It was September of the year I went to study in Namibia. The wind barrelled down Independence Avenue like the flood of wildebeest coming down the canyon at Simba. I suppose I just gave away my age, but even back then, I thought in movie scenes.
Struggling against the invisible force, I pushed past the tall new offices and hotels, the gingerbread houses from a hundred years ago, the post office, and finally passed the oldest Spur in town. Across the road was a monolith of shining black windows. Pedestrians and hawkers took shelter from the fierce wind on a short street in front of NamDeb.
My shoes scraped up and down behind my ankles with each step. My folder of precious identification was held close to my chest, a bag tucked under my arm. My mother had reluctantly reached for her old but reliable briefcase that contained such relics to hand me my birth certificate as I left home. Of course, she could get me a new one if needed, but she liked to keep her get-out-of-jail-free cards for true emergencies.
I was lucky to get a place at the brand-new Namibia Medical School, I was told. Students back home were revolting. The Zim university had shut down indefinitely, and my schoolmates faced unknown futures. But my mother had ensured mine was intact. I would become a doctor, like my father. While my father practised medicine in Mount Pleasant, my mother traded in favours and knowing whose back needed scratching.
One thing we shared, my father and I, was a fascination with Rescue 911. We watched it every week when I was younger. He claimed my lack of squeamishness was a good omen for my future as a medical doctor. I was entranced by the blur between real and imagined and made a game of re-enacting scenes in my mind, over and over again.
Weaving through the scaffolding holding up the Spur, I paused at the traffic light. Taxis hooted at me as they passed the green light. On the street corner squatted a concrete building. ‘Practical’ is perhaps the word, but if you’ve been there, you know it’s perhaps not. My shoe slid over the blister growing behind my ankle.
I hope this is quick, I thought. I desperately needed to pee.
Walking into Home Affairs was a bit like being swallowed by a whale. The light vanished instantly, and the torrential wind was reduced to sound effects. As my eyes adjusted to the dim room, I saw queues of people snaking around the open space. The security guard greeted me: “More, wat soek jy?”
At least, that’s what I think he must have said, but I couldn’t make it out. After I didn’t respond, he asked again: “Passpoort of visa?”
“Nege,” he said, pointing at the counter in the far-right corner of the belly.
“Dankie. Jammer–“ I gave up. Explaining why I can’t speak Afrikaans –in Afrikaans–is a version of insanity. I found the tail of the queue for Counter 9. The lady in front of me wore high heels. Bright purple suede pumps with a spike for a heel. On a Tuesday. Just Tuesday, 10h30 in the morning in Home Affairs of all places. Standing still in my sensible flats, I felt the blisters on my ankles, yelling for relief.
The queue inched towards Counter 9, detouring and shuffling as the most brazen pushed in and around the wilting. I focused on the heels tottering ahead of me and my folder of documents. I rechecked them, passport copy, ID, police clearance, re-enrolment letter, receipt of payment. I checked the text on my phone: ready for collection.
Progress would halt at regular intervals as the two women behind the counter took a stack of receipts and passports “upstairs”. I kept close to the purple high heels, with no gap for anyone to push in. “You do what needs to be done, Ano,” my mother had told me more than once. But, that morning, she had warned, “Do not accept ‘no’.” She seldom called me, but this was a matter of destiny.
Close to midday, only one woman came back from “upstairs”. Purple Heels was next in line. I could almost touch the counter. The woman mumbled something to her and flipped the “open” sign hanging against the glass to “closed”. Purple Heels sucked her teeth and hit the counter with her documents. Others in the queue grumbled but still dispersed obediently.
In my shoes, the blisters around my ankles were weeping puss. My bladder had started to weep too. I abandoned decency and burst forward. “Excuse me!” I whisper-shouted. “Can you please just see if my passport is here?” I pointed at the row of passports next to the door waiting to be collected. “It should be there. I got a text.”
She said something I didn’t understand, and her colleague in Counter 8 laughed through the pre-fab wall. “You got a text, hm?” She pulled her handbag off the hook on the door. “Come after 2.”
Hot shame rose into my cheeks and tear ducts. Perhaps my mother would not accept no. The governmental whale expelled me into the sunshine. I scrunched my face at the pavement and wandered back the way I had come pushed on by the wind. I kegeled, thinking if I can at least find a toilet.
The lunchtime rush had picked up, taxis and 4x4s tousled for space as the traffic lights managed the ebb and flow. The way I remember that afternoon is in greyscale, B-flat ringing softly in the background, and William Shatner narrating in his Rescue 911 voice.
“It was any old Tuesday in the centre of town,” says Shatner. “Jacob Haitiku had been cruising down Independence Avenue hoping for one last customer before the end of his shift.”
In my memory, the angle changes; a close-up of Mr Haitiku scanning the people bustling along the pavement from his open window.
Scenes are re-enacted.
