“Madam please off your phone we don’t allow phones on.”
“Excuse me, do you not have manners? Ah ah? Who raised you? Why don’t you let me enter before you come out? Ehn?”
“Mama please e ni suru, it’s okay.”
You guessed it, I’m at the Nigeria High commission Northumberland Avenue, London. If you want to test your levels of dignity, visit the Nigeria High Commission. If you think you’ve arrived, that you, an adult cannot possibly throw tantrums and totally lose it, I dare you to go there.
There is a small crowd outside. People are just… standing. They’re standing outside the closed entrance, a heavy brown door- no different from the door of a UK government building. Some are on their phones, others simply staring. I feel compelled to join them and stand, yes, l know sheep mentality. I ask a lady in a red and blue Ankara,
“Excuse me, what’s going on?”
She looks at me like I have two heads; “Nothing.”
“Are they closed?”
“No, you just need to knock.”
“Knock?” I start to walk towards the door, my fist balled up ready to knock. People step aside as I walk up the three or four steps, they are staring at me, and you know our people can stare!
I am beginning to feel like a right idiot as I knock. I’m not sure the woman in Ankara was being sarcastic or not, she had a stern look.
I knock, gingerly. Expecting the crowd behind me to roar with laughter.
To my utter surprise, the door opens.
Yes. At the Nigeria High Commission in London, you knock like it’s a private residence and the door is opened by a man I presume to be the security guard.
An exchange about my phone needing to be switched off occurs and I quickly call my contact. I have a contact who will help me. It is common knowledge that official matters transition better when you have someone on the inside. My contact was referred to me by another contact and we’ve been conversing over the phone but it’s the first time we’ve met.
His eyes light up when I ask if he is Donatus*, “ah, Toks?” Huge smile.
I stretch out my hand to shake his, he takes my winter cold hand in him warm one and refuses to let go- even as we start to go upstairs to his office.
I hover between two minds, do I snatch my hand away and be condemned to hours in the sweltering heat? There’s a crowd and all heaters are blazing for in my country we don’t have winter. The second option will be to use style to sneeze and cover my mouth in which case he might think I’m feigning damsel in distress and he’ll attempt to catch me.
We arrive at his office. His ringtone is Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing and he lets it ring and ring until the chorus plays and plays. He switches it off. It rings again. Awkward. This happens one more time and then he answers; “I’ll meet you downstairs.”
I would have asked if he was anyone’s beau, cos as you know, I’m on the hunt for a beau for my friend, if you know anyone worth interviewing for the position, holler! – but I’m not feeling him so I don’t bother.
Finally, he returns, finishes helping me out with the forms and tells me to follow him downstairs. I was not prepared for the daggers I received mainly from women who assumed I had given him something in exchange for jumping the queue. Their stiff eyelashes chart the path we walk on and my new friend leads me to the end of the room, points to the interview room and tells me to wait, that the guy in the green check shirt will interview me.
“Ah, I have to pick my son at 3 o, I hope I can be out by 2pm”
“Haba, of course na. Maybe, maybe,” he shrugs.
There’s a young girl standing in front of me, she looks Igbo. Lovely figure with a perfectly round bum. I notice because I follow my contact’s gaze. She isn’t wearing a ring, her weave is halfway down her back and she isn’t heavily made up, but is very pretty. We strike up a conversation and I start to wonder about her accent. She hasn’t got a pure British accent but it isn’t pure Naija either. I ask her where she’s from.
“My parents are Nigerian.”
“Yeah, I guessed. What part of Nigeria are you from?”
“Ehmmmmmm ehmmmm Ijebu.” She says with a definitive nod and a smile suggesting she is proud of herself for remembering where she hails from and even pronouncing it. Her intonation is so off, an Oyibo would have done a better job of saying Ijebu.
She has a few scars on her neck and I determine she got into a fight with her ex-husband or ex-boyfriend. The pretty ones, they say tend to be the fiery ones. Plus she’s no more than 5ft and as you know short people have a temper.
Another man joins us. His face is covered in neatly cut tribal marks.
He is worried he won’t get a passport because his birth certificate is missing. An official walks past us and he taps her;
“Sister, please. Err err my birth certificate is missing. Ma.”
“Ok, do you have your passport?”
