Notes from the Immigration Office in Accra
I anticipated the Immigration Office being like the Department of Motor Vehicles on crack or some other accelerant, so when I walked in, I did so quietly, with limited facial expression. I had everything I needed packed neatly into a Ziploc bag: my passport (American), my Non-Citizen ID card, a letter from NYU stating my reasons for being in Ghana and a green sheet that needed to be filled out before my visa could be renewed. Upon the realization that I had not filled out the green sheet, I asked the man working behind the counter for a pen.
This was already an unusual day for me; more often than not, I carry pens compulsively, as if they were something I’d constantly need, like a cell phone or chapstick. Today, being pen-less, I felt truly at the mercy of the Immigration Office.
The man behind the counter did not have a pen. Could I go to the table across the room? They will have pens, I thought. I walk across.
There are no pens, except one: a pen lying unused next to a woman looking through a calendar app on her phone. I ask, “May I borrow your pen?” She nods, hands it to me. Less than 5 seconds and 3 boxes on my green paper filled later, the woman takes her pen back. After 10 seconds, she hands me the pen again. Another 30 seconds pass before I am, once again, pen-less. After about the 4th exchange (which I decided to attribute to a language barrier: perhaps she did not fully understand that when I said “borrow” I meant, “use for an extended period of time,” but I digress).
I decide to ask another man behind the visa renewal counter for a pen. This man in particular was playing a game on his cell phone. I approach him and ask, “do you have a pen?” His response (which lasts approximately 120 seconds and is louder than anytime my parents have yelled at me, including the time in 5th grade I orchestrated a collective boys vs. girls fist fight, that lasted 3 consecutive days, and injured 4 of my classmates) is:
“HOW DARE YOU ASK ME THAT? WE DON’T DO THAT HERE. WE DON’T JUST COME UP TO PEOPLE AND ASK, “DO YOU HAVE A PEN!” WE ARE POLITE HERE. WE SAY, “HELLO, SIR. GOOD AFTERNOON, SIR. PLEASE, MAY I BORROW A PEN FROM YOU, SIR.” WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, STUPID GIRL, ASKING ME, “DO I HAVE A PEN?” DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? WE DON’T DO THAT HERE. ARE YOU LOST? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? YOU MORON. DON’T YOU DARE ASK ME, “DO YOU HAVE A PEN.” WE DON’T DO THAT…””
I stare at him. I can barely breathe. I am angry. Moreover, I’m embarrassed and more-moreover, I am incredibly confused. “Do you have a pen?” in America, when said with a sweet intonation, is really an innocuous question, deserving of an equally dispassionate answer.
This man is deliberately fucking with me.
I return to my Lady of the Unborrowable Pen and continue using it for 30 seconds intervals until my green sheet is filled. Meanwhile, the man that tore me a new asshole is talking shit about me to his bureaucrat homies behind the counter. “Can you believe that stupid girl? “Do you have a pen?” Who does she think she…no, we don’t do that here!”
I don’t even roll my eyes, or sigh, or suck my teeth (all of which under any other circumstances, would have been the bare minimum of what I would do in response to this lunatic), I simply keep it pushin’. Why? Because I still need my damn visa renewed, and this man, whom I would rather see kick rocks, is in the position of power.
I give my papers to yet another man behind the counter and he begins examining them. “All in good order, but you missed a few pieces of information on the green sheet. Please fill them out.” “Sure. Can I borrow your pen?” “No, my pen is black and you wrote this in blue: can you find a blue pen?”
At that moment, Mr. Don’t You Dare Ask Me, the man who cursed me out in front of a room of folks trying to not get deported, comes over to me, takes my papers, and begins examining my case.
He looks everything over with the sincerity of an extortionist. “You are missing a paper,” he says.
Me: No, I’m not.
Him: Yes, you are. This sheet says, “University of Ghana Legon.” I don’t see a paper from them.
Me: I don’t need a paper from them.
Him: Well, I’m the authority and I say you do. Go to Ghana Legon and get a paper from the administration.
Me: That paper does not exist. Nor do I need it. Nor do I know how to get it. Mainly, because it doesn’t exist.
Me: I don’t need…
Him: This says “New York University.”
Me: I know.
Him: This is not New York!
Me: That is correct. But look-
Him: Go to Ghana Legon and get the paper.
Me: Sir, I-
Him: You don’t understand. Go.
Me: May I speak?
Me: I think we are having a poor communication here. In the 10 years of this program, NYU has had a site in Ghana. This paper is legitimate. 30 other students have come to this office with these papers and all had their visas renewed. Over the course of a decade, over 3,000 students have had only these documents and gotten their papers. I think you are not listening to me.
Him: We don’t deal with “sites.”
