Continued from Part 2
…Our main focus now becomes getting me out of the cell…at all costs…
My uncle is forced to wrap up his day quickly so he can make it to the airport on time. The plan is to get there and get me on a plane out of Kenya as soon as possible. I am a bit surprised that in spite of all the pressure from lawyers, senior government/embassy officials, etc, the Kenyan Immigration office is still not letting me in. I am surprised, but not upset. At this point, I don’t even want to see the country anymore. I want to go home.
I can’t stop looking at my watch. I am so tensed that I decide to adopt Ali’s exercise regimen – walking back and forth in the cell. I begin to pace around the tiny cell. I am engrossed in my thoughts, but catch myself when I realize that everyone is staring at me. Was I talking to myself?
Weakness has set in again, so I lay down. I’m not sure how much time passes, but when the door opens, I’m not sure if I’m dreaming. My handler and two men enter the room; they tell me I have a visitor. My watch says it is 4:20pm. If this isn’t my family, I don’t think I would see them until Monday. The thought of staying here over the weekend creates a lump in my stomach. Due to the lack of information and lies I have been told, I walk over to the office a cautiously optimistic man.
When I see my uncle and cousin, I am so relieved. But the look on my uncle’s face reads different to me. He looks very worried. When he tells me my story as he heard it, I understand just how precarious my situation had been. Over 48 hours, my uncle is given three different versions of why I am being held: 1) that I had a stamp in my passport that prohibited me from entering any country (not true); 2) that I started a scuffle with airport personnel (not true); then finally 3) that I was a suspected drug trafficker who the counter terrorism unit were also interested in speaking with.
Apparently, there was a tussle of sorts at the highest levels regarding my case, and while it undoubtedly helped overall, the pressure coming down on the Kenyan Immigration office may have backfired a bit because it put them in a defensive position where they felt like they had to justify why they held on to me. To be clear, Kenya, or any country for that matter, had every right to deny me entry into the country, but they had no right to detain me for two days; hence the bogus suspicion of drug trafficking and the visit from Counter Terrorism. I mean I love Narcos on Netflix, but damn…
After about 15/20 minutes of sitting with my family, we are told that my boarding pass is ready and that my uncle can leave if he so wishes, but at this point we are leaving nothing to chance, so they decide to wait until they can watch me leave. [Sorry about the various “leaves”]. This happens shortly after when yet another handler comes to escort me to the plane. I am still not in possession of my travel documents.
Fast forward, I am transiting through another country now and I’m a “free” man, but I still am not allowed to hold on to my travel docs. I am made to spend the night by the gate area where I will board. On my way to the plane the next morning, I engage the airline (which shall remain unnamed) employee in conversation. In response to his question, I give him a quick download of what has transpired over the past few days. He seems genuinely surprised at what I recount. He looks at my paperwork – I imagine to get a better understanding of what happened. I peer over his shoulder, but all I can see is that I’m a “flight risk”.
Seconds later he turns to me and says, “I don’t know why Africans, we treat ourselves like this. I have been directed to give your documents to the flight staff who will then give them and you over to the Nigerian authorities when you land. In Nigeria, that will start another issue for you. What can I do to help?” For a quick second I think he is pulling my legs, the guys in Kenya did that a lot, but thinking I have nothing to lose, I go for the jugular and ask him for my travel docs back. He demurs slightly but then asks me to keep walking with him.
While on the tarmac walking to the plane, I make small talk to keep him on my side; still not sure of what his decision is and how he would do it. As we begin to climb the stairway unto the plane, he skips ahead of me and drops the envelope that contains my travel docs on the stairs. I freeze. He whispers, “pick it up”. I drop the fleece, that I have been holding, on the envelope and pick both up at the same time. I present my boarding pass to flight staff and as I make my way to my seat, I can’t believe my luck.