“Err yes and no”
“Yes and no bawo? You either have it or you don’t.” She turns her nose up and raises her head slightly. She is tall, about 6ft and the man is no more than 5’6″. So when she looks down at him, she does so in every sense of the word.
“Well er, you see, the issue is this. I don’t have a Nigerian passport.”
“Ok, so what did you come to the UK with then?”
“Ok so you came to England with a British passport?” She says ‘British passport’ with a little laugh.
“No, I came with my Kenyan passport Ma”
“Oh, you’re from Kenya?”
“No, from Nigeria.”
“How did you get a Kenyan passport?”
“My uncle got it for me.”
“So you have Kenyan, British and now you want Nigerian?” She sneered.
“Y-yes” it’s almost as though the same words now proceeding from the woman’s mouth have been stripped of all confusion and now the simplicity in the meaning is laid bare. It is as though for the first time in his life, he understands himself.
She eyes him up and down. “No one will give you a Nigerian passport. You have to revoke either the Kenyan or the British one.”
“Ha?! I’ve been here since 8am! No one told me. Will I get me money back? What do I do now?” He is visibly shaken.
She leans very closely to him and whispers: “See ehn, when you enter, just don’t say anything about Kenya.” She waves her hand left and right to emphasise her point. “Don’t just mention Kenya. Just say you don’t have a Naija one, you have a britico one. Simples.”
I spot an old, old friend. I’m not sure if I should try and get his attention- he fell out with my friend’s friend and we haven’t seen him in nearly 20 years. From his teeth and his mannerisms, I know it’s him. He hasn’t changed much. Pudgier, bald, a bit darker but that’s all. It’s definitely him.
I avoid making eye contact, people are strange he may decide to take up his anger against our mutual friend on me. Eventually, We cross paths in the canteen where you go to get a signal on your phone. I call out his name. I am at peace with whatever his reaction will be.
“Ahhhh!!!! Tooooookkkkkssss!!” Big hugs, back clapping etc.
We catch up in all of three minutes all that’s happened in the last 15 years. Family, work, life. His ticket number is called and we part ways- he goes upstairs for biometrics while I await my fate.
My number is called for the interview. Seated across the table is a bespectacled woman whom you know if she were in Naija would have drivers, house helps and a gardener.
“Why are you here?” She doesn’t waste her glance on me. The contents of her handbag seem to interest her more.
“I’m applying for my Nigerian passport.” I speak slowly and deliberately, an attempt at infusing the utmost respect into my voice.
“So you don’t have one?”
It is both statement and a question so I don’t answer, one does not want to come across as insulting and thereby lose one’s place in the queue.
“You have applied under a different name.”
“Yes, my maiden name”
“Are you divorced?”
“So why don’t you want to use your husband’s name?” She looks at me like I just crawled out from under a molue. As though I don’t realise just how privileged I am to be able to use another man’s name legally. After all, in our culture are women not meant to aspire towards becoming Mrs?
“I chose my maiden name because the only link I have to my heritage is my surname, which isn’t a typical Nigerian name, my guarantors (parents) share the same surname so I was hoping this will be smooth sailing.” Even as I speak I realise I have confused her more. a simple “because I wanted to” would have sufficed. Cost me my place in the queue, but still sufficed. Their website had called for a letter from my local government area in Nigeria to prove I was indeed Nigerian. That in itself opened another can of worms because of my surname.
“In that case, you have to start the application from scratch”
“Ok fine, married name then please.”
I have never had a conversation this long about my own names and my choice to use either.
“If you’re using your married name, you need a letter of consent from your husband as well as a copy of his passport as proof that you share the same name.”
“Not to worry,” I beam with confidence and whip out my ammunition, “I have my marriage certificate.”
“You still need a letter of consent.”
“Letter of consent?”
“Of course na, to show that he consents to you using his name, that he has permitted you.”
“Even though his name is on the marriage cert?” Here’s me thinking the maiden name would eliminate this extra drama.
She looks at me like I have no sense.
“Yes. Even. though. his. name. is. on. the. marriage. certificate. Ok please wait outside to be called for biometrics.”
I plunk I myself on the grey metal chair feeling really sorry for myself yet thankful that I have crossed one hurdle. Of course I have no idea how many more are left.
