The Visa, a Story

By David Zarembka

          George Luvai was nervous, excited, hopeful, and somewhat scared. These emotions ran though his body randomly, but like taking a penalty kick he knew that to succeed he had to suppress and control all these emotions and appear as calm and rational as possible. He had arrived at the US Embassy a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. for his 9:00 a.m. interview for a student visa to study for four years at Ohio Wesleyan University in the United States. George had been worried about the proverbial Nairobi traffic jams and he had convinced his dad to give him the fare for a taxi in order to make sure he arrived in time. He promised to take the matatu (mini-bus) for the return trip home since the time it would take him to get there didn’t matter.

As he stood by the entrance house next to the gate, George looked at the fortress-like US Embassy set back at a considerable distance from the road. Like everyone else in Kenya he knew that on 7th August 1998, the US Embassy in Nairobi’s central business district had been blown up by al-Qaeda leaving 224 people dead and around 5,000 injured. That is the reason that the new US Embassy was built in this out-of-the-way place called Gigiri and that is one of the reasons that George thought he ought to take a taxi. There is no parking or stopping near the Embassy.

The trip to obtain the visa was the second-to-last step on the long, difficult journey to study in the United States – the last step would be to collect 120,000 shillings ($1200) for the airfare to the United States. The pastor of his local Viyalo Friends Church in Vihiga County, western Kenya – founded in 1913 as they boast on the church signboard – had agreed to hold a harambee (“let us all pull together”) to raise the necessary funds for the trip. With so many family, church members, and friends near the church, George was quite confident that the necessary funds would be raised.

George had been the star football player at Chavakali Friends High School, the best, most prestigious secondary school in the area. The previous November he had sat for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam and had scored quite well; earning an overall score of A minus. More important was the fact that he had scored an A in the chemistry test. He was now standing at the gate of the US Embassy because of these two things – chemistry and football.

With such a good score on his examination, he had already been accepted at Maseno University near his home to study to become a secondary school science teacher – his dad strongly advised him to take a university course which would land him a decent job after graduation. There were lots of students wanting to be English teachers and even more who were studying business administration, but, graduates in these fields, unlike teaching science, had bleak job futures since there are so many other graduates in these fields.

George’s chemistry teacher at Chavakali High School had been Joseph Garcia, an American Peace Corps Volunteer. Garcia, as the students called him, was an enthusiastic teacher, clearly knowledgeable about teaching chemistry. George was enthralled by chemistry. He found it fascinating – how atoms joined together to make compounds such as H2O; how and why water could become gas, liquid, or solid; how the carbon atom could have so many possibilities of joining with other elements to form organic compounds; and so on. Since George was intrigued by the subject, studying chemistry was not the chore that some other subjects were. Garcia, his teacher, was of course extremely pleased with George’s top score in chemistry.

There was more to it than chemistry, namely, football. Garcia himself had been an excellent soccer (called “football” in Africa) player. He had played soccer at Ohio Wesleyan University. In 2011, his first year there, he was on the NCAA Division III Soccer championship team for small colleges. When the students at Chavakali High School played pick-up football games, Garcia played with them and George could see that he was an excellent player. He didn’t coach the high school football team but he always came to the practices and games and gave the players advice and encouragement.

To be admitted to Maseno University, all George needed was good marks. He had obtained these so he had no difficulty being admitted. His football ability had no bearing on the situation. Getting into an American university was a different ball game, as they say, and soccer, along with his good examination marks, was his passport to Ohio Wesleyan. Garcia had just graduated from there two years before and knew the coach well. The coach had suggested that, if he saw any good soccer prospects in Kenya, Garcia should let him know and they would try to get him in the school even though there were no formal athletic scholarships. Garcia realized that George was that prospect – Garcia convinced George to apply and coached him every step of the way.

The first hurdle was proving that he knew English. He had to take the TOEFL test, Test of English as a Foreign Language. George wasn’t sure why he had to take this test since his parents, from the time he began to speak, talked to him in English, Swahili, and their local language of Lugoli. He didn’t therefore know which one was his “mother tongue.” He was required to take the test so he did. He found it must simpler than the Kenyan examinations he had recently taken and passed without any difficulty.

Besides filling out the application for Ohio Wesleyan, George had to also write an essay of 250 words or less – something he really never had to do in the examination based Kenyan educational system. Garcia advised him that he couldn’t just write any bland essay stating how he hoped to pick up “the pieces of gold lying on the streets of America” but had to be creative and unique. After much thought, and some discussion with Garcia, he decided that he would write “The Penalty Kick,” his title.

