After signing the marriage register, along with the four witnesses who thumb-printed, Ndidi Adiela tightened his black velvet clip-on bowtie, threw his arm about Chimka’s shoulders and asked the photographer to give them his best snapshots as the latest wedded couple in Port Harcourt city.
The bald photographer had only taken two shots when the clerk cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Adiela, please, kindly continue your photographing outside the office so that the next couple can come in for the registration of their marriage.”
“Of course,” said Ndidi. “Thank you, Sir. But, can we have one last shot, please?”
When the clerk nodded his acceptance, Ndidi slipped his hand into Chimka’s hand and gently pulled her towards the tall potted kentia palm. The wall behind the plant was off-white, and less busy, compared to other parts of the office walls that were choked with notices, framed photographs and different shapes, colors and sizes of calendars and almanac calendars. Ndidi wanted the Port Harcourt City Local Government Marriage Registry office flair to reflect in the photographs in order to prove the authenticity of the wedding and its location when he presented the photographs to the United States of America Visa Officers during his visa interview.
This was Ndidi’s second attempt at applying for a U.S. visa. In his first attempt, which occurred one year ago, his former neighbor, supported by his girlfriend at the time, had introduced him to a ring of swindlers that had issued him a fake U.S. visa and had duped him of four hundred thousand naira. He had paid the money to an agent that kept an office at Rumuola in Port Harcourt who was linked to another agent in Alaba International Market in Lagos who claimed to be working with two other agents in the U.S. Embassy in Abuja and the U.S. Consulate in Lagos. He had planned his travel date for the end of June to coincide with the expiration of his flat rent at the spacious and serene Amadi Flats. With his travel suitcase all packed and his sparkly new passport and freshly stamped U.S. visa in hand, he had visited his family in his hometown, Okposi, to say warm goodbyes to his mother and his twin sister, Chimka, and to lash out at his father who was unsupportive of his travel plans. In desperation, Ndidi had secretly sold two plots out of the four-plot farmland owned by his father to raise the cash he needed to travel to the United States of America. His father, a local palm fruit farmer, in turn, disinherited him when he discovered the atrocity. Ndidi decided to show off his documents to his father, to rub it in the old man’s face, that he was finally going to America to become somebody great. After running away from your wrongful actions, i me gba lo—you must return—and I will be here, waiting for you, his father had sworn. Never, Ndidi had yelled back.
Ndidi had then boarded a taxi to the Omagwa International Airport, but an hour into the journey, he heard a reporter announce over the taxi’s FM radio that the State Security Service had arrested a syndicate of visa fraudsters. When the address and names of the fake agents mentioned matched those of his agents, Ndidi quietly told the driver to take him to the low-cost tenement buildings in the Port Harcourt Diobu waterside. The buildings were popularly called ‘Face Me, I Face You’ housing because the complexes usually consisted of one bedroom flats that had their entrances facing each other to form a compound with a main entrance which had an open rectangular space in the middle. The occupants usually shared facilities such as latrines, bathrooms, clotheslines and kitchens. Ndidi had succeeded in securing a one-bedroom apartment at No. 5 Nsikak Street, a twelve-room tenement compound. That was the only place he had found ultra-cheap housing on monthly rent charge that his diminished funds could support.
After the final photographs, Ndidi paid off the photographer and collected the photos. The colors in the pictures looked a bit washed out, perhaps, due to the camera flash. But what mattered the most to Ndidi was that the wedding was successfully captured in pictures—the main hard evidence he would use to secure his American Dream. He handed small brown envelops to the three elderly women who had stood as witnesses and hired a taxi to take Chimka back to Okposi, in an hour’s drive.
After Chimka’s taxi zoomed away, Soso, Ndidi’s widowed, middle-aged next-door neighbor, said, “Ah-ah, Ndidi, no honeymoon for you and your new wife?” Soso was the fourth woman who had stood as witness for Ndidi.
“I will join her in the next few days,” said Ndidi. He didn’t tell Soso that Chimka was his fraternal twin sister who took after their mother’s soft features such as the roundness of her face and her small curved nose, while he was a younger replica of their father with his well-defined jawline and hawkish eyebrows. He, also, didn’t tell Soso that she had just thumb-printed the register for a faux marriage, and he didn’t feel sorry about his dishonesty. He wanted everything about his U.S. visa interview to be perfect and didn’t want any interferences from nosy neighbors, this time.
