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Story of a Nigerian tourist in America (II)

The following first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust of May 26, 2007. By Farooq A. Kperogi My friend arrived in New York on a ...

The following first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust of May 26, 2007.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

My friend arrived in New York on a notoriously freezing Sunday morning. But the contentment he felt at having the privilege to set his foot in America, wondrous America, that Nigerians curiously cherish to dub “God’s own country,” gave him enormous comfort.

His smug glow of self-satisfaction dissipated as quickly as it came, however, when he called his friend who had promised to “set him up” in New York.

The friend said he was out of town, even though he was aware that Musa would arrive in New York that day. He told Musa that some sudden, unanticipated work-related commitment had taken him to Chicago and that he would no longer be able to honor his promise to be his host.

Musa said his heart jumped into his mouth and then sank back whence it sprang. “In spite of the cold weather and the snow, I was sweating profusely,” he later told me. New York ceased to be the gorgeously scenic city that had registered in his senses when he first stepped out of the airport. “Everywhere and everybody just looked ugly and wicked,” he said. He was helpless.

But he was both reluctant and ashamed to call me for two reasons. First, he didn’t inform me that he was coming on that day because he had vowed to have no truck with me again after I told him some bitter truths about life here. Second, and more important, I had told him that I would not accommodate him if his intention was to immigrate illegally.

He was understandably unsure how I would react if he called me. So he decided to call his other friend who had also promised to accommodate and find him a job. The friend lives in a state somewhere in the southernmost fringes of the United States.

Luckily, the man was sufficiently smitten by the pathos of Musa’s predicament that he invited him over without questions, even though he had no prior information that Musa was coming here that soon. His host was a middle-aged Nigerian who is obviously doing well here.

One weekday, I returned from school in the late evening hours when my phone rang. It was Musa. He had been in the country for the past two weeks and was only now just getting round to touch base with me. I was at once glad and nervous when I heard his voice. His voice sounded expressionless, almost a bit melancholic. He lacked the boisterousness and blitheness that seemed like second nature to him.

After exchanging our conventional courtesies and pleasantries, the first thing he said was, “Farooq, I now know you’re my true friend.”

“What do you mean, Musa?” I asked.

“I frankly thought you didn’t want me to come to America for whatever reasons. I never believed anything you told me when I called you the other day. Now I know better.”

I was touched, even conscience-stricken, as if I had a hand in his plight. His host, he told me, was initially very welcoming and helpful. After a week, however, he said, the entire family seemed to be fed up with him. The man and his wife said they'd thought he had come for only a one-week vacation.

“But I told this man that I sold my car to come here. Which normal human being sells his property just to go for a yeye vacation?” he said, his voice betraying a profound emotional dislocation.

He said the man’s wife stopped greeting him and also stopped answering his greetings. And because the couple went to work in the mornings and returned home late at nights, he hardly ate well.

But food was the least of his concerns. The state of his mind, he said, was such that he, in fact, would not enjoy any food even if it were “brought from al-janah firdaus, the highest paradise,” as he himself put it jokingly. His greatest worry was that his American Dream had crumbled even before he had a chance to sleep. He was seeing nightmares in his wakefulness—and in broad daylight.

His friend said he was not in a position to find him a job with his current immigration status, even though he had assured him that he could do it. He said the man told him exactly the same things I had told him when he called me from Nigeria some months back. But what of the Green-Card marriage? Well, the man said he would help with that.

In Musa’s presence, the man called a phone number in Chicago. Oh, this Chicago again! He was on the phone for over an hour with an “agency” that specializes in arranging Green-Card marriages for illegal immigrants from Africa who want to become American citizens.

Musa said his host told him that a black American lady had agreed to be his “Green-Card wife.” But there were two obstacles he needed to surmount. The first was to pay the professional fee for this “service.” The second was to have the patience to wait for up to two years (it could be earlier) before the U.S. government would recognize the “marriage” and subsequently give him the Green-Card, which is a transitional step to becoming a citizen.

The fee is $10,000, that is, over one million naira! However, he was required to give $5,000 as down payment. The outstanding balance would be paid when he eventually got his Green Card, he was told. But Musa had only a little over $1000 with him inside out.

What was worse, his host said he couldn’t accommodate him for more than a month. So even if he was able to raise the money, he would have to look for a place to stay for two years. Confused, he decided to call his friend in New York again. Perhaps, he had returned from Chicago. But the man said he was still in Chicago.

He ignored Musa’s subsequent calls.

With no place to stay, no money to purchase “Green-Card marriage” and no job, the harsh, cruel reality of life in America dawned on Musa. When he pleaded with his host to loan him $5,000 with interest, any interest, the host said Musa was out of his mind.

“But this man has two brand new jeeps, two new Hondas, a huge house, which he owns, and….” I stopped him because I knew where he was headed. I explained to him that America is essentially a debt society and that people’s material possessions are not a firm basis to judge their real wealth.

Everybody here seems to be in debt. Almost everything that everybody owns is on credit. I told him those new SUVs his friend has are bought on credit. The man probably pays as little as $200 a month for them, depending on his credit rating.

And the house does not belong to him in the sense in which we mean when we say we’ve bought our houses in Nigeria. Here, it’s a mere illusion of ownership. I told him that it is almost impossible for anybody with a middle-class income in America to afford to give a personal loan of $5,000 to anybody.

My friend was disillusioned. Well, the truth is that the American Dream is actually an American illusion for many people. For still others, it’s even worse: it’s an American nightmare, as Malcolm X famously put it in the early 1960s.

Musa spent the rest of his days in America listlessly and anxiously waiting for the day he would return to good old Nigeria with all its poverty, deprivation and chaos.

His only problem was that he was having a hard time coming to terms with the reality of returning to Nigeria without his car and other material comforts he sold off in order to come here. “People can’t understand why I would go to America for a whole month and, upon return, start jumping from Okada to Okada” he said ruefully.

But a worse tragedy awaited him. The day he left for New York from his base here, there was an unseasonably fierce snowstorm that forced local airlines to cancel or delay flights. So he missed his international flight. Airline officials told him he had to wait for three days before he could fly back to Nigeria.

Crestfallen and confused, he decided to call his New York friend again. He merely wanted a place to sleep for three days. This time around, the friend was not in Chicago—thankfully. However, he said he was held up at work and would not be able to see him even in four days. Musa slept on bare floor at the airport.

So, just as he was welcome by a severely cold weather when he arrived in New York, he was now being sent off by an even more severe blizzard that caused him to miss his international flight. Perhaps, these gelid weather conditions symbolized both a literal and a metaphoric rupture of his American dream.

When he got back to Nigeria, he called to tell me that some of his friends and relations were upset that he returned too soon. “If only they knew that I was in solitary confinement for the whole month!” he said in his usual satirical self-flagellation. Even in moments of distress, Musa never fails to throw light-hearted, self-deprecating jibes at himself.

It is all too easy to dismiss this good-natured gentleman as a naïve, impetuous chump who ignored friendly counsel and got himself enmeshed in an avoidable mess. But that would be a wee tot unfair, I think.

I am willing to concede that his indiscretions were actuated by the despair and hopelessness that our leaders have so cruelly democratized in the past couple of years. However, whatever the level of our desperation, it’s not half bad if we can demonstrate a little discernment and caution in our choices.

This story is shared with the kind permission of my friend. However, names, places and some facts have been deliberately changed to conceal his real identity.


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