One of the most dreaded experiences that all Kenyans who want to visit, study or live in the United States must endure is the visa application process. Today, in the digital, post-Osama bin Laden era, it is actually a lot less daunting to deal with a visa application because the process is done electronically. Appointments are made online on an electronic calendar, and applications are filled and then submitted electronically to the consulate of choice. Visa payments are also made online. Passports are then delivered to the nearest courier. On the appointment day, applicants must be on time for their appointments and only bring with them original documents requested on the web site. All other materials will already be in possession of the consulate via the electronic route. This process is designed to minimize human traffic in the buildings as well as inform consulate staff beforehand on the number of applicants that they should expect on any given day. When an applicant eventually appears before the powers that be – after undergoing a thorough body search which includes being asked to taste the liquid in your baby’s bottle – a very quick ‘ay’ or ‘nay’ is given. Essentially, with the electronic submission, one’s documents precede their visit, so all the materials have already been studied beforehand. This seemingly brushoff decision tends to frustrate many; however, begging is generally frowned upon and often applicants will be dismissed with a deafening, ”NEXT!”
In the 90s, the process was hugely different. In Kenya, owning a personal computer was a rarity, and the only sighting of the Internet we had experienced was on Sandra Bullock’s, ‘The Net.’ So, in order to apply for an American visa, I had to make a quick trip to the US Embassy to pick up applications forms. Simultaneously, I was busy sitting for my SAT’s because even though I would be a transfer student, the consulate was known to get ugly, making kids jump through unnecessary hoops. Back at the ranch, my father was busy getting his financials in order. The consulate required that the child’s sponsors’ bank account reflected a year’s worth of tuition at the minimum, and a three to six-months history of steady income. The purpose of this was to negate chances the tuition funds had streamed into an account via fundraising channels. The million bucks question often asked by the consulate — just before “REJECTED” was stamped on an applicant’s passport – was, “Will you fundraise for your child’s tuition each year for the next four years?” Valid.
The rumors were plenty and wild. So and so was rejected because his dad talked too much. So and so was rejected because her dad didn’t say enough and “plus, you know he stammers”. So and so was rejected because “they” could tell her family fundraised. So and so was rejected because her grades were exceedingly low. “If you’ve got a D average in high school, how will you manage an American college?” My father and I were sweating bullets.
The queue at the consulate was a monstrosity. For an office that prided itself on smarts and security, the game plan on not accepting appointments was puzzling. Their bright idea was that they would open their doors at 8:30 and shut them at 12:30. Whoever managed to make the cut in that time window was served, and the rest of the Kenyans left waiting on the queue dispersed like pollen in the wind and fell back into place the next morning.
The day my US visa was granted, I was third on the queue with my father at 5:30 a.m. We stood on the entrance outside Moi Avenue. At 9 a.m. we were bustled in by a frail looking askari. Imagine that? No security checks, no body checks, no tasting of the baby’s milk? I was presented in front of a lovely African American woman, who took to me instantly. She was pleased that I had managed to keep up my grades while in the accelerated program, and she was impressed with my dad’s financials. I was granted a 4-year F1 Visa, which is an American student visa. I was asked to return later that day to pick up my passport. I was also handed a “very sensitive document” called an I-20. This document is a closed communication between the consulate in one’s home country and the United States. It’s a secret document of sorts that must not be opened by “Aliens”. After your arrival into the US, the I-20 is returned to you. On every entry back into the country, you must present it again. Without your I-20, your student visa is void. In fact, you will be deported trying to come back into the US. Thus began my life as a legal Alien of the United States of America.
About a year later I learned a lesson in respecting the ultimate power of the I-20 and its utter control of my measly life as a legal Alien. One drunken night, a group of friends, myself included, decided to go drinking across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. In case you’re wondering why Mexico, please take note that Tijuana is about a half hour across the border and for a student budget, it has a terrific nightlife. Once you pay the admission to a club, the tequila comes pouring, and you don’t have to be 21. After a wild night of downing tequila, we started to make our way back to the car, so jolly that every now and again we would break out in song. Well, the joy didn’t last. As soon as we hit the patrol border, an exceptionally gentlemanly American Immigration Officer requested our passports. Of course, as soon as he realised we were Aliens, the next request was for the almighty I-20’s. Problem. One of the girls in the group had not given her I-20 to the school before leaving for Mexico for an Exit Stamp. The idea is that the I-20 is the Alien’s leash. The university must be aware of the Alien’s whereabouts at all times and so must the government. In order for you to leave the country, the university must stamp the I-20 to acknowledge that they are aware. This little debacle sure sobered us up. We were sat in a corner until the wee hours of the morning while papers were pulled, calls were made, our car was sniffed, and all other unbelievable shenenigans were sneezed at us; suddenly we were criminals. Eventually, they let us through. That was the last time I set foot in Mexico.
In the summer of 1998, while I was sitting in a Diplomacy lecture on campus, the professor got news that the Kenya and Tanzania US Embassies had been bombed. He knew I was Kenyan and allowed me to leave, to call my family. As it turned out my sister had been walking a few blocks away and got caught by shards of glass from imploding buses, cars and buildings. She still has a large scar in the shape of a spider’s web on her hand where she got a full roll of stitches. But most devastating, was the news that my immigration clerk, the kind, beautiful African American woman who granted my visa had died in the bombing.