I woke up that Thursday morning especially grouchy. I had set my alarm clock, the one on my mobile phone, for six thirty in the morning but my phone started ringing at around five. It was my mom, that incurable insomniac, calling to pray with me. She talked about how she had already made a ‘covenant sacrifice to the lord’. It is already written that you will get this visa. Nosa, my kid brother, knocked on the door at six, a full thirty minutes before I had hoped to wake up. Bleary-eyed, I crawled out of bed, stumbled to the Boys’ Quarter’s door and let him in.
“You never wake?” he asked, pushing me out of the way to reach for the light switch.
My eyes hurt. “You drove all the way from Ilupeju this morning?”
“Ilupeju to Victoria Island? There’s nothing there. But guy, that small Warri don spoil you o; travel na wetin we dey do for Lagos everyday. Mommy never call you?” Not waiting for my answer, he reached into the wardrobe to bring out the clothes I packed from Warri for my appointment; a Pierre Cardin maroon shirt and trousers I had pinched from my suit bag. The blazer had been left back in the Doctor’s Quarters in Warri.
“Mommy, Aunty Alero, Aunty Jules, Eniye . . . ee be like say I hammer one million naira. They haven’t let me sleep.”
“Eghosa, your appointment is for seven thirty. You should have been awake by five getting ready.”
“Because of traffic.”
“The place no be inside the same VI? And I set my alarm for six,” I lied, knowing that my brother would scream if he heard the actual time I had put on the clock.
Nosa did not answer. He pushed me calmly but strongly into the bathroom and shut the door. I had my bath. I hoped the day would go well. While pretending to be above it all, at the back of my mind I knew I had not been sleeping well for the last week. Back in Warri, it was my patients who had borne the brunt of an absent minded caregiver: subtly overdosed anti-malarials; consultations cut short; stuttering explanations from their normally verbose doctor of when they should take this tablet or that. It was a wonder that I had not killed anybody. Dr McCormick, the expatriate Cardiologist had seen it all before. She had just seen off her son, a medical doctor like me who had a Nigerian passport because of his father’s nationality, to the UK after a gruelling session with the UK high commission that lasted six months. Everybody was saying that the insults offered by the embassies were not worth the trip.
I let out a gasp, “Cold!” I did not bother with hot water. It would have taken another fifteen minutes to boil and the young man outside would have broken my head if I mentioned it. My pretence of aloofness was really a ploy to hide ignorance. I had been out of the country just once, to the UK for a wedding in the summer of 1980, when I was just four. I had never been to an embassy before. What I remembered was that my mom got my and Nosa’s passports stamped when we arrived at Gatwick that June day. But I will not risk being called naïve, or worse stupid, if I report here that I had not heard the stories. A friend based in Port Harcourt who was in a medical job paying six figures had gisted me of his own experience. Chuka had just completed a six month rotation with one oyibo air-ambulance service that worked the off-shore rigs. He was pulling in a monthly take home of about two-fifty to three hundred thousand Naira and felt the time was right to spend a holiday with his immediate elder brother – a blue passport holder living in Texas and working with Mobil as a project engineer. Chuka went to the embassy armed with an envelope as fat as a two-by-four filled with his account statements, copies of his brother’s utility bills, shares he had accrued in his short professional life, and an assortment of professional certificates and documents. Sure, he could pay for his trip himself. Sure, he had every reason to want to come back: he was a doctor in an exceptionally good job. He was not going to leave this for a year or two of washing plates before the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Exam) which rumour said was exceptionally hard, or the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language), which I agreed with Chuka was just a silly and unnecessary exam for a country where most of us, born in the seventies, had English as our first language. He was cocky. He was sure. He was shot down as fast as a chicken attempting to escape a duck hunt by flying. Over beer two weeks after his ordeal, Chuka said they had asked him three questions to which he provided three monosyllabic answers before one rather attractive, freckled, oyibo chick said, “I am sorry but you do not qualify for this visa. If you have any questions this piece of paper will hopefully answer them. You are welcome again to reapply.” Chuka said it was an irony that the world’s capital of 419 was being swindled out of a hundred dollars a pop by the mugus at the American Embassy. That was typical Chuka. He was not worried about the national insult o. Just his fourteen thousand Naira.
