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Liso: An Oral History

Undocumented worker living in the U.S.

“IF I AM ANYONE’S SLAVE, I’M CHRIST’S.”

The expenses of an undocumented worker:

Calling cards

Tithes

Money home

by Peter Orner
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

Liso: An Oral History

Undocumented worker living in the U.S.

“IF I AM ANYONE’S SLAVE, I’M CHRIST’S.”

The expenses of an undocumented worker:

Calling cards

Tithes

Money home

by Peter Orner
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Liso: An Oral History

Peter Orner
15 Snaps

In 2005, a thirty-seven-year-old Xhosa[1] woman named Liso learned of a call for missionaries through her church in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. An American church was advertising the opportunity for foreign parishioners to come live and spread the gospel in the U.S. Liso quit her teaching job to join the cause. She entered the U.S. on a four-month “R” visa for religious workers, leaving her husband and twin twenty-one-year-old daughters at home.

In Houston, Texas, however, Liso quickly found her host family more interested in her cheap labor than her faith, her teaching, or her good works. They put her to work as an underpaid housecleaner and babysitter, and refused to allow Liso to teach the children or engage in any other missionary work. Further, the church ignored her inquiries about her visa status and eventually allowed it to expire. After several months, and with the help of a sympathetic family who belonged to the church, Liso fled.

She made her way to Portland, Oregon, where, having now overstayed her visa, she has ended up as a live-in nanny working for a wage that amounts to less than five dollars per hour. Still, she continues to send a majority of her earnings back to South Africa in order to support her husband and children, as well as her HIV-positive mother and sister. She buys almost nothing for herself save for calling cards. She calculates that it will be 2010 before she can afford a plane ticket home. And she remains determined, in her words, “to plant something here.”

Liso’s story is one of seventeen in Underground America, a collection of oral histories from undocumented immigrants struggling to build a life for themselves in a country that needs their labor, but at the same time has become increasingly hostile to their presence.

These men and women, like millions of others who come here from around the globe, live and work without legal status, and are far too often exploited by those who prey on their fear and vulnerability. Often they live in hiding and are denied the protection of some of the most basic human rights, including the right to a fair wage. In some cases, they are also the victims of extreme psychological abuse and violence. Unwilling to go to the authorities because of fear of imprisonment and deportation, these undocumented people endure in silence.

Underground America is part of McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series. Using oral history as its foundation, the series seeks to illuminate contemporary human rights crises by giving a voice to those who experience them.

All of the narrators in Underground America have taken a significant risk by telling their stories publicly. Here, Liso’s name has been changed and certain details have been altered, but her story remains faithful to her interviews. Annie Holmes and A. Nicole Stewart contributed to this piece.

—Peter Orner

I. “IT’S NOT WHAT I IMAGINED.”

LISO: It wasn’t long after I got married the second time that a church from Houston sent a letter to my pastor in the Eastern Cape. The American church was asking our church for missionaries to volunteer. My pastor’s wife called me that Saturday. She said, “There’s a church in the U.S.A. that needs a missionary. Are you still interested in going to America?” I said yes right away because—to tell the truth—I have a lot of debt at home. And, you know, we have the idea that everything in America is perfect because that’s what we see on TV and in the movies. In America, you find dollars lying in the grass, every leaf on a tree is a dollar. Right now, if you call somebody in South Africa and say, “Do you want to come to America, even if it’s to wash my pig?” I promise you that that person will say, “Oh yes, please let me come and wash your pig!” People will do anything to get here, to make money to send home. So, even though missionaries don’t get paid, I was sure people in America would help me.

I was a teacher at home and I knew that if I gave up my job I would not get another teaching position—lots of South African teachers are unemployed. But I felt it was God’s will for me to become a missionary, the right way to serve Him.

When I first told my husband, he said, “Ah, no! We’ve been married just five months and then you leave me again?” We had been married before, from 1994 to 1998, when I divorced him. Then, in May 2005, I remarried the same guy! Life’s funny that way. Being divorced was not good for me at all. I came to realize that my husband was the best, that there was nobody like him. What helped me to change my mind is that I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. I went back to my husband and said, “I’m sorry,” and everything was fine. He didn’t even ask me any questions. He just said, “It’s OK.”

