April 06, 2008

My boss thinks in her sleep. She says those are the best ones.

On Wednesday night, she thought. And her thoughts included me accompanying her to Los Angeles for a film locations expo. We are representing Kenya as a filming location, and meeting producers who might be interested in filming in Africa, and would like assurance that Africa does not always have to be described as writer Binyavanga Wainaina describes below:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

That being true in every essence -pick up any book about Africa- I'll pay you if you don't have some sort of description as Wainaina describes above.

Being Kenyan, getting a US visa is top of the list with the likes of meeting Koffi Annan or eradicating world poverty. The trip was planned for 8th April, a less than a week from the night my boss thought. So when she told me on Thursday morning that she would like me to accompany her, i thought: now she's gone and lost it! no Kenyan has ever gotten a visa that fast.

At first, I checked the embassy's website for interview dates. The only available dates were 24th April. Too late. To some extent, I was relieved. Like any student in Kenya, i had dreams of studying in USA. But after seeing (well, hearing) horror stories about the US embassy, I gave up. my dream turned into loathe. The stories were long queues that started at 4 am and rejection of visa applications even without glancing at them. The last part i did not believe, but the first - i had seen my neighbour leave at 3.30am to go to the US embassy, which does not open till 7am.

Somehow, we got me an interview for Friday (the next day!) at 7am. I turned up at 6.30, and there were about 20 people before me! Never have I seen Kenyans that punctual. If only they turned up that early for other events in their lives - especially appointments and work. Good times! After undergoing through security check, and spending almost 20 minutes removing ,y bangles that have been on my wrist for years, I got through. Backtrack - i was kinda annoyed there. Surely, if it took me twenty minutes to take off the bangles, isn't that proof enough that if I was going to use them at weapons, then I wasn't the brightest of terrorist? The first part was the checking of papers by Kenyan girls with a faker American accent than Hugh Laurie in House MD. (I still love him). Then we sat back and waited for the interview. We are all in the same room, and we are called one by one on to windows that look like bank tellers booths to have our fingerprints taken. The next is the hard step, the interview. Everybody is listening into your conversation and it is very embarrassing when the guy behind the desk tells you - almost smugly - Your visa has been denied, you will find the explanation why on this pink sheet. Have a nice day.

I was the sixth or so person to be interviewed, and by the time my name was called, no one had gotten a visa. I sat there thinking about all the shattered dreams, all the dashed hopes... and it hurt. I was not concerned whether I got the visa or not really. for me, either way was fine. It's not like I was dying to go anyway. It would be nice to e able to go, I though, but I'm not excited at all.

So my name got called and I walked to the booth. The guy glanced at my papers and asked me about my company and the kind of films we do. I explained the difference between a production company and a production service company and a bit about why it was cheaper to film in Kenya than in South Africa.

A minute later he said - Mercy, your visa has been approved, please come collect your passport on Monday at 2 pm. I looked at him and said - Why, thank you!

So now I'm off to LA when I had completely given up on ever going to USA, all because i hold a Kenyan passport. But as I walked out, I could not help but feel bad for the guy whose conversation i happened to be listening into. He talked for a good 15 minutes without a pause about the poverty state in his family and how he was the beacon of hope for them , hence his need to study in the US, and i think his near desperation is what killed his chances. A part of me wished he had gotten my visa instead of me.

Why is it that Americans, (and pretty much everybody else) can get their visas to Kenya at the point of entry while we have to wait months to be granted the interview, then teeth clenching moments as we await the verdict?

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