I got out of the shower, dressed up and hopped into the car beside Nosa. I called Aunty Alero, in whose Boy’s Quarters I was staying, to tell her we were on our way. She almost started another round of prayers but for my cry that I was running out credits. I hoped God was hearing everybody. During the drive Nosa ran through the contents of my two-by-four envelope verbally while I ticked them off.
“You carry the Passport?”
Bush boy. Instead of sounding like we were on a mission to some exotic locale, a la James Bond, Nosa was sounding like we were going to the market. “Check!” I replied. Hopefully he would take the hint and sound more professional.
He did. “Appointment letter; form DS-156, form DS-157?”
“Check; check; check!”
“Letter of invitation?”
My aunt, Weyinmi, was a Professor of Literature and Africana (whatever the hell that means) in a New Jersey University. Irreverent Aunty Weyinmi, with the bad mouth and acerbic wit. Kai, I loved her. During a holiday she spent in Nigeria three months ago, she had stumbled upon my stash of short stories and the first draft of a novel I am currently writing. She had been impressed and basically spent her entire holiday buried neck deep with me in my work. She gave some tips and invited me over to spend time with her in the states where, she said, I would hone my skills. Cool, I had thought. Cool.
“Articles and Memorandum of Association?”
Getting this had been a nice surprise. My normally surly dad had been quite helpful. When I told him I was writing, a fact I had kept to myself for the past few years, he was very glad. He said it was something he felt I always had, a way with words. That and my head in the clouds, he had added. My dad owned a Savings and Loans. Nosa and I were directors and shareholders in the business, holding what amounted to thirty percent of its equity. We attended meetings with Central Bank officials and had been on an allowance since we turned twenty-one, Nosa two years after me.
“Check. And daddy added that of the Bureau de Change along with both their end of year statements. Plus evidence of the paid up share capital of the bank . . . that is, a hundred million Naira.”
“Correct guy,” Nosa whistled. “Account statements?”
“Letter of leave from the clinic?”
Nosa was satisfied. We approached the T-junction that led into Ozumba Mbadiwe. At our right was the 1004 estate recently emptied of civil servants in keeping with ‘monetization’. All civil servants were to rent their own houses or, if they earned enough, to use the excess money to buy back places where they had spent all their lives from the Federal Government. It was getting light out and this junction would soon be a bottle neck. I shivered. Maybe it was the air conditioner. No, I was sweating. Then I heard it: a rumbling that began on the left side of my tummy and travelled down to tie itself up in a painful knot at the pit of my stomach. Oh no.
“Shit dey catch me,” I told Nosa. The idiot laughed. He continued laughing as he took the turn into the dual carriage avenue named for one of Nigeria’s Founding Fathers. I really had to go. Aunty Alero and her obsession with food. I knew I should not have had that last slice of pizza the night before. I let out a ‘silent but deadly’. A very stinky fart.
“Haba, Eghosa,” Nosa screamed. He wound down both windows, ignoring the fact that it was drizzling and we would get wet. The lagoon breeze rushed into the car. The fresh air against my face felt good and the feeling passed but I knew it would return.
I had other documents in the fat envelope: my two hundred page manuscript for what I hoped would be my bestseller; a collection of my unpublished short stories; a letter from my mom, a Chief Magistrate with the Delta State Judiciary; my birth certificate; and my license to practice medicine. Basically I had packed anything with my name on it. I did not want to be stranded on any claim I made to the interviewing officer.
Nosa dropped me off at the Walter Carrington address with only the slightest of hiccups – I had to run after his car shouting for him to stop because I forgot to drop my phone and lighter and cigarettes with him. They were not allowed in the Embassy. Who knew what weapon of mass destruction these resourceful Nigerians could fashion from those items? I let out a burp as I looked around me. The indigestion was starting to act up again. I had run after Nosa all the way to the British side of Walter Carrington. Walking back, I noted the embassy names. Italy. India. Malaysia. Sweden. The buildings all faced the scenic lagoon, which from this distance looked healthy and swimmable. Everybody knew better. I noticed, through the wire mesh fence that cut off the crescent from the lagoon, oyibos of various shapes, tones and sizes getting off speedboats to resume at their different embassies.
