Monday, August 22, 2011

Namibia Trip?

Post by James

“This is not the US Embassy!” “You can read English-- what does that say?!” “No... you get a blanket if you have done a crime.” “Wait here and we will get someone to escort you to the toilet.” These are a few of the many things I never expected to hear upon attempting to enter Namibia recently.

I was traveling from Lusaka to Winhoeke, the capital of Namibia, in order to link up with Rich Barcellos and John DiVito, who were the first visitors from the States to teach for us in this newly forming college. Though I wouldn’t be teaching, I was traveling to welcome Rich and John, to help with logistics of the module, and especially to sit down with the leaders there to discuss plans related to the college for next year.

Having had a nice smooth journey from Lusaka, and a brief stop-over in the airport of Johannesburg, I was walking into the airport fully expecting to check through with no problem and meet Buddy Bahun, who had come there to pick me up. Little did I know while standing in the line that in just a few minutes, a nightmare of a night would start!

Everything began to unravel when I stood before the immigration officer and handed her my passport. “You don’t have enough pages!” she said. “Well, there is room here, and here and here.” I showed her some places where she could stamp the visa. “You will need to stand aside.” So, I stood to the side while others filtered through the lines, apparently with plenty of pages for the officer to stamp. They processed the whole plane and then the supervisor for immigration came and began to talk to me. She said the same thing: “You don’t have enough pages. Why are you traveling on a full passport?” I pointed out the pages in the back for amendments, etc, as one place with lots of room. “You can’t read English? You can’t tell what that says? It’s for amendments, not visa stamps.” “OK, but Zambia stamped this page, and South Africa stamped that one” I said, pointing to two such amendment pages. “Are you saying we are supposed to follow their procedures? Do you think we are Zambia or South Africa?” Then, I explained I was just saying that other countries used the pages.

Besides, I told her, there is room on several of my visa pages for their stamp. In fact, the previous time I traveled was TO NAMIBIA, and they stamped me then. She kept saying throughout our discussion, “Where? Show me where I can stamp?” I would turn to the pages where there was room, and she would just turn away as if she didn’t see them. I started thinking to myself, “Has someone been a real jerk to her today? I’ve never been treated so rudely by an immigration officer in my life! Has an American soured her attitude earlier and now I’m paying for it?

I explained that I knew my passport was getting full and had even checked with my embassy in Lusaka before leaving, and they were going to get me some more pages after I came back. But in the meantime it was OK to use the passport, they explained. A few minutes later, she said, “Your embassy told you not to travel and you travelled anyway.” A total twisting of what I said. Several times, the same kind of thing happened. In fact, one of the times she said to show her where there was room, I turned to page 14, where there was space for both of the stamps they issue. She held the stamp over the space, where it clearly covered, and then pulled the stamp up again. “See-- it fit. You had it right there. Just press down!”

She kept trying to provoke me by saying things like, “This is not the US Embassy,” or “Can’t you read English,” etc. She then took out a fuzzy copied form which she filled out and asked me to sign. “What does it say?” “That you don’t have room for a visa stamp.” 
“I can’t sign that-- it’s not true,” I said. “Fine-- I will just write ‘refused to sign,’” which she promptly did. Once it was clear she was determined to detain me and not let me enter the country, I told her I was getting nothing from Namibia and wasn’t being paid there. I was only there as a volunteer to help with their education. And her refusal to allow me to enter was only harming her own country. “So I should sacrifice because you’re here for a good cause?!” “Sure” I said. That didn’t help! She would move from one desk to another, and then I would follow her, trying to persuade her to let me in, and also trying to keep up with what is happening. “Sir, you are annoying me! Stop following me around! Go over there and sit down!” Not wanting to provoke her further, I went and sat and waited.

Finally, she came back to me and said “Follow me!” I came around the corner and there was Buddy, ready to pick me up. He was smiling as if to say, “Finally! Great!” I looked at him saying, “No-- not great!” When I got to him I told him what was happening. He tried to talk to me, but was interrupted by her: “Who are YOU!?” Buddy said he was here to pick me up. But she said, “No, he’s not coming into the country.” I tried to talk with Buddy and figure out something to do, but she said, “SIR! Come on; I have other things to attend to. Come with me!”

Taking premature leave of Buddy, I followed until she came to a security scanning area with about five or six policemen standing around. She gave my passport and some papers to them, and disappeared. Now, I was in the custody of the police. Any attempts to get out of the situation now were over. I was stuck here for the night. I didn’t have a Namibian phone account, so my phone wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get an internet signal. I asked to use the phone, but they said, “No, we can’t do that.”

I realized the police were not the ones who put me in this situation and it would do no good being upset with them. I was just an inconvenience to them. I had gotten my bag back with a few changes of clothes, and was shown a small office. “This is where you will sleep.” They took me inside. It was about 8x8 feet square. There was a small table not big enough to lay on, and a rolling office chair. It was an office for these same police so it had a lot of keys on the wall.

I had arrived at 6:30 PM and now it was probably 8:30 or so. The police were all chatting in the local language mixed with some English here and there. I had the door open at first and occasionally would ask a question about what was going to happen to me next, but no one seemed to know anything. Soon, however, a captain or something arrived and he said I needed to close the door. So, it was a jail cell after all, I guess.

