The immigration man’s backside is too flat, even for a skinny white man. It is hard to not notice it, even in my current state of mind. He opens a door and ushers me into a room before taking my phone off me. “Standard procedure,” he says. Inside the room, uncomfortable looking benches are arranged in rows. The mid-eastern looking man sitting on the bench in the second row doesn’t move, but the two black men sitting in the fourth row look up unsurprisingly, in a way that only those who are at peace with their fate would. One of them sits edgily; he gives me a familiar stare. I join the airport detainees. The edgy man looks up and asks:
“Which part of Nigeria are you from?”
He knows I am Nigerian.
“Lagos.” He is from Lagos also.
“Why are you detained?”
“They didn’t tell me. They said they wanted to run checks.”
“They told me the same thing,” he said.
The way he called the immigration men “they” just like me, creates an aura of vague kinship, an urgent and unfamiliar brotherhood we forced on each other because “they” appear to be against “us.”
His yawning sprays bad breathe. I don’t ask how long he has been detained. The odor takes me back to the stubborn stench of hot tarmac mixed with aviation fuel that guarded me into the plane in Lagos. I couldn’t believe it had followed me to Heathrow, to ruin my expectation of a pleasant smell on arrival, the aroma of London. Perhaps, it was just in my mind; anyway it disappeared as soon as I stepped into the terminal. Heathrow terminal 5 looked too good to smell of nothing, a whiff of some classy cologne would have been nice.
My head rings like a fake Chinese mobile phone. The ringing blocks out details of pleasant memories. Memories of dancing to Fela Kuti and Femi Kuti with friends and family the day I got my visa. It’s disappointing that the memories start disappearing only 7 hours away from Lagos. The air of unpredictability in this airport detainee room ruins my excitement of traveling to London. This was not part of the plan, neither is it how I want to remember the first time I left Nigeria. I reach for my phone in my pocket. It’s not there. There’s no one to call in London anyway. The plan was to get a sim and call Nigeria immediately I get to the university administrative building. The atmosphere of uncertainty shrinks me. I am getting smaller and emptier inside. A half-hearted attempt to wear some happiness on my face doesn’t work. All that happened from the border to the detainee room starts playing in my head.
The sign boards read, “British and EU passport holders,” and “other passport holders.” Other passport-holders queue is longer than the British and EU queue. It was the opposite in Nigeria. A headphone-wearing, afro-hair teenager standing in front of me moves her head and afro rhythmically, left-left, right-right. There is a perfect path in the centre of her afro, where the headphone sits. Her vibes are shouting: I am used to this other passport-holders line! The hand-made reggae, multi-colored wrist bracelets says I am one of those teenagers with an old reggae souls who listens to Bob Marley. She may be too young for that.
Behind me is a young lady wearing a long green T-shirt and black tights with matching black slip-ons. The black winter jacket she holds over her brown bag is not the type that can be found in Nigeria. Her phone conversation sends out an accent that sounds Nigerian mixed with another accent that sounds British. The hair on top of her hair is long, full and shiny. It is Brazilian, the type that only the big city girls in Lagos can afford. Everything on her has a purpose, even the light green nail color matches the green shirt. Her accent doesn’t sound like someone who developed a British accent in Nigeria. It sounds more like someone who has been living in the UK and visiting Nigeria. There are more Chinese people in the queues than Europeans. I wonder what mix of nationalities would be in the airport queues in Beijing.
The immigration officer in front of me is the only black one among the five officers. Wearing a light blue uniform that looks more modern than that of the immigration officers in Lagos, I’d guess he is Yoruba if I saw him in Lagos, from somewhere like Ogbomosho but without the tribal marks. The checking of passports and welcoming of people to the UK appears routine, even the smile on his face. It must be part of the job requirements. At least he makes an attempt. The immigration officer in Lagos didn’t bother.
He goes through my passport, data page, the visa page and my confirmation of admission letter. A repulsive countenance forms on his face instantly. Even though there are countless stories of how immigration officers react to a Nigerian passport around the world, his facial transformation is still a surprise. I feel the urge to defend myself.
The questions start.
“Why do you want to study in the United Kingdom?”
“The UK education system is better.”
“What do you want to study?”
I nearly said you read my CAS letter!
“What do you intend to do when you complete your studies?”
I will stay and work in the UK came to my mind!
“I will go back to Nigeria to work with one of the multinationals.”
“Are you coming to the UK on a student visa intending to live here and not to study?”
My intended response was to ask, if that were my plan would I tell you?
I said no.
“Why didn’t you go to study in America, as they also speak English there?”
I thought they spoke Swahili in America is the right answer in this circumstance.
“I prefer the UK.”
I bet the same question would be asked about the UK if I were at the US border. Trust me, the UK is not even my first choice. If I had my way, I’d be in Canada already, I thought.
“Because the UK is closer to Lagos. It takes less than seven hours to get here.”
More questions. The questioning becomes a kind of UK Immigration 101 oral examination. A warning to study beforehand would have been helpful. A few minutes of silence. Click, click, click on his computer. The silence is uncomfortable and cold, beads of sweat form on my forehead even though the airport is cold. It took the other immigration officer about 20 seconds to attend to the afro hair teenager. It took less time with the green nails lady. Maybe I should have grown an afro or acquired a British accent. This intimidation is intentional. The other travelers got fewer questions with a smiley face.
The questions start again. This time it’s about drugs and online fraud. Some of the questions are repeated. I must be mistaken for someone else, I thought. More questions, more answers, more panicking, more fidgeting. Abrupt silence, then he inspects his computer screen. This is it, I thought, he has discovered something! I am surely on the next flight back to Lagos. But what could that be? More silence, more jittering, and he calls his colleague.