“When?” Soso asked.
Ndidi pretended not to have heard Soso’s question and focused his attention on hailing a taxi for their ride back to their tenement compound. He relished the ease with which he had convinced the elderly women to be his witnesses. He usually patronized their grocery stalls at the Mile One Market. He had lamented to them that his parents were long dead, and that Chimka was an orphan, and that they both had no other family to support them. Out of pity, the women offered to thumb-print as witnesses. Soso, on the other hand, roasted groundnuts which she bottled and sold at her roadside stall close to the Snipac Petroleum Development Company along Stadium Road. When Ndidi told her the same story about his parents and about Chimka’s background, she asked him, Didn’t your parents have brothers and sisters or cousins? Is there no family head in your extended family? Ndidi had fabricated answers he could no longer remember. He knew that Soso’s prying, even though brisk, verged on friendliness and neighborly concern. He usually found those traits comforting, and almost familial, especially as she had confided to him when he newly moved into the complex that he bore a slight resemblance to her teenaged son who had died in a boat accident along with her husband, ten years before. But on matters concerning his visa plans, Ndidi thought it was wise to keep Soso in the dark. She was only a neighbor.
The sun was hiding behind pinkish-grey puffy clouds when Ndidi hailed a rickety Peugeot 504 that spat billows of white smoke from its exhaust pipe. He haggled with the taxi driver over the fare and succeeded in knocking the price down from five hundred naira to three hundred naira. For their entire ride home from the Registry, the driver grumbled about Ndidi’s stinginess despite the snippets of consoling words Soso offered on Ndidi’s behalf. Ndidi kept mum and rather fixed his gaze on the sights they passed by as the driver maneuvered the taxi through the maze of streets. Only Chimka would keep his secret safe since, as twins, they both shared lots of mischievous confidences between them from their growing up years. There were countless times when they had signed class attendance for one another and had completed assignments for each other during their secondary school days. Even their sharp-eyed Math teacher who kept a toothbrush mustache never once caught them. Ndidi had opted for a reception-less court marriage with Chimka in order to evade the financial cost of holding a church wedding, and to elude the emotional bonds that came with having a real wife that could keep him bound to Nigeria. And of course, a traditional marriage that would have alerted their parents and their home townspeople to the anomaly was forbidden. He hoped that after he secured his visa and travelled to America, Chimka would go ahead and discreetly divorce him, and they would both become free to get on with their separate lives. And certainly, he would send Chimka plenty of dollars. He had always chided her about her preference for farm life, taking after their parents, and her lack of interest in travelling out of Nigeria in pursuit of bigger dreams in Western nations.
On Wednesday, the following day, at six o’clock in the evening, Ndidi was packing for his day-long bus trip from Port Harcourt to Lagos in preparation for his U.S. visa interview at the Lagos Consulate, when loud banging shook his door. He opened the door and met Soso standing there with a broad smile on her face.
“Good news,” Soso said, and stepped into the house.
Ndidi stepped backwards to keep from being bumped into by Soso.
“One of my customers, a manager in Snipac who likes my groundnuts well well, asked me to supply one hundred bottles of roasted groundnuts tomorrow as a trial run.” She clapped her hands. “He-he! There’s the possibility of a bigger contract.”
“Wow,” said Ndidi. “That’s huge. Congratulations.” He feigned excitement, despite the fact that he didn’t think much about the selling of common groundnuts.
“So, I need extra hands, my pikin,” said Soso. “Come help me bottle my groundnuts.”
Ndidi knew there was no wriggling out of this favor Soso needed from him, especially as she had stamped the request with the endearment, ‘my pikin,’ that referred to him as her child. Besides, she had abandoned her groundnut business the day before to be his witness at his wedding.
“Of course, I’ll join you in a moment,” Ndidi said. “Let me complete my packing for my tomorrow morning trip to Lagos.” The words had left his mouth before he rebuked himself for spilling too much.
“Lagos?” Soso said. “What’s happening there? A new job?”
