An African's Queen

Observations of an African Man's Western Woman

Nigeria: The Land of Hidden Frowns and Giant Smiles – Chapter 1: The Arrival

Sanni’s first trip home to Lagos, Nigeria in eight years and my first time ever visiting Africa and meeting my husband’s entire Yoruba family. A month. A journey. These words are my interpretation only and shouldn’t be taken as anything but my observations of a foreign land that has done everything it can to accept me and I it.

Chapter 1: The Arrival

From the airportI was struck first by the similarities to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The dusty red soil that coated everything, the manic driving with constant horn blowing that didn’t warn, instead demanding others get out of the way, the black & white striped concrete road barricades and ram-shackled, incomplete concrete buildings that all looked the same. It looked like a country whose government didn’t care enough for its people to do more to increase the standard of living. It looked like a country run by politicians who banked offshore.

The drive from the airport, once our hotel driver finally arrived, was for Sanni a relief. We were on our way in his country. From the moment he stepped in to the hot, tunnel leading from the plane to the terminal, the stress sat heavily on his shoulders. Quite uncharacteristically, we took opposite roles. Where normally he would go with the flow, now it was I that took the chilled attitude, ready to simply take what comes and manage it. Sanni, on the other hand, seemed to fight every moment.

With Sanni’s fame, it didn’t take long before someone from his past recognized him. One of the airport luggage porters was the first to call, “Machine.” The nickname given for his machine-ability on the field. He helped to collect our bags, got us a trolley that is normally paid for and stayed with me as Sanni attended to changing money and finding out where the hotel driver was. All of these were reasonably normal requirements arriving to any country, and yet, to Sanni, it was extremely stressful. Perhaps the heat had melted his patience.

The customs officer was paid (1000 Naira or about $5.70US) as we left. A standard bribe to not be hassled with additional luggage inspections. We waited in a local fast food restaurant, paying 2000N for a 1.5L bottle of water. I had no way to know yet how outrageous the currency conversion from US to Naira would be. It is not much better from AUS either. But then again, airports around the world are known for their exorbitant prices.

Apartment Royale, Lagos, Nigeria

This is a grossly over-photoshopped photo of our “luxurious” hotel. The pic knicked from the Jovago booking website (don’t stress it’s linked back, I wouldn’t call this photo my own!)

We arrived to the hotel after our 24 hour journey to discover a large, loud party in the courtyard. The staff Christmas party was underway. Local Nigerian hip hop music blared. Staff wore matching blue print outfits as is the custom. Guests sat around and stared. I felt disheveled and ugly and in no frame of mind to be stared at, but I smiled anyway at the warm greetings from staff.

We were taken upstairs and told we were being upgraded to a better room than we’d booked due to the noise from the party. We were taken into a plush suite, with a large lounge room and dining table and three lockable bedrooms with king size beds and simple, poorly painted ensuites. We were asked to choose which room we wanted. Sanni and I were so tired we couldn’t remember what the others looked like, they all seemed the same. It hardly made a difference to us since we knew we’d only be there one night.

Our host, Princess, softly, almost too kindly, made it clear it would be appreciated if we contributed to the cost of the better room. This we discovered of course, only after we’d agreed to take the room and our luggage was brought upstairs. Tiredness began to set in. I wasn’t prepared for the haggle that was to come. She made it seem like a free upgrade because their party would be an inconvenience, now it felt like a scam.

Sanni started by explaining that we had booked the room online and since it was their decision to upgrade us we shouldn’t have to pay extra. She wasn’t listening. She explained that she had to keep her boss happy. She knew I held the purse strings and she let it be known all the while smiling pleasantly, as though she knew this was a foul game she was playing. I was angry at the disrespect she showed Sanni. In a country where the man is the decision maker (in public at least), she had caused an offense she thought I wouldn’t notice. My frustration obvious. I asked her to give us some privacy to discuss our options. Leaving simply wasn’t one of them, we were too tired.

Sanni & I agreed to no more than $110US for the night, an increase of $13, which as I type it, doesn’t sound like much, but as I will explain in time, it was more than we had budgeted for. A further shock was given when I learned that the driver had to be paid. Now I cussed heavily under my breath and left the room to prevent myself from losing my shit completely. I sat in the lounge room, inhaling deeply and trying to clear my exhausted mind to work out what to do.