I find a gentleman sitting on my seat. I tell him I have the aisle seat but he argues that I have window. As a frequent traveler, I have developed both patience and lack of patience with travelers who don’t understand sitting arrangements. So when he says to ask a flight attendant, I agree…until I remember my situation! “You know what”, I say, “never mind, you can have it”.
I sit down, but because I have watched too many movies, I cannot relax until the plane’s doors are closed. So I wait. And I wait. And I wait. When 20 minutes pass the hour we were supposed to take off and the doors are still open, I start sweating! I remember wondering why nobody else noticed that the plane was so hot. I am totally unsettled; my stomach turns, my bladder is full, my migraine resurfaces, my armpits perspire. I am certain now that airport officials are going to board the plane and (re)arrest me. Agony.
It is now 9:50am. Fifty minutes and we are still here? Torture. I look towards the front of the plane again but can no longer see the sun’s reflection. Could it be? A voice over the PA system confirms, “ladies and gentlemen the plane doors have now been closed, please…” I didn’t hear it, but I must have let out a scream, because the guy next to me jolts and gives me the craziest look. I also notice that my hands are coming down. Did I raise my hands up? I don’t care. FREEDOM!
Since May this year, I have been to almost 20 countries in three different continents, and I have been celebrated by everyone I have encountered. Even that time in the Guatemalan/Belizean border where I crossed over without getting my passport stamped and got subsequently chased by border patrol (read about it here), the officers treated me like a human being. Now, I come back to my home continent, and I’m treated, not just like a criminal, but like an animal. I’m not sure what hurt most, the fact that I was detained without due process, the fact that black travelers in a black continent were treated with such disdain, or the fact that I saw Kenyan authorities bend over backwards to accommodate white travelers who had one problem or another with their travel documents. It was yet further proof to me, that The African continent has a long way to go.
On the flip side of that, the airline official in another black African country that was kind enough to hear my story and return my travel documents to me showed that we are all not so hateful or scared of one another. Perhaps someday, we shall overcome.
My experience in Nairobi can be boiled down to a series of What Ifs?
What if my cousin was not in Nairobi at the time of my visit? She wasn’t supposed to be there and only came down a couple of days before my visit. I didn’t have my uncle’s number initially.
What if my cellmate didn’t smuggle his phone into the cell? Our holders were very diligent about that.
What if he or I were sent to another cell? There was more than one cell.
What if his cell phone ran out of call credits? A distinct possibility because at some point, we were thirteen in the cell, and we all shared the phone, making calls to our loved ones.
What if I didn’t have my other phone on me? I strongly considered leaving it behind, because who wants to backpack with two phones?
What if they found my second phone? They searched me and my belongings six times, but somehow didn’t find that phone.
What if I got caught stealing my primary phone back from the interrogation room? That could have made life exponentially worse for me.
What if I was allowed to enter and enjoy the beautiful country? I would never know.
I am indebted to my uncle, who expended a ton of political capital to get me off the hook and out of the country. To my cousin, T, who, like me, didn’t sleep and worked the phones until I left, I heart you. To my siblings who worked under my mum’s radar to ensure my freedom. You all are the real MVPs! To everyone I made restless because of this ordeal, I am so sorry that my passion for traveling put you through this nightmare.
My heart was filled with rage initially, but God is good. This experience will not break my will to live life to the fullest. To my Somali cellmate who smuggled his phone in, asante, brother; that phone saved my life. To the other cellmates who won’t read this, I shall never forget you. Luckily for me, I had the resources to get out; there are many others who don’t. For those of us who have voices, no matter how little, we must make them heard. Injustice must be exposed.
Song of the day: My cousin made a good point, which is that there is a song for every occasion including this. He also recommended I use ‘Zombie‘ by the late great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. ‘Zombie’ was a scathing anti-government/military song directed at the then Nigerian military junta, using the zombie metaphor to describe their methods. Basically for doing things like zombies, without thinking. One can argue that it applies to the people who did this to me; bending over backwards for some because of their whiteness or going out of their way to demean, embarrass and harass others because of their blackness. The zombies are amongst us…beware.