Updated: Apr 9
When he got to the Americas, the first thing Timilehin did was clutch his student visa papers. His mother had told him “they” would try to steal his opportunity, so he remained watchful, seeing everything. He acted as though his enemies from home were waiting in ambush in the immigration lines. What she hadn’t told him was that his real enemies were the ones behind the unnaturally clear glass windows– the two heavy-set men in dark blue uniforms with angry eyes and a mean disposition. The ones who calmly asked Timi to follow them as if his answer could have been no. The ones who left him in a cement box with a single chair, one square table and a single glass space carved out of the door. The travelers who were behind him in the immigration line passed and after seeing him shaking silently in his Ankara shirt and worn sneakers, they hurried to baggage claim as if there was a place to rid themselves of their guilt there.
Timi recognized that guilt as the same one he felt a month prior when he stood in line outside the American embassy in Lagos trying to smoothen his already pressed trousers and arranging his flawless papers in their manila envelope. It was 4 am and although the embassy didn’t open until 7:30 am, Timi was the 64th person in the line of about 400 desperate people. Timi’s cousin, Ibrahim, followed him for silent support, but he still clutched his manila envelope tight with his trembling fingers. To calm down, Timi observed in the dark.
He saw the two army soldiers collect wads of 1000 naira notes from pot-bellied men in well-tailored suits who then slipped to the front of the line as their musky perfume wafted through the crowd. The same two army soldiers who walked around nudging people into a straight line with their AK-47 guns. The same two soldiers who dragged a homeless mad man down from the embassy gates he tried to climb before flogging him. As they beat him, he screamed, “Dem born me for Amelika. I swear! My mama born me dier– Amelika.” Everyone pleaded with the army men to stop but no one moved from their spot. Timi kept his eyes on a long angry scar on one of the soldier’s face to avoid looking at the screaming man because it reminded him of who his own people were.
When it was over, Ibrahim stretched his arm to help the poor man up. Immediately he did, everybody saw as the scar-faced soldier kicked Ibrahim to the ground and spat on him, while calling him a “mugu wey dey form savior.” Everybody saw Ibrahim’s brown glasses slide off, fall onto the sand and get smashed by the heel of the soldier’s boot. Everybody saw the soldier raise the bloody belt and crack it down on Ibrahim’s back until his clothes tore and his back bent. What everyone did not see was the other soldier who stood a far way behind smiling with yellow teeth. But because Timi sees everything, he felt strangely evil.
A month later, in the cement box, he didn’t think of Ibrahim. Instead, he thought of his mother. When the robust man with a red face and a brown suit began to grill him with questions, he needed Maami. She should be playing with his hand while she answered their questions: Where will you stay? What school are you going to? Are you bringing more money than you declared? But since Maami wasn’t there, Timi stuttered in reply– making him painfully aware of his Ankara shirt and fake accent. Under the man’s condescending eyes, shame crept up his shoulder. However, it didn’t fully settle onto his back until the man asked him how he got into university. At that point, his skin felt too small and he was painfully aware of the man’s eyes telling him forehead were concealing an empty head. Timi felt like a locust bean—iru—small, ugly and no different than the millions of others he hated.
These desperate others were in the stuffy American embassy a month before. As Timi moved through the line with wailing babies, veiled widows, and anxious men with oversized suits, he tried to remember his mock interviews with his sister. He failed though because guilt blurred his vision with an image of Ibrahim’s battered body being carried away. Timi was not even surprised that he didn’t move an inch to help his abused cousin who had come up with him. They had shared a bottle when they were babies, snacks in primary school, and blue films in secondary school but Timi did not even leave his spot in the line to help Ibrahim. So because he could not think, he watched. He saw people who got the blue slip break down on the spot, pounding on the glass window, wailing. Others would lean too close to the window screen, reverently, as though praying to the interviewer behind. Timi hated his corrupt country for turning his people into beggars. Shame crept up his shoulder daring him to condescend to the dozens of desperate people in that cramped room. When he realized that he was one of these beggars, shame stopped peeking and settled on Timi’s back.
When the robust man and two heavily armed officers came in with their barking German Shepherds, Timi clutched the table. He felt the urine trickle down from his trousers onto the white tiled floor and he squeezed his eyes so tight he did not see when they brought in his two suitcases and Ghana-Must-Go bag from the baggage claim. He opened his eyes right before the dogs began sniffing him thoroughly and he regretted it at once because then they bared their incisors at him making him shake violently. Timi was now a Christian but he still does not know why at that moment the Qu’ranic prayers he had recited as a child came to him. As he chanted the prayers repeatedly, he also wanted to tell the officers that if they were looking for drugs, he did not even know the first thing about measuring ounces. And that if they were looking for foreign food, they threw out his ogbono seeds and shawa in the Lagos airport. Instead, he let the fear grip him until the beasts sauntered out of the cement box with his enemies following behind.
The same fear made Timi’s head buzz during his visa interview. After four hours and 38 minutes, it finally became his turn to face his nemesis who had just denied the visa of four applicants before him. Behind the glass screen, the interviewer scrutinized every word of his papers flipping through each of them with her pale wrinkly hands. After each question, he answered carefully in the crisp English he had practiced for five months, though he knew that his mistakes didn’t matter because interviewers gave blue slips as they felt like. Timi’s palms sweated as he answered all the questions that were hurled at him correctly. He told her that his father was a banker and he had no relatives in the Americas and that when he was done with university, he would return and “develop” his country. It was as if he forgot that his father had just been arrested for financial fraud or that his sister lived in Brooklyn or that once his feet touched American soil, he planned to never return. He couldn’t relax until his interviewer said, in her arrogant voice, “Congratulations you’ve qualified for an American visa. You may pick up your documents at…” Then the buzzing in Timi’s head stopped.
In the cement box, Timi felt guilty, ashamed and afraid. As he sat there, he didn’t know that these emotions would return frequently during his time in the Americas. He didn’t know that in the future when his vision blurred or his back felt heavy or the buzzing in his head began, he would remember all that needed to happen to give him a chance in the Americas. He didn’t know that he would start calling himself TJ, start drinking coffee and would burn his eight traditional outfits to forget where he started and focus on where he wanted to go. But on that day, in the cement box, Timilehin wasn’t contemplating his future. He simply missed the home he hated so much because he hated the Americas more.