I returned. I explained that the site we’d used to book stated that the hotel included airport pickup. It didn’t say there was an additional cost, and certainly not 6000N. I argued they had already made more money from us for the room that was supposed to be a free upgrade. Princess insisted the website was wrong. We had no proof, no way to log online to check. I looked at Sanni, his eyes pleading me to not completely lose my cool. I was ready to leave. Is this the way Nigeria is then? Always looking for a way to take more from the foreigner?

Sanni spoke Yoruba and requested she leave, that he would discuss it with the driver as it was a private business arrangement. Sanni bartered to half the price. We thought he was being fair until later he further ripped Sanni off by driving him to buy local sim cards. Taking him back to near the airport again and then charging him another 3000N. In comparison, a recent trip to the local grocery store with a private driver who waited and took us back (over an hour and half of service) cost 2000N. We had no way to know, even Sanni was out of his element.

This is a country I’m learning that stands on the backs of others in order to rise up. The people will look for any opportunity to get ahead. Foreigners are easy targets. Even Nigerians returning to their own country. But they’ll stand on the back of anyone who stoops low enough.

While Sanni was gone I showered, readying to join the celebration I was invited to. I thought I could go down alone but I found myself without confidence. Sanni returned and convinced me it would be fine. As soon as I stepped outside, I wanted a hole in the ground to swallow me whole. Everyone single one of the 50+ attendees stared at me again. One of the attendants took me down to watch a small boy sing his heart out. I felt bad. I felt like I was stealing attention from him so I remain focused on him, as though he was the only person in the yard. Trying as best I could to block out all the eyes fixated on me.

I may as well have stood there naked for all the attention. And yet, no one made a move to speak to me. After some time I made eye contact with a staff member. She directed me to sit, to eat, neither of which I wanted to do. So there I stood in my bright blue, flowing dress and matching stiletto’s, grossly overdressed for the party. After the boy stopped singing I made my way back upstairs. I was done being stared at.

Sanni laughed at the description I gave of my experience. “What will it be like outside this compound?” I asked him in an exasperated tone. “Will I always be stared at and ignored simultaneously?” He laughed good-naturedly. I felt like I was back in China, only without the cameras getting their paparazzi on. At least the Chinese asked me silly questions.

Sanni learned from a gateman that there was a recommended restaurant he should take me to for dinner. We waited outside the gate, away from the entrance so the owner couldn’t see him walk with his wife and child and us to the main street. Were he seen, he would have most likely lost his job. Sanni explained that he didn’t like where we were standing. He didn’t know the neighbourhood. We couldn’t stand in front of a gate, we couldn’t stand on the corner, and we couldn’t stand in clear light either. All might result in attracting the wrong attention and result in us being jumped or followed. The streets at night, especially for a white woman simply aren’t safe.

A 'maura' or 'napep' - a 3-wheel open door car

A ‘maura’ or ‘napep’ – a 3-wheel open door car

We tried to get a marua (aka napep, a three wheel car/ tuk tuk) from the main road to the recommended restaurant but each time they added the white-person tax to the quote. The instructions from the gateman weren’t clear. I was concerned we’d get lost, resulting in a bigger drama than I had strength to manage. I was over it. I now just wanted to snore.

I pleaded with Sanni to find somewhere local. Not surprisingly, there was a local fast food restaurant selling all kinds of fried-death nearby. Once again, Machine was recognised. This time by the attendant serving him. The surprise for his family would now be even harder to keep secret. ‘Just how famous is my husband?’ I wondered.

I don’t even remember what I ate. Fried chicken and jollof rice I think. Jollof is a nice-enough fried rice made on a base of tomato sauce, chilli and fishstock with pieces of vegetable. The cost, once again, made us shake our heads in disbelief. And this was without the added WPT. I hadn’t realized that the gateman had invited himself to join us for dinner. I didn’t know that meant he expected that we would pay for their meals. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that as the gateman had to return to work to collect his forgotten phone, his wife only accepting water.

This is not uncommon I’ve learned. Sanni has returned from overseas. Anyone who returns, and does so with a white wife, has made good and therefore must be very wealthy. It is not uncommon at all for strangers to ask for money, meals or drinks to be purchased. Even two men at an adjacent table asked Sanni to buy them food.

Her child squirmed and cried each time the mother tried to sit next to me. For the first time, I was on the receiving end of the fear Sanni receives from my niece in Australia. She is terrified of him. We think it’s because he’s black, and now, this small girl was terrified of my white skin. I was speechless. If it wasn’t entirely inappropriate to do so I would’ve laughed.

