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Faces of Racism: By KAREN POJMANN Pacific News Service

News Analysis
Tuesday August 10, 2004

OWERRI, Nigeria—All summer long I’ve been a celebrity. Schoolboys clamor to greet me. Housewives invite me to their homes. Teenage girls scoop up and kiss my children. Burly security guards open doors for me. Thin roadside hawkers, confidently balancing on their heads baskets of eggs or consumer electronics, cluster excitedly around my car window. Everyone smiles, waves, shouts, “Oyibo! (Foreigner!) Welcome!”  

I’m not famous; I’m white. Better yet: American. This isn’t my country; it’s my husband’s. But in most parts of it, the red carpet so eagerly unrolled for me is swiftly jerked out from under his feet.  

My husband, Osy, is Igbo. And obviously so, with the round face, broad nose, stocky, muscular body and Southeastern accent that distinguish Igbos from Nigeria’s other major ethnic groups.  

It’s been said that the Igbos are the Jews of Africa. Like Jews, they were victims of a genocide attempt in a mid-20th century war (Biafran War, 1967-1970). They are deeply loyal, markedly religious, and famousl y hard working—and thus characterized as money-grubbing. They are marginalized and persecuted by fellow citizens, including the Yorba and Hausa/Fulani, who have dominated the mostly dictatorial government since Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, gained independence from Britain 44 years ago.  

What has surprised me, as a white (non-Jewish) middle-class American, is the overt nature of the discrimination. In the few weeks we’ve been in Nigeria, Osy has been denied access to public buildings, harassed by police and given shabby service at businesses, even as I’ve been granted boundless hospitality.  

Complicating matters: We aren’t here for fun and aren’t free to leave. Ours is a U.S. State Department-mandated, involuntary summer vacation. The U.S. imm igration system is requiring Osy, who entered the U.S. legally and has lived in California for eight years—gainfully employed, happily married, paying taxes, raising children—to apply for a new U.S. visa in Nigeria. In addition to a giant financial burden, the visa quest entails a tremendous amount of hoop jumping, made trickier by the mistreatment Osy gets.  

It started early in the trip. After a maddening experience at the San Francisco airport, during which we learned that Osy needed a “direct airside transit visa” to sit in Heathrow during the layover—but can’t get one without a U.S. green card—Osy flew on an African airline and met us in Lagos. Sans baggage. When Osy’s brother and nephew took us to the Lagos airport to retrieve the luggage days later, the Nigerian airport security guard refused to let the men into the building, even after seeing Osy’s baggage claim tickets, which bore Osy’s distinctly Igbo name.  

It was then that I spoke up and discovered the three magic words: “He’s with me.” The g uard stepped aside for all of us and said, “Welcome to Nigeria.”  

The scenario repeated at the uncannily Emerald City-like front gate to the Japanese Embassy, where Osy had to collect, as a U.S. visa requirement, a preordered police clearance for the fiv e years he lived years in Japan. The Nigerian guards denied him entry and shouted: “This is not a post office!” So I whipped out my passport, Old West style, and said, “He’s with me.” We were in. “Welcome to Nigeria.” The police report, vital to Osy’s vis a application, was waiting and would have collected dust there, had Osy gone alone. We snapped it up.  

This is how our trip has gone. Like an A-lister clubbing in Manhattan, I can get past all the bouncers. I just flash my pasty-white skin or my enchante d U.S. passport, and I’m past the velvet ropes with my previously rejected posse. It has worked for getting a parking space, entering the U.S. consulate, requesting medical forms and ordering breakfast.  

Only once did hostility toward Igbos outweigh hosp itality toward foreigners. We were returning to Lagos from a beach near the Benin Republic border with Osy’s brother Martin and our combined seven children, ages 4 to 8. Armed border guards and customs agents stopped the van literally a dozen times and th en, seeing me riding shotgun, quickly waved us on with a “Welcome to Nigeria.” But at the last roadblock, a Nigerian police officer demanded to see Martin’s license, confirmed aloud that Martin was from the Igbo region, and said he’d have to pay a fine fo r driving with an Anambra state license in Lagos. Then the officer climbed in the van, ordered Martin to drive, and extorted a “bribe.”  

After that, we left Lagos and headed east to Igboland, where Osy is regularly congratulated for snagging a young, childbearing foreigner; I’m still popular. Here, Southeastern-state governors convene to nominate an Igbo presidential candidate for Nigeria. Local rebels meet secretly to plan for a sovereign nation of seceding Southeastern states: a new Biafra. And I wait with my family for notice of Osy’s visa interview so that all of us, Igbo and oyibo alike, can go home to San Francisco.  


Karen Pojmann is a Bay Area freelance writer who is currently living in Nigeria.›e