Switzerland was where your imagination always took you to when you were alone, when you stared at the thick cobwebs across the ceiling of your room, your room wedged between two toilets and two bathrooms at the back of your hostel. You wouldn’t think of traveling to Europe earlier if Andrew had not gone to that conference in Geneva.
“You would be next,” he told you as a fake Lagos pastor would say; saying he received it from a vision.
When he sent you his picture while in the plane at a stopover in Morocco, your admiration became thick with obsession. He was in a white shirt and sat beside the window. His face beamed with self-satisfaction.
You told people he was your ‘brother’, even though you didn’t come from the same state nor have the same surname. My brother just landed in Boston. It rolled out from your tongue with strange conviction that you might probably share something in common.
You first met him in Mushin; Anuoluwapo street, a rough untidy street that snaked into the dirty, rusty railway. The house, with number ‘25’ plastered on it with a blue paint and the blue paint fading was the only colourful thing about it, was a dingy small place which carried in its erection a promise to collapse anytime soon. And the atmosphere was humid with the perpetual reek of weed from the smokers that lived there.
He had come to stay for some nights with Tunde, your former tutorial teacher, with whom you had knitted a father-son relationship. You had heard so much about Andrew, things that made you wonder if he was real. When he spoke, his words came out with the smoothness of lump-free Amala gliding down the throat. In his walk was something conscious, a calculated dignified slowness.
His words, like when he said Nigeria is a failed state, often removed the sting from their truth with the poetry there in his voice.
Unilag was on strike because students were protesting the invasion of bedbugs in their hostels and you remembered how uncomfortable your nights were in your own room where you had unending vigils, squelching blood out of the small bugs even when you had sprayed the furniture with Sniper or DD Force. Your fingers stained with blood from the small-scale massacre.
From all you had heard about him and your close following on Facebook, meeting with him was one occasion you really relished. On the first night, while you both talked, he told you about his shaky attempt to attend a conference in Bonn, Germany. You felt pity for him, so much that you could not picture the disappointment and you held the firm belief that he would go. When you sat close to him, you smelt an eerie scent of Germany already.
So, when you walked out of the Switzerland embassy in Abuja a year later, you felt triumphant and confidence washed through you like a raging flame. You took a full selfie of yourself, a flat outline of your body, with a brown envelope that contained your files in your right hand. You posted it on Facebook, with your live location added.
Taye Obayomi – In Abuja
Done and Dusted! Dare to Dream!
You had never been to Abuja before, you had never gone to any embassy before, you didn’t dream of any travel before. Everything was surreal, like an excerpt in a fiction which featured your own body and you were playing a hazy role. You were overwhelmed by the picture of wearing a winter coat, of taking pictures in snow on the streets of Geneva, of being in a place peopled by whites, of being in something called a conference at all.
The United Nations headquarters in Switzerland had replaced paradise in the Bible. You were supposed to feel like a fish out of water because you were going for a conference not meant for you but you easily fit into the whole thing like a snail snugly fits into its shell.
You hungered to become a diplomat instantly, dressed up in a black suit with a starched white shirt underneath, a tie, and well-ironed trousers with one straight crease in the legs, and a different head. You were from Mushin, the part where ghetto sprawls recklessly around, where people smoke anything and drink anything, where violence is what makes life ticks, where you are not supposed to have such lofty dreams. You were supposed to be a yahoo boy, at best.
You had been selected for financial aid scholarship, one of the ten selected across the whole world. The money had been sent to you. The day Andrew called to congratulate you and tell you that he had received the fund from Geneva, in dollars, you felt as if in a trance. You wanted to scream, you wanted to kick everything in your way because you just received almost two thousand dollars to go to Switzerland.
There was no way the organizers would not have given you the aid, your application was so persuasive that it would have created effortlessly the mental image of a poor young African whose dreams rested only on coming to Europe or America, or else would die unfulfilled in the poverty that is called Africa like a flower in a desert sun.
You were bloated when you converted the money to naira, very close to a million naira stood in your account. Andrew just returned from Harvard where he attended a Model United Nations conference. He had helped you make the exchange at Yaba and he transferred it into your account in his hostel at Unilag. You began to feel like your legs were not walking on the ground any longer, like you were floating in space. When you took a danfo from Akoka to Yaba, and then to Mushin later that night; you felt bigger than the inside of the bus, like you would need more space.