He didn’t agree with my decision to go to the U.S.—not at all. He said, “Why leave your job here? At least you have a chance to pay off all the debt after some years.” But my salary as a teacher was never enough. Most of the teachers I know are in debt. And not only teachers: every professional in South Africa is in debt. You see, after democracy in 1994, the end of apartheid, everyone could get loans. For example, I borrowed money for my aunt and for building materials for my home. But it was so difficult to repay that loan with the money I was earning as a teacher. I was not making enough money and I had many people to support. I couldn’t even buy cigarettes for my husband. He used to work at a dry cleaner and he also did some welding on the side, but then the dry cleaner closed down and the welding workshop got very few jobs. So I was the only one who was working.

I didn’t tell him any more about the trip to America. It was difficult for me to explain to him because he is not a born-again Christian, but I knew that if I followed God’s will, I would find the right way to get out of debt as well. So I made an appointment in Cape Town to get the visa and I started connecting with the people in the Houston church, calling them without my husband knowing anything. I sent them all the papers they needed, they sent me the letter of invitation, and they bought the ticket. Then the visa arrived in the post. Everything went smoothly. And then I showed my husband: “Here’s the ticket.” He lay on the bed. He was sick, he was so unhappy. As for me, I was excited to come to America. I thought my husband would come, too, that he would follow after me.

So that’s how I entered the country, on a special visa for missionaries. And now you see me here in Oregon—I have no legal papers, I work for one family, and I live in their house. It’s not what I imagined. But I am gaining wisdom. I trust God. God knows why I’m here. God knows why I’m illegal. He wanted me to come to the United States for a reason and now I understand what he wants me to learn here.

II. “THERE ARE NO JOBS”

I left my twin girls at home, Thembakazi (Big Hope) and Thembisa (Promise). They’re twenty-one now. I myself was a great hope for my parents but I disappointed them when I became pregnant so young, only seventeen years old. I had more education than anyone else in my family, more than my brother, more than my five sisters. My parents were not teachers or anything like that—they can’t even write their names. They used to work on the farms in the Orange Free State[1] and they really struggled to educate me. So I was a promising person when I was growing up. Then, when I told them I was pregnant, my father cried tears.

Our family had moved from the farms in 1975, when I was still a child, seven years old, to live in a very small town near Queenstown in the East Cape.[2] After I left school to have my babies, I worked as a cashier in a garage for two years. In 1988, I went back to school to finish my matric[3] and then I studied in college for three years to get my teacher’s diploma. In the town where I grew up, there are no jobs. I mean none. There are even a lot of teachers who had been teaching for ten, fifteen years who are now unemployed. Luckily for me, a principal in Queenstown, a lady, got me a job in a rural village three hours’ drive from my home. I left my children living with my parents and moved to the village.

I am a Xhosa and this was a Xhosa village. We’re still living under the chiefs there, so the governing body or the chief allocates you a place to live. People carry water in buckets on their heads because the only running water is in the river. Cows drink from that water, people wash in it. There’s no electricity. People live in round houses with thatch roofs. There’s no toilet. These days, in Oregon, I am taking care of a small boy and I try to explain to him what life is like in that village. He says, “No toilet?” I say, “That’s right, no toilet.” If you have newspaper you use newspaper to wipe yourself. Or stones. He says, “No!” He can’t imagine life without a toilet. I say, “Yes, baby, that’s what it’s like.”

The hardest thing about teaching was the lack of books and equipment. Sometimes we just taught out of a book about things that even we as teachers didn’t know or understand. Computers, for example. I taught my students about computers, but the first time I touched one was here in America. In South Africa, I only ever saw a computer at the bank.

But there’s another big difference between South Africa and here—respect for teachers. When you are a teacher in South Africa arriving at school with your bags and books, kids run to help you. I’m not talking about small kids—big boys come to carry your books. They call us “Miss” or “Teacher.” “Yes, yes, Miss.” “Yes, Teacher.” They have that respect. Even the parents respect teachers. I am talking mainly about the rural areas. In the towns in South Africa, it is different. You hear about kids beating their teachers in town. But in the rural areas, there is still respect.