Sanni insisted we take a napep, mostly because I was too tired to walk, but also for my safety. He was concerned that now it was just the two of us he would be powerless to protect me. Something I would hear a lot in the coming days.

I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow. And yet, slept restlessly. I woke several times, for the last time at about 3.30am. I tossed for an hour before deciding I’d get up and sit in the lounge to read. In such a large bed, Sanni and I slept worlds apart but he too, I discovered, was awake. We discussed the day before, his shock of his country and its cost. We discussed what to do next and decided we had no choice but to tell his family he was here. It was not the surprise we planned, but turned out to be the best thing we could’ve done. We simply couldn’t afford for them to not know we were here.

We had already decided the night before that we would tell Moses, our mutual Nigerian friend, who lived with us in Cambodia. We knew by 5am that he was on his way – a two-hour journey for him. I’m not sure I know how to explain how much Moses means to me. In Cambodia he was my protector when Sanni wasn’t around. He was always there if I needed anything. He helped me understand Yoruba culture and language, he taught me football (soccer) rules – although I still can’t identify an off-side, hardly the WAG I’m meant to be (jokes) – he was my bodyguard, my friend, my brother. He is a patient, caring, loving man so it made sense that the first person I wanted to see was him. I needed my protector nearby to help explain this country to me in a way that Sanni simply would not be able to do.

Stay tuned for Chapter Two: All out Wow!

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know below.

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Bringing home, home.

The material for my Gele – a Nigerian head dress.

I sat on my office chair, the metre and a half stiff material for the gele outstretched before me. An inch of its edge folded over as the YouTube video instructed. Holding it to my forehead, I attempted to wrap it from my left ear to my right, passing it under my arm and drawing its length behind my head.

I hadn’t realised how noisy the fabric would be as it ruffled over my ears. I felt deaf, drawn into its cocoon. The fabric folded over my head. I was forced to trust the instinct of my hands and the guiding voice from the video as the woman described the next steps.

My arms began to ache. How do the women of Nigeria do this every day? And even as I wondered, she told me that she couldn’t understand why people commented on how difficult it was. Disheartened, my arms slackened. Mistake. I lost the strength behind my grip and was forced to start again.

‘Near to the end of the fabric, hold it tight across your left ear,’ I heard her say as I replayed it again. ‘Bring the material across your forehead and draw the material around your head.’

Huh?! I don’t have three hands! How am I supposed to hold the left ear, hold the right ear and draw it under my right elbow to bring it around my head for the next loop?! Frustrated, I held the material tight to my left ear and tried to draw its massive length around my head. I knew it was too low, but I was determined to get one complete circle.

I pulled the material tight, pushing its excess over my head as I’d seen on the video. My ears felt the tightness of the material as I attempted to force the second loop. It fell across my eyes. My arm slackened again; the fabric fell to my shoulders.

Tying the gele had now become a point of stubborn pride. One I wished I’d practiced days before Sanni’s friend’s wedding. Instead, the morning of, with a mere hour to go, I was hitting replay on the tutorial over and over.

After multiple attempts, I could feel myself growing desperate and defeated. I couldn’t work out how to get the material under my arm and keep it taught.

I woke Sanni.

‘Puppy,’ I said, ‘I need help.’ I stood before him in my stockings, my unzipped top hitched around my waist, my hair tied in a bun on my head with my face made up. In my arms I held the fabric outstretched. His sleepy face looked up and with a small, wiry smile that said, ‘babe, you’re cute for trying.’ He quickly realised just how much help I needed.

Together, we watched the video again and again, talking through her technique occasionally looking over the fabric and trying steps intermittently. Over and over we practiced, quickly time was ticking away… I could feel my impatience building.

I looked in the mirror. Was this really necessary?

For this wedding, did I really have to wear traditional Nigerian attire? It was the first time I had attempted to do so, and instinctually knew the Australian bride would not be attired as such. I feared the repercussions of out-dressing her. I feared the western response to the white woman flagrantly attempting her husband’s culture in a country that barely accepted its immigrated existence.

Most times, when I get frustrated, I get exasperated and give up, akin to a child that simply cannot get the knack of tying ones shoe lace so decides velco laces are better anyway. My Sanni though, he knows me too well. He knows to ‘not hear’ my outbursts. He pursues and encourages me to keep trying; ignoring and supporting me simultaneously.

Together we became a team, in a way we rarely get to experience (mostly because we’re both stubborn and both think we’re right). As I held the fabric taught to my temples he guided and folded the material over my head. Finally, after many attempts, we pulled the ends in a tight knot, removing all hope for my ears to experience blood flow for the rest of the day.

