Sanni and the God of International Flying
Phnom Penh to Nairobi
It took two attempts to get Sanni out of Cambodia to Nairobi.
The initial plan didn’t include Nairobi at all. He was first going to Thailand to get his Brazilian visa as he’d been offered a trial there. If denied the visa, he was going to take advantage of being in Bangkok to trial for the next Thai season. With the invitation letter and visa paperwork already receipted by the Brazilian Embassy, Sanni applied for a Thai tourist visa. They denied his visa because they wanted his tickets to & from Brazil, which we’d not yet bought because the visa process to Thailand is too difficult to assure.
To trial in Thailand, Sanni also needed to get clearance from his present club. The club management wouldn’t sign. It took many talks to finally convince the coach to sign, by now timing for Brazil was running out. He applied for another visa with the tickets, this time they denied him because he didn’t supply an address of where he’d be staying. I booked him a cheap bed in a hostel he’d never sleep in (he was staying with a friend) and he returned the same day to get knocked back yet again. “No,” they told him, “you need to provide us with a bank account in your name in a Thai bank.”
What they didn’t add, because they didn’t need to, was the well-known fact that Thai officials do everything they can to prevent Africans, especially Nigerians, from entering the country. It happens time & time again to many of our friends until considerable bribes are paid.
After the final rejection, we discussed his application for Brazil and decided he could apply from Nairobi, where he had also been offered a trial. The idea was he’d trial for Nairobi and if not selected we’d find out if the Brazil offer was still open.
I found and booked his flight, first ringing the company to ensure that a transit visa wasn’t required between the Phnom Penh to Bangkok leg that connected with the Bangkok to Nairobi flight. I was assured by the Air Asia personnel Sanni wouldn’t experience any delays at Immigration. I also double checked on Visa HQ. No transit visa required. Great!
On the day of his flight in late December, he was all packed. He had done the rounds of his friends biding them a final goodbye. His excitement was palpable. I loved hearing the energy and happiness he exuded knowing he was finally leaving that country. He arrived at the airport 3 hours early and I waited for his call, which he’d promised would be just after he’d collected his ticket. An hour before departure, he still hadn’t rung. I rang him thinking he’d run out of credit. “Babe, they’re not letting me on the flight,” his anxious voice said through gritted teeth. I was shocked. “What, why? I don’t understand, I booked this flight, I called them,” I exclaimed. “Babe, security’s coming, I have to go. I’ll call you when I know more.” He hung up. I was left in fearful silence, alone and no way to know what was happening.
Later, back at his apartment, his disappointed voice told me they’d denied his boarding pass because he didn’t have a transit visa. I was enraged. After advising him to call his agent to push his open-ticketed, Nairobi flight back, I hung up and rang Air Asia once again and this time got told that each airport has their own discretion to deny passengers for whatever reason they like. I was shocked and furious but nothing could be done. The flight, and the money we couldn’t afford to lose, was gone. I vowed we’d never fly Air Asia again.
The next day, I emailed my Australian travel agency, The Adventure Traveller, a company I’ve done business with for more than five years. The director, Dean, was fantastic with his research. He found out that the real reason Sanni had been denied boarding was because he did in fact require a transit visa. Although it is an international flight between two countries, Dean explained, Air Asia considers it a domestic flight because they arrive at the domestic terminal. He would need the transit visa to make his Nairobi connection at the international terminal. As I read Dean’s reply, a considerable string of profanity sprang from my mouth.
Dean then looked at what airlines he could fly with from Phnom Penh, through Bangkok, that would not require a transit visa. It took another three weeks before I could afford to buy him another flight, this time on Bangkok Air and this time with a guarantee from the Bangkok Air Thailand office (via Dean) that it would arrive at the international terminal, not requiring a transit visa. Despite being late, what I jokingly call running on African Time (or was the God at it again?), he made the flight with just enough time to call me from his plane seat. And he arrived in Nairobi without a problem.
Nairobi to Melbourne
Sanni was in Nairobi for a month when we received confirmation that his Australian prospective partner visa had been granted on February 28th. By early March, Dean had arranged his flight. I was taking nothing by chance this time. Determined that not even African time would prevent him from boarding this flight but there are some things I simply cannot plan for. The God of International Flying was to strike again.
His flight was due to arrive at 10.30pm on March 7th. I got to the arrival area 40 minutes early, only for his flight to be 20 minutes late. As I tried to calm my nerves, I stood at the best vantage point I could find, my knees slightly bouncing, unable to stand still. I waited and watched as all the passengers arrived and went through their own jubilant welcoming.
After an hour and a half, I was the only one left, apart from people waiting for the next flight’s arrival and one African man. I was now genuinely worried, not only because he was taking so long, but also because I didn’t actually get confirmation that Sanni was on the flight. Yet again, Sanni had trouble boarding because the image in his passport was of a black man and on their system he was yellow. It was a pathetic reason to delay him, but this was their intention, even going to the extent of asking for his previous ticket from Bangkok to Kenya. Sanni wondered if they were really trying to bribe him but unlike Cambodians, the Kenyans never alluded to extra fees. They just didn’t want to help him. As he raced on to the plane the flight attendant wasn’t surprised, “you’re Nigerian, aren’t you?” he asked as Sanni nodded, “well, that’s why then.” As though it was commonplace and acceptable to make life difficult for Nigerians.
