I found myself across from my immigration lawyer 24 days before I would get the rest of the year off from work. He stood at five foot seven or eight, with the firm beautiful skin I had come to associate with the locals. His eyes were brown and kind, and he always smiled whenever another apology followed whatever anxiety-laden monologue I lashed at him while I tapped my foot on the floor of his office. “I’m used to it,” he always said.
He came highly recommended by the expatriate community and he was always available to answer my fretful texts. For three months, my passport had been in the possession of the directorate of immigration. According to the lawyer, it had gone everywhere: from the minister to the commissioner, from the commissioner to immigration officials, and from those officials back on its way to the minister for the final signature that would grant me an official work permit.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When I was offered the job, I was told I could submit my documents online and enter the country on a tourist visa while I waited for my work permit to be approved. It wouldn’t take very long.
I followed all the instructions and landed. Six weeks later, I received an email: “We regret to inform you.” I panicked. Everyone who had the job before me had gotten their work approval on their first try. Why had I been singled out?
During an earlier flight, from Zanzibar to Kisumu, I arrived at the airport in Nairobi, where the immigration official unceremoniously looked at me and declared my three-month East African Tourist Visa invalid.
“You have to pay for a new transit visa,” she said.
“Because you left the East Africa zone.”
“But my visa is valid for three months.”
“Ma’am, would you like to leave or do you want to be arrested?”
“How much is the visa?”
I had no references to draw from. None of the expatriates I had encountered held Nigerian passports. None of them were trapped in an appeal like me. My Kenyan friend, who did not need a work visa, kept repeating, “No they cannot do that to you.” Another friend joked, “If you married me today, you could get your passport tomorrow. Just saying.”
I decided to appeal the rejection. The process would cost money that my employers had not budgeted. It would also require a fancy, very expensive lawyer. When my boss asked about the status of my visa,I would reply, “Still pending,” averting my eyes.
I could never explain to friends and colleagues the constant fear with which I looked around my rooms, a fear that often left me feeling like a visitor despite being an occupant for months. I wondered when the gig would be up. What would I pack first?
At the end of August, my application to attend a critics program at the New York Film Festival was accepted. My friends were happy for me. I was, too. I gave myself a self-congratulatory three days, prancing around my house and designing an itinerary. And on the third day, I responded: “Thank you for the invitation. Unfortunately I have to decline.”
As the months passed, I got more chances to practice my “thank you, but I have to decline” emails. For a writing workshop in my home country. When I was invited to see Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki in Nairobi, I said, “Thank you, but no.” That other workshop with the Rhodes scholar and writer I admired. “Girls, I’m so sorry,” I told my new friends who wanted to ring in Christmas in Kigali. And so I passed the days staring towards the mountains in my village, taking trips to sit near the river Nile and consoling myself with innumerable burgers and beers.
It wasn’t simply the trips to other countries I missed; daily life was also difficult. As I had no passport, I banked on the kindness and availability of my friends with proper IDs when I needed to exchange money or send it back home. Then there was the special hell that was getting a SIM replacement when the one I had stopped functioning. I would have to secure a police report if I wanted a replacement with my old number, or I would need to submit my passport and prove legal residency if I wanted a brand-new SIM. I was rescued by the office driver. To date, whenever I have to load airtime, I have to contend with the questioning looks of airtime sellers when they have to verify the buyer’s identity and I tell them, “Yes, Suleiman is the name you are sending airtime to. Suleiman is me.”
My messages to the lawyer moved from anxious to furious. From “Good morning, any update today please?” to “It’s completely absurd that this is happening, what kind of rubbish. Is it because I’m not white?” Desperate, on my last meeting with the lawyer, I told him a family member had died and I needed to go home to mourn. Still all he did was nod and tell me the passport was on the final table.
The first time I met the lawyer and he outlined the appeal process to me, I asked him, “Is it because I’m Nigerian?” “Sorry, they just really don’t trust you here,” he said.
I spoke to a few Nigerian expatriates about their experiences. All of them unanimously declared, “Our passport is an anchor.” My country is an anchor and the farther away I move, the heavier it gets.
I write this still in limbo, unsure if I’ll be able to travel home this year, to meet the new year with friends and family. I was recently offered another opportunity to visit the Netherlands for another film festival, and I have refused to send the email declining the offer, still holding on to an undying instinct that tells me I might be able to make it. In case I do not, I’m trying to cheer myself up with alternatives. Perhaps I will stay with my friends in Jinja and finally get enough time to be around and properly socialize with people of my age in an area whose biggest attraction is not a decrepit bar playing songs that were fashionable a decade ago.
For now, here I am: a black girl with an Arabic name carrying a toxic passport.