Ndidi nodded his head in assent and hoped that that would make Soso stop asking more questions. He didn’t feel sorry for his lies. But then he saw her avert her head and followed her gaze to his center table where a large manilla envelope lay. In bold black ink, the words inscribed on the envelope were: AMERICAN VISA – INTERVIEW DOCUMENTS – 2019.
“Ah-ah, Ndidi,” Soso cooed. “So, you want to leave us in Nigeria and travel to America?”
Ndidi could not withstand Soso’s brown gaze though a smile graced her lips. Her last question weighed on him as, So, you have money to travel to America? For the past two weeks, he had shamelessly accepted meals from her after she had quizzed him about his regular consumption of single packets of noodles which formed his daily meals. I will not allow a neighbor to starve because of joblessness, she had said.
“I was saving the little money I have for the processing of my visa and for my air ticket,” Ndidi said.
“So, are you prepared for your interview?”
He looked at her, amazed at the lack of malice in her voice and the concern that emanated from her tone. She reminded him of his mother.
“I hope so,” he said. “I didn’t share my plans with you because I was swindled in my last attempt by my former neighbor and his ring of crooks.”
“Sorry,” Soso said and picked up the envelope.
Ndidi reached out a hand and gently eased the envelope from her hand and placed it inside his backpack. “Thank you, Madam Soso,” he said, and zipped up the bag. “Let’s go outside and bottle your groundnuts.”
When Ndidi stepped outside his door, Soso had already set up a bench that crossed horizontally from her room door to his door. The other tenants had retired for the night, but their shut doors did not always lock in the noise pollution unleashed by certain offending renters. The spindly spinster who lived three doors away to the left from Ndidi’s flat worked as a janitor in the State Ministry of Agriculture. She always began her cooking for the day with her koin-koin-koin mortar and pestle pounding of cayenne peppers and whatnot at 2 A.M. Presently, on the opposing row of flats, Timaya’s “Balance” exploded from the room closest to the latrine even though the door was shut. Ndidi and a few other neighbors had had prior exchanges with the young tenant in his early twenties who occupied that room for his constant playing of loud music, but their words had fallen on cropped ears. The young man had his dove-gray door marked with the words Keep Off in oxblood paint and he poured insults on anyone who dared to query him—every woman was a ‘flying witch’ and every man was a ‘woman-wrapper.’ For the greater part of the day, he was high on igbo—marijuana—and mad at the police for bursting his bunkering business.
Ndidi sighed, shook his head at the Keep Off sign on the young man’s door and sat across from Soso on the bench. The noisiness was just as annoying as the daily early morning squabbles Ndidi usually had to mediate between the couple with six young children that lived directly opposite his flat. These were some of the vexations he wanted to escape by getting away from this neighborhood. Quietly, Ndidi and Soso began to stuff roasted groundnuts into small orblike clear plastic bottles that Soso had had custom-made at Ariaria Market in Aba. The small white and gold stickers plastered on the necks of the bottles glistened in the moonlight and at the touch of the dull outdoor lights. The inscription on the stickers read: Soso’s Tasty Nuts.
“The Oga that gave me the contract said the packaging of my product is unique.”
“The bottles are uncommon,” said Ndidi. “In business, packaging can make-or-break a product.”
“The Accounting graduate is speaking,” Soso said, and smiled. “Won’t you start up a business here in Nigeria with the money you have instead of running away to America?”
“There is nothing in this country,” said Ndidi. “I need to leave this place, go to America and make multi-millions of dollars.” The funky concoction of stink—urine from the latrine poorly masked by Izal disinfectant—mixed with the warm air of the early July night was overpowering. Ndidi held his breath for a moment to subdue the rumbling in his stomach and phlegm gathered in his throat. Burna Boy’s “Ja Ara” hit the air from the dove-gray door. Ndidi wondered how long it took for one’s eardrums to rupture.
“What will you do when you get to America?” said Soso. “Business ideas?”
“Anything,” Ndidi said, and spat phlegm onto the cemented floor. He quickly brushed it under his left flip-flop clad foot. He hated the sight of phlegm abandoned in plain view at the side of walkways. He thought people who left mucus for others to look upon were inconsiderate and plain nasty.
