After spending a few years of my childhood with my family in Mainz, Germany, and with the death of my father in 2005, I never believed it would be possible to leave the shores of Nigeria again. It was within the last week of January, 2018 that everything changed.
January. I was with my siblings―Uche and Onyii―playing Pes2018 on a laptop. I had lost thrice already and was eager to control the damage. We played in turns till our eyelids forced us to understand we had to rest our bodies. Then the power company cut the electricity and darkness descended in the room. We shut the laptop. Using our camera lights, we left Uche’s room for ours. In bed, I turned on my phone’s data, and notifications poured in. I scrolled past unimportant adverts, but the fourth message caught my attention. It began: Dear Chinua, we are glad to…
The email was an invitation to Italy, a poetry competition I entered months ago, which came with a prize money. I had to read again to be sure that the email was actually for me and not a scam. I jumped off my bed, screamed into the night, ran into my mother’s room. Everyone woke up. My siblings gathered. I handed the phone over to my mother, whose eyes said, why are you disturbing the neighbourhood this night?
She read the email to everyone’s hearing: I had co-won the 2018 Castello Di Duino Poetry Prize, with Sarah Lubala and Alan Bojorquez Mendoza. My brothers hugged me.
The next day, the news was all over social media and in the papers. Nigerian bloggers recycled it as much as they could. I began receiving friend requests. My only sister, Nnedi, now married, called to congratulate me, and my father’s friends wrote to my mother, congratulating her on my behalf. It made my mother proud, and she wore this pride like a halo everywhere she went. She would return from work, bearing stories of people I had never met, who said I was my father’s son. The line “I was my father’s son” never sat well with her; she thought it was irrational, because if the child is good, he belongs to the father; if he is bad, he belongs to the mother.
February. I was no longer sure of my Italy dreams; I could not afford the trip to the award ceremony. The stress of it all discouraged me, and the news of the award faded as weeks rolled by.
Mid February. My phone rang, pulling me out of sleep. It was my Uncle, Dee Muna Tassie, calling from Abuja. He asked if I had concluded my travelling plans and I said, no. He offered to help, and I thanked him profusely. From then on, we exchanged text messages. The Castello Di Duino Poetry Prize representative, Gabriella Valera, reached out to me for the third time; she had agreed to take care of my feeding and accommodation, but I emailed that I could not afford a round-trip ticket. My uncle, Dee Muna Tassie, and my aunt, Da Ngọzi Ohaeto, began soliciting assistance from the people in our Okoro Obashi kindred. And part of the money raised was used in securing me an international passport.
Late February. Gabriella Valera emailed again: she had paid for my round-trip ticket to Italy, the news so shocking, so unexpected, I wept myself into a headache. But soon after came the challenges of getting a visa.
Early March. I boarded a bus to Abuja to submit my application at the consulate, and stayed over at Dee Muna’s place. By morning, I went through my documents, ensuring that they were complete. Dee Muna dropped me off at the consulate. It was easy to locate. On walking into the consulate, the security officer ordered me to switch off my phone and to leave it with them. They scanned me, searching me. Satisfied that I was not a security threat, they granted me passage into the premises, where I waited until it was my turn to speak with an officer.
The first officer checked my documents, nodded at their completeness, and directed me to the next officer, who accepted the fees for the application and the courier services. Yet another officer collected my biometric information. Once done, I left the consulate, and by the following morning, I was out of Abuja.
I waited for their response, but nothing came. Not even two days before my scheduled trip. I returned to Abuja. Dee Muna Tassie said it was just an obstacle; comforting words but they worsened my panic.
On the eve of my departure, I still had yet to hear back from the consulate. Dee Muna called and the person at the other end linked us to the Lagos office, the Italian embassy. It was 4: 15 p.m, and they said my application hadn’t been attended to. My heart almost leaped out of my chest. They told us to exercise patience, that the application would be ready soon. They apologized for the delay, and one hour later, they called back: the application was finally ready, but a big problem presented itself: it was in Lagos and I was in Abuja. Dee Muna called a cousin in Lagos, who picked it up on my behalf and waybilled it to Abuja. The following day, at 9:05 a.m, I received the visa package.
Though I got the visa, I had already missed my flight, which was scheduled earlier, at 12:15 am. I was broken, tired, disappointed. My uncle was calm, as usual. He called the Turkish airlines, explained my situation; they asked us to pay more money before they can reinstate the flight tickets. I emailed Gabriella Valera and she was furious.
