THE NARROW PASSAGE
The exit of the British colonial power a few decades after the Second World War left Nigeria politically divided into three major ethnic, political, and religious groups. There were the northern Muslims, who were mostly Hausa and Fulani. There were the nondenominational Christians in the western and midwestern regions, most of whom spoke Edo or Yoruba. The third faction was made up of Catholic Christians in the eastern regions, who were mostly Ibos speakers with some Calabar. Within a few years of celebrating independence in 1960, this division led to two successive coups d’état and a civil war between the federation and the eastern region. The war lasted more than thirty months and ended in favor of the federal side in the early seventies. In spite of the war and the reconstruction that followed, General Yakubu Gowon’s administration did not incur any foreign debt. After Gowon, the successive northern military and civilian governments who benefited from the northern victory were clueless at running the country politically and economically. In spite of the discovery of oil and the enormous resources coming into the country’s treasury, the economy and the standard of living of the average Nigerian was in a free fall from which it could not recover. General lawlessness, oppression, corruption, and uncontrollable crime waves followed the economic meltdown, which had serious consequences. The ordinary citizens became disillusioned because of sectionalism and corruption in every part of society. Many concluded that there was no way out of the hopelessness and social degradation in the near future. Leaving the country became a very attractive alternative for many young Nigerians. The United States was the country of choice for me and many others because of the promise of paradise for hardworking immigrants. So to the United States I prepared to go.
I was fifth in line at the United States embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, on December 27, 1984. The embassy staff conducting the visa interviews sat on high chairs behind multiple glass windows. There they sat like Greek gods, deciding the fates of all the visa applicants. The young man at the third window pointed to the line I was standing in. “Come here,” he said to the first applicant in the line. Instead of going to that window, the applicant ran away and sat down. So did the second, third, and fourth. I suddenly became the first in the line. “You in the white shirt, come here,” he said. By now I could see the frustration on his face, because everyone in the line was doing their best to avoid him. It was not a good time to go to him at all, because he was visibly upset. But instead of running away like the others, I respectfully obeyed. He took my document, looked at it, and said, “I am going to give you the visa.” He collected my passport and documents and instructed me to go and wait to be called to a second window to pay the visa amount. The amount then was a token compared to what it costs now. Instantly, my status and prestige had changed, and everyone who was waiting for a visa knew it. I had just been elevated to a new level, and none of the applicants were too big for me to approach. We were all there for the same reason, and I was already a success story. As Africans say, “Everyone loves a winner.” My own fate was secure and certain. Everyone there was ready to listen to someone who was already a success story. They wanted to know if they could learn one or two things about what it took to be a successful applicant. Suddenly, I felt really important. Whatever I said made sense, and people were not only willing to listen but also very agreeable. I knew this was a dramatic turn of events in my life.
I had heard a lot about the United States as the last frontier and a modern-day promised land flowing with milk and honey. It was the home of the almighty dollar with the words “In God we trust” written on it, the protector and guardian of justice for mankind, the godfather of freedom and true democracy for all nations. African youths considered the country hope for all mankind and the last bus stop. Was I really going to America? God, please don’t let this be just a dream, I thought, because I felt like I could fly and walk on water at the same time. I am a true Greek god, I thought to myself. Be that as it may, I also knew that the adventure would certainly not be an unmixed blessing. But the risk was worth taking. The obstacles and challenges would certainly provide me a good opportunity to overcome. I had been told that all immigrants to the United States had to undergo the holy purification also called baptism by fire. Those who survived came out purified and shining like gold to the envy of the entire world. But I had also been told that newcomers had to be very elastic or they would break due to the great pressure. So which one was it going to be in my case? Would I break or be envied? I was filled with a determination to conquer and overcome no matter the obstacles, because I had just tasted success, and it felt great. It was like a religious experience. I knew that I had to be willing to start from zero again, because attempting to climb any tree from the top is always guaranteed to backfire; so I had been told. Now I can say that is true. Neither the trunks nor the branches of such tress are accessible from anywhere except the ground. There is only one sure way to the top. There are no shortcuts without very serious consequences. My fellow brothers in the prison system, am I lying?
