Nothing strikes me as particularly interesting or memorable about the US embassy in Dakar. It’s a formidable building, with the same broad shoulders of those that neighbor it, identified by a simple gold plaque on the wall, a red, white and blue flag flapping above, and a few extra men in uniform standing watch on its more exposed corners.
There is nothing special about the building, but there is of the day. Almost six months ago, subconsciously searching for a good reason to go to Senegal, I jumped at a mission mentioned casually by a co-worker in an email. She wrote:
“Hey! I heard you’re interested in visiting Senegal! Quick plea: I’m, right now, sitting with Mbouille, and we’ve been trying really hard to organize a visa to the United States so that he can attend our instructor orientation and then fly back with the group to lead the program here in Senegal. He’s already been rejected a visa two times. And we think that if there were a representative from the company here during his interview, to verify his employment and good character, then it might help him get the visa he needs for the short visit. What do you think? Would you be able to sit with him during his interview at the US embassy if we make an appointment and set a date?”
I grabbed onto the task like a winning ticket; the request may have been only a little physical push, but it provided lofty mental momentum in moving me to secure a seat on a plane to Africa. I didn’t have to seek my adventure; it had found me. I had no excuses now (nor wanted any); I could rationalize the entire trip as a favor for a friend! With no choice but to happily take haste on — what in my overly-optimistic mind I had decided to interpret as — a “clearly” auspicious omen, I purchased my ticket to Senegal.
Before leaving, my boss pulled together an impressive looking presentation of materials: catalogues, proposals on letterhead, business cards, program materials, employment contracts, evaluations of Mbouille’s past work for our organization; all clipped together in a professional little binder. The contents combined to sing a pretty little song of the merits of Mbouille’s exceptional record of service for our American company. The chorus ended with a request for his presence at a 10-day training seminar (all expenses paid by the company) in the United States, “essential to his professional development and our organizational objectives.”
Now, as I amble around the cemented walkway in front of the US Embassy in Dakar, I clutch onto this tight little package of proof. As well, tucked away in my deepest pocket, is a folded wad of cash amounting to 100 US dollars – the “processing fee” to apply for an American visa. The day before, I had to scrounge the city for three separate ATMS, pulling the maximum withdrawal from each, in order to come up with this amount. This withdrawal limit is quite logical under the consideration that the $100 US dollar fee is roughly equivalent to 15% of the annual GNI per capita in Senegal.
I glance at my watch, as it’s notably abnormal for Mbouille to be late; especially for our date with an Embassy official. As I sink down the wall into a cross-legged sitting position, a stocky white man, with a close-cut of fair hair, briskly approaches me. He looks concerned and leans down to ask, “Are you okay? Do you need anything? Can I help you with something?”
I smile, shake my head and explain to him that I’m simply waiting for a friend of whom I hope to help organize a visa. His eyes narrow just enough to make wonder why. But before I can investigate, he makes a quick dismiss and enters the Embassy. Had I time to ponder his expression, I would have caught a clue, but I am distracted by a full-body wave of Mbouille’s extended arm in the air.
“Maimuna!” he mouths my name and shows me a smile that can barely be contained by his face.
I move to get up and he hand signals me down, motioning for patience.
I’m confused. And I feel ridiculous. Because I don’t understand what I’m seeing.
Mbouille is in a line of, perhaps, 30 or 40 persons. They are almost marching, single file, from some unidentified meeting spot, that I suppose to have originated from somewhere behind the Embassy. There are guards in uniform, and they actually shout at the people in line, urging them into a tighter row, instructing them, that if they move, they will lose their place and appointment. The commands seem especially demeaning, as those in line appear dressed for a fine dinner party. To the heel and with deliberate consciousness: shoes are shined, dresses pressed, shirts tucked, hair pinned, and finest jewelry presented. Mbouille himself is wearing a crisp and dirt-defying white dress shirt tucked into pressed pants with freshly shined shoes and a black briefcase.
As they march, the people fidget: adjusting ties, touching gold bracelets, fixing hair, holding tightly onto their own little matching folders of equally crisp, clean and organized papers.
