Friday, May 11, 2007

Passage to Nigeria

This is a story about a quest for a Nigerian visa. It’s a story about bribes, corruption and lies. It’s a story about motorcycle adventures, armed robbery and a mysterious Nigerian woman called Ophelia.

I was travelling to Nigeria because UNB had asked me if I would be interested in helping them with their recruitment efforts. I was happy to help out and had arranged meetings for the second week of May with prospective students in Lagos. Mark planned to tag along as a tourist.

We were told getting a Nigerian visa was an easy, one-day proposition. We learned otherwise.

We gave ourselves a week to get the visa. Ideally we would have applied for the visa earlier, but due to some strange Ghanaian bureaucracy a 6-month visa runs out after only two months. This is thanks to a stamp immigration officials give at the airport that changes the visa status. This means that after two months anyone wishing to stay in the country longer has to submit their passports to Ghana Immigration, and pay for an extension they’ve already paid for. For three weeks in April, this is where our passports lay awaiting a new stamp.

Last week, with our newly legitimized Ghanaian visitor status, and passport in hand we set out for the Nigerian High Commission in Accra to apply for our visa. We planned to drop off our passports in the morning, and pick them up with the freshly pasted Nigerian visas in the afternoon.

When we arrived at the High Commission, we signed in with security and walked through a spacious courtyard. We entered a hallway and walked into a small side room with the sign “reception” hanging on the door. As we entered we were greeted by the voice of the receptionist speaking slowly and purposely to an American at the welcome window.

“Yes, I’m sorry,” I heard her say. “No, there’s nothing we can do…Yes, we are out of visa stickers…No I don’t know when we will get more…You could try going to Togo.”

The man’s voice at the window trailed in and out and I could make out only part of the conversation. He said something about having to get to Lagos for business. The woman smiled and slowly shook her head. “Let’s be positive,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be here tomorrow.”

I looked at Mark wearily. This wasn’t a good start to our visa negotiations.

The woman uttered the same hopeful words to us when we approached the window.

“Let’s be positive,” she said when I asked if she thought there would be visas the next day.

When I asked her what would happen if they didn’t arrive, she repeated the same words. “Let’s be positive.”

I knew we needed reinforcements so called on my Ghanaian friends to help me. Someone knew a Nigerian with good connections at the High Commission. We called him and he agreed to meet us the next morning.

Kaij, a big lumbering Nigerian arrived in a red jeep that looked like it had logged a lot of kilometers. I found out he is a professional driver and has a fleet of 4 x 4s to ferry people between Accra and Lagos. This jeep had evidently made a lot of trips overland between the two countries.

Mark and I jumped in to the truck and we were off. I was full of hope. He was a confident, no-nonsense kind of guy. I was sure he could help us get the visa.

At the High Commission Mark and I were told to sit in the reception room. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the receptionist talking to Kaij. He barely listened to her chatter about the visa stickers. He asked to speak to one of his contacts.

Soon Kaij left the room. We were obviously not important to the discussion. Two minutes later he came back and asked for our documents. We handed them to him; we sat quietly, anxiously waiting for his return.

A few minutes later he poked his head back in the room, and motioned for us to follow. “This is it,” I thought. “We’re going to get the visas.”

Instead he ushered us out of the building. I stopped at the door like a stubborn child. “What about the visas?” I said a bit bewildered.

“They don’t have any stickers,” he said.

“So there’s nothing they can do?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. Kaij was walking away from the task. And he’d been unsuccessful. He was supposed to help us. This wasn’t possible. I’d had so much faith.

“We should come back tomorrow,” he said walking swiftly towards the exit. “Maybe they’ll have stickers then.”

This made no sense. I was sure that if they didn’t have stickers by the afternoon they would come up with an alternative. How could they just not have stickers and not make any concessions to people looking for visas. I felt completely powerless and immediately stressed.

“So what if they don’t have stickers tomorrow?” I asked. “Will they write us a letter to take to the airport?”

“They only write letters for Nigerians,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll have stickers. The woman I met with told me to call her tonight. They’ve sent someone to Togo today to get stickers. They should have them tomorrow.”

I was cautiously optimistic. Togo was only 3 hours away, so surely they could make it back that day. And, since they were responsible for not having stickers, they would expedite the processing time and we would get the visa tomorrow.

The next morning I called Kaij to find out what he had learned from his contact at the High Commission.

“They’ve sent someone early this morning to Togo,” he said. “They should be back by noon.”

“I thought they sent someone to Togo yesterday,” I said.

