Please let me in your country; I’m not an idiot!

I hardly know where to begin with this entry, as so much time has elapsed since I last wrote and so much has happened in the last month. I think that some of the moments I wanted to write about are not as clear in my mind now, and the feelings and details of some of my experiences are slightly faded, but I hope that I can still convey them with some meaning.

In mid-July, I had started to search for a way to stay in Swaziland for longer than my original two months. As my time was nearing its end, I was already feeling anxious about returning to the U.S. to a culture I was still shedding, and about leaving the one that I was trying on for size. The first thing I did was visit the U.S. Embassy in Mbabane to ask for advice on how to extend my stay. The Embassy is only about 2 blocks from Save the Children in a tall, oddly-shaped and rather ugly brown “high rise” (and by “high rise,” I mean that it’s maybe 9 stories high, towering above the other buildings in Mbabane). I headed over with my passport, was shown up to the 7th floor and ushered over to the window labeled “Consulate.” I was surprised to see that everyone working at the embassy (at least, all of the people who are visible to guests) were not Americans, but Swazis.

There was no one at the window I had been shown to, so I waited patiently, and after about 5 minutes, a woman emerged from another office, looked directly at me, and then sat down at a computer facing away from where I stood. I looked at the back of her head as she typed away on the computer, unsure of what to do; she had clearly seen me and rejected my presence, but there was no one else there for me to talk to.

I looked around, and then after another minute, I tapped on the window and she turned around, gave me a blank look, and said, “Hello, can I help you?” as if she had just seen me for the first time. I explained that I wanted to know how to go about getting a permit to stay in the country, and she said, “Oh, yes, that’s a good question. I don’t really know what we do for American citizens who are in that situation. Ok, thanks for stopping by!” as she started to turn back to her computer.

“Um, well,” I said, and she turned back towards me with a hint of exasperation and fixed me with a look that said, “I’m going to appease you by continuing to listen, but clearly you suffer from some fundamental lack of understanding if you are still asking me questions about this.”

“I need to know what to do to get a permit,” I pressed on. “Surely you’ve had American citizens come and ask for your advice about this before?” I suggested.

“Oh, I’m sure we have before, but I’m not really sure what we do to help them. I suggest you go to the Chief Immigration Officer in Mbabane. So, good luck!” she said with a tone of finality as she sat back down at her computer and continued typing.

Dazed by the U.S. Embassy worker’s brazen lack of assistance to a U.S. citizen, I stared at the back of her head for a moment longer, and then I turned and left the building. “Did you get what you needed?” the guard asked as I waited for the elevator back to the lobby. I just looked at him.

The next stop was the Mbabane Immigration Office. A work colleague, Zakhele, dropped me off there and told me to call him when I was done so he could come pick me up, and I hopped out of the truck and wound my way around the cars crammed at all angles into the parking lot and climbed the broken cement stairs to the building. I walked into the reception area to a room packed full of Swazis and remembered that everyone was supposed to be coming to apply for their new passports, and I maneuvered my way through the crowd to inquire in one of the offices. I asked where to go for work permits, and a woman hunched over a passport application pointed faintly in the direction behind me and muttered, “Room 114,” without looking up.

I went to room 114 as instructed and found a stern-looking woman sitting behind a desk. She looked like she was tired of life. With barely any expression on her face as I explained that I needed a work permit, the occasional blink of her eye the only movement on her face, the woman looked like she wasn’t registering anything I was saying to her. Before I could even finish my speech, she said in a quiet tone that had no softness to it, “Room 108.” I stopped mid-sentence and repeated, “Room 108?” “Room 108,” she said again firmly and looked at me with what I thought was some contempt. Her stare followed me out of the room.

As I began my speech to the staff in room 108, the ladies there, while appearing slightly friendlier than Room 114’s inhabitant, were just as firm in their tone when they said, “Room 103.” Room 103 contained another exhausted-looking woman who gazed at me without expression from behind an enormous stack of papers as I tried to explain my situation to her. She too interrupted with, “Why are you here? You need to speak to the woman in 117,” ushering me out of her office and into the hall before closing her door. I stood in the hall and took a deep breath before walking back down the hall to room 117. Warily, I entered the office and looked at the women sitting there. “I am a volunteer with Save the Children and I need to know how to get a permit to stay in the country for longer than 2 months…..” I began. “Well, you’ll have to go to office 114 to do that,” one of the women told me, as if this should be obvious to any foreigner wandering around that labyrinth of unlabeled offices.