Later, in the afternoon, I woke from a short nap to new messages: Gabriella Valera sent me another round-trip ticket to Italy. I began to cry.
I got to the airport at nine that evening and waited for the boarding time. I replayed my mother’s anxious instructions in my head: do not talk to anyone, be very careful; people may put contraband items in your luggage, be watchful and don’t pick or hold anything for anyone. I was on the alert. The airport was poorly air conditioned and crowded, and travellers looked happy, too happy to be leaving Nigeria. The girl opposite me laughed at the jokes a woman made. The man on my right napped. People walked in and out of the restrooms. I was hungry, but couldn’t afford the expensive airport food. The announcement speaker soon came on, announcing our flight, and we filed in and boarded the plane.
We touched down in Turkey. In a coffee shop, while waiting for my connecting flight, I watched the other travellers: the atmosphere was solemn. An Indian family heading for the US needed guidance with their connecting flight, but I couldn’t help because of the language barrier. Thankfully, they found other Indian travellers, who helped them.
Two hours later and I was back on a queue, boarding a plane for Venice. When it got to my turn, the officers spotted my Nigerian passport, their eyes shuttering. They waved me aside and the interrogation began:
You from Nigeria?
Return ticket, you have?
Why you coming Italy?
I noticed then that I was the only Nigerian, the only black, travelling to Italy from Turkey. My answers didn’t convince them. They spoke their language, they pored through my visa and the data page. They flitted glances from my face to the picture on the passport, they made phone calls. The other passengers eyed me with suspicion. I felt like a blemish on a white sheet.
Finally, finding no faults in my documents, they allowed me passage, contempt on their faces. They had held me for more than ten minutes.
When our plane took off, I pushed the thoughts away and devoured the meals the flight attendants served. And I was relieved when I arrived in Venice. But heading out of the airport, a police officer waved me over, asked where I was from.
Nigeria, I said.
He took me into a small room.
There, he unzipped my luggage, and examined item after item. He ordered me to pull off my shoes, my jacket, my pants, my shirt, until I was in my singlet and boxers. Turkey, I realized then, was kinder.
The officer ordered me to cough, again and again, and he fixed his gaze at my belly while I did this. Once cleared, I gathered my things, the scraps of my dignity left, and boarded a train to Trieste.
I got to Trieste at 8:09 pm, and boarded a Taxi for Hotel James Joyce, built in honour of the poet, essayist and prose-writer, who produced most of his notable works in Trieste. The Northern Italy cold welcomed me. It was so intense it rattled my teeth.
At a small gathering, the organizers tried to cheer me up, to make me feel at home. I met other poets and my co-winners: Sarah Lubala, Alan Bouquez, Lucia Bonila, Silvia Shelyta. We dined at a restaurant. We discussed poetry, we shared our immigration experiences. At the Piazza d’Unita the following day, we read our poems to the public, after which the organizers took us on a tour of the town: the libraries, and restaurants, where I ate Sicilian food; gladiator arenas, castles, the shore of the Adriatic ocean, where the Bora winds were strong enough to hurl you into the sea. We ended the day at a restaurant, for pizza, one for each person.
At the award night, we smiled, we took pictures, the local press interviewed us.
It was an exciting night, but I had become conscious of the stares, of the eyes following me all through this tour – from passersby to drivers, even the locals. I was the only Nigerian in Trieste.
About the Author:
Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto is from Owerri-Nkworji in Nkwerre, Imo state and grew up in Germany and Nigeria. He won the Association Of Nigerian Author’s Literary Award for Mazariyya Ana Teen Poetry Prize, 2009, and the Speak to the Heart Inc. Poetry Competition in 2016. He was the runner-up for the Etisalat Prize for Literature for Flash fiction in 2014, and won the Castello di Duino Poesia Prize in 2018. He was the recipient of New Hampshire Institute of Art’s 2018 Writing Award, and the New Hampshire Institute of Art’s 2018 scholarship to MFA Program. In 2019, he won the Sevhage/Angus Poetry Prize, and was the second runner-up for 5th Singapore Poetry Contest. His works have appeared in Lunaris Review, AFREADA, Frontier, Palette, Malahat Review, Bakwa Magazine, Salamander, Strange Horizons, Ake Review, and elsewhere.
Feature image by Repic Studio / Pixabay