“I guess he didn’t go. But he went this morning,” Kaij replied. “They said they would call me around noon.”

This was Friday and our flight left on Sunday. There was nothing I could do but wait for Kaij’s call at noon. I couldn’t focus on anything else while waiting. We had to get the visas today.

At 12:30 I still hadn’t heard from Kaij. I dialed his number and he mumbled something into the phone about not yet hearing form the High Commission. He would call again and phone me back.

At 1:00 Kaij hadn’t called back so I called him again. I hated pestering him, but had no other option. I knew they stopped issuing visas at 2 p.m. which only gave us an hour. Kaij picked up right away.

“Let’s just go over there,” he said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

I was thankful for some action. We’d go to the High Commission and demand the visa. I felt sure this time we’d get the visas.

At the guarded entrance, Kaij smiled at the guards and they nodded him in. He obviously had influence as everyone else had to officially sign in when they arrived. Kaij just waved and kept walking.

We returned to reception and were told to wait. Kaij’s contact wasn’t in the building. We waited 30 minutes and she still hadn’t arrived. I was getting visibly agitated and anxious. Finally Kaij got up and left the room. A few minutes later he came back and asked for the documents again. My hopes rose. Finally, they were going to do something.

Two minutes later he was back. “Let’s go,” he said.

I followed him silently out the door. Once we’d stepped outside, he said “They still don’t have visa stickers. I’m sorry but there’s nothing they can do.”

I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. Our flights left Sunday morning and I had presentations starting Monday morning for UNB. I had to get to Nigeria.

“What are our options?” I asked. “Can we go overland?”

“I could take you by car,” he said hesitantly, “But I might have trouble getting you across the Nigerian border. If you were black there’d be no problem. We could pay and you’d just walk across. But you’re white.” He paused as he said the word “white” indicating the clear problem with my skin colour.

I thought quickly. “How much do you think it would cost to get us across?” I said.

I imagined Mark and me slipping across the Nigerian border without visas. It all sounded quite adventurous and spy like, but a bit unrealistic. How would we get back out? What would we do about the plane tickets?

Kaij said he would make a few phone calls to his ‘friends’ at the border. He’d call me at 5.

My next task was to high tail it to Virgin Nigeria airlines to postpone our flight. I also needed to contact our host in Lagos to let them know we wouldn’t be coming on Sunday.

The airline agent at Virgin Nigeria shook her head as I described our visa sticker quest. She smiled sympathetically and agreed to change the dates. I explained we still didn’t know when we would get our visas.

“I’ll put a note on your file,” she said. “You can make as many changes as you need to free of charge.”

I’d never interacted with an airline so flexible before. I was thoroughly impressed with the service.

I thanked the woman – Sandra was her name – and on my way out asked “Have you ever heard of anything like this happening before?”

“Anything’s possible in Nigeria,” she said. The woman beside her gave a half smile and nodded in agreement.

Before Kaij called me back I knew we weren’t going to Nigeria overland. It was way too risky. I spoke with him briefly, explained I’d moved the flight time to Tuesday, and we agreed to try again Monday morning.

Monday morning I felt a renewed nervousness. I’d managed to relax over the weekend but as soon as I woke up the feeling of anxiousness returned. Surely the High Commission had brought the visa stickers back from Togo by now. We had to get the visa today.

At 8:00 I called the High Commission for an update. A young man answered. I asked him if there were visa stickers this morning. “Yes please,” he replied.

I felt cautiously optimistic. Perhaps it would all work out and we’d fly to Nigeria tomorrow.

When I got to work I asked someone from the office to call and confirm they had visa stickers. I thought that perhaps the man hadn’t understood my accent. I wanted to be sure there were stickers before calling Kaij.

“Hello ma’am,” my colleague said into the phone. “I’m calling to see if you have visa stickers this morning.”

There was a pause and then I heard “Oh, I see. Well when will you be getting visa stickers?”

My heart sank. My colleague continued.

“Well what do I do if I need to go to Nigeria? Oh I see. So there’s nothing else I can do? Oh I see. Okay. Thank you.”

I could no longer sit and wait around for the visa stickers to arrive. Obviously no one had gone to Togo to get visa stickers. And if no one was going to Togo, we’d have to go. We’d apply for a Nigerian visa in Togo.

My focus quickly shifted from getting a Nigerian visa to getting a Togo one. I left the office en route to the Togo embassy. I needed three photos, so while on the bus searched the sides of the road for a passport photo vendor.