Ndidi looked up when he heard Soso chortle. She shook her head. “Anything means nothing.” She threw a few seeds of groundnut into her mouth and crunched. “At least, I know a few people who did not attend university that are excelling in the Akawo Thrift Collections business.”
Ndidi nodded quietly even though his information about thrift collection was from his Marketing 202 handout and secondhand knowledge. He allowed his gaze to linger on the dove-gray door for a moment. He wished the music would completely drown Soso’s voice so he wouldn’t have to hear her lecture.
“Sellers that do not have the time to go to banks when the markets are open are their customers,” Soso said. “Do you know how many traders there are in Mile One Market alone? Not to mention Mile Three Market, Ogbunabali Electronics Market, Town Market, other small shop owners? Akawo people are their own bosses. I think you will shine in that business.”
“Thank you.” Ndidi forced a smile at Soso. Her salt and pepper bantu braids made her look regal, but her sage-like words were shovels that dug up disagreeable memories. He believed that had the many bank interviews he had given in the past six years since his graduation not been politicized to favor those meatheads with the “I-know-somebody” factor he would have climbed to a managerial position in a bank some place. He could not imagine himself, a twenty-nine-year old university graduate, trekking from one end of Mile One Market to the other and sweating profusely in the scorching sun soliciting for clients amongst the local market people. The only clients he would consider working with were those three women who had served as his witnesses.
“You have all the assets,” said Soso. “A rented room you can use as your office, a notebook, a pen, a bank account, physical strength, sanity, calculator brain, the right university degree, your mouth for convincing clients, and integrity. Your customers have to be sure that you won’t disappear with their money.”
At the mention of the word integrity, Ndidi’s sins flashed on his mind. He had sold his father’s lands without permission and had taken the money for his own personal use. He planned to deceive the U.S. Consulate officials with his faux marriage documents and photographs. He didn’t think he was disciplined enough to be responsible for other people’s money in that way. But he wouldn’t say no to accessing such sums of monies if the opportunity presented itself. Only, he wouldn’t want to engage in any job beneath him like the Akawo business.
“You have to have the mindset to start out with what assets you have no matter how small,” said Soso. “Put away excuses if you want to earn big big money. Afterall, as people say, a wall gecko in Nigeria cannot expect to change into a Komodo dragon in Indonesia or an alligator in America.”
Soso’s words made sense to Ndidi but then he felt intimidated by her drive, and that made him upset. With knitted brows, he picked up the last bottle, packed the remaining nuts on the tray in his hand and funneled the seeds into the bottle. He repeated the process twice and then sealed up the nut-full bottle with its cover.
“Here, Businesswoman,” he said and handed the bottle to Soso.
Ndidi threw a few seeds of spare groundnuts from the tray into his mouth and chewed. The salt content was perfect and there were no burnt nuts or stale nuts in the mix. And the packaging was simple yet striking. With her kind of ‘dragon mindset’ that she had been trying to sell him all night he imagined her business growing into a gigantic network where she could eventually start supplying Soso’s Tasty Nuts to other Snipac branches in Nigeria and to supermarkets across the nation.
“Goodnight,” he said, and headed for his door.
“Goodluck,” Soso called after him.
Ndidi entered his room and shut the door behind him. “Humph, integrity!” he said, and continued packing for his trip.
Ndidi disembarked from a taxi at the Education bus stop at 5 A.M. The moonless sky was black, but the bright head lights of the row of buses and lights from the streetlamps made visibility a nonissue. Crowds of people hastened back and forth, searching for their pre-booked buses. Bus conductors hollered the various destinations: Aba, Owerri, Enugu, Ibadan, Abuja, Kano, Sokoto. The conductors checked passengers’ tickets before allowing them to board. Ndidi found the Coaster bus headed for Jibowu-Lagos whose plate number matched the number on his ticket and boarded. They set off in the next hour.
