Policing Africa’s borders: A trip from Nigeria to Kenya

African passport stamps.jpgFor a continent that did not define its internal borders, Africans are certainly very serious about enforcing these divisions.

Excitement creeps up on me, I feel it in the form of a smile, expectation, anxiety, before it slows down to reality and the realisation that I am going back home. But I am home or that is what I am told by the Nigerian passport in my hand, here in the humid Murtala Muhammad International Airport, as I wait to jet back to Nairobi. I smile. Kenya is home. I have always thought of it as home. I mean, how else do you explain the fact that my Kenyan tongue and sensibilities are as sharp as ever? I drank the water, went to the schools, followed the politics and, yes, I speak Kiswahili – Sheng, in fact; a pidgin form of Kiswahili.

It has been more than 10 years since I left Kenya, on that dreadful day when my father bundled my brother and I into the car, saying we had become so Kenyan our Nigerian-ness had disappeared. Going back to Nigeria was to reclaim that part of us that had become foreign. That was in 2007, when I was in my second year in high school.

In preparation for this trip I had gone to the Kenyan immigration website and searched for the kind of visa I needed to get into the country. Zimbabwe and Kenya, visa free. Nigeria and Kenya, visa on arrival. As I tried completing the form online, it suddenly dawned on me that I should probably be serious about applying for a Kenyan passport.

Europe Union.jpg
According to President Kagame of Rwanda, ‘belief in the healing power of unity is the defining virtue of African political culture

The long queue at the airport in Lagos leaves me playing a game of guessing who is Kenyan and who is not. The immigration officer calls me aside as I am about to enter the departure lounge.

“Where are you going?” he barks. I am unsure of why it is any of his business if I leave the country. Should that matter, given that my passport has already been stamped?

“Kenya,” I tell him.

“What are you going to do there?”

I should have said I am a tourist, but I tell him I have official business there. He asks for a letter of invitation. Suddenly, I am exasperated. Should leaving my country be a problem? I tell him I have no letter and show him the website I write for. He reels off stories of how young Nigerians are deported from Kenya daily. I roll my eyes (on the inside). I know the drill. I know where this is going. So, when he says in a conspiratorial tone, “What are you leaving for me?” I honestly just feel tired. I give him the last 300 naira I won’t be using in Kenya anyway and leave. My blood is boiling and my heart is pounding in my chest. I feel disgusted about everything in this country called Nigeria.

I have made plans with my primary school friend Thuo to stay at his place. I have also asked the company I work for to extend my stay in Kenya for two months, so I could catch up with old friends. When the Kenya Airways plane lands at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the change in scenery welcomes me. And Nairobi welcomes me with a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius, a strong reminder of Kenya’s cold climate.

I watch as some Americans complete their forms, laughing and full of confidence that they will not be denied a visa.

It is at immigration, filling in the forms and paying the US$50, where I understand the importance of free visas for Africans. I watch as some Americans complete their forms, laughing and full of confidence that they will not be denied a visa, probably three-month visas.

The immigration officer looks at my card. “Sorry, we can’t give you a visa for more than a month.” I am dazed for a moment. I respond in Kiswahili, my voice a bit shaky because I am trying to process what that means for the plans I have made.

“Ninakuja kutembelea marafiki.” I tell her I am visiting friends. It might be odd for a Nigerian to come to Kenya to do tourism.

“Enda ile ofisi. You’ll see a man there. Talk to him.” I see her visible confusion at a Nigerian speaking Kiswahili fluently.

I thank her and go to the office. It is my first experience of being in such a space.

“Yes, how may I help you?”

“I was directed to your office. I wanted a two-month visa stay.”

He takes my passport. “What have you come to do in Kenya?”

“I came for a strategic meeting my company is organising.”

“Strategic?”

At that moment I realise how wrong the word “strategic meeting” sounds in an immigration office. I quickly switch to Kiswahili.

“Wewe ni Mnaijeria Kikuyu ama.” He is equally surprised. And laughs with his colleague.

He stamps my paper, saying I should give it the lady who had directed me to him. I don’t bother to check what has been written on it. I return to the woman, thinking I have a visa for two months.

“He gave you only one month,” she murmurs under her breath. I am growing agitated. I confuse my left and right thumbs. I pay the US$50. She stamps my passport. I would later learn that Kenyans pay US$25 as visa fees. I would also learn that Nigeria equally does not give Kenyans a visa for more than a month. For a continent that did not create its own borders, we certainly do own them and defend them

Advertisements