The last time I spoke to him was at 2 am Australian time when he was battling with the authorities. I didn’t hear from him again.
As fewer & fewer passengers exited the doors, I began to feel tremendously tired and emotional. After the early morning call, I slept restlessly, and at work spent the day in a fluster-fuck of concern as to whether he made the flight or not. I made calls to the airline (who couldn’t confirm anything because I wasn’t the passenger), spoke to Dean (who couldn’t confirm anything because the time difference made it Nairobi’s night time) and tried to decide if I should book the hotel for us or not- money, again, I couldn’t afford to lose. Nothing felt certain but I had to trust that had he not made the flight he would’ve called.
It was nearing 12.30 am by the time I saw the African man enter the customs office that I hadn’t known was there. As I entered to make any enquiry, I immediately burst in to tears, suddenly overwhelmed by tiredness and the emotional stress of not knowing Sanni’s whereabouts. The customs officers were not able to confirm if he had arrived, they didn’t actually check though, they just recommended I call the Australian Federal Police to lodge a missing persons report. I shook my head, amazed that that’s what I needed to do when my gut feeling told me he had arrived in Australia and was being detained behind the solid, white, glass wall that marked those who made it into the country and those that were denied.
I walked the length of the arrivals floor in a daze of tears & confusion. When I reached the end I saw a man in uniform exit the back area. I chased him up the escalator and begged him to help me find Sanni, telling him that he was meant to arrive but he hadn’t come out. He told me that the customs floor was empty. Pathetically, I begged him to call, to check. He tried to brush me off by saying I’d probably got the date wrong. Exasperated, I explained to him that I booked the flight and gave him Sanni’s reservations details; he saw that I was right and made a call. He confirmed that he was being detained by customs, my stomach knotted in anguish. “Why,” I asked, “he hasn’t done anything wrong.” The man looked kindly upon me as he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, ‘Lady, it ain’t my job to know.’
Leaving me in a heap of tears and fear, he left to investigate. Not long after he came back to tell me that customs were questioning him about his reasons for coming to Australia and that customs wanted to speak to me too. Attempting to hold myself together, I watched nervously as two women customs officers walked the length of the floor towards me. Beckoning me to sit in the public waiting area, I too was to be investigated over the legitimacy of our relationship.
All I could do was speak openly and honestly, giving them the details I knew they wanted to confirm answers Sanni would’ve already given. They tried to focus on our age difference by suggesting that the 11 year difference we share was too considerable for genuine love. I didn’t reply immediately, too shocked by what they were implying. All I could say in response was that on our 50th wedding anniversary no one would ask us about our age difference. Finally, after what seemed like an exhaustive amount of personal information had been divulged, I begged them to let him go, exclaiming, with fresh tears falling, that I loved him and knew he loved me, and all I wanted to do was spend my life with him; we’d already been apart for too long. They smiled reassuringly and explained he’d be out soon. It seemed I’d given the information they needed.
While waiting, I went to the bathroom to freshen up. I needn’t have bothered, I was a mess. There was no way to make my bloodshot, crystal-green eyes any less shocking to look at. Coming out of the bathroom, I decided to walk the length of the floor again. I don’t even know why when I knew where he’d exit from. Perhaps I just needed to clear my mind of the pent-up anxiety. I got to the end and turned. Thinking my eyes were deceiving me, I rubbed them trying to make them focus, but they were showing me true, he really was standing there with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.
I was that girl in the movie, you know the one that runs the length of the room and throws herself into the arms of the man she loves after they’ve been through an unbelievable saga. The movie was real. I really did that. In the remake, Drew Barrymore plays me.
He held me tight, allowing me to bury my crying face in his neck. He laughed and smiled so broadly. I looked into his eyes and laughed too. “Ahhh there they are,” he said. “I’ve missed your tears my girl.” I laughed, I do have water faucet eyes.
For all the anguish I experienced, Sanni’s own paled in comparison. He told of how he came to the first immigration counter, easily stamping his welcome, before he was then asked for his immunisation documentation, which he didn’t have. He waited for 20 minutes for an in-house doctor’s assessment before moving through to customs. The way Sanni tells it he was never worried about why they were asking him personal questions about our relationship, “my mind was clear” he said matter-of-factly. I laughed, amazed at his confidence, wondering if he understood the severity of his predicament. He told how they went through his bag, item by item, as the officer came across his football documents they began to talk football. No mention was made again of his purpose for coming to Australia or marrying me. Yet again, Sanni’s charming disposition won him new supporters as they promised to look for his Facebook football profile and follow his game.
Of one thing I am now certain, is that it’s a bloody good thing Australia is an island because Sanni won’t be going anywhere until I am convinced he’s made his peace with the God of International Flying.