I am a Western visa rejection expert. Three times—even though I work at an airport. But I am mostly a literary reject, a reality which also, somehow, always presents itself in sets of threes. Like a trilogy.
I am at the American embassy in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, waiting outside the gate and the high fence. I admire the white, tiled buildings and poles flaunting American flags. We stand in the morning sun. A Cameroonian security guard walks towards us.
‘It is not yet 8 a.m. That is the time when you will get in, not now, so don’t stand here. Move away please,’ he booms, to young people and people twice his age alike.
We grumble. He insists. The American embassy is like some serene elephant that cannot be disturbed. The Cameroonian security guard seems more protective of it than the Americans are. We move and stand near the fences of other embassies. 8 a.m comes. Our grumbling assumes the sound of a propeller-powered aircraft. He finally tells us to move forward at 8.10 a.m.
Three guards perform a manual search on our bags and we enter the embassy’s security room. They scan our bodies with walk-through metal detectors and our bags again, with X-ray machines. We sit in the piazza just outside the interview hall.
I am here to obtain a conference visa to attend the spring session of the 2017 Art Omi international writers’ residency in New York State. My application had been accepted in 2016. I want to do some introspection in a quiet environment, and work on my novel. Douala, the rowdy and dysfunctional French-speaking economic capital where I live and work, has been distracting. I’m also keen to make literary connections and share my work with a new audience. Experiencing what life is like in another country, another city, is also on my mind. I want to acquaint myself with New York before perhaps moving there to study; I have also been offered a partial scholarship to study for a Writing MFA at the Pratt Institute in New York City.
It is March, the month of my birth. I have been on holiday at my uncle’s in the coastal city of Limbe, located in the English-speaking South-West Region of Cameroon. The Douala International Airport, where I work, had been shut down for three weeks so the runway could be repaired. It was an opportunity for me to discuss the payment of the remainder of my fees with family. My uncle, Mr Nkeng Ivo, the head of the family, plays a very big role in our lives, more so than my father in my hometown of Kumba.
I had been deep in communication with my family when I received a phone call from my neighbour in Douala. My rented studio and two others had caught fire and were totally burnt out. He and a couple of others had saved some of my things. My thoughts at the embassy are bittersweet.
It is March, the month Donald Trump implements his travel ban on six Muslim-majority states. Two are in Africa. Cameroon is not among the countries blocked by his ban, so I am optimistic. The next group of ten visa applicants are ushered in by a guard. I am among this set, mostly young people hoping to obtain student visas. There are three interviewers in front of us: all lily white. I am at the rear of the queue, and I watch them reject visa applicants one after another. A young guy has received admission into two American universities, but still gets rejected. One boy from my queue is given the visa. His smile is so luminous it is like he’s going straight to heaven.
The rejections continue. Even a pastor is turned away, visaless! A woman who has brought her old, ailing father is making a scene. He has been given a visa and she has been rejected. He is quiet. She is screaming. How will he get to America alone? He can barely walk. The consular officers are unmoved by her theatrics. She won’t leave the counter. A security guard appears. She walks away. The consular officers keep working. They don’t even examine applicants’ documents, as I heard they did in the past, they just look at the admission letter or invitation to a university graduation or wedding. Then they interview the applicant and decide upon their fate, which is mostly reject, reject, reject.
I am next, residency invitation in hand, other documents and published work neatly in a file. I have to stand in front of the seated consular officer—a slim man with geeky reading glasses—throughout my interview.
‘What is the purpose of your trip to the US?’
‘I’m going to attend the Art Omi international residency, sir,’ I say, handing him my invitation through the space in the glass. He reads it diligently.
‘So who is paying for your trip?’
‘Art Omi will pay for my lodging and feeding, as it is said in the letter. I will pay for my flight.’
‘What do you write?’
‘Fiction and creative non-fiction. I’m a blogger too, so I create online content.’ He types all I say. I continue. ‘I’ve brought all my published works in print with me. Short stories in a few anthologies and my children’s chapbook.’
I am about to give him my second file of published work when he snaps through the microphone, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to see any books.’ He opens his right palm towards me and shakes it vigorously from right to left and left to right, in a keep-those-things-away manner.
