From Zim to New Zealand: stateless no more

A second generation expat describes the hard road from Zimbabwe to a new beginning in New Zealand – and her gratitude to that country.

By the time I left Zimbabwe I was devastated, overwhelmed by a sense of huge loss. First my birthrights had gone – my citizenship, my vote and my passport. Next my husband, cancer taking its too-early toll. His death left me vulnerable, a woman alone on a big property, the inevitable target of thieves and car-jackers, so I had to sell my home.

The proceeds were intended to buy a house in a secure, gated community but before that could happen meteoric inflation meant it was woefully insufficient to the task. I had to use the money to pay rent. Next my sons emigrated to Britain and New Zealand, and finally I lost my mementoes. I had not bargained on Africa having the last word…

As I was queuing at the airport check-in counter on my way to take up my New Zealand residence visa, my hand luggage – a leather bag – was stolen from by my feet. In my bag were my most treasured possessions, among them a favourite photograph of my husband and a lifetime’s collection of jewellery which I had deliberately put into my hand luggage to keep it safe. Nobody had seen a thing. After desperately accosting people and trying to find somebody to help me I realised I would miss the plane if I didn’t go through.

I sat in miserable, defeated heap in the departure lounge weeping inconsolably. I cried all the way to Auckland and didn’t seem to stop, on and off, for two years. I went into deep mourning for all I had lost and asked myself repeatedly why I was in New Zealand. I had left the country and continent into which I was born and loved to the extent Stephen Decatur’s declaration of “my country right or wrong”. And of course the wrong was exactly why I had finally capitulated to my sons’ urging to leave Zimbabwe while I could.

I had landed in a clean, green island country which reminded me of England. Auckland – the City of Sails – is just that. A rambling city wrapped around the shore line of the Hauraki gulf. The home my son had found for me was on the North Shore with a sea view.

None of this cheered me up but I soon came to the conclusion that I could sink into a deep depression and wither, or pick myself up and start a new life. So I began the long haul to become a Kiwi – that rare nocturnal bird after which New Zealanders call themselves.

I joined everything in which I had a remote interest. I learnt to walk into rooms full of strangers and make new acquaintances. Mostly I was accepted and appreciated the kindness and genuine concern of New Zealanders. They are the sort of people who will always cross the road to help you.

Finding a job in my field – journalism and editing – was far harder. I didn’t have the contacts and was up against a lack of New Zealand experience but eventually I found a job as editor of a tiny community newspaper.

Over the ensuing three years I gradually made my way into Kiwi society. Zimbabweans are open-housed sort of people and we are accustomed to entertaining our friends and newcomers in our own homes. This was not the case with Kiwis until they know you really well and even then it is fairly uncommon. Hearing from friends who had emigrated elsewhere I gathered that this is something they experienced in their new countries too.

Now I have a circle of friends: a few ex-Zimbabweans, expats from elsewhere and some Kiwis. It has taken learning a new vocabulary and pronunciations, which surprised me because Kiwis (apart from the indigenous Maori) originated mostly from Britain, as we in Zimbabwe did. We were all missionaries and adventurous types – in Zimbabwe, gold diggers and in New Zealand, gum diggers (dug out from the base of kauri trees and exported for furniture varnish).

After three years of residency I applied for citizenship and, protracted bureaucratic delays notwithstanding, I was accepted and my inauguration day was named. We were allowed only two witnesses because this was a big ceremony in the local town hall and lots of us were being sworn in.

There was a sense of excitement among the queuing would-be citizens and their observers – name a country and there were undoubtedly representatives of that country in the line. We were ushered into cinema-row seats and our friends sent to the back. On the stage were the dignitaries who were to oversee and bestow our citizenship, led by the town mayor (pronounced “mare” or “meh” in Kiwi-ese). The applicants in the front rows were supplied with a Bible (not to be taken home!) and behind them were the people for whom swearing on the Bible was inappropriate.

Others on the stage were a diminutive lady naval officer, the deputy mayor and several officials from immigration who organised the proceedings. Once seated those of us with Bibles were asked to rise and take the oath of allegiance to the Queen and the country, in chorus. The accents of the people around me were many and varied. Then the rows behind stood and took their oaths in a modified form, without Bibles.

We were then summoned row by row to the side of the stage (“take your Bible with you and leave it on the table where you line-up”). The mayor waited, in impressive full regalia, centre stage. The deputy mayor, a woman, stood to the side with a bunch of long stemmed roses, a photographer poised, the stage party watched and at a table on the far side of the stage the new citizens collected their certificates. It was all wonderfully efficiently organised and worked like clockwork.

Unfortunately the official calling the first half of applicants had not practised the often difficult-to-pronounce names from all parts of the world. This meant that people waiting for their names frequently did not recognise them and had to be given a little shove. My own was mangled but as I was expecting that to happen I was not fazed. The mayor asked where I had got my name from and, when I said Wales, said he was also of Welsh extraction. The photographer leapt forward and took a photo of me with the mayor. I moved on to collect my red rose “to match my outfit” the lady deputy mayor said, and then collected my citizenship certificate and went back to my seat. As I sat down a big man seated behind me said “Gongratulations’ in a loud gutteral voice.

Once everybody had their roses and certificates we were asked to rise again and to sing the national anthem. The words, in English and Maori were projected on the wall and we sang enthusiastically, if a trifle uncertainly. A group of Maori came on stage and performed the haka for us. I was a little bemused by this I had been under the impression that the haka (of rugby fame) and tongue pulling gesture was a challenge to strangers and I was puzzled as to why this should be offered to us as new citizens. A quick Google, and I discovered that the haka has many forms including a welcome and although it looks the same the difference lies in the wording.

My feelings were overwhelmingly of relief and gratitude that this little country had provided me with a new beginning. Having had my Zimbabwean citizenship taken away from me (because my father was born in Britain) – courtesy of Zimbabwe’s president – I was more than a little moved to have a country to which I now belonged and a nationality that would not be taken away from me. In short I had a new home. I am a Kiwi and inordinately proud of that.

Later, having a celebratory drink with my family, my daughter-in-law pulled out a little Kiwi bird that she wound up and it hopped entertainingly all over the table. I suddenly felt ridiculously fond of it.

Gepos Bon Carolyne Ahiambo Ngara vlugtelinge in Suid-Afrika


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