The world changed for you as if the air was different, lighter with needles of cold. You began to cross the road more carefully; you waited until the road was completely clear before you dashed off. You became very careful with life.
He took you to where you would take your passport photograph for the visa application. It came out bigger than the normal square size you knew with passport photograph, this one was perfectly square, more square than square, and you were more handsome in it. You ran your fingers across the surface of the passport admiringly often as you went home.
The frightfully thin danfo conductor who looked like an AIDS patient from over-smoking denied that you had paid your fare, you didn’t even argue. You dipped your hand in your pocket and flicked another wad of five hundred naira note at him. Before, you would have started banging at the mirror or scanning for a nearby bottle to splinter just in case you had to fight.
You were the one who booked your visa appointment since Andrew was in faraway Boston then. You spoke to him on the phone in a different voice; a voice with a note of inflated self. You now talked of Europe, embassy, and visa. Three words that you would not remember to use for months since you had no need for them. All you used to say was garri, indomie, sphagetti, broke, debit alert, etc. That was what life used to be until your Gmail beeped with some mails.
You left school almost secretly because you didn’t want to divulge your plans to your mates. Although, two girls knew about it because they found out when they saw your documents in your bag at your HOD’s office waiting for him to append his signature. You wanted everyone to be shocked, to know when you hastily take a picture in the snow in Geneva and post it on your Whatsapp status. You wanted them to scream, ‘Taye that we saw in class yesterday!’ and complete it with ‘See how God does his wonder. He will change everything in a second,’ like everything really happened in a second.
You told your stage manager at the Theatre rehearsal that you were travelling for a ‘conference’. Yes, you said conference because Nigerians don’t tell others that they are going for visa interview and you were already living in a future. He permitted you to leave and promised not to mark you absent. You told your director too, and he let you leave.
You had relinquished a major role in your group play because you assumed that you might be in Geneva on the day you would have to perform the play, a 3-unit course and that could spell doom on the collective effort of others who had invested everything in the success of the production. Everything seemed to carry in it the shadow of Geneva.
So, you left for Lagos where you met with Andrew and he prepared you for the interview. You gathered your documents and you left for Abuja on the eve of your interview on a night bus from Jibowu where you boarded ABC Transport.
On the Sunday you left Lagos for Abuja, you left with the glowing promise of a blossoming dream. Your mother, bent over the sweepings she was gathering into a dustpan in the corner of the room, straightened herself up to pray for you. Her voice was mellifluous, the prayers of a proud mother. Your father accompanied you to the bus park and bade you safe journey. You watched as he walked back home through the pane of the bus window in a gait that was just a prelude to him taking you to Muritala Mohammed Airport in Lagos.
That was your first night travel. Every sound startled you, every stop jerked your nerves and you were shrouded in anxiety. It wasn’t your life that you feared for, it was the dream. You thought only of your passport and steeled your mind not to release your passport even if the bus was attacked. You would rather die because the way you clasped your documents under your armpit, even the gods would not take it from you.
You alighted first at Ibadan where the bus took more passengers and you also stopped at Kogi, at 4 AM, where you stretched your legs and looked for something to eat. You got to Abuja around 7 AM, just two hours to your interview. You hopped on a cab and you paid an outrageous fare because you wanted to appear at the embassy straight away, you chattered an expensive cab that you didn’t even allow to take other passengers, you paid for invisible passengers.
You got to the embassy and a feeling of numbness flushed through you. It was the first time you thought of being denied the visa but as you went inside the GT bank that was opposite the embassy to print your statement of account, the one that reflected almost a million naira, you felt bloated again. One million naira…
You waltzed into the embassy and your appointment was confirmed. You were grossly disappointed. The embassy was too small. You had thought of a spread of buildings with architectural grandeur. You had thought of a large space with every molecule of its air packed with stiff formalities, diffused hopes and accomplished dreams. It was just a two-room office; a reception and one office with two booths for the interview.
