Being no one

It was time to renew my South African passport. I am running out of pages. Just crossing between Swaziland and South Africa means four stamps on a return trip. This is my first "maxi" passport with more pages than the normal one but... did not last long enough!

I therefore started my visit to different "Home Affairs" offices. Arriving at the first one I found already a long queue of about 70 people, all outside under the sun. I was not sure if I was being unlucky or if it is always like that. It was also difficult to know how long it would take to reach the door of the building. Only when some would come out, others would go in. There was also one queue to apply and collect (?!)

I decided to wait and see. Just that, after half an hour, someone from the office came out and announced: "the system is down". I believe no one would be able to say "why" it was down or "how long" it would take to be back. 

A heavy storm looked on its way too... so I drove to another Home Affairs' office an hour away. The experience was the same. Long queues, no one able to say how long it could take to go in. I decided to come back to Swaziland. The day was gone and nothing was achieved.

A week later I tried in another two places. In the first one I was told that I had to get my name in a list of a 150 people that are taken for the day... and I was late. The list was closed. I should be back another day. Living in Swaziland makes no difference. One probably would have to sleep there the night before as our borders only open at 7 am.

In the second one instead I was allowed to queue. I was worried that it was already 11 am but I was told I would be able to go in. Easier to say than to believe it ... The queue seemed shorter than in the other places but a number of people were not really queuing. They were standing on the side.

Four hours' later I was still queuing... Panicked overtook us all because we understood the office would close and we would have to be back another day. It was not so. We were able to finally go in.

It hurts to see mothers with babies, widows... spending all that time in a very hot day. People do try to help each other. A young girl asked a young mother with a baby to sit down that she would keep her place (for free in case you wonder). Those selling drinks and food had more than reasonable prices and were not an extra burden on those queuing. I shared my umbrella with two more people to be protected from the sun. After some time one offered to hold it for us.

But tensions are easily fired. People need information and the person at the door many times does not have it. People then get angry and also does the one at the door feeling challenged. The exception was my final place where the man seemed to know things well and tried his best to make people understand. He would even distinguish between the troublesome in one queue and the well behaved (us!) in the other one.

Even inside, the personnel was friendly even though they were tired. They seemed to be trying their best to move things forward. The information was clear and precise. By the time it was my turn they had seen 180 people.

It was one of the few times I could be "no one" and somehow experience what anyone else has to.  I say "somehow" because I could visit four different offices and at the end was still privileged to have a car to go back home (even if that meant driving 300 km). Others were praying to have transport to go back to places which are one or two hours' away. I also do not need to ask "my boss" for another day off from work!!! But I felt really powerless, not knowing what I would do if I would not be allowed in and had to drive back again.

I had, of course, plenty of time to reflect on the way we welcome people when they come to our offices in the chancery, the Cathedral, Caritas... It was one of the few times when I could experience being on the other side of the desk.

The experience has not ended yet... I must be back in one or two weeks' time. This means driving again another 300 km and queuing for another two hours at least, to collect it.