“0121, 0121 to 9 please…”
I sat on my seat in the cool windowless hall of the American embassy, petrified but still managing to be enthralled by my environment.
Before the danfo came to a halt the conductor jumped off indicating we could alight here. A few of us disembarked. I adjusted my polyester paisley tie, and checked that my shoulder bag was well secured.
I was at 2, Walter Carrington Crescent, The American Embassy. It was around six in the morning. The dim street lights provided barely enough illumination to discern where I was headed. Once I could make out the terrain in the shadows, I was shocked. The sun was not even up but the buzz of human and vehicular traffic of determined fellow visa seekers and opportunist vendors was intense. Morning business was already brisk with wares on display ranging from akara, to newspapers, to Nigerian flags to I love USA tee-shirts all items considered vital in the pursuit for the American dream. United States of America. ‘Visa matter’ was a profitable business for some and a full time frustration for others.
The crowd was building up, I attempted to queue up behind a lady and her son, out of nowhere, I was pushed aside. “Ah aah, take it easy man…”
But the man who pushed me was vitriolic in his retort “Me? can’t I see you or is it you to see me? A beg, go and queue at the back, you jus come, an’ you want to chance me eh?”
I glanced around in the dawning daylight and noticed the queue stretched further back. I mumbled my apology, and made my way to stand behind the last man at the back. I was already sweating profusely. I snatched my hanky from my pocket to mop my forehead. The queue kept growing. Most people were silent, preoccupied with their thoughts. We were a mish mash of people from all walks of life. Faces were blurred, but from the little I saw I conjectured some were professionals, others self employed business men and women, students, socialites in fact every hue of Nigerian you could think of was represented here.
At about 7.30am, the security man clad in grey uniform signalled to us that it was time to queue up in front of the embassy, rather than in our auxiliary file to the side of the embassy. Everyone made a mad dash to form another line at the gate, I found myself being jostled as I scrambled to worm my way to the front. It proved fruitless.
“Ol’boy, mind yourself O!” said the man beside me as he shoved me aside.
I seriously weighed the pros and cons of retaliation, but decide against it since my suit was borrowed from my good friend Bobo. In my attempt to balance my footing I find myself wedged up against a young lady who appeared to be some sort of professional. She was not amused at all “what is wrong with you? Are you blind?”“ She demanded. I quickly composed myself “Sorry, that guy pushed me.” I finally settled into my place in the queue.
A cloud of silence hung over the crowd. I was amazed to see my fellow Nigerians conducting themselves in such a civilised and orderly fashion. The security man made an announcement up front which we didn’t hear directly, but somehow, the information filtered down the queue in second-hand whispers. “He said we should have our passports and documents ready”.
I was nervous for many reasons. Actually, it was my conversation with Bobo that led me to this point.
“Man I tire” I had confided in him. We had both graduated Engineering from Ladoke Akintola University, and had been out in the job market for coming up to 4 years. I was desperate.
““Man no die, he no rotten.” Bobo responded not turning his attention from the TV.
I pulled my chair closer to him to get his attention. Bobo did not bother with the job market anymore. He was now a fulltime hustler. He bought and sold whatever he could lay his hands on and seemed to possess a deeper knowledge about life than I.
“My guy, your man dey sink O! I don try left and right for where?”
Bobo looked at me and smirked “Look, Jide, the system only favours the select few born with a silver spoon. For all others na to gatecrash O!”
“Gatecrash ke?” It appeared we were having parallel conversations
Bobo was adamant “Yes o, no hustle no castle. If you don’t hala, nothing nothing for you.”
I did not have time for riddles, so I asked him to come clean and break it down for me.
Bobo did not hesitate to marshal out his points “Skimpy! Man, Heaven helps those who help themselves. You think going from office to office to drop CV everyday is the solution, man, you are a joker…” And on he went. I finally came up with the idea of checking out, and Bobo was more than willing to help.
So here I was now, at the embassy, eavesdropping on the muted conversations of fellow applicants. Some people were carrying multiple file folders, others full briefcases bursting with documents, many had photo albums, and all manner of ‘evidence’. I felt intimidated by it all, wondering what my chances were. The security guards whom numbered about 5 at this time moved along the queue assessing us and asking us to hold out our documents. The lady I had bumped up against had only her passport and a few slips of paper; she exuded so much confidence I concluded she must be one of those people that travel to the US every month. I glanced surreptitiously behind me as I extracted my documents from my shoulder bag. Soon the queue began to move, I felt a sense of excitement never having been inside an embassy before. Despite my strong antiperspirant, my sweat glands were working overtime and my armpits were drenched in sweat.
We were ushered into the embassy in an orderly file. The pristine hall was filled with chairs arranged in rows, perhaps totalling about 300 in all. In one corner was a water cooler and coffee maker with milk and sugar. Facing our rows of seats were cubicles with bullet proof looking glass screens and 2-way microphone system. The security men on the inside were different from those outside. They seemed more American, beefy and one kin’ bigger, taller, fatter and more agile than the guys outside. They stood smartly and watched us closely.
My appointment letter was checked again, they took my biometrics and then I made my way to a seat.
|“0121, to nine” the lady called from the glass cubicle.
I looked at my number 0348, I was way behind. I settled into my seat willing my churning stomach to be calm. To my left sat an elderly woman, who seemed lost and illiterate; to my right a middle aged non-descript man, it was hard to read him.