They were cooking and eating food next door, but no food or water was given to me that night or in the morning before leaving. They refused to allow me to call my wife and let her know my predicament. Later in the night, about 11pm, I opened the door to ask one of the officers for a blanket. The previous shift had given a small space heater, but it only worked for my feet, and that very little. The term “space” in reference to this heater indicated about six inches around the front screen of this weak device.

I had laid out my trousers on the floor because it was cold tile. I kept my jacket on because of the cold, and also my shoes, but still was too cold to feel comfortable to sleep. I asked again for a blanket. This time, the man said, “No blankets here. If you commit a crime, we take you to the station. There, they have beds and blankets.” “So, you give blankets and beds to criminals, and you make non-criminals sleep on the tile floor in cold season?” What could he say? “I understand your situation, sir.” “So you have been deported trying to enter a country?” “No. But sleeping on the floor...” OK, fair enough.

His boss came by a bit later and I asked again about a blanket and got the same kind of answer. I asked for a reed mat or anything to make the floor more bearable. “Even if I was a visitor in the village, they would give me a reed mat to sleep on.” No sympathy there!

The next few hours were sheer misery. I would shiver and shuffle around trying to find a way to sleep, knowing I would pay later in the week for missing a whole night of shut-eye. But every hour or so, someone opened the door. Since this was the key room, there was always something they needed. And they always flipped the light on to find them. A couple of times in the night, new officers would arrive. I guess I was a spectacle, because they would open the door and peer down at this pitiful excuse for a human being lying on the floor of their office!

In addition, about three times I needed to go to the bathroom. I had to ask to go (humiliating in itself), and then be accompanied by a policeman who stood there at the bathroom while I went. Maybe they were afraid I was going to swallow one of their keys and try to escape! At any rate, it was the only time I got to leave the little cubicle office. The rest of the time was just a long night of trying to do the impossible-- get sleep on a cold floor while being regularly interrupted by police officers charged to keep you detained until you are shipped back home.

About 5:00 in the morning, a woman opened the door and flipped the light on. “Why are you here?” I explained my situation. She thumbed through my passport. “But there is room here, and here, and here” she said. Tell me about it! I thought. I agreed and said it didn’t make sense. She said, “You need to get up.” Am I going somewhere? No. She just wanted me to be awake and up at 5 am!

I waited another three hours, reading and praying and trying to have a morning routine. Sometime later in the evening before I figured I should try to get some spiritual good out of this. What might the Lord be teaching me? And these guys were all people I could at least try to have a good attitude around and treat well and not be a “bad detainee,” whatever that entailed.

Close to 8am, a new officer from Immigration came in with a chipper, “How was your night!?” Or something like that. I was shocked. “Not so good” was all I could muster. She took me to the Air Namibia desk to get my ticket back home. They asked where I was coming from. Lusaka. “We don’t have any flights there until tomorrow, and we can’t keep you here another night.” Finally, something we both agreed on-- they don’t want me there, and I don’t want to be there!

“We can send you back to Johannesburg, and you can enter the country there and then find a flight back home.” “But you guys have said that my passport is invalid. If that is the case, how will I be accepted into South Africa.” “They have their own procedures.” I had to press a little further to make the point, and expressed concern that they wouldn’t allow me in. She assured me they would. And I left it at that, knowing they would since the “problem” with my passport was not as big as the supervisor the night before had made it.

After getting everything set, I flew out that morning back to Johannesburg. I went through their immigration with not so much as a peep from the officer, who simply stamped my passport and waved me on.
My friends the Marslands had a public holiday off for that day, so it worked out to spend most of the day with them before flying back to Lusaka that evening. This was the one bright spot in the whole ordeal. I had really looked forward to catching up with them on Thursday evening after a few days in Namibia, but it ended up I got longer with both of them this way than I would have otherwise. The Lord’s timing is perfect!

That evening, Megan received one tired puppy at the airport. I had encountered one of the rudest people I can remember meeting in some time. I had stayed overnight without water, food, a blanket, or even a phone call to the outside world. I had the humiliation of going to the bathroom under guard, and being peered at by guards as the only thing interesting on the long and boring night shift. I had been unceremoniously shipped back to where I came from, having failed to even spend an hour with the brothers I was hoping to enjoy the week with. And I was tired out of my mind to the point that I just dropped into bed when I finally reached there Tuesday night.

Experiences like that make you think about life and where things are headed and what you should be doing. There was a lot that crossed my mind over those two days which I hope I don’t forget. Some of the lessons were very private and personal. But one that I feel I could share with anyone is that it just reminds us to always pray and take nothing for granted. We can’t so much as take a step without the Lord going before us to prepare the way, and holding us up so that we do not fall. And we truly never know what a day will bring forth. There’s not a day we don’t need him for what we might end up facing. And there’s not a day that He is not with us, helping us through whatever crazy situations we might meet with on the way in this life.

1 comment:

  1. What an ordeal! I appreciate your ending comments and I could only think of Samson saying "I will go out as before as other times..." We do need to pray and never take anything for granted. I'm glad the Lord preserved you, and brought you back home safely to your dear family.