At the embassy

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Light creeps over all of us standing in line outside the U.S. Embassy. for the first time, I see the blues and pinks of the buba the woman in front of me is wearing. And the hawkers and touts walking around are no longer shadows; I see their scarred faces, their calculating smiles.

I have been in line since 4 a.m. Some of the people in front of me spent the night in a tent opposite the embassy.

I wish I had not come back to Nigeria to renew my U.S. student visa, I wish I had done it in Britain or Canada. Then I chastise myself. This is my country. The reason I did not bother to go to another country was that I knew I would be asked to return to my "home country."

The touts swarm around. "I have serious connections inside the embassy, Auntie," one of them tells me. "Just 1,000 and you will enter today for sure."

I would not give him 1,000 naira even if I had it to spare. The 12,000 naira visa fee is steep enough. As the sun rises, I estimate how much the embassy will make from the people in line today. They will give visas only to a fraction of these people but will take almost $100 worth of naira from each of them. Perhaps $40,000 for today. Conservatively.

When I finally get to the entrance, the Nigerian guard looks through my passport. "Passport photos?" he asks.

I hand them to him.

He notices they are the same photos I have used in my British visa. "Get back!" he says. "Go and take another picture and come back! You cannot wear the same dress in two passports!"

I stare at him. "What does it matter as long as the photo is not more than six months old?"

"Are you insulting me?" he asks. "Are you insulting me, eh?" I turn and leave. Insult means many things to us Nigerians. Our self-confidence is so fragile that anything - a challenge, a correction, a question - could well become an insult.

When I come back the next day, with new photos, I am relieved to finally get into the cool embassy building, with garish paintings on the wall: an American girl holding a Nigerian flag, a Nigerian holding an American flag. The room is crowded. Preening and smirking, guards walk around, with comical jaunts to their gaits. Once in a while, they call out names and people rise eagerly, nervously, and walk to the interview booths.

Babies cry. There are many children here, because the Americans do not believe you when you tell them how many children you have; they have been known to give visas to four out of five children in a family.

The man beside me says that he is a philosophy professor and teaches at a college in Atlanta. A white woman comes in, with short hair that sticks up on her head like brush bristles. She is the director of the visa section, the philosophy professor tells me. She holds a loudspeaker to her mouth: "Raise your hands if you are here to renew a student or a work visa! Raise your hands high! I can't see! High!"

Her tone makes me feel as if I am in primary school again.

"Keep the hands up! O.K., down!" She is wearing a multicolored caftan the sort of thing a foreigner will wear to look African but an African will never wear. A child has walked up to her and is holding onto the caftan, looking up at her and smiling. He wants to play.

"Get this kid off me! Get this kid off me!" she says. "Who has this child?" She shakes her caftan as if to shake the child off until his mother goes and picks him up. "He just likes you," she tells the woman. The woman glares at us. "You think it's funny? O.K., I won't tell you what I wanted to tell you about the interview process. Go ahead and figure it out for yourself."

She turns and walks away. The room is immediately mired in worry. "We should not have laughed," somebody says. "You know white people do not see things the way we do."

"White people don't play with children," another says. "Somebody should beg her not to be angry." "I hope they will still interview us."

The philosophy professor is incensed. "Can you imagine her talking to people in America or Europe like this?" he says. "She wouldn't dare."

I nod. I am as angry as he is - because of the collective humiliation of being in this soulless lounge, but also because of how quickly my people have forgiven her unprofessional rudeness, her infantile tantrum.

I am acutely aware of the complex layers of injustice here. The first is the larger injustice of our history, the benignly brutal colonialism that spawned vile military regimes - events that made this scene possible. Then there is the injustice of this glaring power dynamic: our government cannot demand that we be treated with dignity within our own borders. And, saddest of all, the injustice that we perpetrate on ourselves by not giving ourselves value, by accepting it when other people strip us of our dignity.

When it is my turn, the young American who interviews me says that she grew up in Philadelphia, where I live for a short time during college. She is friendly and warm. She tells me that my new visa will be ready the next day. Later, when I tell my friend about this woman, I am told how lucky I was to get one of the few good ones.

As I leave the building, I hear the philosophy professor yelling at a man behind a glass screen. "How can you say I am lying?" he asks. "Why don't you call Atlanta and verify? How can you say I am lying?"

He has not been as lucky as I have been.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of the novel "Purple Hibiscus."