An African in St. Petersburg: The Arrival

From today, I will try and keep a kind of diary of my two-week trip to St. Petersburg. Hopefully I will be able to find a computer that I can use to upload the pictures that I am taking.

The Arrival

I flew into St. Petersburg yesterday evening on a flight from Vienna. I have always wanted to put those cities in a sentence that involves me. As is the usual case for The African, immigration was a complex matter. It never ceases to amaze me how suddenly, when you are in an immigration queue, the crushing power of the State makes itself felt. While aloft, I was an international traveler, a privileged being that has taken flight. My troubles were behind and below me; ahead was possibility and optimism. When I landed, it was like being in a Toyland. The rows of planes, the terminal building and the little trucks zipping here and there all appeared a bit unreal, like a kind of children’s Lego set.

It is the immigration form that brought me to earth. It made no apologies for its demand of information: when was I born; where was I going; why was I going there; for how long; where did I come from; what was I carrying, weapons, acids, sharp objects, animals, plants…; citizenship; residence; date of birth; maiden name; address; passport number and date of issue and expiry; other? It is ‘other’ that gets my goat. What else could I tell? That I was carrying drugs or planning acts of terrorism? That I may have left behind heartbreak and that I hoped to one day win the lottery and that the expiry of my life, not just that of my passport, was a constant worry? Well, I filled the form. It is habit. I have been categorized, measured, weighed and credentialed so often that it now feels normal to squeeze my life into forms. And I also filled it because not doing so always has unpleasant consequences. 98.5% of all forms are a way of avoiding punishment, pleading and justifying. So I filled mine and got in line to speak to the most important individual in my life at that moment, the immigration officer.

By the time I inched up to the desk behind which sat, as always, a grim faced official my happy feelings of having been magically transported had dissipated. I was gripped by an inexplicable guilt, that I had committed some crime that the official would spot instantly. This is why I clutched my passport a little too tightly, and glanced repeatedly at the page with the visa to make sure that it was actually there and has the correct dates. Also in hand were my ticket, insurance form and the schedule of the writing conference that had brought me to Russia. I half expected that I would have to re-apply all over again for permission to enter. My overly active imagination started making up scenarios of the official ordering a search of my baggage and a joint of marijuana being found. I worried whether the friends I have lent my suitcase in the past could have left such damning evidence in it.

The Russians and Europeans ahead of me briskly stepped up to the official and were processed quickly and efficiently. She barely looked at their passports, seeming to be satisfied on the basis of the country that had issued them. The Austrian that I spent part of the flight conversing with kept up a lively chatter that I could not concentrate on. He had few worries; this for him was just a small irksome procedure. And that it is how it appears to Africans as well, after they have been successfully admitted. Before then, you can tell who they are by the silence that envelops them in the queue and their solemn expressions.

Finally it was my turn and as is my wont, I brightly said hullo taking special care to pronounce the ‘hi’ with a distinctly American accent. It was better, I calculated, to say ‘hi’ instead of hello or habari or niatia. Such greetings may mark me for some kind of rent seeking, asylum declaring African. The dirty little secret of the African in line is that he attempts to reduce his Africanness in every possible way. The passport from Kenya or Uganda and, heaven forbid, Nigeria, is trouble enough. Thus my chirpy ‘hi’ which evidently had been tried before since it was met with silence and a searching glance.

OK, have to run and meet the group for dinner. The Petersburg diary shall continue later.

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

10 Responses to An African in St. Petersburg: The Arrival

  1. Afromusing says:

    niatia mmk. Lol. We are enjoying the posts!

  2. Guessaurus says:

    I can (un)fortunately relate. The only time that I dont worry about immigration is when I get back to the UK.

    Hope you have great fun and keep us informed/entertained.

  3. I speak in my best British Accent for the American Immigration and my best American Accent for the British immigration! I am on a student visa in the UK and when asked what i am studying, I reply, with a little insinuation of “I more than know my rights, I am keen on my first opportunity … oh please give me the first… to exercise them”, that I study -THE LAW.

  4. Oh… it is just that it works.. or has worked so far… not that if they really wnted to be arbitrary and nyanyasa me…

  5. WM says:

    MMK,
    Have you been reading Foucault? No, I’m serious–the whole panopticon thing…
    Great blog! Keep it coming–I’m agog.

  6. Wester says:

    It is not only the African that gets “the third degree treatment” but most anyone black who fits a certain profile. Just ask Caribbean immigrants and visitors to the UK for example and you will get more than an earful.
    It is the old profiling problem that causes decent people so much anger. Lawless Negroes have time and time again poisioned the ground, so when a law abiding black person shows up, they treat him/her like a criminal.

    Note to the brothers: White female immigration/customs personnel are the worse. Move to another line with a man if you can and avoid the petticoats. The men may still treat you like a criminal attempting to sneak in illegally, but your delay as they go through your bags and pockets with a fine tooth comb may be a bit less.

    But some would take it beyond that and ask, is it those who have poisioned the ground before or is it a matter like the old Cameo song- according to the “Skin I’m In”? Haven’t thousands of white Eastern Europeans and others themselves poisioned the ground skipping out and disappearing once visas are expired? Why don’t they get “the treatment” at immigration and customs? The law abiding black man must yet ask: Is it the “Skin I’m In?”

  7. Kamau says:

    I used to dress more “black” read hip-hop in Europe so as to be perceived as a black American as opposed to African trying to sneak into their country. You know the sad thing is that, it works like a charm, I was in Amsterdam and went on a tour all the Asians and European tourists wanted a picture with the “black American”. I did not have the heart to tell them the truth.

    What is sad is that when I go to Kenya, my wife who is American gets tread so well by immigration there, I who is Kenyan get treated like dirt for refusing to part with “kitu kidogo”. On the way back I get treated like dirt my US customs/immigration for being in their country too long, my wife is wave by, I clutch on to her tightly as though she is a life jacket.

    I recently got my US passport and I cant wait to go to London, Nairobi, Detroit or anywhere for that matter and anywhere for that matter and slap in on the counter and yell “Am American bitch!”

  8. WM says:

    @WM – Teehee…panopticon :-)

    @MMK – Hope you have some time in St Petersburg to see the Summer Palace, it is amaaaazing! So is the Cathedral of Spilt Blood (our guide’s translation, not mine!) and the Alexander Nevsky Lavra – the cemetery at the monastery has the graves of some of Russia’s finest in literature and music – Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc…If it wasn’t for my love of sunshine, I would be tempted to live in that city…

    Back to the passport thing, yeah. Can’t you just feel the weight of power’s gaze on you at that moment? Almost makes you want to confess every naughty thing you ever did…

  9. Anonymous says:

    Kamau your comment:

    I recently got my US passport and I cant wait to go to London, Nairobi, Detroit or anywhere for that matter and anywhere for that matter and slap in on the counter and yell “Am American bitch!”

    That’s a little worrying. They’ll still treat you like a n!&&@! Walk with your head upright and remember who you really are. No one can take that away. No one can give it to you with a piece of paper!

  10. kamau says:

    Anonymous,
    “No one can give it to you with a piece of paper!” get real; try getting around the U.S or another place without the right paper. Its like saying money isn’t everything when you don’t have it.

    I can’t wait for them to try treat me like a n!&&@!, the last time they did I had to be humble, they tried to make me forget who I was; I was at their mercy, now I can remind them that I pay their bills. And for the Kenyan folks that love to harass me when I go home, I will threaten them with action from marines. Ha!,

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