“Brotha. Brotha,” someone called out. I felt a tug on my sleeve and turned. I faced the tobacco-stained smile of one of the hustlers who resumed at Walter Carrington each morning. “You don staple your passport photo?” he asked, waving a stapler at me. I had not. I parted with one hundred Naira for two well-placed staples on either side of my white-background, ears-visible, face-forward, 5cm x 5cm photo. Nice, I thought. Who knew area-boys could be so helpful. It was seven a.m.
I spent forty minutes on the queue. Not my fault. I had asked the chap manning the crossbar which of the two queues non-immigrant applicants joined and he pointed the one on the left out to me. It was when I had gotten to the head that I noticed that everyone around me had big x-ray jackets. I, a doctor, should have noticed earlier. What I thought were envelopes loaded with as much information as mine were in fact just part of a medical for those who had won the visa lottery that the kind Americans threw at the rest of the world each year. I had to rejoin the next queue, the one on the right, and start again. The idiot at the crossbar looked at me as if I was mad when I told him, quite politely, that he had misled me. “Me?” he exclaimed in that hand-on-the-chest manner my people are known for. At least the time passed with some entertainment. A newspaper vendor came and advertised his wares.
“Buy your Daily Sun hia! ‘Pastor sets congregants on fire!’ See the man wicked goatee. See him beard like Osama own,” the vendor announced.
Someone on the left visa-lottery queue, obviously at ease that his HIV test had come clean, laughed back, “How the man beard take different from your own?”
“Brotha, just buy the paper and you’ll see. Look, all your visas are waiting for you in Jesus’ name.” A resounding amen followed that one. He continued, “And since your visa is no longer news come and read about the pastor who burn him congregation for fornication. Hear wetin he talk, ‘I did not burn them. I only told them to roll around in petrol-soaked floor. And I flogged them’. Una hear. Buy your Daily Sun.”
It was ten minutes past eight by the time I emptied my pockets and spread my arms for the beeping looking-like-a-laser-gun piece of equipment that a female guard waved at me as if she was swatting at flies. My eyes were fixated on the other guard’s uniform. He had this big shiny Starsky-and-Hutch badge askew on his chest. He was checking my envelope and making small talk. “Good luck to you, sah. Ah, you be Bini? My mama is Bini. Good luck o,” he repeated as he handed back my passport. As I entered US soil, I heard him speaking to the guy behind me, “Ah, you are Bini too. My mother must be around today.”
It was nine thirty when the urge to shit struck me again. We had been held in a large hall and during the last hour had been in a queue leading up to a series of glass windows behind which several quite black and very Nigerian office-people sat. “Next to window ‘e’,” I heard and I moved. A nice lady asked me to fill some gaps in my forms. Seeing my clumsiness, which she mistook for anxiety, the lady told me to relax and ‘break a leg’. We were in theatre. High farce, more like it. I was anxious. I was hungry and I had this tap in my pants threatening to burst forth. I walked over to a guard with a slightly tidier badge and asked where I could ease myself. I walked past the second Benin boy who had been right behind me on the queue. He looked cool enough and said hi to me in an American accent. He was huddled in conversation with a tall skinny guy with dreadlocks. They were both standing. About seventy of us were standing. The rest were in seats numbering about forty. It reminded me of The Titanic. But who cared. With my documents I was going to get my visa. My writing was going to be the best that it could be and I was going to be famous. Maybe grow dreadlocks and a long beard like Ben Okri or the Petrol Pastor. I followed the guard’s directions and walked through a metal detector to the inner rooms. The toilets were straight on and to the left. Whoa. The inner room looked and smelled a lot better than where they were keeping us. It looked like something from one the new-generation banks while the one I had just left looked like an Afribank hall. You could see oyibos behind glass windows talking to applicants. This must be where they do the penultimate screening before the interview proper is conducted, I thought. As I passed an applicant talking to a freckled white girl, I heard the American ask, “What does semi-official tailor mean?” I did not hear the answer to that one.
