I didn’t know what to write about this week, so I’ll just tell you a story. It is still an evolving one as I write so don’t expect me to give you a proper ending.
Things are still happening in Nigeria, friends. The strangest things are still happening. Perhaps they are not as strange as they appear to me. I just may be the naïve one, right? Four years is a long time to be away from home. Although I make the annual visit a ritual, three weeks or thereabouts will never be enough to re-assimilate all that you dumped at the airport when you breezed out.
When I went to the American Embassy in Lagos for my visa in 1997, I witnessed first hand the stories I’d heard repeatedly. I saw the long line of people waiting to be allowed through the gates of “heaven”. Some, it turned out, were old regulars. Habitual gamblers bowing to the deities of Las Vegas temporarily resident in Nigeria, they had been denied visas so many times and still kept on trying for all sorts of reasons, hanging on to the thin thread of inexplicable hope.
I found out recently that the letter of appointment for an interview at the Embassy may not protect you anymore (and that’s the warning of this piece). A friend of mine (call her Silifa Ajegborodagba) went to the American Embassy in Lagos in response to a scheduled appointment. When her name was called, two people got up; my friend and another woman. Are you laughing yet? Wait. It gets more interesting.
Both of them where called aside by the obviously puzzled officials. “What’s going on here, folks? Will the real Silifa Ajegborodagba step forward please”. My friend couldn’t believe anyone would claim to be her in her presence. She almost passed out. A doctor, she had to be in the US for a career-advancing examination and this stranger out of nowhere was jeopardizing it all!
Silifa and the other Silifa were asked to prove they were whom they claimed to be. That is a lot more difficult than it sounds, friends, especially in Nigeria where the National ID card concept is still facing all sorts of controversies and you have to use your international passport at banks and everywhere to testify to your reality. As for the international passport…let’s just say it isn’t there yet. As a matter of fact, it won’t be there until all Nigerians have access to just one each, and no one has a different identity for a different passport.
The other Silifa argued as strenuously as my friend to prove she was the real thing, straight from the mint and God bless the queen! Unfortunately for her, she had a spanking new passport. Why should that be unfortunate? Anything new suggests recent acquisition. My friend had a string of old passports pasted together the Nigerian way because she had been using them since she was a kid. Expectedly, all of them had her name as Silifa Ajegborodagba. My friend argued, “I couldn’t have been living under an assumed identity since I was a child in preparation for an embassy interview, could I?”
The other Silifa swore she was the real thing and asked the officials to call the popular bank where she works for confirmation. They in turn threatened to take her to “Alagbon” and you know what that means in Nigerianesse. One upon a time, that would have turned anyone into a mass of jelly. Not this woman. If “woman know woman”, as was probably the case here, the Police would be harmless. The officials finally decided to release her while they let my friend get back in line for the interview.
However, a senior official of the Embassy queried the security operatives for letting my friend return to the line. They had found out now that three and not two copies of the letter of invitation to Silifa Ajegborodagba had been sent from the Embassy. And all three had the same reference number. Only the date sent (which was a month apart in each instance) was different. Does that imply some staffers of the Embassy were in collusion with outside parties pitching original letters of invitation from the US Embassy in Nigeria?
My friend was pulled out of the line a moment later and asked to leave at the senior official’s request. She burst into tears of course. To have been denied a visa after a proper interview would have been understandable, but to be denied the interview due to some third party intrigue and lapses on the part of the Embassy? Somehow, they gave her another date.
Still, how do you go about proving you are you? If you had time and all the documentation in the world, it would be easy I guess. But in the heat of the moment, right in the presence of a gawping crowd and the Silifas of this world, what do you do?
Why am I boring you with this? It probably disproves the sanctity of the letter of invitation from the Embassy, doesn’t it? You’d better beware – and just in case you scale that hurdle and secure your visa, don’t think all is well until you knock on the door of your hosts here in America. Why? The story is told of a Nigerian who arrived JFK from Lagos a few days ago. He was returned to Lagos via the next outgoing flight. You ask why again? Did he try to slip into the country with forged papers? No. He was actually ship-shape. He just fell victim to his country’s stigma. Two other Nigerians had been intercepted on the same flight with false British passports and the suspicion cascaded to this innocent chap who had gone through hell and high water to get his visa from the Embassy in Lagos.
It may not matter much that you have valid papers, friends! You could be guilty by association. Ah, the very color of your passport does not mean GO! This green is not the preening of natural things. If you’re not careful, it just may be the color of fungus, degeneration and direct flights back to where you came from! Yes, that stinking country where nothing works!
It is incredible the amount of opprobrium we invite on ourselves, isn’t it?