Back in office 114, the same stony-faced woman sat behind the desk looking like she might bite my finger off if I got it too close to her. It may have been my imagination, but she also appeared to have been expecting me. I inched into the room and explained that I had been sent back to her for the paperwork for a permit to stay longer. She didn’t offer a reply; she simply stared at me for what felt like 3 hours before standing up, walking slowly to a bookcase stacked high with different piles of papers, and dropping four sheets of paper on the table in front of me.

“Take these and fill them out, and then check back in three weeks for the decision,” she said, looking at me as if I were just the type of person that made her life hell on a regular basis.

I glanced down at the papers and saw that they were for a work permit, and I looked back up at her apprehensively. Tentatively, I began, “Thank you for your help – I just want to make sure that these are the right forms? I’m not actually working for Save the Children as an employee; I’m just a volunteer. Do I still need a work permit, or should I apply for the residency permit or visitor’s visa instead?”

Take those forms and fill them out, and then come back 3 weeks later to check on the decision.”

“Are work permits for Americans typically approved, or is it difficult to get one? Is there a good chance that I’ll be able to stay? I’m just asking because I need to look into changing my return date very soon if I am able to stay here.”

A long, purposeful and drawn-out sigh followed. The sigh laid out in detail all of my many qualities that had earned me this woman’s intense dislike. “Take those forms and fill them out, and then you can check back in three weeks to see if you were approved,” she said with a withering stare.

“Ok, I understand,” I said, sensing that it was fruitless to pursue this path any further. “On a different note, I also had a question about the 2 months I can stay here without a visa. If I leave the country and come back, do I have another 2 months from the time I re-enter the border, or is that only from the time of my first entry into Swaziland?”

“Take. Those. Forms. And. Fill. Them. Out. Check. Back.  In. Three. Weeks,” she repeated, this time through gritted teeth.

I backed out of the office slowly, smiling nervously at the woman and keeping my fingers in my pockets. Once I had passed out of the door, I turned and hurried away as fast as possible back to Zakhele’s car. We drove back to the office, and as we drove and chatted, I glanced over the forms that the woman had handed to me. There was a long application form, a police check form, and a medical clearance….  As I read through the medical clearance, my disbelief caused me to stop chatting with Zakhele almost in mid-sentence. The form was an uncomplicated and non-clinical one, consisting of only one page. It read simply:

“Immigration Act, 1982.

I hereby certify that I have examined _______________________ and find that he/she is not mentally or physically defective in any way except _______________________ (2 whole lines of space to detail all mental and physical shortcomings), that he/she is not an idiot, epileptic, insane, mentally deficient, deaf and dumb, deaf and blind, or dumb and blind and that he/she is not suffering from leprosy, tuberculosis, or trachoma.”

I personally saw this as a unique opportunity. How often do you get the chance to be certified as a non-idiot?

The next day, I went back to the Immigration Office with Ncamsile, who came to explain my situation in siSwati to the people there. We quickly found out that I had actually been in the country illegally for the past week and a half. I had checked with multiple government agencies before I left the U.S. and had confirmed that Americans can stay in the country for two months without a visa, but what no one told me (including the Swazi Government, the US Government, and the officer who stamped my passport when I came into the country) is that you have to go back for a second passport stamp after you’ve been in the country for 30 days. Which would have been an excellent piece of information to have. Ncamsile somehow managed to talk them out of slapping me with a big fine, and we left the office with strict instructions to submit a permit application within 36 hours.

In the beginning, I was frustrated with this process, but as the situation went on over the following weeks, I began to appreciate the absurdity of it all. The next three visits to the Immigration Office allowed me to accomplish my newfound mission of being sent to every room in that hallway at least once, and my fruitless follow-up visits to the U.S. Embassy just gave me more reason to laugh. At the end of the day, the important thing is that I have successfully applied for and been granted a work permit to remain in Swaziland as a volunteer. Sadly, it turns out that they didn’t require a medical clearance after all, so I am still without official documentation of being a non-idiot. But oh well – things can’t turn out perfectly every time.

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