He folded and scrunched the material, pushing the folds, fanning the tails and shaping my face in a way I have never seen before. I couldn’t wear my glasses because I couldn’t fit their arms beneath the folds of the material. My eyes were blurry and yet, clear in the difference of how Sanni looked upon me. His eyes glistened and I realised, this was a piece of his culture I was wearing. In that moment, after nearly nine years away, I’d taken him home.

And then, in true killjoy form, the zip of my top broke.

The glistening dissolved as he immediately went to work fixing it as I proceeded to panic about my skirt. This tailored-for-me outfit was so tight, how on Earth would I eat? I wondered. ‘Heck,’ I said out loud, ‘how am I going to sit?!’ Designing it to my hour-glass figure hadn’t exactly accounted for the practice of actually wearing it!

Together we manoeuvred the safety-pinned top over my head, careful to not snag the gele and pull it off. The safety pin hurt as it dug in to my armpit. ‘Suck it up,’ Sanni told me in good humour, slapping my prominent backside as he bolted for the shower.

Arriving to the Old Treasury Building in true African time (late!), we walked through the registry doors to see our Nigerian friend’s face light up with the same glow Sanni had earlier. He blew me a kiss of gratitude. As the only guests representing him and his family, he told us later that by dressing traditionally we had honoured him.

We’d brought home, home. I felt like my African’s Queen.

An African King & Queen: Puppy & his Parrot

Sanni settles in Australia: “It’s not easy brother, not easy.”

I had this post ready to publish but something told me to hold off; “just wait a few days,” said a little voice. There were plans in the works that might change the tone of this post entirely. I’m glad I held my finger off the button because quite rightly, they came to flourish and now I can write with tangible hope as apposed to the daunting hope I felt before.

You see, for the last eight months that Sanni has been here it’s been an amazing time filled with the love I missed so much and also emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting work.

Here’s what I was going to publish.

He is my Puppy but sometimes I wish Sanni really were a puppy I’d bought in a store. Sometimes when it gets too hard I really just want him to go away, to leave me, or like a real-life puppy, allow me to give him away to a safe home.

He’s been in Australia for eight months. I wish I could say it’s been wonderful, magical even, but I would be telling lies. I would be depicting a false sense of reality about life for an immigrant in Australia and so, while finally being with the man I love is wonderful, there can be no denying the difficulties we’re overcoming every day in the name of love.

Employment & visas

Sanni arrived to Australia on a Partner visa (subclass 300), this gave us nine months to get married to make him eligible for application for the Permanent Residency visa. It also made him ineligible for any kind of government support, from health care, to government unemployment payments to, and most importantly, job search network providers. It actually makes perfect sense why the government puts this restriction upon newly arrived immigrants. I have no qualms with the fact that you don’t get free health care or an unemployment cheque but to not provide assistance for a new immigrant to get a job makes little economical sense to me. The government classified Sanni as a non-skilled migrant because the only technical skills he has (according to them) is from his professional football; this stigma stayed with us for a very long time.

When I first came back to Australia in December, 2010, I interviewed a Nigerian man playing football here. I had intended then to write an article about his career to post hereon. The article never eventuated but what I did get was a fabulous new friend. Luka became someone I could talk to about the difficulties of living apart from Sanni, about his football career and what to expect about life in Australia for him.

I introduced Luka to Sanni a few days after his arrival. To our surprise, Luka recognised him from the neighbourhood they grew up in. Sanni was quite famous for his ability and most knew the nickname, Machine. Luka immediately made a call to the coach of his previous team. The next day Sanni went to trial and not long after got signed with a Victorian state amateur league club, Fawkner Blues. It would be a paid position but certainly not what we expected for a premier league player. If he played in the senior team, and not in reserves, and they won, he would only earn $350, for a draw it would be $250 and a loss, $150. We reasoned that he had to start somewhere, at least he was playing.

As the season progressed, the team’s lead coach brought in three new Italian boys direct from Italy and the indirect racism began. The two other African players were taunted to the point of leaving the team but Sanni persevered, determined not to let them get the better of him. Not long after the lead coach relegated him to play for the reserves. It meant he would train twice a week and play a game each Saturday but he wouldn’t get paid for it. I was angry and frustrated that a premier league player who has far more talent and ability was being treated so poorly but there was nothing I could do. I simply had to leave the game to Sanni.