“Give me a minute I need to run checks. You may not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom. Please follow my colleague”
My heart flew out of my chest before he finished his sentence. Questions hit my head as I walk behind his colleague. How can I even face my siblings, my friends, and others who must have heard that I traveled to study in London? Would that not be failing them all? But how can it be my fault? Well, others came and conquered. Mine can’t be different? But I have done nothing wrong. I try so hard to focus in-between the flight number this-that-this just arrived from this-that-place announcements coming from the public address system. My heart keeps beating fast, like a surdo drum.
I remember the documentary on airport security I saw weeks back after a Nigerian student put a bomb in his pants and tried to blow up a plane somewhere in the United States. In the documentary, airport police detained suspected travelers while immigration officers watched them on a screen. I felt the cameras tearing me apart and surgically dissecting my chest, the immigration officer trying to find clues, to concoct a reasonable excuse good enough to send me back to Lagos. His piercing eyes in my chest, searching for fraudster or drug trafficker blood. I stagger behind his colleague and try so hard to walk. It’s hard to not notice his flat bottom.
The other detainees look comfortable. It is good they can’t see what’s going on inside my head; a massive hell of thoughts and questions. Flashes of random news seen on the BBC and CNN. There have been praying and fasting before getting the visa and after getting the visa. There have been praying and fasting towards the three years of undergraduate studies and one year of post graduate studies. I didn’t know I would be back so soon cruising on the dusty rusty streets of Ibadan, or chasing after yellow molue buses in Lagos. How about the fortune I spent on tickets? What happens to graduating with a first class degree and getting a scholarship to do a master’s degree? How about this, that, that? What happens to this, this that?
More worries and anger and random BBC news and questions. Is he checking my names on the al qaeda list? Am I being treated like this because of the Nigerian would-be underwear suicide bomber? Were four British would-be toy-car bombers not jailed recently? Were three British would-be suicide bombers not convicted? Are Americans not listed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list? Would an American citizen with a student visa be treated this way? Is this a selective national animosity? Do you know how many years I took to come up with my tuition fee? Do you know how important this education is? Do you know that if I do not get this education I may end up poor and unable to give my unborn kids a good life and good education? Do you know that my unborn kids could end up as street urchins because of you? My head nearly exploded from all the thoughts and questions coupled with flashes of the quiver of fear I experienced each time the aircraft vibrated from turbulence.
An hour, two hours, three hours, he comes in to ask me more questions, ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty five minutes, some more questions.
I forced a smile over my anger as I saw him returning with my passport and documents. His face sings of satisfaction. Has he found a reason to send me back and happy for his conquest? Was he unable to find any bad blood in me that will contaminate the pure bloods living in the UK? Or happy to allow in another pure blood? He opened and stamped my passport on the page after the one stamped in Lagos. He does it with such dexterity that only someone who has opened the same passport a thousand times could have done. Apologies and apologies followed by a polite “welcome to the United Kingdom.” A we-are-watching-you look on his face. This man is a chameleon! He doesn’t understand what he nearly ruined. He looked better with a repulsive countenance on his face than when he smiles, one of those who shouldn’t be allowed to smile. I managed a smirk back and took my passport.
I opened my passport and examined all the pages to be sure of something I can’t place my hand on. This passport that caused me so much hassle to make in Lagos has also brought me all this unfair treatment. I unzipped my bag and unzipped a small pocket attached to the left side. I carefully placed my passport. Zipped and zipped. It became heavy, heavy with the weight of my new life laid on it. A small document that will play a major role in all the major things I will do from now. There is no longer freedom just by being human. My freedom can only be confirmed by this small passport and by the smaller visa and by the even smaller chip. My life is compressed into a chip. A life that can now be accessed through a chip, in the same way I can only use a chip to access my bank account. Chip life. The ironic realities of life.
Next plan will be to learn a British accent, which will help reveal another version of me; a fake version. The self-hatred stage would set in, before some serious self-evaluation begins. That is when the phase of watching-people-of-different-nationalities for self-evaluation creeps in. Thereafter it would become clear that I am not too bad. This would help me find myself and discover the uniqueness of being Nigerian. I will return to my passport hidden away under piles of books, wipe it out and give it a kiss. The proudly Nigerian phase would emerge. The many advantages from experiencing so much togetherness in so much diversity would become obvious. My mind would have opened so much without even knowing it, due to being immersed in so much Nigerian-ness and African-ness and Western-ness. It would hit me. I will say to everyone, I am Nigerian!
I crossed the long handle of my bag over my head and balanced it on my left shoulder. As I walked through the gates I felt like I had been freed from a mobile jail, a mental mobile jail. The thought that I chose this life could not console me.
I picked my bags. They had been going around on the baggage carousels, helplessly. I feel helpless like my bags. Who would have thought? I feel robbed and stripped naked, robbed of my happiness and stripped of my excitement. I wish my brother were at the arrival area waiting for me, or even a friend. So I could hug him longer than normal and say to him “the immigration man has treated me badly” “is it because I left home?” but there is no one at the arrival.
My steps are lighter. I stagger. My hands are still shaking from the shock that hit me as those words flew out of his mouth “you may not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom.” Tears come to my eyes. I have been caught off guard too many times in the last few hours. I have been happy, excited, shocked, angry, surprised, speechless and now tears. I am not used to this. With one small bag on my shoulder and one big bag in each hand I walked into London, helpless, shadowed and ushered by a fear of the unknown.
Post image is a modified version of an image by Danny Howard via flickr.
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