|Apr/May 2005 fiction|
You kneel down in the middle of the dusty road leading to the embassy, not minding the baptism of fire by the scorching Kaduna sun. You have both hands clasped together like a praying mantis, head bobbing between heaven and earth, a devoted worshipper praying to his god. Yes, you are a Christian; you are thanking your heavenly father for giving you an American visa.
Your passport to heaven has been signed. You look at the column of hungry faces waiting in a snake line and laugh at them. "I pity you poor people," you mutter under your breath. You are already a hundred times better than they are, especially the ones with tattered suits hanging on their shoulders, giving them the look of scarecrows. Then of course, there are the ones with bend-bend shoes with colors of unknown origin. There are also the ones who have been in the queue since yesterday, eating only bread and akara washed down with bottles of coke or sweaty, locally packaged "pure water." You feel sorry for the mother whose baby cannot take the heat anymore and resorts to continuous crying. You look at them all, and they remind you of a long column of black ants.
They are consoling each other with stories. "My husband left me two years ago," you hear one woman with a crying child say.
You hurry home as the sky threatens a thunderstorm. You have to get home before your passport to heaven gets wet. You will protect it with your life. You would swallow it if that would shelter it from wetness. You cannot wait to get home to tell Femi, your brother who has housed you since you left the university eight jobless years ago. You cannot wait to tell him that you are now the new messiah. Family members have to worship you, or else they will not receive a post card, not to talk of wristwatches or jeans when you get to America.
You enter the Danfo bus, clutching your pocket and the passport with your left hand and darting your eyes left and right like a security officer guarding a head of state. You will not argue with the conductor today; you will avoid any fight by all means. You are Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, all rolled into one body. You are now Christopher, ambassador of peace.
Femi shouts and dances around the house like a goat in heat. He wants to see the passport and the stamp. You are hesitant, but he still has to help you with the ticket money. You withdraw the green passport from your pocket like a native doctor retrieving his talisman. Femi thumbs to page five where the visa stamp resides. It has a black and white passport photograph of you laminated to the visa. The passport picture on the visa makes it fraud-proof, so the American embassy officials think. Nothing is fraud-proof in this town. The rule is, if it can be done, it can be duplicated. But you have no need for fraud. You have the real thing.
Femi will go to Aloma, his mechanic friend, while you will go to Bomboy, your panel beater friend, for loans to buy the ticket. Time to raise funds, which will be paid back tenfold when you get to America. No one will refuse you, nobody in his right senses refuses to contribute money to a man with an American visa on his passport.
You have photocopies of the visa page from your passport to show them as collateral. Femi has a copy to show Aloma, and you have a copy to show Bomboy.
You greet everyone with a toothy, cauliflower smile. Even your shylock landlord gets a good greeting from you. Your co-tenants in the Face-Me-I-Face-You house know your expression has lightened. They are suspicious. Something is fishy. Christopher is a tight-ass-son-of-a-bitch who does not laugh. Christopher is a yam head who wears the Nigeria misery look of no-petrol or food on his face. Christopher is spokesperson of the downtrodden masses of the earth who curses the Obasanjo administration at any given time. "Maybe he has a new girlfriend," they whisper to each other. You keep smiling. You cannot risk telling them the source of your joy. Someone might come calling in the night with a machine gun, demanding your passport to heaven. You have to keep your secret like an un-hatched egg. Even Fatima, your off-today and on-tomorrow girlfriend, cannot hear this. You will tell her a day before your departure, or maybe not at all. Femi has sworn an oath of silence, and except for the mechanic and panel beater who will contribute to the ticket fund, no one else will know.
The days go by slowly. You call Pius, your friend in Washington, D.C., to tell him the good news. He will be your host till you find your feet in an unknown land. He is happy for you and at the same time cursing the consular officer in Kaduna for the extra burden added to his already debilitating American load. But he will not tell you that. You will see for yourself.
Pius takes your itinerary. He has to call off from work on your arrival day to drive to Dulles International airport and "pick your ass up." You wonder why he tells you not to give away anything and to bring all your personal belongings to America. "Bring your best shoes, your wristwatch, your adire brocade, your hand embroidered dry-lace agbada, your sneakers, your sweater and jacket—bring them all." You laugh inside and wonder what sane man takes water to the river? America is where all things are, and all things are possible in America. America is heaven, and heaven is America. You tell Femi what your friend in America said, and he laughs out loud enough for your landlord to knock on the door, asking for the rent you still owe. You have not paid in two months. Femi quickly puts on his beggarly face and tells him to give you a few more weeks. He slams the door and storms out. You scowl at Femi and tell him to regulate his laughter or it will cost him a T-shirt that says I LOVE NY. He quickly apologizes. Femi is older than you, but he sold his birthright like Esau when he saw the American visa in your green Nigerian passport.
