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Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

is a graduate of Psychology from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She made her very first income from winning a writing competition at the age of thirteen. She's based in Abuja, Nigeria, and has just accepted an offer from Hyperion Books USA, to publish her first novel.

 Coming to the UK

Somebody stomped on my foot while another person dragged at the collar of my brand new polyester shirt. I felt my feet being hoisted off the ground; my face became trapped in a damp, bristly female armpit. Nevertheless, I pressed on through the horde of morning breath and adrenaline-soaked sweat without stopping. All of us had one common goal. Everybody wanted to be first to cross the partly-opened gates.

‘Behave yourselves, behave yourselves!’ the potbellied security man howled. But the gusto on his face did not correspond with the rage in his voice. He was living the plebeian’s dream — the opportunity to exercise some morsel of tyranny. ‘You people shouldn’t annoy me this morning!’ he continued, howling even louder than before.

The crowd paid no attention to him and continued surging forward like a plague of rats being lured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s tune. Seeing their high commander so defiantly ignored, the more gaunt security men descended on the crowd with curses and whips. Yelps of pain sprang up from the crowd in rapid intervals, like firecrackers on a New Year’s Eve. Half-heartedly, we attempted to restore what had just a few seconds ago, been an orderly queue. A few clever ones exploited the commotion as the perfect opportunity for them to steal a place or two ahead of their original positions.  

I had arrived as early as five o’clock that morning to queue up in front of the vast British High Commission building on Walter Carrington Crescent in Lagos. At the time, there must have been at least one hundred and fifty other visa-seekers waiting ahead of me. Many of these pilgrims had camped there since the previous night. The American Embassy at the other end of the crescent must have had about five hundred people gathered in front of their own building at that same time of the morning. But at least, the Americans were kind enough to provide semi-adequate shelter and seats where their customers could feel at home. Never mind that about ninety percent of those people seated so comfortably now, were soon going to depart with their hopes of living in God’s Own Country squashed like lice between the fingernails of the remarkably swift American Embassy clerks. Without even being given enough time to recite their expertly-composed fibs about what they were going to America to do, whom they were going to see, and whether or not they intended to return home. After standing in the unfriendly Harmattan draught for hours, finally, at noon, the gates to the British High Commission compound had been thrown open to allow us into the visa-processing section of the building.

I wriggled forward of the swarming bodies, squeezed through the bottleneck at the gate, and found myself in a narrow corridor. At the other end, a tamer security man was waiting. He scrutinized my documents, nodded, and ushered me into another section of the building where I joined a queue to pay the administrative fees.

When it got to my turn, the lady behind the counter stared indifferently and rattled something I did not understand. ‘Black-British’, I learnt people like her were called these days.

‘Pardon?’ I asked, venturing an imitation of her nasal accent.

‘That would be seven thousand naira,’ she clarified sternly, like a female post office clerk.

Reluctantly, my fingers parted with the bundle of crisp five-hundred naira notes which I had secured in my knee-length socks while hustling my way into the building. All my labours of the past few hours would have been thoroughly wasted if I did not have the fee in advance. I received a numbered ticket in exchange for the cash and headed for one of the bleak wooden benches that lined the large hall.

‘Phew,’ I sighed.

It was a relief to be finally resting my feet on solid ground and breathing in some organized air. Technically, I was even now on British soil. Despite the fact that there was neither wintry breeze nor freezing rain on this December morning, the Embassy grounds was the United Kingdom itself. Or at least, that is what the governments of this world had agreed to have everybody believe. I stretched out my feet beneath the bench in front of me and relaxed. Then I focused my thoughts on the chief issue at hand.

The chances of my UK visa being approved were low—very low. To be honest, few visa-processing officers in their right minds would accept that a young, jobless man with no strong family ties in Nigeria was simply travelling to London on holiday; but it was worth giving it a try as so many others before me had done. My cousin had applied for a visa last year and they had given him. Despite him being unemployed as well. Initially, I had not even wanted to bother with this route at all. I was fortunate to know somebody who knew someone at the British High Commission. And for the sum of three hundred and fifty thousand naira, that someone could do favours.

