PORT TOWNSEND — Walter Maphalala, 19, flew 40 hours to reach Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from Swaziland, leaving behind a life that put him in jeopardy because of his mere existence.
As the wheels of his jet touched the runway Aug. 19, his first Facebook post read: “No longer a slave.”
Maphalala has albinism. He’s considered special in Swaziland, prized for his white flesh and that makes him a highly sought-after human, with a local bounty of 1 million Rand ($70,000). Several people from his area with the same genetic condition reportedly have been killed in the last year, their skin used as “good luck charms” in witch doctor rituals.
He had been threatened. He was being followed. He knew the clock was ticking.
Hosted in Bellevue, Maphalala visited the pastor who helped him leave the danger, and met the congregation of the church in Port Townsend over the weekend
It was completely by coincidence that Pastor Tony Brown of Trinity United Methodist Church and other Methodist volunteers met him last year.
Brown and his group volunteered to build a playground and do work at an orphanage in Manzini, the county’s second largest urban center.
Maphalala’s mother enrolled her son for his safety. He left his home village of Nhletjeni, his four sisters and two brothers, and the memory of his father who died last year, and began classes.
He still was not safe. He was being followed again.
After meeting Maphalala and hearing his story, Brown knew he had to do something to help save his life.
Efforts for asylum were rejected, but Brown said Maphalala was approved for a six-month tourist visa.
“If we can’t get asylum and his visa expires … well, we are working on that,” Brown said. “We have a lawyer in New York who is making the pieces move.”
The organization helping Maphalala, Under the Same Sun, advocates for people with albinism. According to Brown, they are pretty certain now that since he’s now in the U.S., they can make a good case for asylum because of the dangers he faced in Swaziland.
“To be just 19 and leave your county and travel to meet people whom you’ve met one time, he’s very brave,” Brown said.
The church paid for Maphalala’s ticket, but it was only one way. To get into the U.S., he had to have a return ticket. Brown said he paid a lot of extra money and bought a fully-refundable one.
“I’m confident I will get the money back,” Brown said.
Maphalala is an enthusiastic young man who is drinking in all the sights and sounds of our community. He said he learned English by “watching movies, listening to music and reading books.” Manzini is a city that has some American influence, but being here is not the same as the county he saw on films.
“The environment is very different,” he exclaimed. “The temperatures are low. The people I’ve been meeting are so friendly and everything is good. I went on the ferry and I was amazed. I was impressed with the Hood Canal Bridge and hope to see it open.”
Maphalala knows what he wants to do after he’s settled. He’s staying in , with host and Methodist Church member Alicea Rieger who flew to Swaziland to accompany him to Washington. She’ll host him for the next six months She was part of the church group who met him last year.
“What I want to do is my education. I want to work in economics,” Maphalala said.
Rieger has arranged for him to take three classes at Bellevue College.
“These are three good classes for Walter to keep him engaged in learning until he has a new visa where he can engage in the public school system. Two are day classes and one is an evening class,” Rieger explained.
She said getting him on the Bellevue College campus to interact with other young people who are also new to the U.S. will be important for him. He’s scheduled to take Grammar Review, English Conversation, and Everyday Idioms and Expressions, all specially designed for non-native speakers.
Each class costs $378.96. Textbooks for the classes are an extra charge.
“Many people have been asking how they can help and this is one way — donations towards his classwork,” Rieger said.
Maphalala is staying in touch with his family, especially with one of his sisters, through a donated iPhone and WhatsApp, a free messaging and voice over internet service. He said he doesn’t plan to return to Swaziland for many years, and will do so only to see his mother and siblings.
On his long journey to America, Walter’s first stop was in South Africa.
“My dreams are coming true. I will be free,” Maphalala thought as he saw his county from above. “And then when we fly I said I’m leaving South Africa for good. My life will be free every day. I have a new, happy life.”
To help Maphalala, visit www.trinityumcpt.org, click the donate button and from the menu find Walter’s Asylum.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]