A couple of months ago I traipsed into town via immigration, once again. This time to renew my alien’s card (which acts as an ID card and all foreigners in Kenya for over 3months must have). I went through the security check, round the side of the building and into the bustling room full of counters set behind bars, grumpy immigration officials and confused and weary foreigners. I found and completed the appropriate paperwork, then went and stood in line behind one of the many counters. By now, I know well enough which queue to stand in despite the lack of signs and direction that threw me on my first trip there. I reached the front of the line and handed over the paperwork along with relevant photocopies of my passport, work permit, previous alien’s card and so on.
‘Passport photos,’ demanded the official. I fumbled around in my bag to retrieve my them. The impatience of the officials always puts you on edge and of course the photos then slip through your fingers and find themselves at the very bottom of your bag. But I found them. I handed them over.
‘No good,’ he said, giving them the briefest of glances. I paused, uncertain, waiting for further explanation which never came.
‘These ones have a dark background. They must have white’ he told me, with what seemed like he was with great effort to give great patience to a very difficult customer. I think this is the most amount of words I’ve ever heard an immigration official say. They seem to like using as little amount of mouth movement as possible – unless it’s to someone on the end of their phone, or to a colleague. Then the words magically appear as you are magically deemed invisible.
Anyway. I got over my initial shock that he could string a sentence together and explained, ‘but last time it was ok. Look.’ I showed him my expired alien’s card which clearly showed a photo of me in front of a dark-blue background.
He sighed and tapped at the sign pinned on the wall next to the desk, half covered by dozens of other notices. His voice had gone again.
‘Notice: All passport photos must be on a WHITE background.’
I tried protesting a bit more, but to no avail. He sent me away and called forward the person standing behind me.
A few days later I returned to immigration, this time clutching a passport photo with a definate white background. I stood in line. When I reached the front of the queue, I again handed over the relevant paperwork and photos. The official looked closely at the photos.
‘No good’ he deemed. Again I asked him why. He explained the background was not white enough. It was grey. This time I was frustrated. It was white! I argued and tried to reason but he was would not listen. I had to leave. I headed to the nearest photo shop. I told them the background must be whiter than white. I showed them the rejected photo and explained my problem at immigration. They promised me they could make the background sparkling white. Snap, snap, five minutes later I had 8 more passport photos in my hand (the minimum they’ll give is 8 – I now have a whole collection of a total of 22 passport photos, 7 with a dark blue background, 8 with a supposedly ‘grey’ background and 7 with a sparkling white background) and headed back to my favourite place.
I stood in line. Again.
I reached the front of the queue and the official took my paperwork. Again. He examined the passport photo closely.
‘No good’ he exclaimed. Again. This time there was too much of my face in the photo and not enough background. And this time, I had had enough. I argued and reasoned more and better than I thought I ever could. He eventually conceded, took my 1,000Ksh and sent me to counter 5 to collect my receipt and wait for my fingerprints to be taken.
That was what? Just under 2 months ago.
Today I headed back to immigration to collect the now-processed alien card. I reached the front of the queue and handed over my receipt. The official fumbled through thousands of cards waiting to be collected. He got to mine, pulled it out and handed it over (no words spoken, of course).
Guess which passport photo they had used and is now sitting on the left-hand corner of the card?
Yep, the very first photo I had gone with: of me in-front of the dark blue background. I had to laugh. The immigration official, who seemed to have lost his sense of humour along with his voice, frowned and me and sent me on my way, alien card and all, with the swish of his hand.
Dear Kenyan Immigration. You are ridiculous.
p.s. immigration, if you’re reading this, please don’t deport me.