I finally found one at a busy bus station. I followed the hand painted sign until I reached a wall where a red piece of material hung clumsily from a couple of nails. The backdrop was stuck between an apple seller and a vendor selling flip flops. I sat down on the chair and smiled for the camera.

Photos in hand, I walked into the Togo Embassy. I was fully charged and used my best French to charm the guy at reception into letting me see an official about getting my visa in a couple of hours.

It worked, and I was ushered into a small dark office on the main floor. “No lights” said a guy named Jean. He shrugged unapologetically.

We talked about Canada – he’d been to Moncton for La Francophonie in the late 90s and we both hummed the famous Quebec “Gens du pays” song. I could tell he liked me, and I felt pretty confident he’d get me a visa by the end of the day.

He told me to come back at 3 p.m. but emphasized that I should bring him back a present.

“What would you like?” I asked hoping it wasn’t money.

“You decide,” he said. “But it should be memorable.”

I went in search of a gift. I wandered around the western grocery store looking for something Canadian. There was nothing. Finally I settled on a bag of Cadbury chocolate mini eggs. I figured he’d probably never had them before. Also, the candy covering means they don’t melt in the heat – I thought it would be okay for his non air-conditioned office.

Jean was impressed with the gift and nodded approvingly after popping one of the mini eggs into his mouth. I told him to share it with his friends. “I’ll tell them it came from une gentille Canadienne.” he said

I skipped out of the office with my visa. We were off to Togo in the morning.

The bus to Togo left at 5:30 a.m. We woke up to our alarm at 4 a.m. and were picked up by taxi at 4:30.

At 6:25 we were still sitting in the parking lot of the bus station. We were hot and frustrated that the bus wasn’t moving. As is the Ghanaian custom it waited until all the seats were full. At 6:40 the last person climbed on and we were off.

Three hours later we arrived in the midst of chaos. The Togo/Ghanaian border is a sea of traders, hawkers, money changers, and people moving from one country to the next. We joined a wave heading in the direction of Togo.

We got through the Ghanaian/Togo checkpoints remarkably quickly, hopped in a cab and sped off to the Nigerian Embassy.

Our taxi driver insisted on accompanying us into the embassy. We had explained our situation and he said he knew people inside. He thought he could help.

We approached the receptionist who was a lady in her 70s who spoke Togolese French with a strong accent. I was happy to have the taxi driver with us. He described our situation to the woman.

“They can’t get a visa here if they live in Accra,” she said back in French. “They have to get it there.”

I stepped in and spoke English very slowly. I wanted to make sure she understood me completely. “We are here because they don’t have visa stickers in Accra,” I said. “We were told by the High Commission that we could get visa stickers here. Please, we really need your help. We’ve already missed one flight, and we have rescheduled it until tomorrow. We need the visa today.”

The woman shuffled around in the office and then reported back that we had to have all the proper paperwork. I could tell she thought this would make us go away. Thankfully we had everything she asked for.

She then said it would take 3 days.

Our taxi driver stepped in and pleaded our case. The woman hesitated again, and then said she’d have to talk to her supervisor. A few minutes later she reported back that they would process the visa that day.

Then she asked for payment.

We learned that a visa in Togo is almost double the price of a visa in Accra. We hadn’t brought enough money.

It was around this point that we met Ophelia. Ophelia was a 6 ft tall striking Nigerian woman. She wore a bright orange tank top, matching huge round dangly earrings, and high heels. Her black African hair was hidden below a short-hair stylized wig. She had an air of confidence that was almost intimidating.

Ophelia had been sent to Togo from Accra by her boss to get him a visa. He needed to go to Lagos, she said, because a colleague had been shot in Lagos during an armed robbery the day before. He was in a coma and they didn’t know if he would live. Her boss was flying out that night and needed the visa immediately.

Ophelia did not have enough money to cover the increased cost either. She leaned over to me and whispered in my ear. “The lady is pocketing the extra money,” she said. “I know it. She’s a crook.”

We had enough Ghana cedis to cover the difference in price but needed to find someone willing to change it for us. Ophelia told us to follow her to a market where we could change money.

We walked out of the Embassy trailing Ophelia. She stood confidently at the side of the road and called over three motorcycle drivers. She glanced back at us. “Hop on. It will be faster to go on moto-taxis,” she said.

Ophelia threw her leg over the back of the seat and the bike sped off. She’d clearly done this many times before. I stared at my driver. I had no option but to follow. I awkwardly pulled myself on to the bike. I hate to admit this, but it was the first time I’d ever been on a motorcycle. Mark climbed on the back of his bike, thrilled about the impending ride.