Many young Africans have a broader knowledge of the North American Continent than the average American. Many young Africans would give almost anything to come to the United States. A visa to the United States is an instant promotion to stardom. It is like winning a lottery, except that the prize is not cash but social status and opportunity. It is a promotion from obscurity to prominence overnight. I instantly could wine and dine with the social elite. Because I was heading to the United States, the future was bright, so I had earned my place among the local who’s who, and wherever honor was served, I got my fair share. Africans and some Europeans have an unrealistic view of the United States. I later concluded that this is a secret society. Reality does not hit until one gets to the United States. I had to work three jobs making minimum wage just to pay my share of the bills even with more than one roommate. The first few years were very challenging and full of uncertainties. Coming to the United States was not an unmixed blessing, yet I would not trade it for any other experience or adventure in the world.
The trip to the United States was not direct, because I did not have enough money to sustain me for long. I also had no address of any friend or relative willing even to pick me up at the airport, so I had to first go to Greece just to sort things out. The journey took me through Sofia, Bulgaria, because Balkan was one of the cheapest airlines with flights from Lagos to Athens at the time. Bulgaria was still ruled by Communists, and having an American visa in my passport caused some curiosity even though I was only passing through to Greece. The immigration official at the airport in Sofia was more interested in the envelope with the American form I-20 and school documents than the passport page that really concerned them, which was the Greek visa. I had to take a stand when he tried to rip open the envelope with the American documents. I snatched the passport from his hands. “That page does not concern you! I am not staying in your country. All I did is purchase your airline ticket. In fact, it was the airline’s idea that I come into your country, not mine,” I said. At that point, a more senior officer came and told him to leave the envelope alone. Although the senior officer did not speak in English, I could tell from the junior officer’s response to him that he was giving a direct order. He ordered the junior officer to look only at the relevant pages of my passport and later told me to proceed with the airline employee, who directed me to the bus waiting to take us to the hotel.
We were in Sofia for three days at Hotel Rodina. They fed us breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On the second day, I had a terrible stomachache just after lunch. I needed to use the restroom right away. Our room was on the fifth floor, and the restaurant was on the very first floor. Besides, we were two or more to a room, and the key was with Chris. I had left mine in the room. I ran to the nearest restroom, but the information was written in their language, and for some reason there was no image to distinguish the women’s room from the men’s. Not having much time to waste and not seeing anyone around, I went into one. It was calm and quiet. I thought that everyone was having lunch, because the restaurant was pretty full of people. I went into one of the restrooms to take care of my business, and I felt a huge relief. Just when I was getting ready to come out of the stall, I heard a bunch of women coming into the same restroom I was in. It seemed like they had just come out of a meeting or some type of convention. One lady tried to open the door while speaking in their language. I just whispered yes to whatever she was saying. I heard them burst into laughter behind the door. I was in there for about twenty-four minutes, but it seemed like eternity. Just as I was stepping out, I saw a woman coming in, but there was no one else around. She looked at me strangely, and I just kept walking, avoiding eye contact. Then suddenly she turned and said something. I just waved her off with my left hand, saying, “It is clean in there,” not knowing what else to say. I left in a hurry and went back to the room even though I would have liked to go back to the restaurant for some warm soup. Fortunately, someone was already in, and he opened the door for me. When we came back for dinner, I saw the woman trying to figure out whom she had seen. One hotel security man was walking behind her. The hotel restaurant was full of young black men because of the flight from Nigeria. She did not even look at me twice; her attention was focused on two other guys. I had changed my clothes, so she could not identify me; besides, no crime had been committed—just an honest mistake. The following morning when I passed the restroom on my way to breakfast, they had images to designate male and female. “I sure went to the wrong one,” I told Chris. “It is their fault; you don’t speak their language. This is supposed to be an international hotel,” he responded.
My second mistake was calling Emmanuel in Greece to pick me up at the airport the following morning. When we were checking out very early in the morning to go to the airport, the front desk staff wanted to know who had made the call. I told them that I had. They insisted that I pay for the call. “No problem,” I said, and I gave them a twenty-dollar traveler’s check. The cost of the forty-second call was less than one dollar, but they told me that they had no change, wanting to keep my money. I said, “Never. You cannot keep it.” They were counting on me having no choice, since I had to leave with the bus taking us to the airport. Chris had to step in and give them his wrist watch in exchange, which they accepted happily and let me go. Chris was also with me through Greek immigration and answered most of the questions for me in Greek. He also waited until Emmanuel came to pick me up from the airport. I never saw Chris again until I left Greece in the summer of 1985, and I have not seen him or heard from him since then.
[End of Excerpt]