Katherine Chinwata from Mhondoro in Mashonaland West works in Botswana where she is employed as a maid. The woman who is in her mid-50s is a holder of a Zimbabwean passport. One day she decided to use an illegal crossing point at the Plumtree border post after her official allocated days had expired. She failed to renew her passport owing to work commitments.
“I’m employed as a domestic worker in Gaborone and I can’t afford to have my passport stamped after every three months. The days that we’re allocated on our passports are hardly enough for someone who’s employed. Besides, if my passport is stamped every three months then it’ll be used up in a short period of time.
“It wasn’t my first time that I overstayed but in this case I was very unfortunate because we were attacked by omagumaguma. I’ve on several occasions in the past passed through the illegal point successfully,” said Chinwata. On many occasions she passed through the border post illegally with the assistance of public service vehicles plying the Botswana-Zimbabwe route.
She was on board a local bus on the day luck deserted her. “Sometimes I go straight through the border. I just pay a certain fee to the driver and he takes care of all the modalities to get my passport stamped. “It’s not like I’m a criminal but I would be trying to fend for my family. Jobs are hard to come by in Zimbabwe and if you get a job as a house maid locally you’re paid peanuts,” said Chinwata.
On the day she was attacked Chinwata was travelling with nine other women and two children, aged five and eight. They were in the company of a man who had offered to ensure their safe passage. A group of 11 men accosted and attacked them while they were still in the bushes and took all their valuables.
Despite her traumatic experience, Chinwata still remembers how the robbers grabbed her together with her colleagues and pushed them to the ground. “I tried to resist but some of the men beat me up severely on the head until I started bleeding. I suspect the men who attacked us are omagumaguma who are notoriously known for attacking and robbing defenceless border jumpers. They also beat up the other women.
“I was terrified because I thought that they might rape us but luckily they didn’t. They took away our money, passports, cellphones and even shoes. The two children were the only ones who were left unharmed,” narrated Chinwata. Chinwata’s nasty experience at the hands of omagumaguma mirrors that of hundreds of other women who brave the jungle to eke a living in foreign lands.
They are a rare breed of women who pay little regard to a host of possible dangers that lurk ahead as they seek ways of fending for their families. The risk factor is heightened at times when they travel with their children as was the case with Chinwata’s group. These women from several parts of the country often have to pass trough dangerous isolated places, through bushy areas, in order to gain access to neighbouring countries.
Their journey usually involves spending nights in the bushes and at times engaging strangers to protect them. To most of them, the legal travelling route is not an option. They are prepared to part with huge sums of money and face the risk of being abused sexually or physically all in the name of toiling for the family.
A number of them have on several occasions been raped, robbed and tortured during these risky encounters yet that has not stopped other women from employing the same method of eking a living. Chinwata and her group were determined to reach their respective destinations regardless of the risks and dangers.
Daisy Masuku of Bulawayo who was with Chinwata often travels to Botswana to perform part time jobs in order to raise money for her family. She exceeded the days she had been allocated which forced her to resort to an illegal route. During her stay in Botswana, Masuku was always on the alert trying to avoid arrest by that country’s police for being in the country illegally.
Her resolve to raise money to sustain her family made her develop a thick-skin to the dangers associated with being an illegal immigrant. When she finally decided to go back home after saving a fair amount of cash, Masuku was referred to a public service vehicle which was in the habit of facilitating the movement of illegal immigrants.
She boarded the bus in Gaborone where she was based. “I told them that my passport had expired but I had to go back home. The driver charged me an additional P600 on top of the usual bus fare. He said the fee is charged to all illegal immigrants to facilitate their safe passage back home.
“They said that we would be seated in the vehicle throughout the journey and they would take care of all the processes at both sides of the border. They guaranteed me safe passage past the Botswana and Zimbabwean border,” said Masuku.
A big shock awaited her near the Botswana border. They were all ordered to disembark together with nine other women who included Chinwata and two children as they approached the Botswana side of the border. Masuku and the other passengers were led by a man who also disembarked from the same bus into a bushy area and he told them that they had to continue their journey on foot.
She said: “The man assured us that we would board the bus once we crossed the border. In addition to the P600 fee I had also paid P300 fee for my luggage and P20 which they said was to guarantee my free passage”.
Regional immigration officer-in-charge of western region, Regies Munyaradzi, said the 10 women were intercepted by law enforcement agents in a bushy area near the Plumtree Border Post after they had been robbed. He raised concern over reports that some public transport operators were facilitating the movement of illegal immigrants in and out of the country.
“Some transport operators ferry these illegal immigrants through bushy areas and at times they succeed. It appears that passengers disembark from the vehicles when they are nearing the Botswana Border and they travel on foot passing through bushy areas and later board the vehicle after it has passed through the Plumtree Border,” said Munyaradzi.
He said efforts would be made to strengthen inland operations to curb such activities. Assistant Regional Immigration Officer in charge of Plumtree Border Post, Nqobile Ncube said travellers using illegal crossing points were putting themselves at risk of being robbed or raped. Many cases of women who have been raped and robbed while using illegal crossing points have been reported.
Ncube said people using illegal crossing points were losing money and other valuables to robbers. “These people are misled by unscrupulous people who tell them that if they don’t have legal documents, they’ll have problems at the border. “This isn’t true as returning residents don’t face challenges. I would like to urge all travellers to follow the legal routes in order to avoid falling in the hands of these robbers,” he said.