The three bikes wove in and out of traffic, raced around corners, and bumped over potholes. I wanted to wrap my arms around my driver to hold on, but knew I had to be cool and relax.

Ophelia took the lead. It was easy to see her out in front with her bright orange shirt. She was our marker and we only lost sight of her and the driver for a few brief moments before catching up. I felt like we were in a James Bond film and Ophelia was the leading lady. At any moment I was sure we’d start dodging bullets.

At the market we did our deal and returned along the same path. I was almost sad to say goodbye to my motorcycle driver.

Back at the Embassy we sat and waited for our visas. We chatted with Ophelia. She had an interesting past and had recently become a born again Christian. “I used to party a lot,” she said nonchalantly. “And then I became a believer.”

It was hard to imagine this motorcycle woman as a born again Christian, but she seemed serious about it. She explained that she gets up at 5 every morning to read her morning “devotional.”

Finally the moment arrived. The receptionist gave us our visas. They both bore bright green Nigerian visa stickers. I stared at the visa sticker. It was really quite stunning. It would be almost impossible to copy. We were now legitimate.

The final leg of our adventure was getting back to Accra. Ophelia also had to go back to Accra so we agreed to go together.

We rushed back to the border to catch a bus so Ophelia could get the visa to her boss. His plane was supposed to leave late afternoon.

At the border I looked behind me and saw Ophelia in a kneeling position beside a private car. It looked like she was praying. An older woman standing by the passenger door looked quite bewildered as Ophelia gestured wildly. I could tell she was telling the woman about the co-worker who’d been shot and her need to get back to Accra in a hurry.

I watched in fascination as Ophelia convinced this woman to take us back to Accra in her private car. The woman wearily relented and Ophelia called us over. She told us to hop into the car. We were a bit dumbstruck but decided to climb in.

We sailed back to Accra in our private Audi with a woman from Togo and her driver. We never did learn their names as we sat as quietly in the back seat. The woman also said very little. We listened to classical church music and sat hungrily as she ate a full course lunch in the front seat. We also read books; Ophelia studied her daily devotional intently.

Just before reaching Accra, we met up with Ophelia’s boss. He had been waiting for us on the side of the road. She handed him his visa and we continued on. As we pulled away she told us he’d decided to take a flight the next morning.

* * *

The next morning we were standing in line ready to board our flight when I noticed Ophelia’s boss standing nearby. I recognized him from the day before. I moved towards him and smiled.

“Hi, I recognize you from yesterday. I was in the car with Ophelia when we gave you your visa. We were also getting our visa in Togo. I’m really sorry to hear about your colleague.”

The man looked confused, “What colleague?” he asked.

“The one that was shot in Lagos,” I said

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said clearly confused.

“Oh, I thought someone in your company was shot?” My voice trailed off.

The man looked startled. “Did Ophelia tell you that?” he asked a bit sharply.

“Yes”. The words were out of my mouth before I realized I had revealed a lie. Ophelia had made up the story!

Mark figured out the situation much faster than me, and jumped in.

“Oh no, it must have been someone else,” he said trying to cover for our new friend.

I clued in and added “Yes. You’re right. I must be confused.”

“Are you going to Lagos for business?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m moving there,” he said

“For how long?” I asked.

“Six months,” he said

“We’ve been trying to get a visa since last week.” I commented.

“Yes. Me too. I’ve been trying since last Thursday.”

We boarded the plane, and sat in our seats. I heard my phone ring but couldn’t reach it in time. I looked at the missed call. It was from Ophelia. Maybe her boss had called her looking for an explanation of the mystery employee who’d been shot.

The plane took off and we were en route to Nigeria.

- Janet


Anonymous said...

You had me sitting at the edge of my desk all night. Good God! What a thriller of a story. I can't wait for the next installment.
My apologies. I do read your blog regularly; but I must say this is the first time you had me mesmerized and inspired and deliciously frightened.
I spent most of my teen years in Ghana. Well, I am half Ghanaian; hope it is ok to leave this comment.
Kwasi George

Janet & Mark in Ghana said...

Hi Kwasi,

We're delighted to know someone who's half Ghanaian living in Chicago is reading our blog. We hope that it gives you a glimpse into our lives in Ghana. We're really enjoying our time here.
- Janet

Anonymous said...

Janet and Mark,
You had me sitting on edge too. I can't even imagine what you must have felt like. You are teo brave souls.
Love, Mummy and Daddy