All the same, after twelve years of teaching, I was ready to leave and to work for God and the church. I packed only my clothes and my Bible to come to the U.S. I carried a small suitcase and a bag, with my special visa for missionaries.

III. “THEY WANTED SOMETHING ELSE FROM ME.”

I was shocked when I arrived at the place where I was going to stay. In the movies, I never saw people asking for money on the street, I never saw homeless people. Everything in America seemed perfect. According to TV, there are only smart well-dressed people in America. You don’t see places like where I went to live in Houston. I expected it to be a city like Johannesburg, but my street was more like a township back home—poor people living crowded in small houses. Street kids.

I went to live in the pastor’s daughter’s house, just across the road from the church and the school. She was divorced with two children. Two other women lived there who also came as missionaries—one from South Africa and the other from Swaziland. The pastor and his wife lived about ten minutes’ drive away.

I started working the very next day, in the school that belongs to the church, teaching classes. But after a few days they said, “Your pronunciation’s not good enough to do teaching. The children can’t understand you.” I was surprised because I taught English at home.
I think they wanted something else from me all along.

They did give me a lot of other work after that. With the lady from Swaziland, I cleaned the church, helped with the young children, cleaned their houses. I remember I cleaned the dirtiest garage in the world—I have photographs of that! But this was not right. This was not why I came to this country. When they say you are a missionary, and you come over here, you are coming to help people, to teach the children and to show them the Christian way to live. But we were not doing the missionary work that we’d agreed to do here; we were really working for the pastor’s daughter, the three of us, cleaning the house, taking care of the kids when she was out.

There was always something, some more work. The pastor’s daughter travels to church conferences all over the world and she sells special neckties at these events. We would pack those ties for her—all kinds of work like that. The pastor’s family owns a big farm out of town, so they drove us out there to dig holes and plant trees. We worked fast—I don’t even know where we got the strength. Within a few hours, we would be done with our task and they would be shocked. Another pastor came over and said, “I also want a missionary from South Africa from the same church.” I laughed because they’ll never get somebody like me. I don’t have a duplicate.

The pastor’s wife and daughter didn’t want us to talk to other people, even other church members. If they saw us talking with anyone, they would ask, “What was she saying to you?” People at church felt sorry for us. “Were you a teacher?” “Yes, I was.” “So why did you come over here? Why are you working like a slave?” It was a black church and a black family, so they are very aware of slavery. I said, “I don’t know anything about slavery. I know apartheid. If I am anyone’s slave, I’m Christ’s.”

My visa was extendable for one year from January 2006. The first expiration date in my passport said April 24, so I needed to extend it. I kept asking the pastor’s family to get it extended. They would say, “Okay, don’t worry. We’re going to do it for you.” But they never did and they never explained why. So my visa expired and I have overstayed. And I know that it was intentional. They didn’t want us to go because we were working for them. That’s why they wanted us—for cheap labor. If we were legal, we might tell someone how we were treated, we might ask for help or go and work somewhere else. So they kept our papers and held up our extensions because they were afraid that they’d lose us.

The only time I left the house and the church was to buy calling cards so I could call home. One time, they took us into the city center and we walked around the big buildings and shops downtown. Otherwise, they never took us out. The family were not unkind in the way of shouting or anything, but they smiled in a way that we are not used to. They weren’t really smiling—I’m sorry to say this—it was a fake smile. They saw us but not really, not with their spiritual eyes. Church here was different, too. As Africans, we do things differently. I asked the Holy Spirit to help me not to look at these people with my eyes, no matter how they treated me or how they lived, but instead to help me to look at them with my spiritual eyes. That way, with God helping me, whatever they were preaching I was hearing the word of God. Whatever they were singing, I was hearing the voice of God.

