When you fly Business Class, they let you out first and then when you’re safely away from the plane, the rest of the poultry follow. Those are the little joys that having a little more money affords people. It is not just about the leg space and the fact that they bring you slightly roasted tomatoes for breakfast. Being let in and out first is the subtlest definition of privilege. You know, just like in a political rally you will know the hierarchy of importance by the order in which politicians leave the stage. I was not supposed to have been in Business Class, because even from the tone of my voice you can tell that I have neither any business being there nor (more importantly) class. I was one of the poultry who was meant to be riding at the back of the plane. Lakini thanks to a mistake not of my doing, I got upgraded to the other side where they serve you fresh juice when you enter – and sometimes when your ancestors have eaten, they might even kneel like Baganda wives. That is how I ended up being among the first ones on José Martí International Airport’s immigration line. We had just landed in Havana, you see, for a trip that Jaber and I had been planning for almost a year. She had travelled ahead of me a week earlier, so I was alone. Two ladies who I remembered from the Muthaiga end of the plane went ahead of me.
At first, I could not understand what was going on. The lady at the desk took their passports and told them to stand aside. I walked ahead, looking at them in amazement because it is not often that you see white people being frozen at immigration. If I had known that the same fate awaited me, I probably would not have laughed in my heart. The girl at the desk looked at me, then at the cover of my passport, and without even examining further, said something to me in Espanol while pointing at the ladies.
And here is the thing about languages, you do not even need to understand what the other person is saying. You just need to know the context of your engagement and you will kind of figure out what she means. I was a black man travelling on a Kenyan passport and trying to get into the South American continent. Of course, I had to go through the grind. The immigration lady waved at some chap who came, picked the passports from her and then came to where I was standing with the two white ladies.
“Show me your ticket back and your hotel reservation,” he said to nobody in particular. Not in proper English though, I just cannot do a written impression of how people who were not colonized well speak the Queen’s tongue.
I was prepared for this. I remembered my training. I knew that outside here it is quite shocking that an African can be a tourist. One must either be fleeing from a country that is dying to die (insert tearful Warsan Shire poetry) or is trying to smuggle in bad things. It was during this interrogation that I noticed my fellow poultry had started filling up the line behind me. Mostly white people who walked to the immigration counter, spent all of three minutes, and before I could even say passport privilege, they were already sipping Cuba Libres served with little yellow umbrellas, while singing Havana Oh Na Na next to the Malecón.
The two ladies gave him their documents, then when he turned to me, I showed him my Turkish Airlines itinerary. When he asked, “Hotel reservation?” I pulled out four documents and told him, “No Hotel. Airbnb.”
“Me no have Hotel book. Airbnb? Houses renting?”
I do not even know why I thought it was a good idea. This whole thing of dumbing down your English under the assumption that it makes things better to understand. I could have just said, “I am not staying at a hotel, I will be renting Airbnbs during the duration of my visit here.”
“Eeeer, Casa?” He asked, and I nodded in agreement with otada yaani, not knowing what he was even talking about. I had seen that word casa written somewhere on my Airbnb forms and I had not bothered to find out what it meant. I gave him the booking forms for our stays in Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad – all places we were meant to visit for the one week that I was there. For good measure, I even showed him my travel insurance (which he had not asked for) and also reminded him, for good measure, that I was flying Business Class. What I did not know is that it did not matter whether you are flying Economy, Business Class or Heaven Class. Whether you’re on Kenya Airways or you’re on Lufthansa. A jarateng’ is still a jarateng’. And you have to prove that you are not coming here to stay.
I got to talking to the two women. They said they are from Georgia. Not the US State, but the country in Europe. They were not kept for long. He came back like fifteen minutes later, gave them back their documents and they managed to get in. I thought I was to follow them shortly afterwards, but he told me to stay. In fact, he pointed at the seats next to a wall and suggested I should sit down. You know? Because he was so worried about my jetlag. If this was happening to me in my country, I would have revolted and cursed them in the name of all the ancestors of Karuoth. But because I was in a different land, there was little I could do. We had already spent so much money to try and do some shit. Causing a scene was not worth it – metaphorically and financially.
When I turned to go sit, I noticed a group of other black men standing together, mumbling. They looked like several versions of Otile Brown standing there in tees that held on to their bodies like a second skin, and trousers that could not reach their ankles however much they tried. They were also asked to sit down. And then we were left there. And of course, you know how we Africans are when we meet outside this continent – all those intercountry Twitter fights are forgotten and we become brothers.