In the course of the bus ride, Ndidi allowed his mind to roam over myriads of likely questions that the U.S. visa officers would ask him. He thought about his childhood friends, Emeka who had visited from Germany, and Kingsley who had flown to Nigeria from America for the Christmas Holidays. They had both squandered euros and dollars at their last year’s university reunion Christmas party and had simply told Ndidi that they did here and there businesses to make ends meet. Ndidi liked that kind of affluence. Once he amassed dollars by the thousands, he would buy back his father’s lands and more, just to prove his father wrong, prove that he could become somebody important.
At about three o’clock in the afternoon, when the bus reached the Benin-Ore Road, they spent the next three hours in crawling traffic. A charred overturned fuel tanker from an accident that had happened two weeks before lay at the spot of occurrence. It occupied a large chunk of the road. Some vehicles forged a road diversion through the forest of trees at the side of the road in order to bypass the wreck. The junction ahead where the vehicles rejoined the highway was another tangled traffic mess. This gave Ndidi more ammunition to complain about the failure of management in the Nigerian system.
As their bus creeped about three feet forward and stopped, Ndidi wiped off large beads of sweat from his forehead and neck with his red face towel. His black T-shirt was drenched with sweat. He felt like a jacket potato. “Nothing works in this country,” he said.
“Oga,” said a wiry man with black goggles who sat in the passenger seat beside the driver. “Take it easy. If you no like the system, why you no enter politics to create the change you want?”
Ndidi was seated behind the man. He didn’t want to comment on how he thought that the nation’s politicians and corruption were indistinguishable twins and how people in top positions were lackadaisical about doing their jobs in a timely manner. Voicing his opinion would simply result in an endless argument, so he kept silent. Instead, he hoped that by any means possible, the traffic would diffuse, and he would find himself in Lagos in time for his visa interview the next day at 7 A.M.
As their bus inched closer to the wreck, Ndidi noticed that some men who were passengers in other vehicles were assisting the few uniformed men present to control the traffic. A throng of women, young and old, as well as, children filled the spaces in the traffic jam, hawking wares such as chilled sachet water, bottled water, and soda, plantain chips, banana in small bunches and groundnuts tied in hand-sized see-through cellophane bags. Ndidi remembered Soso’s groundnuts and couldn’t imagine her making any headway with her posh clients if she wrapped her groundnuts the way that these hawkers did. He unconsciously muttered the word packaging.
The man in goggles in the passenger seat in front of Ndidi paid five hundred naira to a young girl that hawked chilled water for all the sachets of water in her basket and asked her to give the water to all the people helping to ease the traffic. “My people, una well done o,” said the man as their bus zoomed away from the spot of the accident and into freer traffic.
The officers and the men yelled their thanks and some youths gave the man the thumbs up.
“Oga-Sir,” said the driver. “You be action man. I like your style.”
“Oyibo people say, ‘Actions speak louder than words,’” replied the man.
Ndidi felt like walloping the backs of the man’s and the driver’s heads. He knew that jab was directed at him. Yet he reasoned that if those men helping the uniformed men were like him and had decided to sit comfortably inside their buses, and had done nothing but complain about the government, they all would have spent the night at the Benin-Ore Road traffic jam.
Ndidi’s bus reached the Jibowu bus stop at 8 P.M. If the Education bus stop in Port Harcourt was rowdy, Jibowu bus stop was rowdiness to the fiftieth power. Different bus services had their terminals clustered in the area. There was a mass of buses, a mass of taxis, a mass of passengers, a mass of hawkers and a brew of diverse tongues. Fragments of conversation in Pidgin English, English, Igbo, Hausa, Ijaw, and many more, but mainly Yoruba was in the air in various voice textures and tones, interspersed with the occasional blare of car horns, and vehicle engines roaring awake, dying out, or belching away into the high way. A lanky man dressed in kaftan who was about a head taller than Ndidi tugged Ndidi urgently by the right sleeve of his t-shirt as he stood beside the empty Coaster bus. The man gestured rightwards, probably in the direction of his taxi, and hollered in a gruff voice, Oshodi-Oshodi. Another man pulled Ndidi by the left arm shouting Ikeja-Ikeja in a high-pitched tone. Yet another smallish man stood in Ndidi’s path, Yaba-Yaba-Yaba, he said, his voice breathy. Ndidi clutched his backpack to his chest as though it were a bag full of dollars and yelled back at the men over the mix of noises, Victoria Island-Victoria Island. The lanky man rattled off in Yoruba across his shoulder and within seconds, a bouncy man with a large paunch greeted Ndidi and led him through the crowd in the direction of his taxi.