So this was my position. Instead of being a missionary, I had some kind of job. But every day the work changed—I never knew what I was supposed to be doing. We were paid three hundred dollars every two weeks, six hundred per month. They said they paid us so little because they fed us and gave us clothes, so we didn’t need any more money. But those clothes they gave us were so big that they didn’t fit me at all. The pastor’s daughter was always eating out and her kids ate meals that you take from the freezer to the microwave. The three of us ladies from Africa used to make rice for ourselves if there was food in the house to cook. Most days, they gave us pork neck bones. As a Christian at home, we don’t eat pork. But in America we were forced to eat pork because we had no alternative. Then for two months, there was no food for us at all, even though the pastor gave his daughter money to feed us. She said, “You eat too much.”

At the church, they served bread and peanut butter after the service every Sunday. When we were so hungry, when we had no food, the lady from Swaziland would go to the school very early in the morning and take some of this bread so we had something to eat. Was she taking the bread or stealing it? I don’t know the answer to that.

This is what I did with the $600 every month. First, they took $60 of it for tithing to the church. Then I would pay $20 for a calling card and $20 for cosmetics. (I cut my hair very short because I could not afford hair products.) And then I paid $40 in charges each time I wired money home. That left $460 to send home each month, to pay for my house and to support my parents and my daughters at school. It was not even half of the salary I used to earn at home.

My mother is HIV-positive and so is my sister, so the money also had to pay for their medicine. My father was HIV-positive too, but he passed away in 2004. Only rich people and those with medical insurance can afford to pay for HIV medication. The medication that my mom is using is 366.28 rands[4] every month. On top of that, there are certain things that she must eat, like 100 percent pure juice, and those things are expensive for me. Some who are infected get the medicine from the government hospital, but sometimes the government runs short of medicines. Many who are infected with the AIDS virus, even if they get medicine from the government hospital, they may not have food, or people to give them moral support, no one to take care of them. For example, my sister’s CD4 count[5] dropped so low that the doctor told her to go and choose her coffin—he was quite sure she was going to die soon. But because of the love I gave her—and please get me right, I’m not trying to brag—because of the way I supported her morally and spiritually, she is fine and her CD4 count is up. We have to give people with AIDS spiritual drugs as well; it’s not enough to heal only the physical body. Even the way the doctors talk to them can be upsetting. One doctor told my mom to go back home, there was nothing she could do, “Just go home and wait for your day to die.”
I told my mom and my sister that the doctors cure, but God heals.

Before I came, the pastor’s family said that in March, my second month here, they were going to invite my husband to join me. But when I was here in the U.S., they didn’t even want to discuss that plan. They asked me why he doesn’t find some way to get money himself, like selling bottles to recycling centers. I said, “At home we don’t do those things.” It made me sick, when they talked like that about my husband, asking me why I support him. It’s not their business. That is what I do. I support him.

Now what could I do? I had resigned my position back home. With so many teachers unemployed in South Africa, I knew I would not get another teaching job. So I was not even thinking about going home. Not at all. I just said to myself, “Okay, these are my tests, I must go through them. These are my tribulations. I must face them.”

III. “THEY WANTED SOMETHING ELSE FROM ME.”

Everything changed one day in April because one of the church members happened to see my paperwork in the church office. She came to me and asked, “Are you happy here?” I said, “Yes,” because I did not trust anybody. I thought she would report me to the pastor’s daughter. So I said, “Yes, I’m happy.” She said, “Tell me the honest truth: are you happy here?” I could feel she was sympathetic, she was really asking from her heart. So I told her everything. I explained that I couldn’t think of leaving—I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have anywhere to go. And I would be illegal soon. Everywhere you go in the U.S., they want to see your Social Security number and of course I don’t have one.

She told me she and her husband had been worried about me ever since I arrived here. She said, “It was worse when I saw what you were paid at home.” That was on Sunday. Then on the Tuesday, she came to see me again. She asked if I would come with them if they got me a ticket. I asked where to, but they did not want me to know. I still did not know if she was serious, but she told me to be ready at eleven o’clock on Wednesday morning. I thought, If this is God’s will, I must do it. So I escaped with her and her husband. I took only my Bibles. I left all my clothes there, everything. My teaching certificates are there. I just walked out of the house as if I was coming back. A secret mission. We left Houston the same day and flew here to Oregon. This was just before my visa expired so I was still able to use my passport for picture ID.