As a striker on the football team, I am usually chosen to kick the penalty kicks. I am quite successful in converting these kicks. All the eyes of my teammates, coach, fans, and opponents are on me as I place the ball on the dot to take the kick. When the referee toots the whistle, I have to immediately move to take my shot. I have learned that I must focus on the mechanics of the kick; ignoring the expectant eyes, the tension, and the hope of success/disappointment of failure. Within a second I have scored or failed – shouts of joy from my teammates or from the opponents.

While many, including my some of my teammates, feel that I had some innate ability to score penalty kicks I know otherwise. It has taken practice – lots and lots of practice. I have kicked hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even thousands of practice shots. Ability without practice does not score. Yet it was during games themselves that I learned to block out my emotions and concentrate on that one task of immediately kicking the ball when the whistle blew. I successfully score about 80% of the time. So I know both joy and disappointment.

This then is how I take my dream of attending school at Ohio Wesleyan University. I keep my expectations under control – hope for success, but accept if I fail.

Garcia reviewed his essay, making some minor spelling corrections and telling George he needed to replace the word “football” with “soccer.”

Yet it was “chemistry” that was just as important. George had to have a teacher write a recommendation. In Kenya such recommendations are always short and pro forma – Such and such a person “has adequately fulfilled the requirements of the program and is qualified to move to the next level.” Garcia told him that this kind of recommendation would not suffice. Of course he offered to write that recommendation emphasizing not only George’s soccer ability but his interest and ability in chemistry. Garcia showed him the letter of recommendation and George was on the one hand pleased by the compliments, but on the other a little embarrassed. Garcia also wrote an email to the soccer coach emphasizing in this case George’s soccer abilities.

George scored. He was accepted with sufficient scholarship to attend.

His next hurdle was obtaining an F-1 student visa. The first requirement was to have a Kenyan passport. This was no great problem. He applied for the passport online and paid the 4550/- ($45.50) fee – or rather his dad paid the fee through M-pesa (mobile money). He took copies of his birth certificate and ID together with those of both his parents plus passport photos. He was received cordially enough as the official inquired why he needed a passport and was clearly impressed by the response. After his finger prints were taken, he returned home and went back for his new passport about two weeks later.

This was so much better than what his dad went through about ten years earlier. While he had a birth certificate and ID and his father had an ID, his mother, who still lived in the “state of nature” as many of the older people did rather than this new age of bureaucratic identity, didn’t have one. He had to go to the chief (name withheld) to get a form of certification that she was born in Kenya and lived in Viyalo. The chief demanded a bribe which George’s dad refused. To protest the innocent or guilty we will skip how this was handled. When George’s dad went to Kisumu to submit the application, he wasted a whole day there including getting those messy finger prints with the black ink all over his fingers. Then he had to wait almost three months before he received his passport. A couple of years ago this long delay in getting a passport became a national scandal and the procedure was cleaned up including making it possible to complete the application online.

When George applied for the interview for his F-1 student visa, his dad paid the 16,000 shilling ($160) visa fee. George noticed in the instructions that if he failed to get the visa, there would be no refund.

He had filled out, and Garcia had approved, his answers on Form DS-160, the Nonimmigrant Visa Application. He had his passport picture with him. Most importantly he had Wesleyan University’s Form 1-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant, which clearly indicated that he was accepted in the university on a full scholarship. George felt that he had everything needed, but then, one never knows!

While George had been one of the first people at the embassy gate, there were now many people. Embassy employees with badges were entering through the gate. Shortly before 9:00 a.m. the gate was opened for those with appointments. George did not push and rush in the line as the common Kenya practice so he was one of the last people to go into the guardhouse. There he was made to deposit his wallet, cell phone, and keys. These were put in a container and George was given a chip with a number. George momentarily panicked when he thought, “How will I get home if someone steals my money?” He quickly suppressed this thought.

Following the others in front of him, he walked to the embassy building. Upon entering he went to the information desk where he was asked why he was there. He said that he was there for a visa interview and the Kenyan clerk gave him a ticket with the number D37. He then sat down in the rows of seats set out in the large anteroom. There were probably 100 chairs and soon all of them were filled. Many of the expectant Kenyans were young, but older than George. There were also some middle-aged people and one old “mama” who was being escorted by her son. Everyone was sober and quiet and didn’t speak with each other.

An automated female speaker called out the numbers. The person would then enter in a door to the interview area. George noticed that about 15 minutes after entering the interview area, people would exit with either a green form or a pink form. Looking at the expressions on people’s faces, George deduced that those with the green forms received their visa, while those with the pink forms had their visa application rejected.

This made him a little nervous. People at Viyalo Church had told him that when Quakers wanted to attend a church sponsored conference in the United States, only about one-third of the people received a visa. Since these people were older, substantial people, mostly already retired, the rumor was that the visa officers were under a quota system where they were forced to reject a certain percentage of the applicants.

