13 January 2007 (my flat in Ugbowo, evening)
Efe and I have been through a lot these past 10 days or so. I feel like I’ve been bled dry financially, and I could probably sleep for days! We have been struggling to get settled once and for all.
Efe installed the last element of our power plan this week: an inverter (or, as they call it, a “silent generator”). Now, I will have two flourescent lights, my fan, and my computer hooked up to the inverter at night, when NEPA strikes, without any noise or pollution. It runs on a truck battery and gives enough energy to power these small electronics for up to 18 hours. It charges when NEPA brings the light back, and the generator can also charge it. We really tested it out this past week, because we only had light for a couple of hours for each of three days. Efe is a genius.
I also just bought a car. Yes. I will be driving around within Benin and Warri, and Efe will do the long distance trips. Public transport is scary, and when I did the calculations, it is worth getting a car with all the traveling I will be doing in coming months. I need to get around easily, for interviews, to and from archives, and then to carry out daily errands in a timely manner. We will have more control over our time, and can manage it more efficiently…as efficiently as one can in this environment.
The car is a little silver Nissan Sunny. What most folks here consider new cars are really second-hand imports from the U.S., Canada, and Europe via such ports as Cotonou and Lagos. The Sunny is a coup with a manual shift; it has a very strong, little engine. And it is extremely fuel-efficient. All “new” cars, if you want a reasonable price, come without AC or radio/tape deck. Very basic. So, we have to install these gradually, when I recover financially. Ah, but I feel less anxious about traveling now. When I leave, Efe will keep the car.
As you can see in these postings, Efe has been a real blessing. Throughout all these adventures, he manages to maintain a healthy sense of humor. There are so many moments in which the choices are either to break down and cry or laugh hysterically. Efe helps me choose the latter. I don’t feel so alone. Even at the end of a strenuous and frustrating day, we end up somehow laughing ourselves to sleep. Health and sanity. I am extremely grateful.
We have spent the last five years trying to get Efe a visa to study in the U.S. He began a degree in mechanical engineering about 8 years ago, and he has yet to complete it due to exam delays, school shut-downs, cancellations of exam results, and finally his expulsion from UniBen when the administration found out he was trying to complete his studies abroad. Pure wickedness. My mother, over the years has enlisted various friends and family members, along with the help of an immigration lawyer to intervene on his behalf. In each instance the American embassy collects his $100 fee, stamps “DENIED” on his file, and confiscates his passport, usually without so much as a brief interview. We have done everything by the book, and we have met all the requirements—both materially and otherwise—to host him in the U.S. Mom even paid his school fees for an entire year at a private college, accruing serious debt in the process. Other family members have come and gone abroad, contributing to the economies of both countries through hard work and remittances. Our family has set plenty of precedent to warrant trust on the part of the American government. Still, they deny Efe the opportunity.
Mom and I flew to Nigeria in the summer of 2005 to physically intervene on the process. What we witnessed would make anyone’s blood curdle with anger. The embassy packs a couple hundred people into the embassy for each of two appointments set in a day: one at 7am and the other at 11am. It closes down at 3pm. If one calculates the non-refundable $100 fee per application, you’ve got thousands of dollars per day. They do this several times a week. This is serious revenue. Most people travel very long distances to reach the American consulate in Lagos. They are then made to wait outside the embassy doors for hours (many arrive well before the 7am appointment to get ahead in the queue). The day we came, it poured rain in the morning, and the intense sun in the afternoon made it feel like a real steam bath. If you want to use the make-shift shelter across the street, you have to pay some cash (most people, after making the $100 fee, do not have much left over to work with). People are not allowed to queue up until 7am sharp. You can imagine the tension in the air as people calculate how they will maneuver themselves when the time comes. So, we waited with Efe, and when they called him up we were not allowed to go in with him.
We tried a different approach this time with this process: we would use our positions as American citizens to appeal on his behalf. We walked over to the foreigners’ entrance (segregated from the Nigerian entrance, where guards herded people like cattle). After going through intense scrutiny by the gatekeepers (they had just seen us waiting outside with Efe for several hours), they allowed us to go in. Mom brought a thick folder of the legal documents we had accumulated. The man dealing with us was a small, impish man with a southern drawl. We could tell he didn’t like his job, and we knew he was at the bottom of the diplomatic food chain (why else was he posted in Nigeria?). After morosely waiting for Mom to run through her entire plea, he informed us that there was nothing he could do for us. He was saying this, casually leafing through the file Mom slapped down in front of him. My mom, exasperated, told him how deplorable the conditions were outside for Nigerian citizens, that she was embarrassed to call herself an American with all this suffering. I remember how this little man curled his mouth into a sneer, saying that Nigerians had brought the suffering on themselves. He then looked at me, and asked Mom if I was related. Mom identified me as her daughter. He audaciously declared, “She’s a lucky one.” I imagined myself shattering the glass separating us from him and pummeling that little man’s face bloody! Nothing came from my throat. I had too much anger stuck there. All I could do was glare at him, and my mother cursed him on my behalf before walking out the door.
This is the face of America a good many Nigerians see on this end. Yet, it baffles me to witness the extent to which Nigerians value and revere all things American. Nigerians will go through this nightmare and still come out saying they want to go to America. While there is no explicit law instructing agents to screen Nigerian male applicants between the ages of 18 and 34, this is what is being done in practice. England was bold enough to make this policy into law briefly (they eventually they revoked it for its clear racism). Still, this is the practice. This is how foreigners treat Nigerians on their own soil.
Efe didn’t even get an interview that day. His folder was, once again, taken and stamped, his passport confiscated, and his money ingested. After all this, we could do no more; all of Efe’s talent, all his energy and potential under-utilized.
Efe is a bit of a celebrity around here, at the Chicago hostel. He has now found a way to give everyone in the compound light with the generator, and he will implement this new plan soon. Everyone has agreed to the terms of a payment and schedule for fuel. He is constantly sought after to build and fix computers for students both here and around campus; he is the guy folks call when something goes wrong, because he always has a solution (or knows someone who does). He is taking the entrance exams to the engineering program for the fourth time this spring, hoping to start all over again here at UniBen (UniBen has one of the few Engineering programs in the country). In the meantime, Efe has enrolled in a weekend, part-time course for accounting. This will help him keep a foot in the system, while providing an avenue to make some income on the side. What else can he do? Laugh or cry…