Even with the air-conditioning, I was drenched in cold sweat, tense with anxiety
“0122 to one”. A young girl probably about 16years old, likely a student about to enter ‘Uni’ walked to her interviewer.
“0123 to four”.
The earliest birds were the lucky ones, they were handed their visa slip without hassle. I began to relax, it did not seem as frightful as I heard it was, I quietly offered up a prayer for a kind visa officer when it was my turn.
Suddenly the tempo changed. 0131 was called up .The volume of the interview seemed louder, I did not have to strain my ears to hear the dialogue, and it wasn’t just me, everyone appeared to be listening…
Visa Officer: why do you want to go to the US?
VS0131 tells him in convoluted précis
VO: What do you do for a living?
That was the first rejection. It was flagrant and brutal. The VO stamped his passport and continued almost mercilessly “I am not satisfied that your application is genuine, nor have you satisfied me that you have sufficient reasons to return to Nigeria if granted a Visa”. She stamped VS0131’s passport. “Should you wish to appeal this decision please read the enclosed documents carefully before you proceed.”
It hit me! This is what people have been talking about. I forgot my growling stomach and perked up. The perplexed young man slunk away in shame and disbelief, dejectedly making his way to the exit. I felt that it could very easily have been me. I paid closer attention to what was going on after that harsh rejection. I looked around at all the other applicants; everyone seemed to empathize with him. There were many more rejections as the day went on. I was getting despondent. It seemed to be hit and miss, try your luck; there was no rhyme or reason to the process; many were turned down even the most professional and sophisticated ones whom I had assessed as ‘sure bankers’.
One young man, no older than me, when the Visa Officer announced his refusal yelled a violent “No!” to which the Visa officer responded with a disdainful glance, advising him to compose himself or else he would order his immediate removal from the premises. The VO did not stop there. He continued his prepared remarks to the effect that “I am convinced these documents are forged, and for this reason, I am denying you a visa to the United States. You are disallowed from applying to the Embassy of the United States of America for a visa for 10years!” Then his passport was stamped. The act of stamping was so loud, it sounded like a slap to the face. The young man was devastated. 10 years!
I looked at my number, my turn was fast approaching. My heart started racing, I had seen too many decent looking people rejected; even people that appeared ‘Americana’ and affluent. Indeed, ‘visa application is an equaliser’. The hall was gradually emptying out. I could feel the panic rising in me. I reviewed my documents again and rehearsed my responses. This was a big deal for me; no one in my family was a graduate, nor had any even travelled outside Oyo state. I was rushing in where angels feared to tread. What had started as a vague intimidation, sitting here and hearing all the rejections had grown to full scale fear.
0348… 0348 to five.
I jumped up from my chair nearly knocking it over and stumbling over the lady to my left. In my haste, my documents spilled over and I bent over to gather them; no help whatsoever from any of the people around me. My documents which had been neatly arranged were now a chaotic mess. I hurriedly headed to cubicle 5. I remembered that Bobo said that I had to be confident and assertive. I smiled but it must have come out like a grimace, because when the visa officer looked at me, he frowned and then looked right through me. I attempted to break the ice:
Me: Good morning Sir.
It did not make any impact on him so I waited for the questions to begin. He flipped through some documents in his possession and looked straight into my eyes. I maintained eye contact without seeming threatening.
VO: Have you ever been to the US before?
No, I said keeping my voice low. (I have never been to the US, and I was too embarrassed for everyone in the hall to hear me announce it).
VO: why do you want to go to the US?
VO: Who is paying your fare?
Me: Myself (Bobo told me that was the best answer)
VO: Can I see your evidence of funds?
I showed him several bank statements from UBA and GTB.
VO: What do you do for a living?
VO: Can I see your evidence of your earnings… payslip? I handed over several payslips to him.
The VO stood up, packed all the documents I had provided and went inside. My fear was at fever-pitch; I was shaking like a leaf. I had no clue what was happening behind the partition. My mouth was dry, the room was spinning, and I could feel the eyes of other prospective visa-seekers boring into my back. It may only have been 5 minutes but it seemed like an eternity. The VO returned and stared into my eyes as though looking into my soul. He handed me back my documents.
VO: what are your responsibilities at work? I gave him my rehearsed spiel.
He considered my response. My heartbeat was galloping; I thought I saw him reach for the stamp from the corner of my eye.
VO: Is there anything you wish to add before I advice you of my decision?
I was confused. I did not know what decision he had come to but I prayed he will keep his voice low. It appeared my scam had been exposed.
You see, all my documents had been obtained at the notorious Oluwole district in Central Lagos. Oluwole is the den of document traffickers and forgers. Fakes produced at Oluwole were more believable than the original. It housed a brotherhood of amorphous operators producing every local and international document under the sun.
I had long resisted the pull to go over to the crooked side but being rebuffed more times than I could count by employers, I was a desperate man. Look at me- an Engineering graduate with second class upper reduced to being a professional beggar in my own country. My conversation with Bobo was my damascene moment.
Now as I stood before the Visa officer, I resigned myself to my fate.
I knew what was coming and determined to take it like a man; I waited for it.
He was speaking again.
He was still speaking but I was not listening.
I was stunned!