In the last few weeks of the league management began to criticise the lead coaches decision for relegating Sanni when he was performing well in every match. There were some internal politics that resulted in the lead coach resigning and the supporting coach bringing Sanni back into the seniors game, where he’s been fortunate to demonstrate why he is a premier league player worthy of more respect among his team mates.

Housing & cultural integration

Sanni & I shared a home with two other housemates but not long after he arrived we were told that the house would be sold in four months and we’d all have to move. It was a stress we didn’t need. As a temporary administration officer for a recruitment agency I had just been told that I was no longer required for work on my present assignment. I’d been with the client for the past six months and facing the reality I was out of work.

On top of that was the stark realisation that taking care of Sanni’s integration into Australian culture was far harder than I’d imagined it would be. At first it was the small things, like teaching him about the value of the dollar and just how expensive the cost of living in Australia is. And then it progressed into teaching him things like how to use public transport (we have a massive network of buses, trams, and trains). Unbeknownst to me he’d never used any mode of public transport, excluding taxi’s, tuktuks and motorbikes of his home country and Asia, nor had he any need to learn how to read maps.

I had taken it for granted that everyone knew how to take public transport but the challenges that lay before Sanni when he had to travel by himself were enormous. For him to get to football training was initially quite an ordeal. I had to research the route and then write the steps out, including what side of the road or what platform. I had to indicate the departure times, and if he had to walk, I had to print a map and teach him how read it in order to get there. Sanni is highly intelligent but the network here is enough to confound anyone and when there is inadequate signage and maps that miss vital information, the challenge increases tenfold. Much later, for his birthday, I put him on a new mobile phone plan with a Smartphone that had map & GPS capability so this part has become a lot easier, but although he often tries to find his way alone I still need to look up the route and timetable and at times talk him through the directions over the phone.

Other things I took for granted included banking, budgeting and bills, and especially how to pay those bills. While it is possible to pay most bills online, you first have to know how to do this for each company. For Sanni’s integration, I’ve put everything in my name and have been slowly introducing him into a new method for paying bills, that isn’t in cash and has to be budgeted for over a set period, like monthly for our phone or electricity bills for example. I’ve also had to introduce him to a new world of doing everything online – from banking to researching & applying for jobs, to simply finding information about a business or service. Almost everything in Australia is done online so when you come from a country with little to no Internet infrastructure this is a steep learning curve.

Marriage, moving & language learning

Only a few weeks after Sanni’s arrival I realised the only chance Sanni had of being able to do anything for himself would be if he were given the opportunity to attend English classes to improve his reading & writing skills. We couldn’t afford to pay for classes but if we were married and gained his temporary permanent residency visa he would be eligible for 500 government-funded hours. Despite saying that I would never marry for a convenient reason, we were faced with a very real example of why we had to.

Three weeks after his arrival, we flew to Brisbane and were married the next day by my aunt, our wedding celebrant, with only my mother, and my best friend with her husband & daughter as our witnesses. It was a lovely yet weighted day because not only was there no planning, no wedding dress, no anticipation & excitement built up but we also chose to not tell anyone we were getting married, let alone already married. It broke my heart to keep this secret from our friends and families but we wanted to marry openly with a celebration. We reasoned, if no one knew that we were already married then it would still be a celebration for all.

We had originally hoped to celebrate our wedding properly next February but luck was against us, when, months later, my brother got engaged and unknowingly booked the same weekend for his own wedding. Having already paid deposits that we hadn’t paid, we decided to let the cat out of its suffocating, secret-holding bag much to everyone’s shock and dismay. We have had no choice but to cancel our future wedding celebration completely, not just because of my brother, but because we realised we simply couldn’t afford to dream.

We immediately began saving the $2000 to pay for his permanent residency application and with a supplementary loan from a friend we were able to submit it in June. We were told not to expect any news for twelve months, but by now, I didn’t care. We were already married, we had made the application so the focus had to be on saving to move, to find Sanni work and to surviving another week on a very low income and my own inconsistent employment.

With only a few months to plan we set out to find ourselves somewhere to live. Australian rental agreements require you to pay in advance a full month’s rent as well as bond equal to a full month’s rent upon acceptance of a new lease to a property however rent in Melbourne is extremely high. For a decent, inner-city apartment for one bedroom you’re looking at paying $200-$250 per week, if you can get a two-bedroom apartment for around $300 you are very lucky. There was no way we could save in excess of $2500 (including moving costs) in only two months. We had to have more time.