The gesture ruins my mood. Are my published works not the ultimate evidence? Perhaps books are also considered part of the documents that consular officers no longer examine? I am later told by a friend that I should have just informed the official that I had come with my published works. Not try to send them through the slot in the glass for him to see. It was forceful. He needed to ask first. But he doesn’t ask for any other document.
‘Where do you work?’ he continues. My responses are now no more than audible whispers. I mention Douala International Airport.
‘Have you travelled before?’
As I begin to say, ‘Ghana, Rwanda and Ethiopia,’ he is flipping over the pages of my passport quickly, looking for the visas. Does he think I am so dumb that I would tell that kind of a stupid lie? Someone who works at an airport! And anyway, I have already filled in all the information he is asking me on the DS-160 visa application form online. He and the other consular officers have already decided upon my fate, they did so before I set foot in here.
‘Are you married?’
‘Now tell me too, do you have any kids?’
I think this is the final nail in my coffin. He may regard my matrimonial status, without children, as a flight risk—an ambitious young man without direct family ties, who will remain in America. He finally hits the gavel on the table like a judge.
‘Sorry, our visa laws have become very very tight, very tight.’ He lays emphasis on the ‘very tight’, then pauses, before adding, ‘You can travel to the United States only when …’ he halts again, and then deals the killer blow: ‘when you become an accomplished writer.’ We stare into each other’s eyes and it’s an icy moment.
‘But, you can try again next time.’ He has a mournful look on his face, as if he is a concerned physician who’s telling me about the diagnosis of a terminal illness in the most soothing way possible. Yet, I keep repeating one thought in my head, you’re an asshole, you’re an asshole.
He hands me a green piece of paper.
‘Please read this carefully. You will better understand why your visa was rejected.’
It is the same damn green paper they give to every rejected visa applicant. The reason they advance is the same for everybody. You have not convinced them of the reasons why you want to travel to the US. They don’t think you will return to your home country. You cannot appeal the decision. An almost two-hundred-dollar interview ends with a cold-blooded rejection in less than ten minutes, as if it’s a joke.
My writer friends, Dzekashu and Howard, are stunned, especially at the ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to see any books!’ The latter suggests I should write about the consular officer. My family is shocked. What is the reason for my rejection? Visa laws have become very tight? What rubbish is that? I paid for that interview. I deserved a concrete reason.
My father, Mr Atemnkeng Simon, my most avid reader, is devastated. He consoles me and assures me another opportunity will come my way. My kid sister in Florida, V, tells me she isn’t surprised. It is partly due to Trump’s travel ban. Developing countries, especially ones with political crises like ours, are invisible names in Trump’s book, not just those six. Our visa quota has dropped. They are observing it over there. Cameroonians are not travelling to the US like they used to.
During the Obama years, it had been relatively easy for my airport colleagues to obtain tourist visas. A few of them had travelled to the US for holidays (and returned). I travel back to Douala, where I move into my Aunt Hilda’s. I stay there for some time to sort myself out and look for a new house. Hers has occupants already, so her sitting room becomes my room, her couch my bed. Her TV is just next to my pillow. I switch to CNN one day and confirm my sister’s suspicions. A short news bar headline reads Travel to the US down globally by 10%.
My plans to study at the Pratt Institute also fall apart. I need at least 50,000 dollars to top my 11,000 dollar scholarship. And even if I obtain the full scholarship, is it certain that the American embassy will grant me a student visa?
My kind Aunt Hilda and her funny neighbour Sam try to cheer me up, but I descend into the saddest state. I laugh at their jokes, but shed silent tears when I’m alone. I morph into a wrapped ball of dark thoughts under my wrapper. Why is my life progressing and then regressing? Why were my breakthrough moments breaking?
At work, colleagues ask me about my burnt house but I don’t talk about it. A few others are insensitive, making jokes about me being a homeless man. None of them even know about my visa rejection. But it is a trilogy of March disappointments for me, my month of birth.
I email the residency director about my visa rejection. I tell him that the residency is important to me. I want to defer to the fall session in October, and try again at the embassy. He is shocked by my rejection, but tells me the decision isn’t uncommon among artists they invite. He says the rejections put the whole concept of their international residency into question. He accepts my defer proposal. I speculate on what he says. The Art Omi international residency could even shut down if the rejection trend continues.