Ndidi slumped in the back seat of the secondhand Toyota Prius and listened to the low-playing Afro-Juju music as the taxi cruised along. He treasured the softness of the seat and was thankful that the taxi driver didn’t bother to chat him up. Hours later, he alighted from the taxi a distance from the U.S. Consulate. He was surprised to see the crowd of people passing time on the embankment close by, in the hope of beating the horrendous early hours slow traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge, in order to meet up with their morning business.
Ndidi’s eyes were heavy with sleep, and he felt frazzled, but he wouldn’t sleep. He didn’t want to sleep off and miss his appointment or get robbed of his documents in an unguarded moment so, he fought off sleep by chomping kola nuts. Although the hard concrete of the embankment grated the cheeks of his buttocks through his clothing, his proximity to the Consulate made him feel as though he had one foot on American soil, already. While listening to the honks of car horns and the clapping of the waves of the Five Cowrie Creek, Ndidi watched the reflection of the New Moon bob on the face of the waters and imagined himself living in a beach house in California with Al Pacino and Oprah Winfrey as his neighbors. He envisioned himself lounging on his patio, looking out to the Pacific Ocean and sipping margarita on the rocks.
When the sky began to brighten, Ndidi retrieved a sachet of water from his backpack, poured some water into his mouth, gaggled and spat out the water. He washed his face and wiped it off with his face towel. Then he changed into a sky-blue cotton shirt, tucked the shirt’s tail into his black pants, wore his black suit, covered the distance to the Consulate and took his spot in the queue. It was 6 A.M. and he was about the fortieth person in the queue. The husky-voiced young lady before him who wore a low cut natural black hair eagerly told him that she had gained admission to study Nursing at the University of Mississippi when he enquired about her mission to America. And after the lady turned the question around, Ndidi held his head up, rolled his shoulders down and back and with a hand in his pocket said, “I’m travelling for the summer holidays.”
“Without your wife and children?” the lady said in her husky voice, with a raised eyebrow.
Ndidi couldn’t tell if the lady was simply surprised that he intended to enjoy the holidays in America without his family or whether she was suggesting that the Consulate officers might adjudge that he planned to abandon his family in Nigeria. He looked at the fifty-naira gold-plated ring on his ring finger and, for the first time, questioned whether, in his pursuit of an American visa, his marriage would prove to be constructive or crippling.
“They’ll join me next summer,” Ndidi said airily, and hoped his voice masked the anxiety he felt. With an air of seriousness, he began to flip his bank statement back and forth inside the manilla envelope that contained his documents as though he were searching for an extra page. He was pleased when, by a sideways glance, he saw that the lady had turned her attention away from his direction. After a moment, he heaved a small sigh of relief which falsely implied that he had found the imaginary document for which he was searching. He didn’t feel inclined to continue chatting with the lady even though he thought she had an interesting personality and was very pretty. He feared that if they continued chatting and she made the habit of turning his questions around he might soon be pressured to upset the narrative he had packaged for his interview. He convinced himself that as long as he could prove that the marriage was not one of convenience, he was covered.
When the Consulate official at the gate announced that no bags, mobile phones, electronic devices, foods or needless accessories would be allowed into the interview hall, Ndidi liaised with a woman who kept a small shed in the parking lot to keep his backpack and worn cell phone—things he wouldn’t cry over if the woman absconded with them. In no time, he was back in the queue with his manilla envelope.
At the front of the queue, stood a woman dressed in a flowing bubu with a hot mix of colors—bumblebee yellow, lemon green, electric blue, vermillion red, carrot orange and bubblegum pink. The sleeves of her bubu were bold and flappy like the wings of a bird of paradise and the woman held a white flight feather in her hand like a bouquet.
“Madam,” said the female Consulate personnel at the gate. “You cannot go in with that thing you have in your hand.”
“Ahhhh!” the elderly woman said, and lightly waved the feather. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Madam,” the Consulate official said in a calm but firm voice. “You only need your passport and your documents. Please, kindly step aside from the queue until you are ready.”