Departure date finally arrives. Femi will follow you to Murtala Mohamed International airport in Lagos. He wants to be sure the immigration and customs at the airport do not pull their usual stunt of killing people's joy, by denying them entrance to the plane despite valid passports with good visas. Good visa or not, they are like gods. You have to have a separate budget for them. "You think say na sand we go eat for here, shake body and do something," an officer will say angrily. Their salary has not been paid for several months. You know and they know that once you fly out, you are free from long petrol queues, joblessness, hunger, armed robbery, and all the vices that have gripped the nation under the different administrations. They will beat you if it will make them feel good. They have soldiers and police around the airport to help them hold you down, if you prove to be stubborn. But you are a peacemaker. You dip your hand into your left pocket and give them two thousand naira. They wish you a safe journey and give you a mock salute. Inside you say, "Goodbye fools, I will never see you again."
You are gone for good. But what you don't know is that no matter how peaceful exile is, the rope of home will always tug at your heart. What you don't know is that your heart is buried in the same Ekiti soil as your umbilical cord, same as where your mother and father are buried. The earth that keeps your soul will never let your heart stray away. You don't know that America will continually remind you of your "country of origin," like you are some piece of commodity. You think you will become a U.S. citizen in due course and denounce your Nigerian citizenship. But the road to U.S. citizenship for an African immigrant is paved with tears and anguish. And you will never be a native son, you will always remain a naturalized son of a bitch.
You give your last one thousand naira to Femi for a large bottle of Guinness stout and pocket change. He is entitled to that for all his sweat in raising funds for your ticket, plus you don't need worthless naira in America anyway. You promise to pay your creditors as soon as you step your weathered feet on American streets, streets paved with dollars and neon lights. You read about Las Vegas and Atlantic City in every foreign magazine you could find in the travel agent's office. You read about how high rollers roll dollars on billiard tables. You research all the states that make the union of North America. There is nothing you don't know about America. You will even teach Pius, who has been in there for the past decade.
You have watched CNN, BET and MTV at Mama Betty's bar. You've seen beautiful cars and Jay Z's snazzy bitches. That is how it is for everybody, you've concluded, and you cannot wait to get to America. There are no street beggars there, no whores, no homeless people, no hunger, no joblessness, no traffic jams like in Lagos. It is all heaven, where angels dance and blow bugles all day long. Beds are made of thornless roses in America. You will eat McDonalds Big Macs and Burger King Whoppers. After all, you are now a king who never has to worry about fufu or egusi soup ever again. Every slice of bread will be buttered, and every tea will be laced with milk and honey.
You are smiling towards heaven as the KLM pilot announces his Dutch name and gives the briefs about the journey ahead. You are ready. As you look out the frosty window, the dust and rust of Lagos recedes until the houses become tiny and jaundice yellow, the size and color of late harmattan leaves. The streets and the cars look like slow moving lines of maggots departing from a carcass. You wonder if Femi is among the people you tower above.
"Juice or water please?" The elegant, emerald-eyed, blonde-haired, square-shouldered airhostess snaps up your attention like a hawk nabbing a chick. You smile sheepishly and marvel at the fact that you are being served by a white lady in the middle of the air. You forget to tell her what you want, and she politely asks again, "Would you like something to drink sir?"
"Juice please," you reply with a stupid smile. You have had enough water in Kaduna to last you a lifetime. Now you are on your way to America, the land of Florida orange juice.
As your joy grows bigger and bigger, so does your bladder. You need to go. The bathroom is squeaky clean, not like the filthy latrine you are used to, where you have to queue up every morning because of the population in the house where you and Femi live. Nor does it smell like a bucket of urine like the one at the Murtala Mohamed International Airport, where there are cleaners hanging around like vultures.
You are done with the business of peeing, but where is the lever to flush? You search like a scientist looking for a telling sign in his experiment. You are about to panic when finally you see a button and push to flush. There is a whirlwind of water pushing your processed juice into an unknown abyss, and you wonder is it showering on the Nigerians walking down below?
You swagger back to your seat like a drunken John Wayne without his gun. You buckle your seat belt even though the seat belt sign is off. You have seen American movies like Passenger 57 where the air sucks out those who did not wear their seat belts.
You lose sense of time and sense of belonging as you fly across oceans and nations. The cheap wristwatch (you gave the expensive one to Femi) you are wearing says it is 5 AM, but that is Nigerian time. Nigerian time is no longer relevant in the scheme of things.