I am back at the American embassy for my second interview in July; a B1/B2 tourist visa application, since conference visas have all been booked up online. The man who interviewed me last time is on the left, a burly man is in the middle, and an old lady with white hair is on my right. She reminds me of Margaret Atwood. I move ahead in my queue. Not a single visa is given this time. I am next. The man who interviewed me last time is free, so I walk up to him—I don’t like this coincidence. Of course, he doesn’t remember me, but when he types on the keyboard, my information appears on his screen. He glances at me.
‘Have we met before?’
‘Go to counter seven please.’
I step aside and ask a guard where counter seven is. He points at the burly man in the middle. Someone is leaving the counter. I have my documents and published works with me, but he doesn’t ask for any document. I don’t dare propose showing him anything until he asks. He asks for my invitation letter. The questions he poses are the same as last time: Purpose of trip. The funder. What I write. He adds another question: ‘How much do you earn?’ I tell him. He contorts.
‘So, _____ months of your salary will buy you a return ticket to the US?’
He pauses in his typing.
I’m thinking, Dude, I’ve been working for seven years. Plus, I didn’t fall from the sky.
‘Are you married?’
‘No.’ He shakes his head.
‘Do you have any children?’
‘No.’ He shakes his head more vigorously this time.
Here comes the curse of the young, unmarried male without kids. I know what’s coming next.
‘Have you travelled before?’
I repeat the countries. He listens keenly before speaking. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t issue you a visa. It is very difficult to travel to the United States, unless you have travelled out of Africa before. On this green piece of paper you will find the reason …’
It’s like a scene from the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal. Except this story plays out at the American embassy in just five minutes. I walk away like a man in a trance. Embassies make a lot of money off of visa applications. (In fact, Africans are estimated to lose at least $50 million in rejected visa applications to the West each year.) The default mode at the American embassy is: reject.
Maybe they think I want to get to America, burn my Cameroonian forest passport and start seeking asylum, marry an American citizen, or join the US army; all in a bid to obtain an American passport. I think of all the broke Cameroonians I know, who have told the most blatant lies and presented the greatest fakes in the name of documents at the American embassy and were issued visas.
I think too of Cameroonians with strong financial muscle and bulky bank accounts, who intend to travel to America to engage in businesses, or do academic work, or to holiday and return, but have been rejected visas. I feel that sometimes the consular officers know that a particular person they are interviewing will never return to Cameroon, yet they still issue a visa. That another person will return, who will not get a visa. I conclude that visa issuing is a mystery that only consular officers understand.
I travel to Nigeria in November, as part of the Limbe–Lagos literary exchange programme, where I am awarded the prestigious Sylt Foundation writing residency in Germany during the opening ceremony of the Aké Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta. But before Sylt, I had applied for a German writing residency, the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen, three times, before finally getting accepted. It is only when I receive an email from a German translator in Berlin that I understand how:
‘… If you had got your visa for the US last year, we would have met at Ledig House. How do I know? Because—small world—I was on the board of the Schöppingen this year. I like your short story ‘Wahala Lizard’. So I hope you enjoy your time there, it’s my home region …’
I smile at fate consoling me. I send him a happy reply, thanking him for choosing me.
‘You will be issued that Schengen visa,’ a friend assures me. ‘The Germans are much more open with their visa process. You just need to show enough evidence at the embassy.’
It is 8 a.m., May 2018. I am at the German consulate in Yaoundé, a big white bungalow, to apply for a Schengen ninety-day tourist visa. The Cameroonian security guard, who is wearing an old fashioned grandaddy suit, is more annoying than all of those at the American embassy put together. My friend Dzekashu, who has also been here for an interview, jokes: ‘If that security guard had been a consular officer, he would not grant anybody a visa.’
The morning sun seethes on our heads. The guard leaves us sitting in its glow. Not on seats, but on old cement slabs and railings outside the building. At least it is better than standing in the sun in front of the American embassy. I turn to the young boy sitting beside me.
‘When those in the West want to travel here, do they go through all of this stress?’ He giggles. I tell him about being chased away from the gate of the American embassy. He widens his eyes in shock.
‘That’s crazy! These Europeans, they probably just buy their flight tickets and board planes straight to Africa. No embassy.’
I smile and say they need visas to many countries too, but it’s an A-B-C process. Finally the annoying security guard lets us enter the consulate and we sit down on real seats. There are two consular officers conducting the interviews, a middle-aged Cameroonian lady and an old white woman. People are even permitted to sit on seats during their interviews.
