Author Zukiswa Wanner recounts hijinks and high drama on her way to Lviv, Ukraine.
My late father studied journalism in Eastern Europe.
It had always seemed like a random choice to me when many other people I knew who studied in Eastern Europe had studied engineering or medicine. But an invitation to Eastern Europe was always going to be welcomed by me as it would give me the chance to see a place often closed off, and yet where my father and many of his friends had spent key parts of their lives. Going to Ukraine would also allow me to reconcile with my friend Nelly, one of the organisers of the Lviv International Literary Festival. In fact, it would be a reunion of sorts, as I met both Nelly and Peter, who had hosted me in Denmark, at the same time during the Cambridge Literary Festival in 2009.
Until the Friday before my departure, though, the entire trip was all still up in the air.
A visa for the Ukraine, had I been getting it in South Africa or Kenya, would have required that I set aside three weeks for the application. But I had failed to apply for it in Kenya or South Africa owing to a grueling travel schedule before I left the African continent. Nelly had suggested that I should not worry too much as I could get it in Copenhagen. I was not too sure. I was a very temporary resident in Denmark. I would be there for just three months, to be exact. Would I get the visa?
Nelly promised that she would get a letter from some official to ensure the visa was issued quickly. As soon as I arrived in Copenhagen, Peter started calling Nelly. Peter’s organisation, World Wide Words (WoWiWo), which was responsible for my Danish invitation, was also taking two other guests who required visas, so all three of us planned to apply together, with Peter’s assistance. Nelly was very laid back about it all, ‘Don’t worry, I will get it’. But Peter and I were worried.
On Wednesday, a week before the festival was due to commence, we got letters from the Mayor of Lviv. That very day, Peter drove me to the Ukrainian Embassy in Copenhagen. When we arrived, we met another member of our party who needed a visa.
We entered the Embassy.
Peter spoke in a very Director of WoWiWo voice, ‘We have this invitation to Lviv from the Mayor.’
The woman behind the glass looked at the invitation. And looked at us.
People who were born and grew up before the Berlin Wall came down, or who have ever watched Hollywood movies or James Bond flicks, where Eastern Europeans were always cast as the bad guys, would have identified this woman immediately. Her black hair was gelled and held in a chignon, which emphasised her cheekbones and made her either beautifully severe or severely beautiful, I could not say which. Less than thirty seconds later, however, I knew which it was when she said, ‘No. You need three weeks to apply with a passport from Africa. I cannot help you.’
Maybe it was those same Hollywood movies that made me do it but, in the absence of a nametag I nicknamed her Svetlana.
She passed on an application form to another member of our party, Omid, whose paperwork was apparently more acceptable than mine. She insisted, however, that she wanted the original letter from the mayor rather than a scanned copy. At this point in time, I resigned myself to not going to Ukraine. I figured it wasn’t a train smash, as it would give me more time to start writing, which was really the major reason why I had agreed to do the fellowship.
But Peter was not taking Svetlana’s injunctions at face value, so he called Nelly.
After explaining what had just happened, he looked at Svetlana and passed her his phone, ‘she wants to talk to you.’
Svetlana took the phone to a back room where, I assume, she was chatting with Nelly. When she returned, she handed over the phone, then called me over and asked me in English so clipped each word was as neatly stated as each hair on her head, ‘Have you filled out the application?’
No, I had not.
‘Okay, wait. I give you the application forms.’
It was an astounding transformation. I filled out the application forms and handed them back to her.
I also needed to submit two passport photos. Did I have any? I did not.
So she politely directed me to the closest place I could get passport photos. ‘We have thirty minutes still before we close, so you have enough time.’
I returned and submitted the forms and the photographs. I had not yet paid the visa fee, which had to be deposited into an account, but Svetlana said that was no problem at all: ‘You pay for the visa tomorrow and come back on Friday with receipt. You cannot come tomorrow with receipt. Tomorrow we deal with visa for the disabled. You visa will be ready on Friday.’ I was not entirely sure why she mentioned the bit about disabled people but there it was. Now I have valuable information about the Ukrainian Embassy in Denmark, but I am unlikely to use it, as I am unlikely to apply for a visa from there ever again.
What was miraculous though was that, after the conversation with Nelly, Svetlana was essentially telling me that she was going to process the visa before I paid the visa fee.