That young couple, also a black family, they took a big risk in order to help me. The church in Houston is still looking for them. They want them to repay the cost of my ticket to fly here from South Africa. But in fact it is the church that will suffer if Immigration finds out that they have been making false promises to bring people here to provide cheap labor for them, paying us in cash so there are no records. They lied to the government, saying that I was coming here as a missionary, but then keeping me to clean for them.

I called the South African embassy to find out if they could help with my status. The lady there said, “Ah, you’ve overstayed. The only thing you can do is apply for a student visa.” I told her the schools are so expensive. I’ve looked on the internet and I can’t afford four hundred dollars to pay fees. Others tell me, “You’d better get married.” I say, “I’m married in South Africa.” Even if I was not married, would I marry just for papers? I don’t think that would work for me. One day when I was walking to the bookstore, a car stopped next to me and a Mexican man asked me, “Do you need a ride?” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Are you from Africa?” I said, “Yes.” Then he said, “I know you don’t have any papers. If you have sex with me, I’m going to try to make everything okay.” I said, “Look at me. I’m a Christian.” Even if I was not married, I was not going to do that. And then, when he was dropping me off, we saw a police car. The Mexican guy immediately ducked down under the dashboard, out of sight. I said, “And you think you can fix my situation for me? While you’re hiding from police yourself?”

I don’t want to be deported because, if I leave that way, I can never come back again. And one day I do want to come back to America, not to work, but to go to church conferences. If I leave without being deported, I can come back again in ten years’ time. So that’s my biggest worry now—being deported. If you’re illegal here, you’re not free at all. Even at church, when somebody asks questions, you think, “Ah, maybe he’s working for the INS.”[6] You don’t trust anybody. You don’t want to talk to other people. You’re always quiet. You don’t want people to know your status. Every day I cross my fingers. “Oh God, please don’t let me do anything illegal so I get deported.”

I’m afraid all the time. I can be outside the house with this little boy that I look after and I start to imagine what will happen if he tries to run into the road. Say the police are called. They will start asking me questions: “Who are you? How have you been working here?”

V. “THE REASON PEOPLE HIRE US IS BECAUSE WE’RE CHEAP.”

The Houston family who moved here didn’t need anybody to work for them, but they helped me by giving me a job when we first arrived. Then I found a job advertised on the internet and I went to work for an Indian family as a nanny. I told them the truth—that I don’t have papers. I didn’t hide that because it’s really dangerous to employ somebody who doesn’t have papers. If the government finds out, the employer will be in trouble as well as me. Of course, the reason people hire us is because we’re cheap.

I only stayed one week with that family. The second week, I quit because they wanted me to pray to their God. They had vases and money on a small table, like an altar, and when I was feeding their babies, I was supposed to pray there. I said I could not do that. And I quit the job right away.

Actually, the conditions there were not good. I took care of the two children and I cleaned the house. But I didn’t do any cooking or shopping—the mother did the cooking. They paid me three hundred dollars per week and I lived with them, downstairs in the garage. There were cars parked on one side, a laundry over there, and then one section was a small office for the husband. I slept on a couch in that office, so there was no privacy. I kept my clothes in this office too, next to the husband’s computer. At night, the couch became my bed—I would pull it out. Any time they were leaving the house, they had to come past me. They would call me from upstairs, “Liso, cover yourself! We are coming down!”

The young couple, the ones who helped me escape, asked me, “Are you happy there? Come back and live with us if you are not happy.” I didn’t want to bother them, so I said, “Yes, I’m happy.” But when my employers said I must pray at their altar, I called the young couple and said, “I’m coming back.” I stayed with them again for a while until I found this job, the one I’m doing now.

And this is where I have worked ever since, for over a year. I take care of two kids—the twins are nearly a year old, the other one just turned four. I also clean the house and do the laundry, but the wife does the cooking. The babies are up now at seven a.m., and I’m busy all day until eight or nine at night. But they know that I must have Sundays for church. There is no negotiation about that. It’s only on Sunday that I don’t work at all. I take care of the babies at church in the morning and then in the evening, I attend the service and also Bible study class. My friends in the class are old! One is seventy-two years old, another is ninety-two years old. They’re my only friends. We met there in class and they give me a ride to church.