Time came in the form of a sub-lease in a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment when they went travelling for two months. At the same time I got booked for two months work, that continues to this day, turning into just over three months. Over the two months in our sub-lease, we continued to search high & low for employment for Sanni and permanent employment for me. I rang blue-collar (manual labour) recruitment agencies to no avail. All of them told me he would have a hard time getting work through them if he didn’t have a license or a car because he would have to start as a casual on-call worker. Sanni door knocked businesses to talk to anyone who will give him the time of day. It has been a demoralizing process because most people refer him back to their website; nowadays, few businesses will hire someone from a door-knocked introduction.

Mid-way through the sub-lease we received notification from the Australian Immigration department that Sanni’s application for permanent residency (temporary status) had been accepted. We were amazed and grateful; finally something Sanni could do independent of me. He enrolled in the government-provided English classes and immediately started school. It has been the best thing for him. His motivation levels rose, as did his knowledge of the city and Australia. And for me, it was one thing I no longer needed to help him with.

I know that sounds selfish and also ridiculous considering I’m a building a professional English as a Second Language teacher & editor freelance business but what I came to learn over the past eight months is there is only so much I can do without burning out. Job searching for both Sanni & I, house hunting, working almost full time hours as well as be a financier, sport masseuse, and wife & friend has been a lot. I tried to also be his English teacher too but found it was a conflict of interest. I couldn’t be his teacher and his wife because I had no mental strength or patience available for the task.

We researched getting Sanni a car license and found that he would have to go through a very lengthy Learner’s process if he went through the state government system. Alternatively, it would be much easier if he could get an international license. Sanni contacted his brother who began the process through the Nigerian government. While we know the license is ready to be sent here, sadly, we’ve not been able to afford to send the money needed to get it couriered to us.

As the time to move again drew close, I began to get increasingly stressed. I’d long stopped sleeping soundly and the weight of taking care of Sanni’s needs, while also taking care of everything else was beginning to weigh heavily. On top of it all, we didn’t have enough money saved. After I received my tax return, we were still $800 short of what we needed to afford our own place. Fortunately, after weeks of waiting, Sanni’s club finally paid him his menial salary so with it and another small loan we finally had enough money to move. We found a suitable apartment for $310 per calendar week (realistically $336 per week) with only a week to go.

The emotional toll

We’ve been in our own apartment now for just over a month and with the gift of cheap/ free furniture have lived in relative comfort. We’ve just started receiving the first round of bills that include all the registration and set up fee’s that go with a new property so my stress levels haven’t abated. I’d like to be able to say that I’ve been the best wife in the world for Sanni, but that wouldn’t be the truth. In actually, I can only liken my experiences to akin to being bipolar. One minute I’m happy and there is nothing apparently wrong, and the next, I snap. My depression has reached dark levels and I’ve developed an unhealthy tendency to avoid social interaction because I don’t want to talk about our life/ circumstances.

The most recent episode reached a catalyst when I suggested it might be better for both of us if Sanni moved out. Not only because I blame him, but because I didn’t want to hurt him any more. Despite none of this being Sanni’s fault when I’m in my dark place, I blame him for my problems, not our debt, not our problems, but mine. I’ve reached a stress-point of irrationality that suggests this is a burden he has caused me to bear, which isn’t the truth. As I write this now, I’ve been of sound mind for three weeks but the smallest thing can be a trigger. For example, I spent one morning earlier this week at work researching forklift training courses, their locations and cost, which he would need to work in a factory. After the sixth call where the woman told me the cost was over $400 and there was a five week waiting list I burst into frustrated tears.

This depression is no different to what I experienced in the last few months I lived in Cambodia. I think the difference this time is I cannot escape to my home country and Sanni cannot do anything but rely on me because it is my home country, one he has no familiarity with. He told me the other night that if he came here independently he would find the information he needed but recognised too that he wouldn’t be on the same visa so his opportunities would have more employment freedom.

His pride as an African man has taken a beating. He wants nothing more than to take care of me. He doesn’t want me working at all, he wants me to be able to stay at home, to be blessed to have his children and to work on my freelance ambitions, but for now we live week to week and survive off of scrupulous budgeting that leaves nothing spare for any kind of fun (let alone for emergencies or even supporting his elderly mother in Nigeria).

As a direct result of the deterioration of my mental health we had to re-think our approach to Sanni’s employment. We started by looking again at his resume and I dug deeper into his experience in Nigeria. I found out that Sanni had been working (unofficially) since he was 12 years old (appropriate for his culture). Employment which he didn’t think was relevant because he wasn’t highly experienced or hold a qualification. In Australia, that is irrelevant so we’ve revamped his resume with this added experience and seem to be getting better feedback. I have no reason to believe that we now just need to find a company willing to give him an entry-level opportunity.