I am one of the last to meet a consular officer at around midday. It is the old white woman. I slide my documents through the hole in the glass frame separating us. Two files. One containing the original copies of my documents and the other photocopies. She checks them. When she reads my invitation letter she raises her head abruptly.
‘There is a little problem with the time you are applying for.’
‘July 1 to September 30 is ninety-two days. The maximum number of days for a Schengen tourist visa is ninety days. You’ll have to apply for a long-term visa instead. Sorry, I can’t process your application.’
My heart sinks. I had not even noticed, I had just counted the days of my residency.
‘That’s how the organisation sent the invitation letter to me. They probably didn’t realise,’ I protest. She keeps flipping the pages of other documents.
‘And the rest of your documents carry the same dates. Travel insurance, everything.’ She pauses and begins to think.
‘I’ll be right back,’ she says and walks down a corridor, disappearing into a room with my documents. Time freezes. She returns moments later. I scan her face for impending bad news.
‘We can only process a visa for ninety days. Is that okay with you?’ she asks.
‘Oh, that’s fine. It’s what I hoped for.’
She continues to type. She doesn’t ask any questions for about three minutes. Then, ‘So what do you write?’
‘Fiction and non-fiction.’
‘Okay. But the only issue right now is that I don’t have enough evidence that you are a writer.’
‘Oh, I’ve got my published works here with me. Do you want to see them?’
‘Yes,’ she nods.
I send my children’s chapbook and two anthologies, pages open to my stories, through the small space in the glass separating us. She receives and examines them. I pick up two editions of The Africa Report magazine …
‘Oh, that’s enough. This is what I wanted to see, thank you. How did you learn about this residency?’
‘Can you do the fingerprint?’ I concur. ‘Check back again in two weeks for our decision, at midday. Bye.’ I leave the consulate in a jolly mood.
I return two weeks later. But when I open my passport, there is no visa. My body goes numb. A piece of paper accompanies the passport—white, this time. There are nine possible reasons for rejection and boxes corresponding to each one. Three boxes have been ticked for me:
- Justification for the purpose and conditions of the intended stay was not provided.
- Information submitted regarding the justification for the purpose and conditions of the intended stay was not reliable.
- Your intention to leave the territory of the member states before the expiry of the visa could not be ascertained.
The irony is that I work for Swissport, a company that handles visa verification at Douala International Airport, but I cannot obtain a visa to travel to the West, after three attempts. My father is so sad he doesn’t know what to tell me this time. Even his rock solid optimism about me succeeding as a writer begins to crack.
I return to Douala, to my new rented apartment, but I cannot sleep. I wake up at 2 a.m. the next morning and stare at the ceiling. The third rejection is the most crushing. So I’ll just be missing out on every opportunity I am invited to? A residency I’d been applying for since 2015. Three bloody times.
I am back at the German embassy for an Étudiant BAC douze—a short scholarship visa interview—in September. My Sylt Foundation writing residency is funded by the Goethe-Institut, the German cultural centre. I tell the Goethe staff in Yaoundé to count the ninety days well. It is actually eighty-nine days. The Goethe staff assure me that I will get the visa this time. They are on good terms with their embassy. If I am rejected, they will intervene. They couldn’t influence my rejection in May because the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen residency is not an organisation they work with.
I am a tall mass of nerves. The old white lady is there again, together with a burly Cameroonian man. I sit in front of him. When he receives my Goethe documents, he turns to his colleague and inquires about something in brisk German. She responds briefly. He types. I stare. He looks at me.
‘All your Goethe documents look great. But I don’t have enough information about your job. All I see is your work attestation.’
‘I was at Goethe yesterday. They are the ones who arranged my documents in that file. They also told me that as I’m travelling on a Goethe grant, I don’t need to present all the documents on your Schengen checklist online.’ The man shakes his head.
‘That’s what I was just asking my colleague here. It is an issue we sometimes have with Goethe. You are supposed to have the documents that prove your grant, as well as your work documents.’
How’s that my business if they told me something else? And what if I was a full time writer or freelancer?
