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Policing Africa’s borders: A trip from Nigeria to Kenya

For a continent that did not define its internal borders, Africans are certainly very serious about enforcing these divisions.

Excitement creeps up on me – I feel it in the form of a smile, expectation, anxiety, before it slows down to reality and the realisation that I am going back home. But I am home – or that is what I am told by the Nigerian passport in my hand, here in the humid Murtala Muhammad International Airport, as I wait to jet back to Nairobi. I smile. Kenya is home. I have always thought of it as home. I mean, how else do you explain the fact that my Kenyan tongue and sensibilities are as sharp as ever? I drank the water, went to the schools, followed the politics and, yes, I speak Kiswahili – Sheng, in fact; a pidgin form of Kiswahili.

It has been more than 10 years since I left Kenya, on that dreadful day when my father bundled my brother and I into the car, saying we had become so Kenyan our Nigerian-ness had disappeared. Going back to Nigeria was to reclaim that part of us that had become foreign. That was in 2007, when I was in my second year in high school.

In preparation for this trip I had gone to the Kenyan immigration website and searched for the kind of visa I needed to get into the country. Zimbabwe and Kenya, visa free. Nigeria and Kenya, visa on arrival. As I tried completing the form online, it suddenly dawned on me that I should probably be serious about applying for a Kenyan passport.

Read: Africa’s most and least powerful passports

According to President Kagame of Rwanda, ‘belief in the healing power of unity is the defining virtue of African political culture.’ (Photo: Herman Van Rompuy/Flickr)

The long queue at the airport in Lagos leaves me playing a game of guessing who is Kenyan and who is not. The immigration officer calls me aside as I am about to enter the departure lounge.

“Where are you going?” he barks. I am unsure of why it is any of his business if I leave the country. Should that matter, given that my passport has already been stamped?

“Kenya,” I tell him.

“What are you going to do there?”

I should have said I am a tourist, but I tell him I have official business there. He asks for a letter of invitation. Suddenly, I am exasperated. Should leaving my country be a problem? I tell him I have no letter and show him the website I write for. He reels off stories of how young Nigerians are deported from Kenya daily. I roll my eyes (on the inside). I know the drill. I know where this is going. So, when he says in a conspiratorial tone, “What are you leaving for me?” I honestly just feel tired. I give him the last 300  naira I won’t be using in Kenya anyway and leave. My blood is boiling and my heart is pounding in my chest. I feel disgusted about everything in this country called Nigeria.

I have made plans with my primary school friend Thuo to stay at his place. I have also asked the company I work for to extend my stay in Kenya for two months, so I could catch up with old friends. When the Kenya Airways plane lands at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the change in scenery welcomes me. And Nairobi welcomes me with a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius, a strong reminder of Kenya’s cold climate.

I watch as some Americans complete their forms, laughing and full of confidence that they will not be denied a visa.

It is at immigration, filling in the forms and paying the US$50, where I understand the importance of free visas for Africans. I watch as some Americans complete their forms, laughing and full of confidence that they will not be denied a visa, probably three-month visas.

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The immigration officer looks at my card. “Sorry, we can’t give you a visa for more than a month.” I am dazed for a moment. I respond in Kiswahili, my voice a bit shaky because I am trying to process what that means for the plans I have made.

“Ninakuja kutembelea marafiki.” I tell her I am visiting friends. It might be odd for a Nigerian to come to Kenya to do tourism.

“Enda ile ofisi. You’ll see a man there. Talk to him.” I see her visible confusion at a Nigerian speaking Kiswahili fluently.

I thank her and go to the office. It is my first experience of being in such a space.

“Yes, how may I help you?”

“I was directed to your office. I wanted a two-month visa stay.”

He takes my passport. “What have you come to do in Kenya?”

“I came for a strategic meeting my company is organising.”


At that moment I realise how wrong the word “strategic meeting” sounds in an immigration office. I quickly switch to Kiswahili.

“Wewe ni Mnaijeria Kikuyu ama.” He is equally surprised. And laughs with his colleague.

He stamps my paper, saying I should give it the lady who had directed me to him. I don’t bother to check what has been written on it. I return to the woman, thinking I have a visa for two months.

“He gave you only one month,” she murmurs under her breath. I am growing agitated. I confuse my left and right thumbs. I pay the US$50. She stamps my passport. I would later learn that Kenyans pay US$25 as visa fees. I would also learn that Nigeria equally does not give Kenyans a visa for more than a month. For a continent that did not create its own borders, we certainly do own them and defend them.

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