My meditations were interrupted by a dull thud on my right. I turned and saw a dense crop of jerry-curled hair belonging to a short, thickset man who had just landed in the seat right next to me. The man adjusted his bulky frame on the plywood and sat straight. He was wearing a Burberry jacket, a Burberry pair of trainers, and had a Hugo Boss pair of sunglasses hooked into the front of his Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt. I recognized him as one of the exuberant troublemakers who had irked the waiting crowd outside. He had tried to wangle his way closer to the front of the queue even before the gates were thrown open. Hmm. How had he made it into the hall so quickly?

The man swivelled his head suddenly. I did not divert my eyes quickly enough. His eyes caught mine and held onto them very tightly. Then he grinned and stretched out an arm.

‘My brother, what’s up? How are things?’

‘I’m fine, thank you,’ I replied, extending my hand into the warmth of his clammy palms.

‘My name is Charlie,’ he beamed.

‘I’m Kingsley,’ I responded with a tentative smile.

I retrieved my arm and my smile, and looked away. I returned my thoughts to the day’s business. Suddenly, another cheerful sentence burst forth like lightening.

‘Na wa for this early morning palaver o, my brother. At least thank God we’ve made it inside.’

He was leaning slightly forward with his gaze focused on me. There was no doubt about the fact that I was the beneficiary of his address.

‘You know some of those people won’t even be allowed to come inside,’ he continued. ‘As soon as this place is full, they’ll just lock their doors and ask everyone else to come back tomorrow.’

‘Really?’ If what he said was right, then good thing I had endured the purgatorial pre-dawn wait.

‘I’m telling you the truth.’ Charlie insisted, snapping his neck briefly, like a village chief who had just given a verdict. ‘You don’t know these people like I do. In fact, for those of us who’ve managed to even enter, now’s the time to just start praying very hard...I’m telling you.’ He leaned towards me and reduced the volume of his voice, like a coup plotter. ‘You know, this is actually the third time I’ve been here in the past seven months, so I know exactly what I’m talking about’

‘Your third time?’

‘Shhh,’ he cautioned, looking round to make sure no one else had heard. ‘Yes o, my brother. You don’t know these people like I do…they’re not easy o. The first time, they said I didn’t have correct documents…the second time they said they were not sure I’d come back….this time, let me hear what they’ll say.’

He flashed a smug grin, dipped his hand into the manila envelope on his laps, and retrieved a green Nigerian passport from inside. He opened to the page that had his computerised personal details and pointed. My eyes followed his index finger to the date of birth—July 4, 1980. I looked up into his face. Despite having well-sculptured features and a healthy sepia complexion, his advanced eyes betrayed maturity of at least ten years on top of the twenty that the passport was claiming. I sniggered, tentatively at first, until I noticed that Charlie was struggling to contain his own amusement. We exploded into hushed laughter, like two pranksters in a primary school classroom.

‘So you don’t think they’ll guess?’ I asked, when I had cleared my throat and regained some of my energy.

‘Ah, ah,’ he said confidently, like the first man who flew a plane. ‘Don’t forget that these are oyibo people. White man doesn’t understand black man’s face. I know many people who’ve been using other people’s passports regularly. The only prayer is that let it not be a black troublemaker at immigration when you arrive. As far as it’s a white person, even if your nose is three times the size of the person in the passport, they won’t even notice. I’m telling you the truth.’

He sounded almost as convincing as the multiplication table.

‘Besides,’ he continued, ‘how many times do you think they look at people’s documents? Eh...How many? The other day, my friend came without half the documents they require; yet they gave him. Another time, another one of my friends applied for student visa without even paying up to half his fees…yet they gave him.’ He waved his hand in the air with contempt, as if he was swatting a fly. ‘My brother, please don’t just mind these people o jare.’