I don’t take holidays, I don’t take Christmas. Where would I go? What I do is I walk to the bookstore on Saturdays. I sit and read there for two hours and then I walk back. I have a very strict schedule—at one p.m. on Saturdays, I check my email. After that, I work from four in the afternoon until whatever time the parents come back—it could be midnight or one a.m. I never have a set time for when I finish work.

The couple I work for pays me four hundred dollars a week. I live here for free and they give me food. It made me laugh the other day when I was working out the numbers on the calculator on my cell phone. It comes to not even three dollars an hour, more like two dollars and some cents. They tell me that they don’t want to pay more because they give me so many things and they let me use the computer. They said they would raise my pay by 7 percent but they haven’t done it.

VI. “JUST A SMALL DOOR TO GET INTO AMERICA”

I’ve seen adverts for a thirty-nine-dollar doctor in the newspaper. That’s the only doctor I can afford. I think I have to go because my whole side is painful and my muscles are swollen. The pharmacist told me she thinks it is arthritis. It’s not easy for me to squeeze wet towels now, or even to open jars. One Saturday, the first time I felt this pain, I told the woman I work for, “I’m not feeling well at all today.”

She was really upset. “You were supposed to tell me long ago! Not now!” She’s a nice lady, so I was shocked that she would get so upset. But I understand in a way because Saturdays are the only time they go out. I said, “I’m sorry for not telling you.” They gave me some tablets, but that Saturday was really hard for me. I was really sick. Then the next morning, she didn’t ask me anything. But the husband said, “How are you feeling?” and gave me more tablets.

In South Africa, a nanny is treated as a second-class person. I would never work as a nanny at home. The pay is not even peanuts. But here in America, there is a minimum wage for nannies. Americans can earn a good salary looking after children, because they are paid by the hour. Those who are citizens, they wouldn’t accept $400 per week, they wouldn’t take even $10 an hour. It’s only people like me with no papers who are paid so little.

Out of my $1,600 each month, I send home $1,200. I take off $160 for tithing to my church here and $40 for my calling cards. I don’t spend any money here—it’s all for my family back home. I never go to a movie. I don’t even buy spring water. My family back home are paying off the debts with the money I send. But, like I told you, people believe that in America you can pick up dollars from the grass. Even now, I get text messages on my phone from people at home saying, “Send me money.” Oh Jesus, they don’t know. “Please, please, please send me five thousand rands.”[7] Do they know how much work it takes to make five thousand rands? Do they know what I’m doing? They don’t understand a thing.

This couple’s friends ask me how I am. I know they worry about me, they feel sorry for me. They see that I’m always working. But I like the kids. I develop something new every day. That’s one of the things I’ve learned: to be happy, you must love your job. And I do, I love my job. I don’t even care about privacy, because I’ve got nothing personal here.

The woman from Swaziland left Houston, too. She found work in another city like I did. But she wrote to tell me her situation was bad, the way they were treating her. She did not eat with the family—she even had to use her own cup and plate. After their dinner, she ate leftovers. If they finished all the food, she would go to bed without eating. This girl grew up in Swaziland so she didn’t know anything about apartheid. I told her, “That’s apartheid.” Because she was wearing a uniform with a white headscarf, washing the dogs. I said to her, “It was not your job, that one. It was not the place for you. It was just a small door to get into America.”

VII. “I WANT TO PLANT SOMETHING HERE.”

Ah, my husband. I miss my husband. I do miss my mother and my daughters, but not like my husband. Sometimes I cry the whole night. The last time I saw him was January 24, 2006. It’s as if we have given the devil the keys, me and my husband, because we didn’t even stay together all that long and now there is so much distance between us. We don’t know what will happen. Every week, I call him. If I have enough money, I call every day, a very short call. “Hi. I love you,” I say, then I put down the phone. “Hi. I love you.” Until the five-dollar card is used up. “Hi. I love you.” Then on Saturdays, I call him as I walk and we talk for thirty minutes. We talk about our debts and we make plans. I also talk with my daughters about how they are doing at school. I tell them they must respect my husband and listen to him, even though he was not around for a long time. I worry about them. They go to church but they are not born-again Christians.