No one can say what is just around the corner for Puppy & his Parrot. He continues to love & support me any way he can unconditionally and I continue to believe in him for the genuine quality of man that he is. I have to believe too that there is a really good reason I have needed to learn the challenging lessons of the last three years, may it be for the betterment of other less fortunate people.

I’m under no illusion that despite the difficulties that Sanni & I are facing we are still among the wealthiest people in the world because we can afford to have the Internet connected in our home and have coins in a piggy bank. Every single time I’m in the depths of depression, it is this comparison to people in countries I’ve lived in that humble me and give me the perseverance to keep going.

The tangible hope I have now comes from the news I received this week that I have been successful in gaining permanent employment. While little will change in our day-to-day life, what a permanent job allows for is security and the ability to plan for a future. Sanni also got news that he is on-call for casual work, which isn’t guaranteed nor as secure but it is a bonus to our weekly income. We continue the search for something more permanent for him.

For all the difficulties we’ve faced in the last eight months, and also over the last three years, one of the things I continue to remind myself is that where we are today is better than where we were a month ago; a year ago; three. We continue to push our boundaries, never accepting that what we have now is enough for where we want to be tomorrow. This comes from Sanni. The only way I am capable of any semblance of strength is because of the quiet determination that comes from him.

Sanni and the God of International Flying

I have to wonder if Sanni has pissed off the God of International Flying because when he flies internationally something invariably goes wrong!

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.

Sanni’s in Australia: Reunited after 15 months

As of two days ago, Sanni has lived in Australia for two months. He mentioned recently feeling as though the haze had begun to lift from his eyes, the reality that he was with me again finally seeping in. It’s surreal for me too.

I left Cambodia in December 2010, and with it left the inspiration to write about our biracial relationship. Leaving him behind, in the country that had been our home and our hell, while I attempted to build us a foundation was easily the hardest challenge I’ve ever met. Melbourne, Australia. The only city I could bear to live in because, at its minimum, it has cultural diversification and acceptance, art, music and a vibrancy other Australian cities lack.

The first few months saw me move around a lot. First, back to my parents in Brisbane, where I visited for only a few weeks, before moving to my sister’s who lives too far from Melbourne for me to get work. And then finally, two months after my return, into a long-stay backpackers hostel.

To some degree, I expected the reverse culture shock that I was going to face. I was profoundly depressed when I left Cambodia because of how culturally exhausted that country made me and accumulative daily difficulties Sanni & I faced. What I didn’t expect was the prejudice, judgement and criticism I would receive from my siblings and father. Nothing hurts worse than knowing your father is against your relationship because of his narrow view of the world and innate racism. No one believed that Sanni was in love with me for me, the person I am, not the country and opportunities I could present to him. Every day I met with some form of criticism against the quality of man he is, and every day I had to shut my mind away and believe in the love we share.

Once living in Melbourne, I had the challenge of finding work. When I found out I couldn’t work in my chosen profession as an English teacher (in Australia you need a Certificate IV in Training & Assessment to train/ teach if you don’t have a teaching qualification) I returned to my prior experience in office administration. It’s certainly not what I wanted to do and for a long time mentally fought against the passionless work I did for my recruitment agencies. I took a temporary contract for a university that finally provided me with sufficient stability to move out of the hostel and into a share-house and reasoned that I could change jobs when I had enough saved.

It also afforded me the opportunity to fly back to Cambodia to visit my Puppy again and lodge his prospective partner visa application. It had been seven months since I left.

I’ll never forget submitting his documents to the Australian Embassy; how cold the experience was. At the allotted appointment time, we arrived into an unadorned, white-walled waiting room. It had a glass window with a small slot to feed papers under and to the right side a small interview room with the same type of window. We sat until called. We thought we were to be interviewed, instead we were called to the glass window in view of everyone else waiting. After little pleasantries, it was down to business. We attempted to feed the folder, at least 2 inches thick, through the document slot, but the Cambodian receptionist sharply responded, “paper only, no plastic.” I was shocked at how rude she was and couldn’t stop my hands as they began to shake removing the documents from their neatly ordered plastic sleeves. She flipped through some of the pages, ticking a form as she went and then without looking up, requested the fee.