The toilets were not so bad. I walked in on a bottle of Windex at the wash-hand basin. A pair of talkative cleaners were mopping the floor. They ignored me. While relieving myself I heard them talk about an incompetent supervisor until their voices became a drone in my ear, bruzzz . . . brezzz. I had a stupid grin of relief when I finished – I had taken a shit on US soil. I walked past a group of applicants doing musical chairs on an array of benches that faced the counters, behind which sat the Americans questioning the next batch of Nigerians. Bruzzz . . . brezzz. As I entered the general waiting room I wondered where the real interviews were taking place. Definitely not in the public place I had just seen. There had to be an inner private sanctum where one could sit and take it up the ass from these people. Where one could rant, rave and beg in the privacy of one’s own shame. I walked over to a wall space that had opened up beside ‘Bini boy’ and his dreadlocked friend.
Dreadlocks was talking, “. . . I hear that if you have a British visa it’s a lot easier.” He had an odd accent. It seemed like Hausa polished with cockney.
“Maybe,” Bini-boy replied. He turned to me and said, “I’m not actually Bini. I don’t know what was wrong with that security man. I am Esan.” We shook hands.
“I hope so o,” Dreadlocks said. “I have a British visa that expired with my last passport. See, I’ve stapled it to this one. Hopefully they will see that I have travelled.”
I looked at his passport. It was two booklets stapled together as one. This was supposed to help with your travel history so the interviewers would not think you wet behind the ears. The boy had travelled sha: visa to the UK and half of the EU countries. Why was he worried? The twenty-six year old passport that I had stapled to my new one had just one trip on it: the time when mommy, Nosa and I had gone for Aunty Ifueko’s wedding. My big cousin, Ifueko, had insisted that she wanted her two cute, yellow nephews to be the pageboys at her wedding ceremony.
“What are you travelling for?” I asked Dreadlocks.
“Oh? I’m getting a transfer from the American University in Oman to Howard.”
“Then you don’t have any problem,” I said.
“Ah. One never knows with these people.”
“But you’ve paid your school fees.”
“So? I’ve tried for the transfer before. But because of my Muslim name the delay took so long that I lost my admission.” And his admission deposit, no doubt. He did not mention that.
Bini-boy spoke, “I heard that’s been happening a lot since nine-eleven.”
I found a bit of my wit, “I don’t know what they expect Nigerians to go and do there o. I’ve never heard of a Nigerian terrorist . . .”
“Except for some of our leaders,” Bini-boy interjected.
“Except for those,” I agreed. “But really the worst we would have done was maybe sell the World Trade Centre as our father’s garage and auction the Pentagon as his kitchen.”
Dreadlocks was still worried. “I hear that if you speak only when spoken to they won’t get mad. I hear that they must at least ask you why you think they should believe you’re coming back . . . why you won’t run once you see America.”
“I don’t think anything matters. But at least looking at you, they should at least feel comfortable. You look like an American rapper,” Bini said, trying to build up the chap’s confidence.
I felt sad tearing it down again, “Although come to think of it, they might not be so nice. You know, you’re like someone who’d fit right in over there. They might just decide that you’d be too comfortable there and not come back.”
“Don’t,” Dreadlocks pleaded.
I continued, “But it’s true. All you need are a few deep tribal marks, an Agbada and a bush accent. With that they know the cold will quickly send you scurrying back.” We all laughed. Tearing, holding our sides and drawing attention to ourselves. This was something Nosa had warned me against. He had said on the drive down, “You know these Americans. They might be watching everyone in there with the surveillance cameras. No need to talk to anyone. Just wait for your turn and leave.” Lovable idiot. Nosa spent too much time watching that Jack Bauer TV series. He had fried his brains paranoid.
