Zimbabwean immigrant's story told on stage

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LISA MULLINS: Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled the crisis conditions of their country for neighboring South Africa. They've sought a brighter future, but they haven't always found one. Many of them are homeless and jobless. Some of them have been victims of attacks directed at foreigners. Jonathan Nkala is one of the refugees from Zimbabwe who has found a home in South Africa. In fact he's written a play about his experiences. It's called ?The Crossing?. From Capetown, Eva Gilliam tells us about the play and the playwright.

EVA GILLIAM: In his one-man play, Jonathan Kumbulani Nkala tells the story of how he fled his home in 2002. Nkala grew up in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, a country that's become synonymous with political oppression, economic free-fall, and widespread hunger.

JONATHAN NKALA: Things are getting worse, and it was like you don't even have hope that one day I'll eat or something will happen to me, because we're not waiting. There's nothing to do, and I see my mother still there, crying, so enough is enough. We cannot stay here and like just watch our parents crying like this. So let's do something.?

GILLIAM: 28-year-old Nkala left his home village of Kwe Kwe with his friend, Jacob. After walking through the bush for nearly a week, they reached the Limpopo River on the other side of South Africa.

NKALA: There I was, standing in front of a huge flowing Limpopo River. But this is not what I expected.
What they do is they take a very big tree trunk, a dry one, and they put two pieces of wire on both ends. So they use the wires like to steer the ship. Well, we call it the Titanic now ? to steer the Titanic. And then the passengers, people like us, you slightly hold with your left hand and then you pedal with your right hand. And well, I had difficulties ?cause one thing I cannot do until today is swimming. I can't swim.

GILLIAM: Still, he made it across but his friend Jacob didn't. Jacob drowned in the attempt. And when he got across to the other side, he learned the gang that arranged the crossing had stolen all his belongings.

NKALA: When we got to the farm, I was employed as a tomato picker.

GILLIAM: Jonathan worked a series of illegal jobs to scrape up enough money for his asylum application. But South Africa wasn't such a welcoming place for foreigners, especially Zimbabweans. Many South Africans accused him of taking jobs and committing crimes. And last year, a wave of anti-immigrant attacks swept through some of South Africans poorest neighborhoods.

NKALA: I've been attacked even before these things. And a lot of things, like, when you get into a taxi, people say [INDESCERNIBLE] with words. But there are all sorts of people who have been so very good to me, that makes me feel at home. So I think it's mixed.

GILLIAM: In Capetown, Jonathan met a director who encouraged him to write down his story. That set him on a new path, one he says he could have never taken back home in Zimbabwe. And while he has no plans to return, Jonathan has been invited to the Harare Theater Festival next spring. He says it's one of the few platforms still available for artistic expression in Zimbabwe.

NKALA: Being in Zimbabwe and grew up in Zimbabwe, I know exactly what happens to people who tell stories that are not supposed to be told. So it's a little bit dangerous, but I wish I could be given this platform without fear to actually say it is there. It's pointless, hiding it and just suffering inside and I think I do have that responsibility.

GILLIAM: Jonathan just recently finished a 10-day run of his show at the New Space Theater in Capetown. Now, he's finalizing plans to take his play to local schools starting in February. For The World, this is Eva Gilliam, in Capetown, South Africa.