmet at the airport.”
Orakwe is nearly prevented from travelling back at the airport on account of his “cack” or “shit” Study Permit extension. His vigorous protests attract attention until he is allowed to travel at the very final boarding announcement.
Orakwe gets picked up at the Lagos airport by his brother Ugonna and his wife Ifeoma, and the human rights lawyer Ekundayo in a Toyota Prado 4×4.In The Kwerekwere Testament: The Complete Chronicles Kenneth Chukwuka Madiebo has done a courageous duty to the unsaid truths beneath our hip and contemporary existence. The authorities and the establishment can no longer smooth over the evils of xenophobia, forced migration, institutionalized crime, corruption and racism. The Nigerian emigrating in pursuit of the good life is almost always on a wild goose chase as exemplified by the sojourn of Orakwe. South Africa needs to change its ways. No nation in history has ever made it through insularity and exclusion. Here is a grand historical document that needs to travel. Kenneth Chukwuka Madiebo has indeed poured it all out straight from the heart in The Kwerekwere Testament. It is through such a conviction that the course of history is changed, just as the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe aided the struggle to end slavery in America.
It is my belief though that The Kwerekwere Testament would have made more impact if it had been published as a memoir. For instance, the American writer James Frey sent the manuscript of his novel entitled A Million Little Pieces to 37 publishers and all the 37 publishers rejected the manuscript. Then he changed the word “novel” to “memoir” and the book was promptly accepted for publishing. He did not change a word in the text, not even a comma. The book became a huge bestseller and was chosen as an Oprah book. However, a scandal broke that the so-called memoir was all cooked-up fiction. The author had to apologize on television.
The difference here is that The Kwerekwere Testament is not an invented story whatsoever. It is the author’s lived life in bold print. Kenneth Chukwuka Madiebo has powerfully exposed the soft underbelly of post-apartheid South Africa in a book that is so real, true and convincing.
• Uzoatu is a Lagos based journalist and critic.