Four of them were from Senegal, brothers, I think. One of them, a Nigerian, and the other did not even speak. And for about an hour and some, we sat there, waiting, spewing philosophy about how our ancestors should have had strict immigration policies and thoroughly scrutinized mzungus the moment they landed on our shores with Bibles. Aki those old men let us down badly. They were given salt and mirrors not knowing that almost 500 years later seven African men would be sitting at an airport, watching about three flights come in and get served, and yet still remain stuck at the mouth of the immigration desk.
Other officers came to help the immigration guy who was handling our (and I use this word generously) little situation. The Senegalese chaps got sorted first, then the other dude who was not speaking. I was left there with the Nigerian. He asked me what I do for a living, and I considered telling him, “I breathe in and out,” but instead I said I was a writer. Turns out he does many things. He is an engineer, a music producer, a rapper, a photographer and sometimes he also writes. I told him, “Maybe just choose one – your favorite of those many gifts he has – and stick to it, otherwise you will sound suspicious. Like you are trying too hard to hide something.” I mean come on, he did not need any more help looking fishy. He is already a Nigerian for Chrissakes!
We koro apimnuye wach moro ka. Check this.
The immigration chap comes back around. Guess what he asks me for? My return ticket and hotel reservation.
“I already gave them to you,” I say, pointing at him just incase he thought I was talking about someone else.
“Yes, you, Alejandro.” OK, fine, I did not call him Alejandro but if had, would that have been so indelicate? Dude had not even introduced himself to us.
“OK, and how long are you staying here for?”
“A week. I travel back Friday.”
“Next week Friday?”
I nodded, mostly of frustration because exactly what is the difference between what I had said just before and his question? Like I am a Luo bwana. Even in such moments I still feel the need for self-preservation. To show my indignation to the entire process.
“And how much cash do you have?”
“Eighty Euros and some more in the ATM card.” Truth is 80 Euros is all I had. The rest of the money was with Jaber who was already in the city, waiting for me.
“And where do you work?”
“I am a writer.”
“Well, kind of.” I have been trying to explain to my mother for the past 4 years what Blogging is and she still has not gotten it, how do you think that would go for someone whose country first allowed the internet and personal computers in 2008?
Then he turned to the Nigerian and asked him the same questions. But when he got to the final question about what he does for a living, dude went all in. He mentioned everything including being a Nigerian. But the most memorable part was at the end when he told the immigration guy that “Ayam also a rapah, oga sah. I rap. I can even rap for you right now if you want. Can I rap for you?” I sat there stifling my laughter, trying even not to shake from the giggles. I kept praying for his interview to end quickly just in case that suppressed laughter decided to come out from my butthole instead. Like what was the logic here? That he could rap his way past immigration, ama? That would drop bars and then by some mysterious stroke of luck the immigration guy would also turn out to be an underground rapper with a street cred to protect, and then they would battle it out for his entry into Cuba?
You know what? It worked. Or rather, I think it worked, because Alejandro left, went back to his office and then came back for him. He was let through. Who was left all alone? Me. This guy! This Luo man who thought he knew the tricks of getting past immigration better than a Nigerian! I spent the next 20 minutes wondering if I should also have offered to write the guy an article to prove that I was actually a writer. When Alejandro came back guess what he asked me for? My return ticket and hotel reservation.
At this point I told him, “Listen chief,” always call people chief when you need them to do something for you, “I was the first guy whose documents you took and you went with them there, to that office,” I said pointing at the door he had been walking in and out of. “Come we go I help you find them.”
I was actually bluffing when I said that, but he bought it. Only that as soon as we got to the door, he asked me to stop, walked to a desk, picked up a bunch of papers, lifted them towards me and asked, “Are these your papers?”
“aRE tHeSE yOUr PApErS?” I responded like that in my mind, but with my mouth, I simply said, “Si patron!” Then we went through my itinerary, I explained to him that I would be spending in Havana for the first few days, then we would go to Vinales, then Cienfuegos, then Trinidad de Cuba, then back to Havana for a day before going back home. Basically, the very same thing I had told him when we first met. Somehow it all made sense and he asked the lady at the counter to punch me through.