You met a few people there: a woman with a young granddaughter wearing a hijab, who sat with a posture of assurance and with countless booklets of exhausted passports; two young men who claimed to be sportsmen and were going to Switzerland for a sport competition, each of them with a startling hairstyle like that of a cock; an old woman who chaperoned her adult son and was later sent back to allow her son the independence to answer for himself (the man looked with a vacant expression that showed someone who had been dependent all his life); and a boisterous couple who looked sure of what they wanted to do.
You were disappointed again, because you were expecting a crowd, stadium-size.
You were instructed on how to arrange the documents with the visa fee at the top of the pile. Twenty five thousand, two hundred naira. In cash. You waited patiently for your turn staring at the white walls.
The woman behind the laminated glass was someone who confused you. You expected a Swiss, an Oyinbo person, so you had steeled your mind to be composed in your real first encounter with a European. But this one was a Nigerian with a polished accent that sounded perfect and the cornrows on her head were elegant with its traditional flourish, like a Yemoja’s disciple. She didn’t speak loud; it was as if too many words would choke her.
You did not see the small rectangle in the thick pane, so you were clueless as to where you would push your pile of documents until she hit the pane with her fist and motioned you to look down. She scanned briskly through your documents, separated each into different boxes and asked you questions without removing her face from them. You spoke and when you stopped midway because you felt she might not be listening, she told you to continue. You were unsure if she was.
You tried to catch every expression on her face to check if there was any of doubt but it was bland as a blank A4 paper. You couldn’t decipher anything but you continued answering the questions as they came rapidly.
No hiccup. You stepped outside the embassy with returned documents. “Your documents are too many”, she said. Her words kept ringing in your head like a broken alarm as you walked, or rather danced to the bus park where you immediately boarded a bus going to Ilorin.
Come and help me sing halleluyah, Jehovah jireh has done me well. Come and help me sing halleluyah, Jehovah Jireh has done me well. Praise e tha lord always, praise e tha lord always. My God is good, my God is good.
It was when you were caught by bewildered eyes that you stopped dancing on an Abuja road in broad daylight.
You had missed much in school already so you could not wait to see your friend Fareedah anymore as promised.
So you went to buy your suit, you bought the shoes and everything you needed from the money. You didn’t want anything to hinder your plans because the dates for the conference were in between a very tight schedule in school. It fell just within the Theatre week where your class would be producing five plays over a week.
You had received the schedule for the conference, it was well detailed. What you were expected to do on each day and each time of the day was clearly planned. When someone said, ‘Taye, we will see next week Saturday for that assignment o.’ You would say in your mind, ‘God forbid. Me that will be in Geneva on Saturday. God will not let us meet o.’
The more the day passed, slowly like a conniving tortoise, your belief thickened that you would partake in all that had been on the schedule, especially in the visit to Reformation Wall during the City Tour.
When your contact in Geneva told you it was almost 0’c, you began to feel cold from inside even though the sun in Ilorin was a hot bastard. You called your mother to ask if she had a sweater thick enough to shut out the cold and she said no, you started to haggle for a winter suit at a flea market in Ilorin. When Andrew showed you more pictures of him, with his lips chapped with bitter cold, you had to beg him for his own winter coat at last. When he told you that the food there was bland and tasteless, you began to make plans on how to conserve packs of Gala, Viju milk, Garri, sugar, and groundnut so that you would wake during the night to put something tasty in your mouth. You began to leave salt out of your food for a whole week though.
In school, you told your class rep that he should ensure he fixed the attendance for you in your absence. When he asked you why you would be absent, you told him he would know later. A lecturer gave you an assignment and the submission date fell on the fourth day you would have been in Geneva, you grinned so obviously that you thought her stupid. Me that would not even be in Africa, how would I have time for Literary Appreciation assignment? You arranged for someone else to do it for you.
You started walking with a sense of assurance that soon the next step you would take would be on the stairs of a plane. So, when you walked to rehearsal, everything looked like an open lunatic asylum. You didn’t want to lose your voice because you would be speaking at a conference next week. Nothing became interesting any longer and every breath you inhaled while waiting for time to pass was like a too-big morsel that stuck in your throat.