As for me, I try to make sure that whatever I’m doing glorifies the name of God. When the twins in Portland were born, their grandmother was here to help. From the time she left, when the babies were one month old, I would work all day until two a.m., sleep three hours, and be back at work at six a.m. One day, my boss asked me, “How do you manage to do this?” I say, “It’s not me. It’s God.” Truly speaking, it’s God. I was glad when my boss’s wife once asked me, “Can I go to church with you?” I said, “Praise God.” And the boy here, he was so naughty. But God helped me understand how to treat him, how to talk to him. When I started here, he used to hit me, throw things at me, throw things at his parents. But now he’s a good boy.

I want to plant something here. I don’t go around talking about Jesus. I try to lead by example. The children can feel it. I don’t want to leave until I know that I have saved at least one soul here in America. And I have wisdom now. I see how to make money and how to help other people. My eyes are open. Every day in America, I get ideas. I want to learn to swim so I can go home and teach my children to swim. I am taking piano lessons. Someone at my church has promised to teach me to ride a bike. People say, “Is she normal? Why is she doing all those things? Why is she learning piano?” I don’t want to waste a minute of my time here. Every second counts. The year 2010 is coming and that’s when I will have saved enough money to go home. I love my own country—I see now how good it is. But I need these years in the U.S. to make my plans work.

I’ve started writing a small book, a pamphlet for people living with HIV. What I learned from my experience with my sister is that the antiretrovirals are not enough. To stay alive, you need the spirit as well as the drugs. So I’m writing about that.

And I’m starting my own business. I’m here in Oregon, but my husband will start the business in South Africa next January—a day-care center and boarding house in our home. I will have computers at my day-care center. People can come to my place and I will teach them how to use computers. I will talk to people who have nannies and tell them the right way to treat their nannies.

You know, I’ve learned a lot about white people since I came to America. At home, if you’re buying a second-hand car, you say, “I want a car that was owned by a white, because they always take care of their cars and have them serviced.” But I’m learning that not all whites look after their cars. And some whites eat too much! It’s funny. We’re no different, nothing special—we’re all the same, white and black.

And I’ve learned about being an illegal worker. I try to explain to people here that South Africa is not like other countries in Africa. Whatever you have in America, you will find it in the big cities in my country, too. And people from other countries in Africa want to come and work in South Africa, just like people want to come and work here in the U.S. And we treat illegals badly, just as illegal workers are treated here. South Africans say, “These illegals!” It’s the same in America—here, you hear Americans say, “Our government is wasting lots of money on these people.” At home, we call them amakwere-kwere[8] and when you want cheap labor you employ them. We don’t recognize them as human beings. They’re just poor people who come to South Africa to get money. And in America now I’m just like those people. There is one of them who is working on my parents’ land at home—a lady from Zimbabwe. She ploughs the whole field using only a spade. And they pay her three hundred rands[9] per month. I say, “Mom, if you can treat that lady nicely, you are going to be treated nicely. If you can raise her salary, God’s going to take care of me here, because I’m in the same position that lady is in.” When I go home, I’m going to make sure she gets a South African ID. I don’t know how I’m going to do it—I’m going to ask my mom to adopt her or something.

Because I will go home. In 2010, after paying my debts back home and paying off the land I bought. My husband and my children, they miss me a lot. We don’t know what will happen. At night, I fall asleep thinking 2010, 2010, 2010.

 

[1] Precursor to the modern-day Free State province in South Africa.

[2] A South African province, home to a majority of Xhosa people.

[3] Short for matriculation. In South Africa, it commonly refers to the final year of high school and the qualification one receives upon graduating.

[4] Approximately fifty U.S. dollars.

[5] A CD4 (or T4) count measures the amount of certain white blood cells. It acts as an indicator of immune system strength.

[6] The Immigration and Naturalization Service, now divided into United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

[7] About $750 U.S.

[8] A derogatory term for black foreigners.

[9] About forty-five U.S. dollars.

 

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