Dinner is served. The only item you recognize looks like chicken. The rest is foreign. You watch your neighbor from the corner of your eye. The old, seasoned traveler dissects her bread, butters and bites into it, gathering the crumbs with her left open palm. You do exactly the same thing. The bread is bland, butter is blander. But you are hungry and you have to eat. You have experienced enough hunger in Nigeria. You eat all the items with a vengeance, even testing the decorative plastic leaves. You wash it down with apple juice, having had enough orange juice already.
A gentle sleep takes you to Kaduna. Your dream is full of riots, soldiers shooting on sight, and you are running to a roofless shelter to avoid blazing bullets. But there is nowhere to hide.
You wake up sweating. The airhostess gives you more forms to fill before you touch American soil. "What agricultural produce do you have?" the custom form asks. You laugh. What agricultural produce could possibly be exported from Nigeria? Where is the section for crude oil? You choke on your own private joke. You fill out your destination and insert the white and blue form in the middle of your passport to heaven.
You feel a drop in your stomach, and you are descending from heaven, your mind mixed with fear and exhilaration. Suddenly you feel like you want to do number two. But the seat belt light is on and the pilot warns against movement. Your first exilic captivity. But not to worry, shit can wait. You look down, and the streets are like plaited cornrows on a Yoruba woman's head. Small rivers appear and disappear. Vast land of greenery gives away the beauty of spring in America. "Welcome to Dulles Airport," the pilot says in his funny accent.
The plane taxies down the tarmac, and a sea of white, black, and not so white people engage in a beehive of activities.
You file out gently, feeling like a shackled prisoner alighting from a Black Maria van in Lagos. You follow the sign for non-US citizens, segregating from the blue eyed people in the citizens line, their blue passports in hand like magic wands.
Your green Nigerian passport is not so important now like it was in Nigeria. It is a curious object in the fingers of a sullen immigration officer with a beak nose. He checks and checks again. He swipes and swipes again. He is not talking to you yet. He fingers the visa page like a tomato buyer testing its ripeness. Your heart is beating faster than your arteries can supply blood. Your legs are weakening like someone just clubbed you from behind. The window separating you from the beak-nose immigration officer is swinging round and round in your oxygen deficient brain. He grabs a stamp from a group, stabs and reduces your two years visa to six months of stay. You take your passport from him with a shaky hand. "Next!" he barks.
You have no luggage to wait for. All you are carrying is a single bag like a primary pupil carrying his slate. You ignored Pius' warning that you should take as much stuff as you can. You have a pair of trousers, a couple of shirts and one pair of loafers—the ones you are wearing. Pius is waiting for you behind the ropes. Many others are there, some with kids and some with bouquets of roses, waiting for loved ones. Pius greets you warmly and asks if that is all you are carrying. You beam him a smile and say yes. He smiles again and congratulates you for escaping the hell called Nigeria. You have many questions, but Pius has become a man of few words because he sees you are going to be a difficult one. A man who travels with a single bag across continents is certainly a difficult man. Only white people travel light. He helps you with the bag. You can see that he is shocked by its lightness. He leads you to his Lexus jeep, which confirms your belief that America is a land of money, honey, milk and Lexus. Pius dumps your little bag in the huge, leather back seat, and you are welcomed with Fela's voice singing "Expensive Shit."
This is your third month in America, and everywhere you go looking for a job, they are wanting experience or a work permit. You have no papers, not even a social security number. Pius says you are persona non grata. In America you are nobody without papers. Now it is finally dawning on you that the years you spent at university in Nigeria and the eight years after graduation are useless. They are your shit years. Years robbed by thieves in high places. Your only experience is vagrancy. Your degree in chemical engineering is also useless. Pius says there are Nigerians with medical degrees working as nursing assistants in nursing homes. He says they clean the shit of America's elderly and take the shit of the young.
Things are looking bleak at every break of dawn. The America in sleek magazines back home has become sleazy. Pius is using new vocabulary everyday: mortgage, car notes, phone bills, electric bills, gas bills, and water bills. You need a work permit, he says. You ask how you can get one, and he promises to see what he can do. The next day he takes you to a friend in Baltimore who fixes everything from leaking roofs to arranged marriages. You need a U.S. citizen to marry, but it will cost you something. Maybe money or freedom, maybe both. You have neither money nor freedom. Pius will lend you money. He has been there and knows the drill.
You are back to Baltimore a week later. You meet Amelia. She will be your future wife, so you can have your work permit and eventually your green card. She sits on a depressed red sofa, a fresh Newport cigarette dangling from her chapped lips, and she offers you one.