I stand up and move to approach Mbouille, but one of the guards immediately barks at me to back off. As it is always Mbouille’s inclination, he wants to protect me, but he is not allowed out of line and so, without making a sound, he smiles softly behind the guard’s back and shows me hand signals to, “please, sit and wait.”
It’s my turn to fidget, and I pick at my fingernails and twist my ring in anxious confusion.
When the procession has lined up against the wall to the satisfaction of the guards, and after they have rattled off a new line of commands, Mbouille finally motions me over.
“Ah! Maimuna! I’m so happy to see you! No. No. No. Don’t worry about them. They are only doing their jobs. No, no, no. It’s okay. See. I’ve done this before. Why are they shouting? They are just giving instructions and explaining the process. This is just the way it works. Yes. I have to stay here in this line. Yes. I’m well. Please don’t tell anyone, but I have to confess, I am a little nervous. I don’t know why. I have no expectations. I hope my papers are all in order. Ah. You like the picture? One time I went through this whole process, and when I got up to the desk, they sent me away because the background of my picture was not white. Then they cancelled my appointment. I feel bad because there are no instructions that say the photo has to be on a white background, and I see others here who will be turned away today. Oh no. You shouldn’t get mad. It’s just part of the process. That’s the way it works. Today I know and have a proper picture, so it’s okay. Look! I brought a picture of my wife and son too. I hope it will help now that I am married, to prove that I would never leave my beautiful family and try to stay in the United States. Maimuna. The guards don’t want you to wait in this line with me. You must go wait by the door. When it is my turn, we’ll go in together okay?”
I squirm in my white skin as he hushes me away towards the front of the line and entrance to the Embassy. Our segregation, and my unquestioned “place” at the front door of the Embassy, makes my stomach turn. So I drag my feet as I reluctantly leave the line, turning every once in awhile to let Mbouille’s encouraging smile push me forward.
Finally he is called forward, and I run to his side as we are finally allowed to enter. Guards take our cell phones and my laptop and digital camera. After we empty our pockets of coin and step through the metal detectors, I’m given a cardboard number in exchange for my personal belongings, which I’ll be allowed to recollect on my way out.
We are ushered into a large waiting room full of chairs with corner-mounted televisions echoing mechanical instructions on how to proceed. People line the walls and shuffle their papers nervously.
Eventually we are called into a smaller room where ten chairs line a wall facing three booths. The booths are partially enclosed by flimsy dividing walls, and above each is an electronic box with a red number.
We are the day’s first round of applicants. All ten chairs are full of fidgeting, and immaculately dressed, people. There’s a clock on the wall that we watch until it tells us that we’ve waited three hours. An ever-excited and conversation-full person, Mbouille falls into an unusual silence as I watch him wipe the sweat from his forehead and neck and then clasp and wring his hands together.
I touch his shoulder and tell him not to worry. His case is totally solid. Why would there be any reason to turn him down? We have a letter of invitation from a US employer. He has three years of experience working for the company. We have all kinds of fancy paperwork. He’s married and has a child and a permanent job in Senegal. He is contracted to work this summer for us in this country. He has no reason to stay in the States and every reason to return to Senegal. And I will explain everything. They’ll listen to our case and everything will work out.
Finally, a window slides open and a name is called out.
An anxious young man jumps up, takes a moment to shake out his clothes, and then approaches the window. We all watch him nervously and, at once, wish and dread, the call of our own name.
The young man goes into the flimsy booth and introduces himself, and to my horror, I realize that we, in the waiting room, can hear everything: the curt introduction of the officer, the quick fire of personal questions, the stuttering replies, a very short pause and then…
“I’m sorry, but you are not qualified. Thank you for your time.”
Papers are stamped with this final declaration.
The young man turns around with his shoulders slumped and face down. His nervous hands, emptied even of their paperwork, are left with no retreat, and are instead shoved embarrassedly into his pockets as he leaves.
No one in the waiting room has the courage to look up from their feet when the next name is called.
No more than five minutes pass…
As the row of applicants each take a turn at standing, approaching the window, and shuffling sadly away, it becomes apparent that there is no variation to the theme:
“We’re sorry, but you are not qualified.”