The woman stood at the corner, looking morose, probably hoping that the Consulate official would relax the rules the longer she hung around, but the official was focused on ensuring that all the applicants adhered strictly to the instructions. There were only five persons ahead of Ndidi by the time the elderly woman decided to dump the feather into the trash can and was permitted to enter the gates.
Ndidi admired the orderliness and impartiality observed by the Consulate personnel. He showed his passport, checked in and sailed through the gates. When he stepped into the visa interview hall, he gasped at the crowd of applicants. LED lights spotted the ceiling and the hall held no offensive odors. Everyone had a business-like air about them as they went from one stage to the other in their interview process. Ndidi wasted no time in following the protocol until he was next in line to be interviewed, after the woman in the colorful attire. He observed that she had fumbled in her answers and was instantly denied a visa. Only a handful of persons had been successful, so far, in their interviews. The husky-voiced lady on low cut hair was one of them.
An orderly ushered Ndidi to a free window. The visa officer behind the glass window wore a cropped bleached blonde hair which she complemented with a pair of rimless glasses. Her rosewood red earrings matched the color of her lipstick. She ducked her head at an angle and peered at Ndidi with powder blue eyes, her glasses hooked uselessly on the tip of her pointed nose.
“Why do you want to travel to the United States of America?” the woman said.
“I want to travel for summer holidays,” Ndidi replied. But the truth registered on his mind. He wanted to go look for a job. He could start out washing dirty dishes in restaurants or washing corpses in a funeral home. He couldn’t imagine being seen doing such jobs in Nigeria but as long as the jobs were in America and he would earn dollars—good.
“How will you fund your travel?”
Ndidi presented his bank account statement to the woman. The fact that his balance was in the mid six-figures range gave him a boost of confidence. He didn’t mind that his father’s hard words to him, After running away from your wrongful actions, i me gba lo—you must return—smacked his ears afresh.
“What ties do you have to your country, Nigeria?”
“I am a happily married man.” Ndidi gently patted his chest with his left hand for a heartfelt effect, slyly flashing the woman the shiny ring on his ring finger. “My wife and I are still believing God for children, though.” He hoped he sounded humble and saintly like a television pastor at his altar call for lost souls.
Ndidi slid his wedding photographs through the cutout panel at the base of the glass window to the woman and watched her stare at them one after the other. He realized then that the woman used her glasses to look at the photographs. Perhaps, her glasses were for reading and picture gazing. After a moment, with one of the photographs still in her hand, the woman looked up and smiled at him. He smiled back at her and remembered to show his teeth, courteously, even though her smile was small and tight.
“What else?” she said.
Of course, I am jobless, Ndidi wished he could say. Thanks to President B. for causing the economy to dry up due to his lifeless policies. Instead he lied, “I started this new roasted groundnut supplies business with my widowed neighbor.”
He disliked how the woman always glanced at her computer screen every time he spoke, as though she were reading the transcript of his words from the screen.
The woman looked at the photograph in her hand again, and said, “Sir, what month and year did you get married?”
The accurate date, 2nd July 2019, struck his mind like a jolt of electricity yet, he remembered to subtract ten years when he said, “July 2009.”
“Where did you get married?”
“At the Port Harcourt City Local Government Marriage Registry.”
“Who was the president of Nigeria in the year of your marriage?”
Ndidi was miffed that the U.S. visa interview was fast becoming a Civics class, but he gave the woman a polite smile, and said, “President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.”
The woman slipped the picture back to Ndidi, and asked, “Sir, whose image is on the almanac calendar in the background of your photograph?”
What almanac calendar was she talking about? Ndidi picked up the picture and scrutinized it. The wall behind his image and Chimka’s was plain off-white but to the left side of Chimka’s head there was a compact cream almanac that seemed to merge with the wall. The calendar was partly shaded by some of the green fronds of the potted kentia palm. Ndidi’s mouth dropped open when he noticed a faint image of President B.’s bust at the bottom half of the calendar. The caption in dull green beneath the image read, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And at the left edge of the caption, in small pale-yellow prints, were the words, July 2019. Ndidi gawked at the picture in absolute disbelief. A suffocating, heavy feeling reared up in his chest and wouldn’t go away. His hand wobbled as he curled the photograph face-in and constricted it with his fingers. When he met the woman’s solid blue gaze, his head felt empty of every speaking vocabulary. He clenched his teeth together tightly in frustration, chucked the photograph into his envelope, and stared at the tiled floor. His eyes then fell on his pair of black shoes, and he realized that his shoes looked quite dusty and they appeared strangely out of place against the polished tiles.