We found seats. They had started calling in the non-immigrant visa applicants. I was in batch six, number eighteen. I sat between my new friends. Bini-boy had actually been born in Warri. His father was a Shell retiree and he had been visiting the states on and off for the last ten years. Bini-boy’s last visit was in early 2001. He said he saw the significance. This was his first application for a visa to the US since September of that year. But he was not just visiting. Bini-boy was going to school. He had admission for a University in Texas and he had paid his school fees. I assured him he was going to get his visa. I was not so sure about my chances. What made me different from guys like Chuka? What was I apart from an unmarried, thirty year old Nigerian Doctor? What was I? I was the scion of a banking family. I was the first son of my dad. A typically proud Bini dad who would not hesitate to disown me if he heard I disgraced the family name by going abroad to wash corpses like ‘other gutter folk’. At least I would get my chance to explain to the interviewing officer why I knew I would come back. I and my panel of discussants had veered away from visa troubles and were on our preference for Naija hip-hop in comparison to the bling-bling American version, when my batch was called. My new friends said good bye to me with shouts of good luck and I joined up my batch of twenty in front of an African-American who spat into the mike as he spoke to us from across the sound proof and obviously bullet proof glass. He was very difficult to understand: “Shhyou vbwill vbwait on shzthese sheats vbuntil vbyou’re sscalled.”
We waited and we were called into the inner room. I could barely see now. It was twelve p.m. and I was hungry. We took out places on the array of musical chairs I had seen earlier. The freckled oyibo was talking to a short girl, “Why do you want to study nursing in the US.”
Stupid question, I thought, not fully grasping what I was seeing as the Nigerian answered, “I’ve always wanted to study nursing and I know that the best place for that will be in America.” Correct girl, I almost screamed in encouragement. You tell her quickly so she can finish with you and let you into the inner sanctum for the proper interview.
“What does your father do?” What was wrong with this oyibo, now? Let this girl go and do her interview.
“He’s a retired Brigadier-General. He runs a farm in Benin. Actually on the outskirts. Just by the University.”
“It states here that you’re in the University of Benin studying . . .” the freckled oyibo girl paused to peruse a piece of paper, “. . . International Relations. What does that have in common with nursing? Why do you want to change to nursing now, miss?”
It was then it hit me. This was not a preview of the interview. This was no further check of our documents. This was the interview proper. A buxom woman beside me shook her head in pity for the stuttering teenager that Freckles was browbeating. My heart reached out to her. We were in public for God’s sake. Show us some respect, please. Freckles didn’t hear me.
“I’m sorry but you don’t qualify for this visa,” Freckles said. “Any questions you have will be answered by this letter,” she said as she handed a piece of paper over to the girl.
“But you haven’t seen my documents.”
“Oh . . . You Nigerians can produce any document.” Kai!
“Can I appeal?” the poor Brigadier’s daughter asked.
“No. You can reapply but I must warn you that your chances of success are severely limited unless something significant changes in your situation”
The girl left. It was shocking. In public. But did I expect the oyibo to know about the conditions we lived under? The girl she had just broken probably wanted to study medicine all along. She was probably a victim of the Education Minister’s convoluted counter to the corruption laden joint matriculation exams Nigerian boys and girls had to take: Post UME Tests. Maybe she took the first course that was available. Didn’t Freckles see the person she was denying a visa? Was she a terrorist? Was she a fraudster?
Sliding over chairs ever closer to the glass windows, I slowly let go. Somehow I did not care anymore if I got the visa or not. I was exhausted. I was hungry. Everything seemed bigger. Who was I kidding? Of course I wanted to go to America, very badly in fact. From backing the interviewers my batch slowly shifted until we were facing them. My turn was five seats away. The comedy continued. They were now questioning members of my batch. A grizzled oyibo was interviewing a 5’ 2” thickset young man.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-three. I am twenty three years old.”
“It says here that you’re applying for a student visa to resume at XYZ University for a sport’s scholarship playing soccer. . .”
“. . . and that you finished high school in 1997?”
“How old where you when you finished high school?”
“. . .”
“Sir, how old were you when you finished high school?”
“Fifteen. I was fifteen years old when I finished secondary school.”
“But . . . Anyway, you’ve got your math wrong. I’m afraid you do not qualify for this visa. Any questions you have will be answered in this letter. You can reapply but I must advise you that your application will be refused if nothing changes in your situation.”
Beside the grizzly bear’s cubicle, a middle aged matronly oyibo with the kindest eyes was interviewing a tall fair boy.
“So why do you want to study in the US?”
