A Stranger in a Foreign Land…
As a Black American living in Nigeria, I don’t stand out like my white fellow country men/women. The ability to go unnoticed in Nigeria has both positive and negative consequences. I can easily meander around my neighborhood without being noticed. However, if I go for a jog, people seem to take notice because you don’t see a lot of Nigerians jogging – foreigners yes, Nigerians no. I can also go shopping, catch a movie and move around town and go completely unnoticed. However, when I need to enter locations behind secure gates and security guards, I have to rely on my American accent. I have gotten use to using Nigeria greetings or some very limited Pidgin English phrases to interact with taxi drivers and food servers but when I approach a gate that I need to get on the other side, I drop all Nigerian pretenses and use as many English words as possible. During the election, I strategically used my accent and a bow tie to enter a closed government building and made it all the way to the office of the Director. It was amazing how accommodating they were to me.
Last week, the focus was the Turkish Embassy in Abuja. For weeks, my Nigerian colleague and I have sent email after email to get him an appointment for a visa. He will be traveling to Istanbul to attend a workshop on behalf of the IRI. All of our emails fell on deaf ears. Two weeks ago, he went to the Embassy in hopes of talking with someone but was denied entry into the compound. He was told by the security officer that he needed an official email response from the Consulate. On Thursday, after meeting with the Deputy Senate President, my colleague suggested we go to the Embassy. My initial response was, “they didn’t let you in when you went two weeks ago, why would they let us in now.” What also helped our situation was I had a contact name of an assistant to the Ambassador that I had received from a colleague and the title – Resident Country Director of an International organization. Titles in Nigeria are extremely important because everyone wants to be seen as “being important.” The “Big Man” syndrome is alive and well in Naija. So I explained to the security officer why we were there – again, I wanted to use as many English words as possible in my very American accent. When I finished my speech, the officer looked at me and said, “I don’t understand.” I smile and said, my colleague will explain why we are here.
The security officer allowed us to enter the gate and proceed to the waiting area inside the Embassy. After about 15 minutes, the assistant to the Ambassador came out and told us that she was informing the Consulate Director that we were in the waiting area. 15 minutes later a staff from the Consulate came out to meet us and discuss our situation. We explained to him that we had sent email after email requesting an appointment but had not received a response. He said that he could search for our emails and provide us a response but my colleague was relentless in convincing him that he should meet with us today and settle the visa issue. Finally, the Consulate Director came out to get to the bottom of our situation. He apologize for the delay and told my colleague to come back on Friday at 9:00am. As we were finishing up the conversation the Consulate staffer, who was Nigerian looked at me and asked, “where are you from? Your accent is different?” I told him I was from the U.S. He said, “I was confused by you. You look Nigerian but didn’t sound like it.” His statement sums up my time in Abuja…I look like I belong but really I am a stranger in a foreign land.