On the day you told Fareedah to go to the embassy to collect your passport for you, she didn’t go for a reason you didn’t want to hear. You felt like hopping on a night bus immediately to Abuja but when you called a driver at the park, he told you that it was not possible because all the buses heading for Abuja had left. That was just three days before your departure; things were so close you couldn’t afford any lapses. The next day was your presentation and you were to be in the dark theatre all night perfecting your play.
You knew you would leave school immediately the play had been staged. You acted a minor role, almost insignificant that you could be removed from the cast anytime. But you felt compelled to do it because you could not imagine carrying-over such a course. So, as the date of your departure drew closer, you felt you were living in a different world you inhabited alone. You didn’t even delight in the joy of the success of the play; your group got an A. You felt nothing when the audience roared with enjoyment.
When Fareedah called you fifteen days after your interview, a day after the collection date, her voice didn’t trail off. She spoke with the modulation of someone accustomed to it, to the demise of dreams. She didn’t put any oral anaesthesia to soothe your mind of the shock of the pains.
They did not give you visa o. That was what pierced your ear after you picked the call returning from a break at the Theatre class where you were exhausted with the monotony of doing the same thing over and over again.
‘Are you sure?’ You asked. Your heart began to pound the ribs that guarded it like a captive animal that had seen a chink of escape in its cage.
‘Yes,’ she said firmly. You thought she didn’t know what a visa stamp looked like, so you asked her what she was given at the embassy.
‘Your passport and a letter nah,’ she sounded exasperated, catching the underlining meaning of your words. ‘OK, I will snap the letter to you on Whatsapp so that you would see for yourself.’
The call ended and you went straight to your Whatsapp awaiting her messages. While you waited, you hoped she was lying or that she was making a costly joke just to scare the shit out of you. Every second dragged like a century. You prayed that it was a lie, your stomach began to rumble and you felt weightless. You were just two days away from your travel. You had bought your suits, your shoes, you had contacted a tailor in Lagos to make some official native dress for you, you had packed your bags, your parents in Lagos were making frantic preparation here and there tying loose ends, and you had booked your flight.
Her message entered. You opened it and saw four pictures. You downloaded them and the truth fell on you like rain. You downloaded the death of your dream, of that bottled aspiration in your stomach that made you wake at night and dance. You remembered dancing to Khalid’s Young, Dumb and Broke a week ago after you fucked a classmate of yours. You were celebrating in advance and you pictured how the girls would come in droves when you returned from Switzerland in three weeks.
Two boxes were ticked on the form, the ones that said The visa has been refused and your intention to leave the territory of the Member States before the expiry of your visa could not be ascertained.
You called Andrew who picked your call with an exaggerated air of knowing. “Ehn!” was all he could shout when you told him it was ‘negative’. He told you he was going to call back and hung the call; he wouldn’t because he didn’t know what to say to you. There was no rhythm in his voice anymore, or you didn’t hear it.
He was the one who advised that you we should book your ticket. We was the pronoun you both used because the dream was like a shared piece of towel, you were both wrapped in it.
You sat on the tree that stood before your lecture room and something unknotted in your heart when you reclined on the dirty seat with dried leaves. Your back crushed them, they rustled, and you imagined yourself in a vast dark space alone. You could not think of anything. You became light and you felt like a victim the whole world had conspired against.
You did not know which of the emotions you should feel, but anger was very far.
You called your father and you asked him what he was doing. He said he just returned from the drycleaner you sent him to, to help you collect a cloth and was arranging for the taxi. You took the phone away from your ear and breathed hard, the hot breath hitting the arc of your upper lip. You asked about your mother and he said she was arranging a larger bag for you so that you won’t have to carry a shoulder bag like a schoolboy. All you said was OK and you ended the call.
You felt like a balloon deflated by a small needle of ‘No’. You walked back to class. Everything had crumbled; your spirit crushed like an orange run over by a car. You looked into everyone’s face stiffly and you wanted them to know about the black smoke that billowed over your life; and when they laughed, it rang out too loud, conspiratorial.
You remembered how sleek her face was, that harmless face that presided over this tragedy. You always tried to conjure her face in your head, to hold like a keepsake of war, but it always dissolved before you could make up all her features like salt in water. You wanted an enemy, but she was invisible.
Ope Adetayo is a young aspiring Nigerian writer who currently studies English at the University of Ilorin.
Twitter handle: opeadetayo1