Soon after, an announcement is made for us all to go upstairs exactly 4 hours after I arrived at the high commission. I am greeted with a seated crowd of seething Nigerians. No one is smiling. Everyone stares blankly at the flat screen TV which is trying hard to broadcast what appears to be a light-hearted documentary. The presenter is clearly living her dream, it consists of holding a mic and speaking into a 30-year-old camera. I know the camera is that old because the audio and visual are so fuzzy, you’d think it was a visual and audio effect going on, I assure you that’s not the case.
My friend invites me to sit with him. My headache which started brewing an hour ago is now gathering waves. My neck aches from staring at the monitor, checking for my number. And he begins to talk. And talk and talk. He tells me about his daughter who is leading her school in the top girls netball them in the country. His son who has just won a scholarship and the youngest who just passed his 11 plus. Due to a ‘technicality’, he didn’t get into any of the schools but they have appealed and the case will be won. After all, the council are familiar with his name having won an award in the past. I had forgotten how well my old friend could brag.
He tells me about his friend who was invited to speak at W.H.O, and how the said friend’s experience in Belgium is proof that ‘the present administration is failing’. Why else will other speakers from Nigeria be late for the event? He proceeds to show me a picture of the letter headed invitation as proof. That this administration is failing. And Buhari is a fraud.
My headache is worsening.
A suave looking guy with pointy, snake-skin shoes strolls in. “Ladies and gentlemen, good and bad news. Our server is down in Abuja. This means those of you with epassports are affected, you can choose to wait, or return another day.”
Sounds of frustration begin.
“So when you say wait, how long na?” The man with a thick Igbo accent asks.
“Oga, na server na, how we go no when server go start to dey work again? No one can predict these things.”
Clusters of conversation begin to merge into one loud noise.
“This country, ehn?”
“In Nigeria it’s not even this bad.”
“Welcome to naijaaaaa!” A joker chimes in.
“This is preposterous!” The one in the suit and tie adds.
“My children haven’t eaten all day,” moans the woman with a buggy in front of her, a baby asleep in it. Her toddler’s standing a few feet away, chewing on her doll’s foot.
Me? I’m fed up. The headache has reached the level of ice-cold cloth on my head, dark room and no noise.
My friend on the other hand who I forgot to mention, jabs at you when he’s making a point did not stop talking. “This our country, when will it change?” Jab jab jab-jab, jab jab jab jab.
I decide I can’t take any more of this. It is nearly 6pm and I’m stuck in a packed room. I go to the biometrics room where 5 men and women spend 30 mins each taking one photograph.
The woman with the baby and buggy is in there moaning about being there since 7am.
“Madam there is no way you’ve been here since 7am, no way”
“Are you saying I’m lying?”
“Habaaa madam? What’s your number?”
He starts to laugh and all the others join in. “If you were here at 7 your number will be a lot lower than that. Anyway sha, sit down I’ll see you soon.”
I can’t be bothered to tell you about the drama that erupted when an Igbo man dared to tell a Yoruba woman that she was courting favours. I won’t even go into her acidic reaction and the way the man backed down quick, quick.
I was told the 64-page passport that I applied for was out of stock, and even though when I applied online it was the other way round. I was told that the 32 was out of stock and I was forced to pay the higher price for the 64-page passport. I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t ask for the difference to be returned. I just wanted to get out.
So I did.
Tips for survival:
Go with cash- for food. There is a lovely lady that sells good food in the canteen at the back. It’s a precursor to your arrival and walking into mama Bimpe’s buka in Ikeja.
Be prepared to beg, but it might not lead anywhere.
Take some tissue and your entire makeup up purse, you will cry- real tears.
Be nice to every single official, you don’t know what side your bread is buttered.
Blank out your entire day. Sort out school runs, babysitting, dinner, everything. It really is a whole day affair.
It helps if you know someone who works there, it’ll raise your hopes up but it may not lead anywhere.
If you’re in a bad mood, it’ll only get worse. You are better off starting on a high so by the time you’re done all you’ll feel is extreme irritation and you won’t actually lose your mind. Alternatively, change your appointment date.
That said, I love Nigeria, I love Nigerians and totally love being Nigerian. Other embassies may not have you literally knocking on the door but we have got to be the coolest people God created. Bar none.