Blood drained from my face as she announced it was $400 more than we thought. “Yes,” she said, still not looking at us, “it went up in June.” Sanni & I exchanged a look of fear. We fortunately had the correct amount to pay, not that we could explain to her that it was the last of my holiday money. I had $100 to last another seven days. By now I was shaking tremendously, trying not to get emotional, as Sanni held my hand reassuring me with its tight grip. The last thing she told us as she stamped the receipt was not to expect to hear anything for a minimum of twelve months. Again, Sanni & I exchanged a look of concern. Again, the immigration website stated something different. She didn’t care, we were just another couple, “that’s what the expected time is now, you’ll have to wait like everyone else.”

We left the embassy in a daze. Both of us too shocked to feel any kind of excitement for the phenomenal step we’d just embarked upon. We were finally signifying that we would spend the rest of our lives together and yet, we couldn’t think of how we would survive another year apart or how Sanni would survive another year in Cambodia.

I returned to Australia only to find that the battle was only just beginning again. After finding out I would have to move again I then lost my contract job because the project ended. I was fortunate to move into a temporary abode with relative ease and eventually found ad hoc temporary administration work while still providing for Sanni in whatever menial way possible. It was an emotionally draining, financially suffocating time. I felt like a clown, juggling multiple responsibilities, all the while trying to maintain a level of calm assurance that when Sanni was with me again I would be able to achieve anything; nothing would seem so hard again.

In October, things began to improve. I found a recognised training organisation that offered scholarships with government funding so I could study online for the training certificate required to teach English. I finally felt like I was making moves in the right direction for my career. In November, I started a new temporary administration contract and with it started the new year by moving into a new home. “The last move until Sanni arrives,” I told myself. Not that I knew when that would be. I began to yet again build the lost savings and try to create the foundation I’d returned to Australia to make for us.

In February, Sanni was offered the opportunity to trial for a club in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a gamble he wanted to take. Unbeknownst to both of us, Nairobi’s conditions were worse than Cambodia’s. Everything was more expensive and the football opportunities less. He didn’t get the trial he’d been promised, continually told lies by the club management. Sanni’s disappointment and anger quickly turned into despair and depression. He just wanted to do something, anything, to provide a better life for himself while waiting for the visa application outcome.

Back home, I struggled with hearing of his poor living conditions, sleeping on the floor of a friends apartment, barely enough food to eat and no money to stretch further than the bare minimum for survival. It was exhausting just trying to keep him motivated to train, while also motivating myself to keep working in my brain-dead job and studying. There was still seven months to wait.

Determined not to return to Cambodia, we talked about opportunities in other African countries, each time faced with the same reality of Nairobi. Nothing was a given, everything a gamble. It is the nature of professional football, especially when you’re African. We decided he should wait out the time in Nairobi and make the best with what opportunities might present themselves.

Around the same time, I had a chance conversation with a girlfriend who was also going through the same visa process with her prospective partner. I told her of our twelve month waiting period, trying to sound hopeful, when her face contorted. “Are you sure of that?” she asked. “Well yes,” I replied, “why?” She told me how she had researched through all the conflicting immigration information to find that it was twelve months just to be assigned a case officer and then however many months to reach a decision. I was gob-smacked.

When Sanni made the move to Nairobi we had also transferred his case to the Australian visa processing centre there. Like the Cambodian equivalent, their website gave a conflicting processing time. Unlike the twelve months we’d been quoted, it stated only ten months. Just what was the truth? I needed a definite answer. I asked Sanni to call the Nairobi office. I hadn’t really expected to get an answer but I hoped for a confirmation his file was received. Sanni told me he’d had a great conversation in which they joked about the similarities between her name & mine, but reiterated that they couldn’t confirm anything. I was frustrated with the Australian Immigration’s continued inconsistencies.

And then, two weeks later, late on a Tuesday evening, I received an email. It changed the fate of our lives forever with the opening words,‘Regarding the recent transfer of your file to the Nairobi office, I am pleased to advise the visa has been granted today.’

Home alone, in a big empty house, I screamed and jumped up and down, doing a little jiggy-dance before shock set in and I started to cry. I rang Sanni, who, unable to see me, worried for what was wrong. I tried to laugh and say I was okay but the words would not escape my throat, too constricted with excitement. After many deep breaths, I finally expressed the news. He remained in happy-shock for some time, unable to process how dramatically his life would change, and then the smile I couldn’t see escaped into laughter and the same leap for joy jumped from his body.

On March 7th, 15 months after we were separated, he landed in Melbourne.

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