Later that day, Peter got a message from his sister that their mother had passed on. He departed with his family for his ancestral home in The Hebrides, Scotland, where she would be laid to rest. I was left with a Welsh doctoral student, Fyon, and a German Shepherd, Hannibal, that we had volunteered to take care of. As Fyon had classes, I was in essence mostly left alone to bond with the German Shepherd.
It also meant that I had to learn to travel in Copenhagen without Peter holding my hand. On Friday, just forty-eight hours after I had submitted my visa application (a far cry from the three weeks I had been told I needed), I went to pick up my passport at the Ukrainian Embassy.
And there on page nineteen was the Ukrainian visa, half written in Cyrillic script. It was then that I learnt that my name in Ukraine would be 3YKICBA YOHHEP. At least the mayor’s letter was no longer Greek to me.
I sent Nelly a message on Messenger: ‘Got visa. Will travel.’
She texted back with a thumbs up emoji. But curiosity was killing me, so I had to call her.
‘What did you say to that woman?’ I asked.
‘I asked her,’ Nelly told me, ‘whether she was stupid or something. I asked her whether it makes sense that someone who is in Denmark would leave it so they come to Ukraine to stay. I added,’ said my crazy and smart friend Nelly, ‘Her passport is South African. People from Ukraine are trying to leave and stay in South Africa, not the other way round.’ And, just for emphasis, she asked her again, ‘Are you stupid or something?’
It sounded like a very risky move, but I was glad it had worked.
Peter returned from The Hebrides an hour after midnight on Tuesday, looking exhausted. The loss and the journey appeared to have taken their toll him. But Ukraine was still very much part of the plan. Later that day, on 20 September at nine pm, Peter and I got in his Land Rover and made our way to Lviv. Google Maps told us it would take fourteen hours, with an hour rest for every three hour drive. W
e soon discovered that ‘fourteen hours’ was a relative term.
We finally got to the Polish-Ukrainian border at eight pm. Across the border in Ukraine, it was nine. We had hoped to make it for the opening ceremony of the Lviv Book Festival and had communicated as such to Nelly. So it was no surprise when we got a message from her as we arrived at the border.
Where are you guys?
We are just getting to the border. We will call you when we have cleared.
It would take us two hours to get through. Not nearly as long as at Beitbridge, which separates South Africa and Zimbabwe, before Christmas or the Easter holidays, but for Peter, who was clearly not used to lengthy immigration clearings, it was far too long.
We managed to avoid the long queue of cars by using the Land Rover to muscle into terrain where there was no one. Peter, acting the hapless Scotsman, went up to some official-looking person and asked, as though he were ready to pull his hair out, ‘Excuse me. I am not sure where we are supposed to go. We want to get to Lviv. Where are we supposed to go?’
The official asked how many people were in the car.
‘Two,’ Peter answered.
Said official then wrote the number on a card, gave it to Peter and told him to drive on and pass on the documentation. All this was smoothly done, and customs equally so. It was at the last step, where passports had to be stamped, that things got a little awkward.
We passed our passports to the immigration official. She looked at Peter. All seemed well.
Then she opened my passport. She looked at the passport photo, looked at me, looked at the photo again, and then said, ‘Come with me,’ in a voice much like Svetlana’s.
I went with her and Peter followed. We arrived at another cubicle, and she let me in and then closed the door on Peter. She passed my passport to one of her colleagues who proceeded to look at it and at me in the same fashion as she had a few minutes earlier. They exchanged words in what sounded like Russian. While I cannot speak the language, my upbringing exposed me to enough people who could — -and then of course, the James Bond movies — -so I have an ear for it. Sadly, although I could identify the language, I had no understanding of what was being said, so when she handed the passport back to Official Number One, who then said to me again, ‘this way,’ I had no idea whether all was well.
All was not well.
Throughout this exchange we had been operating in little cubicles outside the main buildings. This time around, we headed for a big, brick building. The walls were so thick that if I screamed in there no one outside would be able to hear me.
Hollywood must have seriously messed me up because I swear I wondered whether I would get out.
We took many twists and turns in the building before reaching an inner office. I walked towards what looked like a reception room but the official, who I was now thinking of as my jailer, said, ‘No, this way,’ and took another turn.
I was taken into the inner inner office.
Inside was another official, who seemed old enough to be my daughter (if I had been a teen mom) but who had the no-nonsense expression of my high school maths teacher, Sister Gilberta. The two of them chatted for a few minutes before Sister Gilberta Junior turned to me. She looked at my passport photo, and looked at me, and seemed at least to believe that the woman in the passport photo was the same as the woman in front of her.
