Thursday, December 15, 2005

The "African" in me

A few months ago when I found out that I had to get a new Tanzanian passport, I groaned. This is the 2nd time in about 10 years I've had to get a new passport due to fraud - what does that mean you ask? You see, all the information in the current Tanzanian passports are written in. No, you read it right - they are written in - with a pen.

About a month ago, I sent a $10 money order to the Tanzanian Embassy so they could post me an application form. It arrived a month later - all in Swahili. So, I had to call my dad & get him to translate the form over the phone while I filled it out.

As per the instructions on the embassy's website, I got 5 passport photos with a sky blue background, colored copies of my passport, a $40 money order and set an appointment to come in and give my documents and get finger printed.

Today at about 10:45, I walked into the embassy at Dupont Circle & told the lady at the main desk I had an appointment at 11. She checked off my name & asked for my documents, which I handed over to her. She looked at them and started to speak to me in Swahili. When I interrupted her to tell her that I don't speak Swahili, she glared at me. The differences in our ethnicities were pronounced by the fact that I was wearing a desi kurti while she had a leopard print jacket on & a beautiful matching head dress.

"The form asks you to fill out the information in capital letters which you have not done," she said. "Here's some white out - just refill the forms."

I proceeded to the waiting area & painstakingly refilled my form and handed it over to her. She asked me to go back into the waiting room and well, wait, which I did for about 15 minutes. While I was in the room, I caught phrases of Swahili while she explained to one of the officers that I could not speak the language. A few minutes later he came into the room saying "Habari!" I know enough Swahili to understand that he was saying hello but did not have the confidence to respond in the same manner and just said "Hi!"

"Where were you born?" he demanded.

"Dubai," I said.

"Which of your parents is Tanzanian?"

"Both!" I replied defiantly.

"How are we supposed to help you if you don't understand Swahili?" he asked.

I didn't respond but I could not understand what the big deal was since the whole conversation had taken place in English! I told him that the forms had already been filled, so he headed back into his and asked me to wait.

I think it was about twenty minutes later that the first lady I had talked to told me that because my form had been messed up with the white ink, I would have to purchase another application form. Thankfully, I had $10 on me. She then proceeded to fill the form for me while other people (mostly black Tanzanians) looked on. When she was filling my mom's birth information, she asked me where my mom was born. "Arusha," I replied. "WHERE in Arusha?" she demanded. I was tempted to tell her that my mom probably did not know that herself! I asked her to wait while I called my dad.


As I spoke to him in Katchi (the language of my ancestors), I could feel everyone's eyes on me. I can understand the frustration and maybe even resentment they felt that I speak an Asian language, not Swahili although I am a Tanzanian citizen. I just wanted to explain that I wish I did, but it's not my fault that my forefathers decided that the native language was not as important as the language of our ancestors.

I jotted the information down my dad gave me but must have misspelled it because the lady at the desk couldn't recognize the name of the street. There were people in the room who knew the area I was talking about & provided her with the correct information. She was quick to point out that I was lucky that those people knew what I was talking about.

As I completed my forms, the lady at the desk looked up at me and said "You should be ashamed of yourself that you can't speak Swahili although you're a Tanzanian." I was so shocked I didn't know what to say to that.

It was soon my turn to go into a room for finger printing and was introduced to another officer this time. As soon as I entered the room, he also started speaking to me in Swahili. I told him that I didn't speak the language.

"How can you call yourself a Tanzanian?" he demanded.

"I was born in Dubai," I replied.

"Well, I was born in China," he shot back.

By this time, I was so frustrated that I just remained silent. He then asked me what my profession was. A "Fellow at a non-profit organization" was not acceptable. When he found out I had a B.A. in Political Science, he told me to fill in "Political Scientist" as my occupation. I did as I was told.

I had to wait a few minutes before everything was ready & I could leave. As I was leaving, I asked the lady at the desk if she needed anything else. "Just learn Swahili sweetheart," she said. "It's not my fault. Happy Holidays!" I responded sweetly.

I walked out of the embassy into the freezing weather and did not quite know how to feel. I was angry because I had been humiliated about something I had no control over. I am proud of my African heritage because it is a part of me but I don't feel Tanzanian in any sense since I was not born in Tanzania nor have I ever lived there.

My memories of Tanzania are blurry because I was 11 the first & last time I visited the country. I can't wait to go back to visit, to see where my parents lived, to travel the beautiful country and connect in some way to the country of my forefathers. However, the fact remains that no matter how many times I visit Tanzania I will never be Tanzanian. To me, it's just a legal status because the world requires me to have a passport. And that's ok.


People wonder why I want to become an American citizen and this is why: I am tired of being treated like I don't matter. In the UAE, I was not good enough because I'm not Arab; for Tanzanians, I'm not quite African because I'm Asian and I can't really consider myself an Indian. People may argue whether the US is a melting pot or a salad bowl; but for me it is just a place where I can retain parts of all my identities and still be an American. Not to mention that it will be a lot easier for me to travel and I will be eligible to vote!

Cost of new passport: $60

Cost of humiliation at the embassy: Priceless