"I don't smoke," you say.
"Suit yourself—this is the projects," she tells you through a cloud of smoke.
You have no clue what projects means. But then you hear gunshots outside. You don't have to live with her, just visit once a week to drop off some money after you have gone to court for a marriage license. Pius will take the pictures on your marriage day. You need them to prove to the immigration officer that you are married to a U.S. citizen. How will Amelia go anywhere, you wonder? She has lost her movement to fatness. Pius' friend sees the look on your face and calms your nerves. It will be fine, he says.
Pius cannot take you to your next appointment with Amelia. You take the train to Baltimore. A train full of faces, some lonely, some cheerful. Some angry, some hungry. Your face is a mixture of everything, a bowl of confusion. You meet Amelia on the same dead sofa, sitting like a landmark. You sit a good distance from her cigarette smell. She asks about your sexual preference, and you cringe. You remember your beautiful Fatima in Kaduna. The one you never told you were leaving Nigeria. Amelia asks again, and you are looking for a suitable answer. None is forthcoming, and you are sweating, not because the cranky ceiling fan is blowing heat. You wish you had come with Pius to save you from this suffocating situation. "Are you sure you need me?" she asks. You are not too sure yourself anymore.
You say you will get back to her and rush out the door. There are some angry looking youths in the hallway. One with a bike is wearing a blood-stained undershirt. The other has a fierce-looking, pink-mouthed pit bull. You avoid their eyes and later throw up at the bus stop. Bystanders think you are either drunk or stoned.
You narrate your ordeal to Pius, and he tells you that this is the Red Sea every immigrant has to cross to get to Canaan, the Promised Land. He has been there, and he is serving his last year of bondage from a green card marriage. What is the alternative, you ask? Deportation, Pius replies cynically. You either go down on Amelia and use Colgate and get your work permit, or you go down to Nigeria as a deportee and face the panel beater and mechanic, your unpaid creditors.
You have neither written nor called Femi lately. Nothing new to report.
Be all you can be. You tell Pius you want to enlist in the U.S. army. Pius looks at you and asks what you have been smoking? You tell him you heard the military would pay your school fees and give you a work permit, then a green card, and after three years you can become an American citizen. America needs you, and you need papers. There are too many wars going on to let you waste away doing nothing.
Pius asks why did you not join the Nigeria army, where you could at least become the military governor of a state someday? You are a southerner, you remind him. The quota is already full in the Nigerian army for those from your side of the country.
Why would you want to fight a war that is not yours, Pius asks?
Fighting someone else's war is better than going back to Amelia in Baltimore. You want to die with dignity instead of getting your head caught and suffocated between Amelia's inseparable legs. If you must die, you want to be draped with the American flag, and when the flag is folded and handed over to the next of kin, send it to Femi, you tell Pius. He can sell it and pay the mechanic and panel beater. Pius laughs at your morbid craziness, but you are not joking. There is dignity in dying the American way, at war and coming home in a warm body bag, while an officer (with luck, a white officer) salutes your coffin, a horn playing "Amazing Grace." Dying between the legs of Amelia will send you to hell, but dying for America will earn you a dignified burial and nice spot in heaven.
The recruiting officer at Silver Spring Recruitment Office explains to you all the benefits of enlisting in the U.S. Army. You have the opportunity of being all you can be. Your school fees will be paid and all your expenses will be taken care of and basic training will be in Texas. You have always wanted to travel to Texas. He sends you to a room full of other not so pleasant faces, mostly blacks and Hispanics. He asks you to wait for an officer who will take your particulars and give you instruction on what to do next.
A smartly dressed female officer marches out from an inner office, clipboard in hand like an Islamic slate. She calls your last name perfectly well. Christopher Adebanjo. She is prettier than Amelia. You wonder why she could not be your wife. But Pius has told you that the pretty Americans are dangerous and can smell your intentions miles away. That was why you went to Amelia in the projects, with no hope of marriage or a better tomorrow. The officer's smile turns acidic as she sees you gawking at her.
"Can I see an ID, please?"
You wonder what she means.
"Do you have anything that has your name and picture on it?" She is running out of patience with you, but you left your passport at home.
She leaves you for the next in line, and you trudge home like a tired and hungry mendicant. You are a mendicant, a beggar without even a tin cup. You wonder what Pius will say if he hears you went to the recruitment office. On the empty mid-morning bus, you read and re-read the yellow and black pamphlet given to you by the recruitment officer. You count the stars and the red, blue and white stripes on the American flag in the center spread of the pamphlet. The flag Femi will sell to pay your debts will be cloth and much bigger and heavier than the paper one you are looking at.