But then came the questions.
‘What are you going to do in Ukraine?’
‘I am going to a literary festival in Lviv,’ I answered.
‘How much money do you have on you?’ she asked, because there was obviously the very real danger that I could be running from the EU to seek asylum in Ukraine.
‘I don’t have any money,’ I replied calmly.
‘Why you don’t have any money?’ She looked at me with an expression that betrayed her shock that I would even dare mention that I had no money.
‘Because I am traveling by road and it’s just not wise to walk around with cash. I have a credit card and a debit card, though,’ I answered in the high pitched tone I use when I am absolutely making fun of someone.
I had heard myself making this voice before.
When I was in sixth grade at Avondale Primary School in Harare, I used this same tone of voice when our head girl, Nazli, ordered my friends and I to put on our hats — because our black selves could get sunburnt. I would have got away with it too if one of my classmates Florence had not giggled which caused Nazli to turn to her, ‘You, is what I said funny?’
Florence answered, ‘No Nazli. Sorry Nazli. I am laughing at the way she,’ pointing at me, ‘said, “yes Nazli”.’
And then Nazli turned to me and there was a smirk on my face. So she said, ‘You. Say “yes” properly.’
And because Nazli walked into it, I did as instructed and said it, ‘Yes properly.’
My eleven-year-old self got two days detention for those two words.
And I still think that’s the reason I was never made a prefect in primary school. Well, that and the fact that I used to forge my mother’s signature in my homework book after doing the homework at school.
So that was the tone of voice I used on this official. But she was no Nazli and got my teasing tone immediately. She was not amused. It’s so sad, really, when authority figures are humourless.
Anyway, Sister Gilberta Junior wanted to know where I would be staying. Here I was actually stumped because I had forgotten. I knew I would be staying in some hotel in Lviv and that was the best answer I could give. So she held onto my passport and asked me to go and get documentation of proof of accommodation.
I went to the car followed by one of her juniors. I asked a worried Peter to pass me his laptop so I could show her the email with details of where I would be staying, as we had not printed it out.
With the impatience of a privileged Westerner dealing with a developing nation’s bureaucrats, Peter decided that enough was enough and decided to come with me. We got to the office and he opened his laptop. The first thing we saw was a PDF of my invitation letter from the mayor, so we decided to show her that while looking for the hotel information.
That moment when the sun comes out shining brightly on a cloudy day? That was her face after she read the letter.
She very quickly gave me the sweetest of smiles then said, ‘You are welcome to Ukraine, enjoy your stay.’
‘But, the hotel information …’ I stuttered.
‘It is okay. Enjoy your stay.’
I swear more mayors should have as much clout as the Mayor of Lviv and send invitations to literary festivals. I am even trying to imagine arriving at Beitbridge and showing the South African immigration officials a letter from Herman Mashaba, the current mayor of Johannesburg who is, to put it delicately, not a member of the African National Congress. Those people will be on some, ‘Hoo? Bloody agent. You come here to support the mayor from the opposition? Hee? No. You can’t come in.’ Or getting to any border in Zimbabwe and showing them a letter from Harare Mayor Ben Manyenyeni. ‘So MDC thinks it’s their country now and they can invite their agents?’ Or at Jomo Kenyatta International giving them a letter of invitation from Mombasa Governor Joho. ‘No madam. You cannot come through our international borders when Pwani si Kenya. Go and use the Mombasa borders then.’ Or maybe I am just projecting what my dark side would do if I were an immigration official in any of those countries.
But the Mayor of Lviv was clearly an important somebody.
The first immigration official then took both my and Peter’s passports to her booth and asked us to follow her. She stamped Peter’s passport, stamped mine and then smiled sweetly in that embarrassed oops, my bad way.
As she slid our passports back to us she said to me, ‘Welcome to Ukraine. Enjoy Lviv.’
I was not letting her off so easily. I had looked at her nametag so I knew what her name was.
I gave her my practiced white-stranger-to-a-random-black smile. You know that smile that never quite reaches the eyes but that seems to want to let the smilee know that the smiler is okay with black people? Yes. That’s the one I gave her. Before I said out loud, ‘Thank you very much, Oksana.’
I was never going to do it, even if His Worship and I ended up sharing vodka, but I think my tone of voice this time sufficiently said, ‘The Mayor of Lviv will hear about this.’
Photo: Victor Dlamini