The atmosphere was getting quieter. I stood behind the metal bars of my cell, watching the sun setting on the other side of the white wall that rose a few meters ahead. If only I could sneak out of this cell I’d climb that thing and disappear before they noticed anything, I thought to myself. But then I’d miss Seny when he comes to get me, I thought.
His voice couldn’t be any clearer in my head; I replayed his reassuring words of just four hours ago, promising me that I wouldn’t spend an hour in custody. He said he was going to find an attorney to get me out of that place where I was being taken, handcuffed and escorted by two police officers. Somehow I still did not believe what was happening.
It all started at Home Affairs, a building at the heart of a city in which I had only landed a week ago. I climbed the stairs of the front entrance with my brother by my side, and walked through that revolving door with the extension on my visa in mind.
Being in Cape Town was the first time for me to be out of Kinshasa, my birthplace and capital of a country situated two thousand miles away from South Africa. It was intimidating that my first step away from home took me so far away, down at the bottom of the continent.
Somewhere in me I found comfort in the idea that my brother Seny, who had been here for years, would be with me. And with me he was, even as I entered that office to have my visa scanned; even as I sat outside, waiting for it to be processed. Or so I was told.
Two police officers, led by the man who was supposed to be processing my visa, soon came walking towards us. I suspected that they were here to arrest someone; perhaps someone caught with irregular papers. It all became clear to me when they stopped in front of Seny and I. Only then did I realise that I was the reason for their presence.
The man who led them to me explained that the visa I brought didn’t match my name on the database. I was a criminal. A fraudster. Probably a thief too, having stolen and passed someone else’s visa off as my own.
Before long I was in a police station where my name, address, and fingerprints were registered. They didn’t let Seny come with me. Anyway he had something more important to do. Finding someone to help him get me out of that mess was definitely more helpful than going through it with me.
I waited, until minutes became hours and hours stretched into such a long time that by the time the sun set, I was still standing behind bars, holding them with my two hands while my forehead hit them in a repeated, slow, and melancholic motion.
“Hey bro,” one of my cellmates said “aren’t you gonna sleep?”
I opened my eyes, realising how dark it was. It must have been midnight already and behind me everybody in that cell was laid on the floor, preparing to sleep. The smell of weed was fading. Even sound became scarce, silence and darkness invading the place and calling us all to sleep.
“I’m not spending the night with you here. Someone’s coming to get me out,” I replied.
When I opened my eyes again it was morning. I found myself in the same place, lying on that same floor.
I spent two more days behind those bars; days during which I communicated a little better with my cellmates. Our conversations were now made of more than invitations to sleep. Our lives, our hopes, even our crimes were shared within the secrecy of those walls. So much so that I was almost ashamed to only be an alleged fraudster. Not a housebreaker or a gangster. Compared to their crimes, the allegations I was facing weren’t impressive at all. They accepted me anyway; they were the only people in that station who showed interest in my version of the story.
On the morning of our third day in that station, we were handcuffed two-by-two and sent out to court, which was only a few blocks down the road. We walked, singing, some of us at least. We were shaking in the cold winter wind, like slaves being taken to America.
Then I saw them; those girls, those high school girls. They were standing next to a tree, in their navy blazers and sky-blue skirts. What intrigued me, however, wasn’t their uniform. It was the look on their faces. In their eyes we were all guilty of the same crime. There was no line between accused and condemned; we were like books, and we all had the same cover.