‘It’s an Étudiant BAC 12 visa I’m applying for sir, not a Schengen visa.’ There is a slight arrogance about me now. I am tired of consular officers.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he snaps, glaring at me. But I am also ready for this ping pong game.
‘I brought in another file. Just in case.’
‘Can I have it?’ I look for my Swissport work contract and payslips. ‘There is no leave letter.’ Ping pong time.
‘No, just a work attestation. My boss always accepts my leave proposals by email. It’s not the first time that I’m travelling to attend such literary events.’
‘We need a leave letter here. An email is not a leave letter.’
It sounds like a retort, not a demand, so I don’t answer.
He picks up my photocopies, compares them with the original documents, stamps and files them. When he sees my boss’s name on my work contract, his mouth contracts into a surprised ‘Oh!’ My boss is one of the key opposition candidates in the upcoming presidential elections. But the consular officer doesn’t ask anything about him. Instead, ‘Are you a hobby writer?’ he asks. I shrug. What the hell does that mean? But hey, another opportunity for ping pong. I serve.
‘No. I write part time.’ He narrows his eyes as he glances at me, but he doesn’t volley the ball back. He only lowers his head and types. I think I have delivered Roger Federer’s ace.
‘How many books have you published?’
‘One chapbook, right here.’ He looks up. I brandish it in the air. I don’t even try to send it through the glass.
‘So what will you be writing on Sylt Island for up to three months? Some kind of poetry?’ He asks, with keen interest this time, not the nonchalant way he did before. I divert the direction of my ping pong ball.
‘Fiction … an airport novel.’
He is warming up to me. But I think the old lady to his left wouldn’t be asking me some of his stupid questions. She would not terrorise me about work documents, when I’m travelling on a short scholarship visa. She had been a lot kinder, even though I was rejected.
‘Okay, is there anything you want to add?’
‘Yes. The invitation letter states that I was born in Kaduna. That’s not correct. I was born in Kumba.’ He checks again, realises the error and gasps. Finally, fingerprint.
I tell my friend Dzekashu about some of the man’s annoying questions and he laughs. He says the consular officer was just trying to intimidate me. I will get the visa this time, he says. I return to the consulate a week later. I open the first few pages and there it is, my Étudiant BAC douze visa for ninety days.
I phone my father in Kumba and ask him about the security situation in my hometown. There had been a general fear of impending violence, as separatist fighters in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon had issued threats to people via social media. They said they were going to disrupt the presidential elections. No civilians were supposed to vote, unless they wanted to be killed. They were also going to barricade the roads that lead to the French-speaking regions and create ghost towns throughout the lengthy election period.
The English-speaking regions are heavily militarised by the government. But the soldiers were committing the same atrocities as the separatists. As a result, thousands of people in the English-speaking regions, including my siblings and stepmother, had been internally displaced to Douala and many other towns in the French-speaking regions. My stubborn father stayed behind.
‘We are here, noh, nothing terrible has happened this week, but the situation is not easy oh,’ he tells me. ‘Only sporadic gunshots in the outskirts. They are frying popcorn,’ he laughs, then asks: ‘What about your visa?’ I can sense that he is tense. I smile.
‘I have it. No rejection this time.’ He shrieks. I imagine his grin.
‘Why did you not start with the good news noh?’
‘Your safety or a three-month visa to Germany, which one is more important to me?’ He laughs and says I am right. But Kumba is calm. I should not worry about him.
My stepmother and siblings have temporarily moved to my new studio. I travel back to Douala and spend time with them. My stepmother is happy about my visa, but complains that life in Douala is expensive.
On the phone with a close friend and Swissport colleague, he asks ‘So how does it finally feel to have a visa that cannot only take you to Germany, but all twenty-six countries in the Schengen zone?’
‘I knew I would get their visa one day,’ I answer. He says I don’t sound too cheerful. I think that’s maybe because I’ve been a visa rejection expert for so long.
- Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a writer and music enthusiast from Cameroon. His work was published in the 2015 Caine Prize anthology Lusaka Punk and Other Stories, the 2019 Short Story Day Africa Hotel Africa anthology, Of Passion and Ink: New Voices from Cameroon by Bakwa Books, as well as The Africa Report, This Is Africa, Brittle Paper and Gyara magazine, among others. He is a Goethe Institut/Sylt residency winner, and is currently enrolled in an MFA at Texas State University. Follow him on Twitter.