Imagine you had an American friend who was working illegally
as a casual labourer in Canada. One day he opens his mouth
at the wrong time, says the wrong thing. The person he speaks
to happens to be a police officer and notices that he is not
Canadian by his drawl.
He is immediately arrested, thrown into jail and denied bail for not having any identification on him. Every couple of days for a month you pick your way across the inner city trenches to the hovel known as the central police station. Sometimes you are allowed to see your friend, sometimes not.
You find out through the bars that your friend has lost his passport. Because he is in jail, getting a new passport or any other ID from America is out of the question.
About two weeks into your visits, you notice his cough. The rattle of phlegm pummels his ribcage and bronchial walls. His body aches, he says. But he never stops smiling and joking with his tea-coloured eyes and piano-key teeth. He grows noticeably more weak and tired with every one of the short conversations.
You ask the round, skinny, uniformed, plain clothes, arrogant, ambivalent police officers lolling around the station about the process of freeing your friend from his jail cell. The questions are dodged, laughed at, and dismissed
Eventually you are told you will not be allowed to visit your friend again.
Bribery, you think in desperation. It has worked before. One officer, half court jester, half uncle-so-and-so, hints that money might bend official policy. Cash changes hands but still you are stopped from seeing your friend. All you get are experienced sneers, comprehensive nods behind messy desks and resting boots.
A fat uniform leans forward, buttons bursting, “He is sick.”
“We do not know where or who your friend is,” growls another.
Finally, however, your persistence pays off - you get an answer.
Your friend is dead.Frozen in a hospital morgue 10km away for the last two weeks. Meningitis, they say.
His family has not been contacted because he has no identification.
A trip to the morgue is too much to endure so you have to send someone else to identify his body. The thought of his once grinning eyes, closed and lifeless is unbearable.
You don't know the family well but you manage to contact them through a mutual friend. You inform them of their son's death and promise to send the corpse back to them. It will cost about $1200 to send the body home to America and have a small, respectful funeral. You start a collection and manage to raise the funds. You send the body home, never able to attend the funeral yourself because you are tapped of funds.
Imagine the heyday the Press have with this story.
The CBC talk back sessions.
The Globe and Mail online readers' surveys.
The Parliamentary debates.
But this story is not about an American in Canada. It is that of a Zimbabwean dying in South Africa.
This type of thing happens often in South Africa and few (if the Press is a barometer; South African foreign policy a scale) except friends and family of the dead so much as notice. Care. The prisoners are not Bikos or Appleseeds. These occurrences don't plaster newspapers or fill airtime. Stories of these illegal immigrants, these Zimbabweans, infuse only hushed chats. The official number puts 25,000 Zimbabweans in South Africa. Human rights groups estimate 3,000,000. Who knows how many are in jail?
His name was Gavin.
I met him at a house party:
He was tall,
nice looking, polite, dread-locked,
Gavin's eyes always met yours during
conversation, laughter, life.
He knew a lot of people,
saddened many more (but not enough)
with his death.
* With special thanks to Wilson Lee.
could use a job.