‘Are you serious?’ I asked, partly out of interest and fascination, partly for want of speech.

He leaned even closer and tapped my right lap three times with his fingers.

‘My brother, I’m telling you that these people are just funny. You know it all depends…it all depends on their mood. The day their football team loses a match, anybody they see that day must collect that same bad mood.’

For the first time, I noticed that the large screen perched on the wall in a corner of the hall was set to the Sky Sports cable channel. Arsenal was thrashing Chelsea 2-0 in a pre-recorded match. I called Charlie’s attention to this discovery. He shrugged and looked vindicated, like the man who kept insisting that the earth was not flat. We both laughed.

‘Is it not the thing I was telling you?’ He tapped me three times on the shoulder. ‘Look, I know these people very well. It’s not today that I started looking for this UK visa. This is my field. There’s nothing I don’t know about it. I’m the babalawo of this visa matter.’

Our chinwag was interrupted by a sudden commotion at the other end of the hall. We stopped talking and craned our necks, like bantam cocks crowing at dawn.

‘You’re all idiots…idiots, all of you!’ an angry male voice barked from the half-open door of one of the interview cubicles.

Several security men—a combination of gaunt and potbellied—rushed towards the scene of the fracas. In reverence to this unexpected entertainment, the crowd in the hall became silent as a Roman Catholic congregation when the Eucharist is raised in the air. The barking man banged the door shut behind him and stomped into full view.

‘Nobody should touch me!’ he yelled, aiming his finger at the security men like a bayonet. ‘Nobody should dare touch me! If not I’ll deal with you people. I’m a British citizen and I have my British passport here with me! Idiots!’  

Even the power-hungry security men understood when it was unwise to interfere more than necessary. They maintained a sensible few paces behind the fuming Anglo-Nigerian. They knew that ‘power pass power’, that their revered status as British High Commission staff was quite subordinate to his ranking as a carrier of the maroon British passport. The angry man left a trail of hot fumes behind on his way to the hall exit. He was accompanied by a more timid, sombre-faced lady, who looked as if the chariot to paradise had mistakenly left her behind. Usually, it helped an application if betrothed couples accompanied their partners for an interview, when one already had a British passport. Obviously, that prescription had not worked this time. The lady had been turned down.

At the main exit, the protagonist turned round and faced his audience, most of whom, like me, must have been grateful for this refreshing and nerve-calming diversion. He tensed his biceps in an exaggerated warrior pose, and added some extra decibels to his parting speech.

‘Just tell me why he refused her visa….tell me!’ he demanded of nobody in particular. ‘We’re married…we’ve done our traditional wedding…even the Americans recognize traditional wedding when they’re giving couples visa. Eh? Idiots! I’ll sue these stupid people! Look at the small boy even. And you need to have seen how rude he was. Honestly, we’ve suffered in this country.’

He hissed, served a final helping of unprintable invectives, and left. Followed closely behind by his Mrs. A loud hum of whispering besieged the hall; the crowd assessed the incident in twos and threes and fours. There was a look of humble pride on the faces of several applicants, as if the man had just composed a new national anthem, and redesigned the national flag at the same time.

Show over, I turned back to Charlie and was surprised by the expression on his face. He was shaking his head from side to side and twisting his lips from inside to outside. Unlike the rest of us, my companion did not seem at all amused.

‘Hmm,’ he sighed. ‘I hope this man hasn’t spoilt this thing for all of us. That’s how these people will now decide to use anger and turn everybody down.’

The butterflies in my stomach began a vigorous gyration. An elderly man, who had been sitting quietly in front of us, overhead the comment and turned round.

‘Are you serious?’ he asked with eyes wide open, as if he had just heard rumours of a civil war. ‘Do you think this man’s behaviour will affect the rest of us?’

