The first time I applied to get a visa to the U.S., I travelled fourteen hours by bus to Cape Town, showed up at the embassy early on a Monday morning, and was on a bus back to school that evening. My application—I was going to Oregon on an exchange programme—had been approved. While I slept in the Greyhound that night and into the next morning, my passport was flown from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, then driven two hours to Grahamstown, where it was waiting for me. The trip alone cost me three week’s pay at my job as a waitress; the visa itself cost me another three.
The second time I tried to get a visa to the U.S. was not as auspicious.
Per the requirements, I assembled bank statements to demonstrate I had sufficient funds to be in the U.S., and was not traveling to steal their resources; invitation letters to prove I had a destination and purpose; booked-but-not-paid-for flights to show I planned to arrive in the U.S. and, more importantly, to leave; lease agreements and student registration documents to indicate that I had obligations and ties to the country from which I was departing, and that I did not plan to stay in the U.S.
It is odd to be compelled to produce evidence that you have ties and obligations to your country of residence, and to demonstrate that those ties are strong enough to ensure that you will not choose the U.S. over your home. The visa process positions the U.S. as both an irresistible object of desire—who wouldn’t want to abandon everything to run off into the U.S. sunset?—and as a forbidding fortress, ready to fend off the unworthy.
Apart from all these guarantees that my trip had a purpose and an end, I needed four 5×5 passport photos. I then paid $142 via electronic bank transfer, and scheduled an appointment for a Tuesday morning. I was so overwhelmed by the process that I forgot my appointment until four hours after it was scheduled.
Desperate, I went to the embassy in Sandton, hoping to talk my way in. The security guard said there was no way I was getting in, and advised me to reschedule. I did. The next Monday, I arrived at the U.S. embassy at 7 a.m., stood in three different lines for several minutes at a time, and took a big gulp of my water when the American soldier at the last security checkpoint ordered me to. When it was my turn at the counter, the unsmiling woman asked me about my plans and my current status—nationality, occupation, and income, none of which had changed since the last time—and then informed me my application had been denied.
She had not looked at any of my paperwork, or at my face, but she handed me a pink slip and printed me a generic letter that explained that I could not prove I had deep enough ties in Johannesburg. In the next queue, a young white man with a Pretoria Boys’ accent, whose entire family lived in Johannesburg and whose parents were going to pay for his several-weeks-long holiday with his friend, was rejected a few seconds later. It took me seven months to come close to recovering the printing, petrol, photo, and the final interview costs.
The last time I had to apply for a US visa, I had to borrow the money—$167 upfront via M-Pesa and $42 in cash if the application is approved—to do so. My friend, G, lives seven to eight minutes away from the U.S. Embassy, so he let me spend the night at his house, and offered to drive me to my appointment.
Just after dawn, I slipped all my documents into their envelope. The night before, I had discovered they were a bit damp from a leaking water bottle in my bag, so I had left them out to dry. They were all legible, still, but there were several thousand other things to be anxious about that morning, so G made us breakfast, and we talked about the urgency of poetry. These conversations do not always immediately make me feel better, but we savour them for days after, so I was grateful.
One can get in trouble with the armed guards outside the embassy for just about anything outside the embassy—walking too slow, parking too close, dropping people off too near the gate, standing too still. G, therefore, drove a couple hundred metres past the gate and let me out there. After wishing me luck—because, really, the process is a very expensive lottery—he promised to send me Oti’s number so I could call him to pick me up afterwards. Oti is our favourite bodaboda driver on this side of town, where buses and matatus are forbidden from driving up UN Avenue and into the upmarket estate built on public roads.
My appointment was for 7.30 a.m. I arrived at 6 a.m. and there were already 12 people in the two slow-moving queues on the pavement. The very tall, very broad man who was obviously the security guard in charge periodically meted out instructions in the kindest way you can imagine a security guard at the U.S. Embassy can: men in this line, women in this line, older people with curving spines can jump ahead, where is this child’s mother? The elderly couple behind me did not want to be separated from each other, but the security guard insisted. As each person was searched, the woman ahead of me nervously showed me the first page in her pile of papers and asked if it would be acceptable to the Americans. I was still hurting from my last application, so I told her there was no way I could know what the Americans really wanted from us.
Like at the embassies in Cape Town and Sandton, there are multiple security checks. At the first, the uniformed guard passes a wand over your body, and then rummages through your bag. At the second, you have to present your appointment documents to a drone-ish woman who asks if you have $42 in cash on you. The man ahead of me did not, so he was instructed to leave, find an ATM in the building next door, and return with the cash within a couple of hours or risk losing his appointment.
At the third security check, you must take all electronics, sharp objects and coins out of your bag and place them in a tray that, and place your bag through a screening machine. After the screening, you check in your bag and receive a tag, as bags are not permitted inside the embassy.
I saw the first U.S. Marine during the third security check—he was not as tall as the man out front, but he was just as stocky, and slightly red. I saw four others in the minute it took me to walk to the next building; they looked like they had been produced by a clone machine and I briefly wondered if they had a barcode stamped somewhere under all those fatigues. The thought made me smile, and then I wondered if they were programmed to smile.
After the security checks, the process is rather quick. A woman handed each one of us a customer service form, another woman took our passports, and they asked us to wait outside. Many of us did not have pens, so we had to pass one around to fill in answers we knew they cared little about anyway. Five minutes later, we were called inside for our fingerprints and our interview.
My interviewer seemed pleasant enough, which, of course, did nothing to calm my heart or ease the pain in my stomach. He asked me a few questions, including who I was going to see and when I intended to return, but he did not ask to see proof of any of my answers, which were the same as the last time. And then he handed me a green slip and said, “I am pleased to tell you your application has been approved. Please pay Ksh. 4,200 to the cashier at counter 8.”
The relief was equal parts palpable and fucked up. U.S. visas are a ridiculously expensive gamble: the scramble for documents they never look at can be debilitating, and the interview causes terrible anxiety, all while the interviewer only ever looks at your passport and a computer.
The cashier took my money, gave me a receipt and said my passport would be ready for collection in three business days. I walked out of the embassy before 8 a.m. Oti’s phone was off so I walked to the street corner and found another driver.