WANJURAH: A treasured cargo of grasshoppers and other not-so-nice stories of Africans at UK immigration
He had caught my attention while we were boarding because I thought he was overdressed for an economy class flight from Doha to London.
A charcoal grey suit complete with a matching carnation, a red tie over a white shirt, shiny black shoes and a power briefcase gave him an aura of importance. But even with the air conditioning, the heat in Doha, Qatar, was unbearable as evident in his sweaty brow.
I imagined he was probably a government functionary who was not senior enough for business or first class travel.
At the Heathrow airport, he stood ahead of me at the immigration desk.
On closer look, I noticed the suit, just like the shoes, had seen better days. The latter would have fitted Barrack Muluka’s recollection of Kiraitu Murungi’s activist-days shoes: well-worn, with a sole so unevenly eroded that part of it had given way to hollowness.
His passport indicated he was Ugandan.
“Did you pack the bag yourself or did someone else help you?” asked the lady at the Immigration desk while scrutinising the photo on the passport against his face.
“I dictated what was to be packed. But if you are asking who actually placed the stuff in the bags, then that’s my wife…isn’t that not what a good wife does?”
He briefly burst in laughter at his own joke before he was suddenly silenced by the officer’s stern, rebuking gaze.
“Could you describe what’s in your bag,” the officer went on. “Please be specific.”
It was a long list made longer by his unsolicited details. “Eeeh…I think seven shirts…five formal and two casual… my beloved suits… I gather clothes are expensive in UK…I have spare shoes and my sandals for the evenings…Spices too. You know stories about British food…very unappetising … and normal traveller’s stuff….”
“Is there anything else, sir? Please treat this question seriously and answer it as truthfully as possible,” the lady insisted.
The passenger scratched his head as if struggling with recall. He then volunteered information that he had packed some foodstuff – Ugandan delicacies he claimed. But as if anticipating the attendant trouble with immigration, he quickly claimed to have Googled that the stuff was not contraband.
In spite of his verbose explanations, he was ordered out of the queue and asked to open his bags. Amid my own hostile grilling at the Immigration desk, I followed the passenger’s unpacking act with bemusement. Clearly, he had been frugal with details of his luggage.
There was charcoal packed in a green bag that he claimed was for eliminating bad odour in his fridge, traditional fryer (karai) that he explained was for frying his bananas and making chapatti. Modern pans, he claimed, were too light for the right taste. He was nevertheless ordered to surrender the “karai” because immigration deemed it an undeclared metal import!
But what sent the immigration officer’s hair standing was the stuff inside a Toss container. I sensed it meant a lot to the passenger judging by his anxieties around it and his reluctance to open it as ordered.
When the lid finally came off, the officers whose number around him had since swelled, circled around like hounds that had scent blood.
Now, they were wearing white gloves to apparently protect themselves from the potential hazards of the container. A few more calls and a guy in Ebola-like protective clothing turned up. He sealed the container in a protective bag, carefully labelled it and dropped it yet into another sealed container.
You would have been forgiven for imagining the Ugandan had dared to import to the UK some deadly virus or nasty pathogens. As the Ebola-like guy disappeared with the container, the passenger stood in disbelief at the unfolding scenario. The separation with his treasured cargo had crushed him.
But what, exactly, was he was carrying that so miffed immigration?
His explanations that this was nsenene, a popular Ugandan delicacy of roasted grasshoppers fell on deaf ears. A garrulous explanation of the labours of obtaining a jar of the insects including how he had spent good money hiring scouts to catch them failed to move the officers. He even cited the World Health Organisation as having endorsed the insects as a rich source of proteins!
Instead, what he got was a lecture of the inherent dangers of importing into UK uninspected and unlicensed foodstuff. Had his cargo been approved by the relevant health and safety authorities? Did he have a certificate to handle food for public consumption? How could he possibly transport African insects, a known source of pestilence, to the UK? Had he heard about the Zika virus? What was the difference between his termites and mosquitoes anyway?
When I left, he was being threatened with deportation. His cheery disposition had evaporated to a barely coherent man pleading for clemency. I don’t know what eventually became of him.
But on my return to the airport, this time for exit, I couldn’t help but notice the shift in the immigration officers’ attitude. You do not need a discerning eye to note the difference in the treatment of incoming and outbound visitors.
At the Heathrow airport for instance, the immigration officers wear their suspicions on blacks and Asians arrivals like an official uniform. It is evident in the line of questioning, on the thoroughness with which visitors’ cargo is scrutinized and the airs of condescension that the officers throw about.
By contrast, when departing, the hostilities are replaced by expansive smiles and chatty journey mercies wishes. There is a valediction cheer around the officers as if the passenger is a good riddance.
The fussiness with security is excusable considering the threat of terrorism. You can even forgive the apparent racial profiling if you confront the fact that majority of Islamist terrorists originate from Africa and Asia. But if you eavesdrop on immigration’s questioning, you begin to appreciate a more sinister driving force.
It has more to do with an institutionalised fear that Africans and Asians are job thieves. It doesn’t matter if you are a government honcho, an established businessman on a strictly business mission, a well-to-do patient seeking better medical services or a rich student self-financing UK’s expensive education.
All of you are regarded as potential illegal workers. For instance, if you are a patient, they will ask you how soon you hope to recover for your trip back home. The same goes for students. “When does your course end and when’s your travel back date?” is a standard question.
Even religious missions are not sacred. I once overhead an immigration officer wonder why a Ghanaian had to travel all the way to UK for a religious gathering.
“Aren’t there churches in Africa, sir? And did you consider Skype?”