Pius is not home yet. You retrieve your small bag containing your passport to heaven and 1-94 stub. You could go back to the recruitment office now, but the cold outside is unbearable. Your brains are almost frozen like your dreams, which have long ago become dangerous, dagger-like icicles, piercing your brain like needles when you sleep. It might be warmer tomorrow, you console yourself. You will go then, and you will leave Pius a note that says: Thank you for taking care of me all this while. I have gone to join the U.S. Army. I will keep in touch from wherever I find myself. I will use you as my next of kin please.
Pius comes home with crabmeat and Heineken. You don't like crab. Too much work for such a little reward. But Pius says he is celebrating his green card, which has been approved. The beer tastes nasty with the news, but you have to celebrate with Pius. He has crossed the River Jordan and he no longer fears the Egyptians on horseback chasing him. You are now the target, the one who has stolen a cup from the king's palace. You have to run, as fast as your mind and legs can carry you. Pius is home free now; his sorrows are lessened if not finished. Pius wonders why you have a long drawn face. You tell him life is not fair. He reminds you no one ever claimed it was.
Things will be all right he says, if you play by the rule. It gets rough and red-hot before it smoothens up, like a piece of iron in a blacksmith's hands. You wonder what rule he means. Kneeling down to worship in Amelia's shrine? It is your choice he says. Every prize has a price, he philosophizes. To get fairness you must first die.
And that is what you have decided. To die. To go with a blazing sun and a song so melancholic even the birds in the cemetery will droop their faces in tears.
You wait for tomorrow like you waited for your departure date in Nigeria. The night is slow, and you can hear all the far away noises. Your ears strain for familiar nocturnal sounds, like the hooting of an owl before death arrives or the cracking of crickets that makes the night what it is in Nigeria. African night is full of debris like a village pond. American night is quiet but for distant sirens. Your eyes refuse to close. You sit in bed and construct your departure letter for Pius to discover on the kitchen table tomorrow when he returns from work.
Thursday is here. The bedside clock says it is 7.15 A.M. in its red digitized figures. Pius has already left for work. An emergency nurse at Providence Hospital has no time to sleep in. You take the bus to Silver Spring, your bag between your legs. You study the morning faces of fellow travelers, and there is calmness that contrasts with the chaotic bus ride in Kaduna. There are no theatrics on these American buses. Neither hawker nor preacher telling the passenger of the imminent end of the world. No fights, no arguments with the conductor about the correctness of change. Bus R2 is organized like an orchestra. Everyone knows what to do. Outside, everybody is walking with a purpose, brisk with focus written on their faces. No screaming of "Ole! Ole! Ole! O-thief-o-thief-o?" No policemen whipping an innocent citizen. But the orderliness of American streets is becoming sickening and boring to you. There is no color to it, no soul.
You tug the cable that rings the bell for the driver to stop. The walk to the recruitment office is cold and windy, and the sooner you get to warmth the better for your uncovered ears and gloveless hands.
Same female officer from yesterday takes your passport and thumbs straight to your ID page. Your face is much younger in the passport. The picture was taken seven years ago when you thought you could walk into an American embassy and get a Visa. But red rejection stamps have eaten almost half of the entire passport. She looks at your angular black face in the picture and stares straight at your eyes like a pediatrician checking a child for signs of fever. You shaved earlier, and your face is cleaner than yesterday. She jots things in her clipboard. She thumbs to the American visa page and tenses. She adjusts her reading glasses like your primary school headmistress staring at a wrong answer. She asks:
"Are you aware you are out of status?"
"What does that mean?" you ask, though you know. Your denial vial has broken inside you. You ask questions to buy time for a reasonable answer, a common survival tactic you learned back home.
"Your visa expired yesterday. You have exhausted your six months. You need to take it to the nearest immigration office for an extension before we can recruit you."
She closes the passport and your hope and hands it back to you.
Your brain is closing up slowly on you like a cactus on a fly. You have all you can do to make your feet walk towards the big bloody red EXIT sign. Back on the street, the howling winter wind bites into your bones deeper and more mercilessly. Your chest gets heavy, the heaviness of the camel carrying stones. You want to cry out, but to whom shall you cry?
You feel hot liquid streaks trailing down your ashy cheeks. You are crying like a small boy whose toy has been taken away. You don't care to wipe the tears; they warm your cheek as you sit on the cold bench in the bus stop. You rest your bag on your lap and hold your passport in your hand, your index finger stuck in page five. This is hell, not heaven.
Two police cars and an ambulance scream past. The ambulance reminds you of Pius. You have to get home fast to the goodbye note you left for him. It is no time for goodbye yet.