After sitting in the room for about 45 minutes, D37 was called. George entered the door. The first stop was to get his figure prints on the cyber system – right hand, 4 fingers and then the thumb; left hand, 4 fingers and then the thumb. Lastly the eyeball took his picture. George wondered why he had to bring in a passport size photo when they were also taking his picture. Next he moved to the second window, where the Kenyan man reviewed his documents and marked them on a piece of paper that he put on the top of the documents. George then had to sit in the hall until his number was called to one of the three visa windows processing the documents.

He was called to the middle window. On the other side of the glass window was a middle-aged white American. Unlike Kenyan women of that age who are usually robust, the woman, who George guessed was about 50, was thin. She didn’t greet him as she quickly read through the documents. She looked at him intently when she was comparing his photo to his actual face. Again, unlike Kenyans, she was extremely quick in her movements and when she began to ask George questions, her speech was just as rapid – as if, George thought, all she wanted to do was to get through this unpleasant task as quickly as possible. As far as George could remember, this is how the conversation went:

“What university are you going to attend?”

“I have been accepted at Ohio Wesleyan University.” He had been advised by Garcia to answer in full sentences.

“Where is that?”

“The University is in Delaware, Ohio, north of Columbus.”

“What do you plan on studying?”

“I have done very well in Chemistry and plan on majoring in Chemistry.”

“What sport do you play?”

“I play football and am a forward.”

“How are you paying for your education in the United States?”

“As you can read on the form from the University, I have a full scholarship to attend.”

“Will you work while you are in the United States?

“Yes, I am a hard worker and have been accepted at Ohio Wesleyan because of the hard work I have put into my schooling and football.”

“Do you have any relatives in the United States?”

“Yes, I have a cousin who lives in Chicago.”

“Have a seat by the wall over there as we process your application.”

“Thank you very much.”

George, somewhat shaken by the shortness and the impersonal nature of the interview, walked over to sit down. A few minutes later a Kenyan women came out the side door, called his name, and handed him a pink form. George’s heart sank as he realized his application was being rejected. He looked at the form and saw that it read, “The applicant did not show sufficient ties to his home country to ensure his return to his home country at the expiration of his visa.” In the most important penalty kick in his life, the goalie had blocked his shot.

Dejected, but composed, George walked out of the office, through the waiting room, and down the path to the guard house. There he picked up his wallet, cell phone, and keys. He quickly looked at his wallet and was relieved to see that no one had taken his money.

When he got to the street, almost crying, he called his dad on his cell phone. His dad responded to the news with sympathy and told George that they would discuss the issue when he got home from work. He then called his mother who sounded much more upset by the rejection than his father had. Even though he had promised to call Garcia, George did not feel he had the energy to call him.

As he rode home in the matatus, George kept replaying the interview in his mind. What did he do wrong? He realized that he should have answered “soccer” rather than “football” on the question about what sport he played, but he didn’t think that such a minor point would lose him the visa. Then George thought that perhaps, because he has said he had a cousin in the US, the woman might have thought that he would end up staying with him. Perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned the “cousin.” He was really only a distant cousin and had gone to the US when George was so young that he couldn’t even remember him. He was well known in the family only because now and then he would send funds to help his parents and siblings out with their financial needs. He had never come back to Kenya even for a visit and George had no idea what he actually was doing now in the United States.

When he got home and had a cup of tea and a bite to eat, he called Garcia and told him the bad news. Garcia promised to talk with George after he returned upcountry to Viyalo. A few days later he went over the details of the interview with Garcia. When George told him about the question if he planned to work in the US, Garcia responded that this was “trick question.” Since he would have a student visa, he would not be allowed to work, that is, “to be employed”, except up to half-time at the university itself.

Yet, in the final analysis, the reason for his rejection was all speculation. This doubt as to the reason for his rejection made it harder to accept. His feelings swung back and forth between blaming himself for some possible error in his answers to blaming the interviewer for being so impersonal to blaming the United States for making it so difficult to enter the US. He felt bad that he had “wasted” his Dad’s 16,000 shillings.

For the following week George stayed mostly at home. Meeting all his friends, family, church members, classmates, and even teachers was difficult because of George’s feeling of failure. Moreover, the news had spread quickly. Some people dropped by his house to commiserate with him but, rather actually making him feel better, it usually made him feel worse because he had to hide his disappointment.

In September, George entered Maseno University where he did fine and played on the football team. Yet now and then, when in a contemplative mood, he would wonder, if he had received his visa, what his life would now be like if he were in the US at Ohio Wesleyan.


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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.


David Zarembka

Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC)

P.O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya
Phone in Kenya: 254 (0)726 590 783 in US: 301/765-4098
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