The United Nigerian Wives in South Africa (UNWISA), is a group that was set up two years ago to provide support to South African wives married to other African foreigners from the discrimination they face from their families and friends for being married to foreigners.
Over 100 women in south Africa rely on this group for support as they share much more that being married to foreigners, they also share stories and experiences of the bald faced prejudice they jointly face. The group claims that they had predicted the Xenophobic attacks that ravaged South Africa earlier on in April. The group which has 100 members on its Facebook forum and also organizes picnics, family soccer tournaments and demonstrations against the stigma they endure.
The group’s existence underscores the deep rooted tensions that erupted in the form of xenophobia. the attacks left seven dead ‘foreign’ Africans, several injured and thousands others fleeing their homes and businesses to seek refuge in makeshift camps. Those most affected were Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Mozambicans amongst other African natives.
“We saw this thing coming and that’s why we formed this association,” UNWISA chairwoman Lindwela Uche, 42, told AFP. “If only they (the authorities) had listened to us… they would have known that there’s a fire burning slowly and they would have seen how to tackle it.”
“Being married to a foreigner is very challenging,” Lufuno Orji, a Johannesburg resources consultant whose husband is a Nigerian medical doctor. “You often spend your time defending yourself and then you defend your foreign husband for being himself.”
Attitudes “are negative everywhere we go,” said Thelma Okoro, 37, adding that even wearing traditional Nigerian dress on the street can attract barbed comments.
They daily battle with the criticism from neighbours, schools, taxi drivers and even government officials, health workers and police officers. Last year Uche’s 13-year-old daughter returned from school complaining that her teacher had told her “not to bring that Nigerian mentality here” after she and classmates were noisy in class.
“We need to be protected, we need our children to be protected… and our husbands to be treated with dignity,” said Uche, who has been married to her husband Cajethan Dennis for 17 years.
Okoro’s eight-year-old daughter gets mocked by schoolmates over her name “Ngozi” which means “blessing” in Igbo but literally translates to “danger” in Zulu.
For Orji, her decision to marry Ogbonnaya was not without consequences, “Just before I got wed to my husband, I lost two very best friends of mine. They thought I was out of my mind,” said Orji, who adds that her own family though were “ecstatic” at her choice of husband.
Some of UNWISA members have kept their maiden names because their husbands’ name attract galling remarks. Okoro, who has been married to Kenneth for 13 years, says she was told off by an official when she tried to apply for free government-issued houses in 2011.
“They told me that I was not entitled because I am married to a foreigner, and that if I wanted a house I must divorce the man first,” she said. She also cited taking her sick children to hospital, where “the nurses ask ‘why are you giving these people residence papers’ — degrading and discrediting our choices”.
The UNWISA club is now trying to spread its arms to welcome not just wives of Nigerians but also women married to other African ‘foreigners’ stating that the recent attacks highlighted that many other women go through similar experiences. One victim, Nokuthula Mabaso, last week told local media she was threatened with rape for dating her Zimbabwean boyfriend Elias Chauke.
“A group of Zulu-speaking men arrived and kicked down the door,” she said. “They asked me why I dated a foreigner when there were many South African men in the squatter camp and I replied that I love Elias. They then assaulted and robbed me. One of them threatened to rape us and was stopped by others.”
Although the South African government has vowed to tackle xenophobic attacks, human rights lawyers say women who are unfairly discriminated against should consider legal action. “Marriage does not infringe your citizenship as a South African,” said Trish Erasmus, of the Pretoria-based Lawyers for Human Rights.