Him: Look. I know you’re American. And I know you think that makes you special.
Me: I never said that.
Him: But I decide whether you get your visa. That depends on us having a good communication, and your papers. You do not have all your papers, and we are having bad communication.
Me: I do have all my papers. You’re just not listening to me. I think you just don’t like me, sir.
Him: Then you must not need your visa.
I ask this man if I would be allowed to leave. I go outside and call my homie, telling her about what I think is going on: this guy hates Americans, wants a bribe, is shitting on my life intentionally, making all manner of shit impossible, just because he can. I am told by a guard to stop sitting on the steps. I stand. I am told by another guard that I cannot talk on my phone in the parking lot. Five other people are doing so without issue, but alright, I’ll just take that as my cue to leave.
I get into a cab. I ask, calmly, if I may scream in this cab driver’s car. He says sure. I scream as if someone had eaten all my toes. Or as if some jerk decided I couldn’t get my visa renewed, cuz he says so. I tell the cab driver why I needed to scream, we chop it up for a few minutes before he stops abruptly, in the middle of a round-a-bout, and says, “I need to pick up a friend in Tema, I cannot take you to Osu. I will find you another cab.” He jumps out, finds another cab, then shoves me into it. Somehow, In the midst of all of this, he asks for my number.
I am in the new cab, driving toward home when a police truck, going at least 60 mph, nearly collides with the cab. I jump up and scream. The cab driver, unfazed, says, “Eh, people with money think they can drive any way they like.” I can’t even move, let alone speak.
In the distance, I see a sign for my favorite Jamaican restaurant, “STOP THE CAB. I AM GETTING OUT NOW. PLEASE STOP.” The cab driver, confused, stops the cab, then rushes me out, “Please go, there are cars behind me.”
I sit my ass down in this small, outside Jamaican spot and order a Red Stripe. The woman who works there, Regina, is watching Merlin, one of my favorite BBC shows. I talk to a kindly Rastafarian man, Jacob, who tells me that, “all the real Africans left Africa. The Diaspora is where it’s really at, gal.”
Calmer and slightly tipsy, I head home on foot (Why risk my life in another cab?). I buy a bottle of red wine from a woman who says I am very beautiful. “Thank you!” I smile. How did she know I needed such a compliment on a day that made me feel so ugly? “Are you a woman?” she asks.
I keep walking. I nearly get entangled in a fist fight between 8 Ghanaian men, the first punch breezing past the back of my shaved head as I pass. I realize I wasn’t afraid because if I had been in America, walking into a fight between 8 black men, there’s a high probability that one of them would have had a gun. These Ghanaian men had no gun.
Almost 15 minutes away from home, I see a poster of a woman whose family was celebrating the 10th anniversary of her death. I read her name: Elizabeth [Redacted] [Redacted], the last two names being Akan, the largest ethnic group in Ghana, complete with dozens of languages, thick with heritage, legacy and a systematic naming system for men and women, who predominantly name their children for the days of their birth. I think, “What the fuck kind of name is Elizabeth doing in Ghana?”
Then, I cry. I cry for a whole lot of shit that happened before me, that made the reality of why the Immigration Office Prick hated me for being American, why some people in America fear me for being any trace of African, the circle of hating The Other. I cry because “Elizabeth” probably had a name for the day she was born and probably had to tuck it away. Maybe she all but forgot what it was.
I make it home, have a glass of wine, and begin to laugh at myself: oh, you and your identity problems.
Later that evening, the man I’m seeing picks me up and takes me to a high school production of The Lion King. We laugh while watching teenagers get hype at their friends running around in antelope costumes and hyena masks, trying to re-enact a stampede. Laughter, man. Laughter is The Antidote.
At 2am, my friends and I walk to a club called, “Twist,” to celebrate a friend’s birthday. At the red rope (which we usually unhook for ourselves to walk past without complaint), the bouncer begins yelling at us, “LADIES, STEP BACK! STEP ALL THE WAY BACK! GO BACK BEHIND THE ROPE NOW!” I start laughing. After we stand for 15 minutes, he lets in 5 Lebanese folks. My homie kirks on him a bit, “Yo dude! We been waiting here 15 minutes! Why can’t we go in but they can go in?” He responds, “It is the African mentality.” She says, “But they aren’t African either.” He scoffs, “You are – different.” “What does that mean?” “You are less than the bouncer.” “Okay, no. We going in, C’mon y’all.” The bouncer yells, “GO BACK GO BACK GO BACK. EH. WHAT’S MY SALARY? THANK YOU!” and walks away.
I still have no idea what the fuck that man was trying to say. We eventually get into Twist and dance like we won a prize fight. But even as I sit now and write this, I cannot help wondering if all this could’ve been avoided by leaving a pen in my backpack.