I see him take a sip of Coke and frown, his eyebrows riggling and his lips pulling against his teeth in a grimace. His little Mazda with its “Taxi” box on top comes to a rolling stop. The 4×4 behind him hoots, but the traffic light turns orange. Mr Haitiku clutches his chest.
Mr Shatner (gravely): “Jacob is about to have a heart attack.”
I am standing under the Spur scaffolding watching him. He loses his left grip on the steering wheel. The cars are the wrong way around, though, so he looks misplaced on the TV screen of my mind. His face theatrically pulls to the side. It’s difficult to act like your muscles have sagged when they haven’t. But considering the budget and timelines on these things, Mr. Haitiku is doing his best.
I cross the black and white road in front of his taxi. The music rises as the camera moves from his contorted face to mine. I look considerately over at him, in slow motion–of course. I must have known something was wrong. The traffic light turns green–a pop of colour.
Shatner: “Not knowing what was happening, Jacob inched forward, turning left to get off the main road. But things were about to go from bad to national security risk.”
That doesn’t sound like a Shatner line, but who am I to say?
The camera pans over actors standing along the one-way street, pretending to be busy or walking purposefully. The black monolith rises behind them.
Shatner: This (pause) is the NamDeb building.
Mr H’s taxi twitches and screeches. Then it is revving aggressively. The angle switches back and forth, and the music peaks. I see Mr H trying to straighten the car with one hand. His foot presses down involuntarily on the accelerator as his heart freezes in agony. He pulls the steering wheel to the right, tyres bump over the pavement, and actors scatter dramatically. Mr H and his taxi collide with the front wall of the NamDeb building.
I scream–there is undoubtedly screaming and brakes screeching. No, that doesn’t seem right. The old Mazda with the taxi box on top is half the size it was moments before. Mr Haitiku is crumpled between layers of crushed metal. The glass scales right above the crash have cracked from the impact. NamDeb’s alarm sounds, and security doors seal all entrances and exits.
Shatner: “Miraculously, Jacob is still alive.”
Me: “No, William! That can’t be true. The light in the taxi box is off. He’s–”
Shatner: “Dead on the scene doesn’t sell commercials, little girl! He has to be fighting for his life, or we’ll lose the viewers.”
Mr Haitiku is fighting for his life. I call 911 from a pay phone that appears on the street corner. An American accent answers.
Responder: “911. What is your emergency?”
Me: “Uh, Mr Haitiku has had a heart attack and–”
Shatner: “No, no, no! (annoyed) You don’t know his name yet. ‘There’s been an accident…’–From the top!”
Me: (my voice is crackling and muffled) “Hello? Hello?”
The accent comes through as though he is in a bubble.
Responder: “911. What is your emergency, Ma’am?”
Shatner: (walking off to his assistant) “Can we get someone else? This one is not working.”
I hadn’t noticed her standing just off the set with her clipboard and powder brush.
The scene continues to play without its narrator. Smoke billows out from under the taxi, and sirens careen through traffic. First, a police car followed by a bullet-proof army vehicle. They park across the intersection to block traffic.
A side door opens, and a dozen NamDeb security guards come out with pistols aimed at the crowd. The people in the street scatter again. The smoke from Jacob Haitiku’s taxi turns black and then red as flames leap from the crushed engine. More police cars arrive on the scene. In full riot gear, the men start pushing people away from the scene with shields and batons. Even if Mr H’s light is off, this will keep Mr Shatner’s viewers glued to their screens.
An ambulance struggles through the backed-up traffic with a stifled “yee-wah yee-wah”. Finally, a broad man in army green yells at me and the other actors to vacate the corner so that a small bomb-squad vehicle can come through along the pavement.
How many minutes have passed?
When will Counter 9 open again?
I need to pee.
“Suspected bomber dies in failed heist attempt at NamDeb building.”—NBC News.
I walked back into the Home Affairs belly at two and waited another hour for my counter to open. Before I could ask the lady for my passport, I felt the warm dribble of pee run down my leg and pool in my shoe. The blister on my ankle stung as the urine ran over it. Squelching home with pee-soaked shoes, I clutched my passport.
There are very few taxis left with yellow light boxes on the roofs. But I still see them around. Shrivelling little Corsas and Taz’s held together with duct tape and the sheer will of the driver. They always remind me of the day I decided I would have to say no to my mother.
Kay-Leigh is a Namibian freelance writer and editor from Windhoek. She holds a BA in English literature and drama at Rhodes University in South Africa, two disciplines reliant on the art of storytelling. A reader, foremost, Kay-Leigh is an advocate for African stories being heard around the world. In 2019 she co-wrote and published an ebook on mental health in the African context: Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. She served on Doek!’s fiction editing team from November 2020 to November 2021. Kay-Leigh is a member of the 2022-2023 Doek Collective and a fellow of the Narrating Namibia, Narrating Africa Doek Emerging Writers Program.