“I am sorry,” the woman said. “You have been found ineligible for a nonimmigrant visa at this time. The reasons for the visa denial are recorded on this form.” She handed him a green piece of paper along with his passport, his remaining photographs and other documents.
Ndidi scanned the form but stopped halfway through when he read the line You have not demonstrated that you have the ties that will compel you to return to your home country. With a bowed head, he tossed the paper, his passport and all his records into his brown envelope and trudged toward the exit door. When he stepped outside the building, the 9 A.M. sun was warm on his skin, and the air from the Creek that washed the environment felt fresh. A flock of seagulls flew past in a V-shape. He found their flight perfect yet painful to watch. The white feathers of their wings somehow reminded him of how his shortcomings had prevented him from flying to America and they also made him think deeply about the woman in the queue with her white feather. Perhaps, one native doctor in his shrine somewhere or a fake prophet must have conned her into thinking that the moment she waved her white feather in the faces of the visa officers her visa interview would go smoothly, and she would find herself flying to America, unhindered like the birds of the sky.
Ndidi boarded a bus to Port Harcourt that night.
The following day, upon his return from Lagos, Ndidi sat beside Soso on her bench and quietly helped her bottle her groundnuts. Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba” thundered from the dove-gray door closest to the latrine. The groundnut tray on the bench jiggled slightly to the blast of the music and caused the groundnuts to dance on the tray. Ndidi was thankful that Soso had accepted his apology and did not stay angry with him for deceiving her into thumb-printing the register for his fake marriage. He planned to annul that marriage as soon as possible. He had to come clean with the three elderly women who had also thumb printed as witnesses. He owed Chimka an apology even though she had willfully supported his faux marriage scheme. And he owed his father a bigger apology. The man could easily have had him arrested for his scandalous conduct. Ndidi resolved to return the balance of cash in his bank account to his father and ask his forgiveness.
“I signed my contract earlier today,” Soso said. “I am to supply five hundred bottles of groundnut every month and I will be given capital mobilization.”
“Congratulations,” said Ndidi. He felt proud of her for her achievement. Soso was about twice his age, was widowed, and had only a secondary education. She had every excuse to hope on strangers to give her handouts but no, she chose to take dragon steps and was achieving the unimaginable, selling common groundnuts while laughing to the bank.
“I want to be a dragon in Nigeria,” Ndidi said. “Put my assets to use.”
Soso smiled at him, and said, “My pikin, good morning.”
Ndidi wondered why Soso said good morning to him when the star-speckled sky was violet-black, and the time was almost 10 P.M. But then he fixed his gaze on the night sky and imagined that the sun had risen and had chased the darkness away and it was morning. The timing of finding one’s purpose in life was partitioned like the hours of the day and one’s day began whenever one woke up from one’s night’s sleep. Some people find their life’s purpose in their youth which he likened to the morning hours, some in the afternoon, some at night, and some others never wake up at all.
“Thank you,” Ndidi said to Soso.
Although the unpleasant odor of urine combined with Izal disinfectant from the latrine hung heavy in the July night air, Ndidi appreciated the warmth of the air. He took a deep breath, exhaled and began to tap his feet to the rhythm of “Ojuelegba.” He didn’t think it would cost him a day’s meal to buy ear plugs for himself at the Ogbunabali Electronics Market.
Linda N. Masi is an MFA in Creative Writing student at the University of Mississippi. She is originally from Nigeria. Some of her published works have been anthologized in collections including, Nothing to See Here (the 5th FEMRITE Residency for African Women Writers), Songhai 12 (in celebration of the UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital Project), The Beggar’s Story and other Stories. She has also published a book of poems, children adventure novel series and is currently working on her first full length novel.