Mbouille and I no longer speak. Silence demands all the space between us.
“MBOUILLE? Is there an Mbouille here? Please come to the window.”
Mbouille stands up proudly. He shakes himself into a confident stance. With admiration, I do the same. And together, a united front, we approach the window.
To my surprise, it’s the same young, fair man that approached me in the morning. For a naïve second, I cling to the hope that our prior meeting will open an unseen door into this interview, but these wishes are stomped when he shortly states, “Mam. You can take a seat. I will call you if I need you.”
Shoving my foot in a door too-quickly closing, I plead, “but we were told I would be able to join him for the interview. Is that not possible?”
He looks at Mbouille and asks, “Do you speak English?”
I can’t handle the belittling tone, step fully into the box, and before Mbouille has a chance to answer say, “Yes. Actually he speaks nine languages. I’m not here to speak for him. I only want to explain to you my company’s role in this request. Please, can I just have only a minute to explain the importance of this requested visa?”
“Mam. I will review all these documents. But you can sit down. I will call you if I need you.”
He shows me the front of his flat palm indicating that there will be no further discussion on the matter and then turns to Mbouille.
Mbouille smiles warmly and gives me a push with his eyes, knowing that only his instruction would move me.
Rejected and with no other option, I fall back. Dazed, I collapse limply into the nearest chair and have no choice but to listen to the conversation…
“How do you know that woman?”
“She is a Director of the American company for whom I work. Here are my completed forms. This is my letter of invitation….”
“Yes. Please just give me everything. Thank you.”
Papers are shuffled for 30 seconds.
“What is your profession? You are a teacher, huh. And this is your salary? Do you have a bank account statement?”
Papers are shuffled for another 30 seconds.
I can hold back no longer. I stand up and jump back into the box.
“Please! Wait! You haven’t even had time to look over these papers. Please let me explain!”
The officer ignores me.
“I’m sorry Sir. But you are simply not qualified.”
I interject, “Wait!”
The officer looks me in the eye and says, “MAM. I’m sorry but this applicant is simply not qualified.”
Mbouille smiles softly at me. He turns to the officer and warmly replies,
“Thank you so much for you time and consideration Sir. Thank you very much.”
Mbouille gives me a little half laugh and picks up his briefcase, closing my gaping mouth and ushering me out the door. He pulls his handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the sweat from his brow and neck, smiles at me, and says, “Whew. That’s a relief isn’t it? To have that over? Yes. Maimuna. Don’t worry. I didn’t get my expectations up. It’s okay.”
I haven’t the energy to keep up with his quick step, and fall back one behind him.
We collect our belongings from security and step outside. He tries to keep his smile on for me, but I can see a sadness behind his eyes that threatens to fill every moment not preoccupied with reassuring me that he’s okay. We walk fast through the city crowds. With our thoughts running as well, it feels that no time has passed before we reach our bus. We jump on through the back door, push our way through those standing, find an open seat, and fall, side-by-side, onto the shared bench.
Having stopped walking, our chasing minds catch up to us and a heavy silence fills the space between us.
I look out the window. I remember the line, the barking commands, the nervous people, the three hours of waiting, the curt questions, the humiliating open-aired booths, the ridiculously priced “processing fee”, the insulting interview….
My eyes well up with shame and embarrassment for the flag that colored and claimed the system through which we were just processed and spit out…
“Mbouille. The way they treated you…they didn’t listen at all…I’ve failed you….how could they….I’m so sorry…for my country….the way they treated you…”
He takes my hand and cuts my stutter, “Sister. Please. I’m okay. But your sadness will make me sad. Please don’t. Maybe I can apply again, yes? They never asked me the income question before. Maybe now we have learned something new and will be better prepared next time, okay? Now please, Maimuna. Don’t be sad. See? I’m only so happy that you are here. And that you are coming to my house to be with my family. And that is all that matters. But please, I can’t bear your sadness. Okay? Let’s not talk about it.”
He ends his plea with a smile and I agree.
I turn to the window to hide the tears that are welling again, wipe my eyes when I think he’s not looking, suck in a breath, hold it, swallow it, and follow his lead.