I thought that was the end of it. It was not. I found my suitcase waiting for me, carefully picked out from the conveyor belt. He asked me, “is this your bag?” I said yes, wondering how they were able to pick out my suitcase which I had not shown them, but could somehow not find documents I had personally handed over to them. And as I dragged it over to where he was directing me to, who do I see standing there like suspects waiting to be arraigned in court? All the other Africans we had been frozen with. All this time I had been thinking ati they had been let go, but wapi!!!
I was handed over to a female airport security dressed in all green; with white stockings and a skirt so short I could see Ezekiel Mutua trying to ban it from Nairobi. She told me to place my suitcase on top of a table and then open it. And it is incredible how this whole process makes one feel guilty even when they know they have done nothing wrong. Almost like when someone farts those silent killers and then people start looking at you weird. You know you are not the one whose did it but from the way you are being accused, you even start to doubt yourself. So me I was over there opening the zip to my suitcase, praying that they do not find the packet of cocaine that I know I did not squeeze in between my towel and sweatpants.
I watched, with droplets of water forming on my balls, as she flipped it open so that my stuff was visible. Clothes rolled and stacked like sausages made of cotton, not folded. Never folded. She undid them all, one by one and set them aside; first with the trousers, then to the shirts, all the way down to my socks and underwear. And as her hands ran through my boxers I looked at her face, trying to see if there would be a reaction of sorts – whether a disapproval or an approval. Something, anything. I was sure that was the first time she was touching a Jaluo’s underwear and as a representative of my nation, I wanted to know what she thought of my choices. There were the small short-like ones, and also the ones that grab your bits like a biker. It would’ve been helpful if she could tell me which of those two makes me look fat and which one really brings out my eyes.
She gave me nothing. She was stoic and unreceptive like a street lamp in the rain. When she was satisfied that there were no drugs or weapons in my bag, she looked up, and asked me to put them back in myself.
We stood there for a few more minutes until another plane landed and that is when they came back to us one by one, giving us back our passports and telling us we were free to go. This was about two hours – or something in that neighbourhood – after we had landed at 7.20am. They did it in the order by which we had left the lobby. First the Senegalese chaps, then the silent black dude, then the Nigerian. Of course they saved their best wishes for the last because when Alejandro finally handed me my passport back, he smiled saying, “Welcome to Cuba.”
Here is the thing though.
Other than that stink at the airport, there is nowhere else I felt racially profiled. I had walked out of José Martí International Airport thinking that this would be a trailer to a horrific experience where I would be flayed and hang from a tree. Nothing. The whole mess at the airport was not a precursor to anything that exist inside. Cuba is like a coconut. Tough and rough on the outside, yet so tender within.
It is a country of such sharp contrasts and beautiful ironies that leave you confused about it. This is a country that was founded by immigrants; half of its population is black, made of descendants of Africans who were exchanged for salt and spices that many years ago; their dominant religion worships the old West African Gods like Oshun; their independence from dictatorship was championed by Che Guevara (an immigrant from Argentina) and Fidel Castro (son to a Spanish immigrant). Yet given all this history, they still treat some immigrants the way they do.
It is a country of big and small things. The old architecture are massive, rising up in competition to see who can block the sun best. Men happily flaunt their arms as big as their pride. Yet their streets are narrow, their internet scarce, and their women like to walk around in little, translucent things that draw the maps of their panties on their asses.
Cubans are colourful; not just in the way they paint their houses with colours of the rainbow, but also in character. They are flamboyant people who wear their nationalism on their sleeves, walk like the earth worships their every step, and dance – oh my goodness – they dance as if the devil lives in their waists. But their food is dull and uninventive and they think everything can be eaten with guavas.
In Havana, you’re never more than two steps away from someone who is ready to kiss your cheeks, call you his friend and even invite you into his home to meet his mother. And when you sit along the walls of the Malecón in the evening when the sky looks like it is bleeding, you will not be able to sit alone without company asking you where you are from. You will sit there and watch a dying ball of fire quench itself into the sea, then if you’re unlucky, you will see a cruise ship chasing after the sunset, taking those lucky bastards to whichever Caribbean island lucky bastards are taken to.
Generally, a Cuban will not be mean to you. One or two might sell you cigars made of banana leaves, but if you have ever bought anything from Githurai, that is child’s play. And this is why, up to now, something still bothers me about the little incident at the airport.
I wonder whether, at that moment when Alejandro gave me back my passport and said “Welcome to Cuba”, was he talking to me as an immigration official, or as a Cuban?