‘Well, all I can say is let’s just pray and see,’ Charlie replied matter-of-factly, like a doctor telling a teenage girl she was indeed very pregnant. ‘Is this your first time?’

‘The last time I travelled to the UK was about five years ago,’ the man replied.

‘Ah, then you don’t really have a problem. It’s people like us who’ve never been that they’re after. We’re the virgins. Here, they don’t like virgins.’

Charlie laughed. Neither I nor the elderly man joined in. 

For the next few hours, I listened to the two men. They bemoaned the state of the Nigerian economy and reminisced over the good old days when nobody bothered about travelling abroad. They lamented about the naira not standing a chance against the pound and the dollar on the foreign exchange market. Otherwise, they insisted, no one would consider leaving home to go and suffer in another man’s land. The elderly man claimed to have a nephew who had managed to purchase a Greek visa. From there, he had wangled his way through at least five other European countries before finally ending up in the UK. Charlie supplemented with the story of his former girlfriend who was currently prostituting in Italy. Her parents had now moved to a much bigger house in Benin, and her younger ones were all attending private universities.

My interest in their dismal chitchat soon evaporated. My focus shifted to the variety of disappointed and relieved faces emerging from the seven different interview cubicles. Some passed furtive signals to their waiting companions, advising them on whether they thought the interviewer had been friendly or not. Some waiting applicants, who had received these hints, were surreptitiously sweet-talking the security men, so that they would engineer their turns to coincide with when the friendly cubicles were available.

Finally, it got to my turn. I stood up, straightened my cheap tie, and smoothed my borrowed suit. The suit was a hand-me-down belonging to my friend. His elder brother had given it to him when he won the US visa lottery and left the country some months ago. After all, he wouldn’t need any of his old things when he crossed to the other side of the Atlantic—to where the land was flowing with milk and honey, where pounds and dollars could be plucked from low-hanging trees, where people’s complexions became several shades fairer and brighter overnight. Even I would distribute my meagre possessions whenever I was ready to travel. My younger brother had already booked my wristwatch, and my red, second-hand, Marks and Spencer sweater.

The two men stopped chattering and looked up at me. Charlie grabbed my arm and pumped it up and down.

‘My brother,’ he said, ‘go forth and conquer the British Empire.’

I returned a nervous smile, nodded a parting greeting, and followed the security man who then ushered me into the fifth cubicle.

In my imagination I had seen a torture chamber where I would be made to stand—quivering, while the interrogator scrutinized my oversized clothes and fired questions that had no answers. Instead, I beheld an ergonomic, metal construction, which The British Government had kindly provided for me, some safe inches from the visa-processing officer. I tiptoed onward and perched my buttocks on the edge of the seat. I cleared my throat and leaned forward.

‘Good afternoon, Madam,’ I said, in a tone of utmost respect, as if I was addressing Margaret Thatcher herself.

The scowling brunette on the other side of the glass partition did not see any need to respond to my greeting. She dug a severe hand into the pigeonhole without touching my face with her eyes. I hurriedly lifted my documents and slid them across. The large manila envelope got stuck.

‘Fold it,’ she scolded into her microphone, still without looking up.

‘I’m very sorry, Madam,’ I begged.

She emptied the envelope onto her desk. She cast a superficial glance at the document on top of the pile, as if she was busy saving the world and I had asked her to look at my new crayon. She looked up at me, at last, and smiled. Then she lifted a stern stamp, flipped open my virgin passport, and struck. Visa refused.

It was after plodding through the waiting hall and out of the building’s main exit that it occurred to me for the first time. I had not even bothered to look for Charlie, the man whose company had educated me for the past few hours. I had not bothered to find out if this would be his final trip to the British High Commission, or if he would need to go back and reconnoitre for another onslaught. Quite frankly, there were other more important thoughts occupying my mind. Such as the quickest way to raise three hundred and fifty thousand naira for my British High Commission someone.

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