Thu 29 Oct 2020 06.00 GMTLast modified on Thu 29 Oct 2020 16.01 GMT
Iam a western visa rejection expert. Three times – even though I work at an airport. But I am mostly a literary reject, a reality which also, somehow, always presents itself in sets of threes. Like a trilogy.
I am at the US embassy in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, waiting outside the gate and the high fence. I admire the white tiled buildings and poles flaunting American flags. We stand in the morning sun. A Cameroonian security guard walks towards us.
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“It is not yet 8am. That is the time when you will get in, not now, so don’t stand here. Move away please,” he booms, to young people and people twice his age alike.
We grumble. He insists. The American embassy is like some serene elephant that cannot be disturbed. The Cameroonian security guard seems more protective of it than the Americans are. We move and stand near the fences of other embassies. Eight o’clock comes. Our grumbling assumes the sound of a propeller-powered aircraft. He finally tells us to move forward at 8.10.
Three guards perform a manual search on our bags and we enter the embassy’s security room. They scan our bodies with walk-through metal detectors, and our bags again, with x-ray machines. We sit in the piazza just outside the interview hall.
I am here to obtain a conference visa to attend the spring session of the 2017 Art Omi international writers’ residency in New York state. My application was accepted in 2016. I want to do some introspection in a quiet environment and work on my novel. Douala, the rowdy and dysfunctional French-speaking economic capital where I live and work, has been distracting. I’m also keen to make literary connections and share my work with a new audience. Experiencing what life is like in another country, another city, is also on my mind. I want to acquaint myself with New York before perhaps moving there to study; I have also been offered a partial scholarship to study for a writing MFA at the Pratt Institute.
It is March, the month of my birth. I have been on holiday at my uncle’s in the coastal city of Limbe, located in the English-speaking South-West region of Cameroon. The Douala International airport, where I work, had been shut down for three weeks so the runway could be repaired. It was an opportunity for me to discuss the payment of the remainder of my fees with family. My uncle, Nkeng Ivo, the head of the family, plays a very big role in our lives, more so than my father in my home town of Kumba.
I had been deep in communication with my family when I received a phone call from my neighbour in Douala. My rented studio and two others had caught fire and were totally burned out. He and a couple of others had saved some of my things. My thoughts at the embassy are bittersweet.
It is also the month Donald Trump implements his travel ban on six Muslim-majority states. Two are in Africa. Cameroon is not among the countries blocked by his ban, so I am optimistic. The next group of 10 visa applicants are ushered in by a guard. I am among this set, mostly young people hoping to obtain student visas. There are three interviewers in front of us, all lily-white. I am at the rear of the queue, and I watch them reject visa applicants one after another. A young guy has been admitted to two US universities, but still gets rejected. One boy from my queue is given a visa. His smile is so luminous it is like he’s going straight to heaven.
The rejections continue. Even a pastor is turned away, visaless. A woman who has brought her old, ailing father is making a scene. He has been given a visa and she has been rejected. He is quiet. She is screaming. How will he get to the US alone? He can barely walk. The consular officers are unmoved by her theatrics. She won’t leave the counter. A security guard appears. She walks away. The consular officers keep working. They don’t even examine applicants’ documents, as I heard they did in the past – they just look at the admission letter or invitation to a university graduation or wedding. Then they interview the applicant and decide upon their fate, which is mostly reject, reject, reject.
I am next, residency invitation in hand, other documents and published work neatly in a file. I have to stand in front of the seated consular officer – a slim man with geeky reading glasses – throughout my interview.
“What is the purpose of your trip to the US?”
“I’m going to attend the Art Omi international residency, sir,” I say, handing him my invitation through the space in the glass. He reads it diligently.
“So who is paying for your trip?”
“Art Omi will pay for my lodging and feeding, as it is said in the letter. I will pay for my flight.”
“What do you write?”
“Fiction and creative nonfiction. I’m a blogger, too, so I create online content.” He types all I say. I continue. “I’ve brought all my published works in print with me. Short stories in a few anthologies and my children’s chapbook.”
I am about to give him my second file of published work when he snaps through the microphone: “No, no, no, I don’t want to see any books.” He opens his right palm towards me and shakes it vigorously from right to left and left to right, in a keep-those-things-away manner.
The gesture ruins my mood. Are my published works not the ultimate evidence? Perhaps books are also considered part of the documents that consular officers no longer examine? I am later told by a friend that I should have just informed the official that I had come with my published works, not try to send them through the slot in the glass for him to see. It was forceful. He needed to ask first. But he doesn’t ask for any other document.
“Where do you work?” he continues. My responses are now no more than audible whispers. I mention Douala International airport.
“Have you travelled before?”
As I begin to say: “Ghana, Rwanda and Ethiopia,” he is flipping over the pages of my passport quickly, looking for the visas. Does he think I am so dumb that I would tell that kind of stupid lie? Someone who works at an airport. And anyway, I have already filled in all the information he is asking me on the DS-160 visa application form online. He and the other consular officers have already decided upon my fate, they did so before I set foot in here.
“Are you married?”
“Now tell me, too, do you have any kids?”
I think this is the final nail in my coffin. He may regard me as a flight risk – an ambitious young man without direct family ties, who will remain in the US. He finally hits the gavel on the table like a judge.
“Sorry, our visa laws have become very, very tight. Very tight.” He lays emphasis on the “very tight”, then pauses, before adding: “You can travel to the United States only when … ” he halts again, and then deals the killer blow: “When you become an accomplished writer.” We stare into each other’s eyes. It’s an icy moment.
“But you can try again next time.” He has a mournful look on his face, as if he is a concerned physician telling me about the diagnosis of a terminal illness in the most soothing way possible. But I keep repeating one thought in my head: you’re an asshole, you’re an asshole.
He hands me a green piece of paper.