“I want to go to the US to pursue a course of study in petroleum engineering because I believe that America is a great country and presents the profoundest opportunity for improvement in my exceptional ambition to be a very good petroleum engineer. I want to be exposed to state-of-the-art teaching techniques and methods that will instil in me the fortitude, strength and wisdom to make it in the highly cut-throat world of petroleum engineering. In conclusion I want to . . .”
“Who told you to say that?”
“I said, who told you to say that?”
“No one, ma.”
“Okay . . . . So what do you plan on doing when you graduate?”
“When I graduate I want to return to my great country and motherland, Nigeria. I want to contribute to the development of her people, her masses, her underdeveloped women and her children. As you can see I am from the Niger Delta, and with the expertise I would have learned from the great XYZ University in the great country of America, I will be able to expand and rejoin and eviscerate on efforts already being made by great and renowned Niger Deltans like . . .”
“If I want you to read from the script you’ve already memorized, I’ll ask you to.”
“. . .”
“Who will be paying for your tuition?”
“My maternal uncle. My maternal uncle, who happens to be my mother’s immediate younger brother, believes in the value of an education from the great and magnanimous country of America. He believes that with the knowledge gleaned from these sources I can be instrumental in the development of my great country Nigeria in particular and the Niger Delta in general. He believes . . .”
“I’m sorry you don’t qualify for this visa. Any questions you have will be answered by this letter. You are welcome to reapply but I . . .”
“Wetin be that? Wetin you mean? You no go give me visa? For my country? For Nigeria?”
It was really very sad. But wetin concern Agbero with overload. My problems were with thinking of answers to my questions. My only prayer was not to meet the freckled demon. She must have been the one I had heard so much about. The one who bounced Chuka with only three questions. I wanted Grizzly. I wanted Mama Goose. I wanted Condi Rice herself. Anyone but Freckles. I made another friend at the musical chairs. She was number seventeen on my batch. She was the buxom woman who shook her head at Freckles’ first victim. Buxom girl was more like it. I found out that she was a doctor who trained in the US but had been convinced to come home four years ago so she’d be more likely to catch a husband from her part of the country. She had not. She was working now in the UK in a ‘shire’. She found out that a lot of UK doctors she called ‘Chief’ were my old classmates. A lot of her seniors were my friends from school.
“Uniben Guys are doing well over there in London o. What are you still doing here?” she asked.
“Never felt the need to travel,” I replied.
“Why are you travelling now?”
“I’m going to spend the end of the summer with my aunt. She’s a Professor of Literature in a New Jersey University and she’s going to help me polish up a novel I’ve just finished.”
“Ah . . . a novelist and a doctor. How do you manage?”
“A doctor and a woman. How do you manage?”
“You know, I never know which the full time job is. Being a woman in this country or treating people.”
“Next to window eight?” Oh shit. It was Freckles beckoning to me.
I got up from my seat and walked towards her – my heart beating like a drum in an Atilogwu dance competition. I swallowed spit. She was pretty. Her freckles looked like unsightly blemishes to my African eyes but one could not deny her good bone structure. She had a straight symmetrical face. Which she kept fixed on the LCD screen to her left as she asked me, “Your Passport, proof of hundred dollar payment and application form?”
I handed these to her and waited. She flipped through my passports, the 1980 one and the 2005 one. She paused at the Gatwick airport stamp and asked, “How long have you been working as a doctor?”
Ehen, now we were talking. “Six years,” I said. I had my two-by-four envelope partly open. I was prepared to pull out about five pages of documents chronicling my short professional career in officialese. Keep on asking, dear, I thought, and I’ll keep on answering.
“Have you been out of the country before?”
“Yes,” I replied. What was all this? Couldn’t she see the stamp on the old passport? When was she going to get to the real question? Ask me why you should believe I’m coming back, I willed her to ask me.
“And that was in 1980? When you were four years old?”
“Yes.” Ask me why you should believe I’m coming back.
She turned towards the computer screen and started typing. “Are you married?”
“No.” Ask me why you should believe I’m coming back.
“I’m sorry but you do not qualify for this visa. Any questions you have . . .
As I walked out of the building in the poetically apt rain, I looked at the stamp on my passport- application received- and thought, three monosyllabic answers and poof! Chuka was right.