Wahala Visa: On Nkiacha Atemnkeng’s Viral Publication and Encounters with Consular Officers

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In October 2020, Nkiacha Atemnkeng (In-kha-che A-tem-nkeng) reached readers around the globe with his piece ‘Try Again Next Time’: my three visa rejections. He screamed when the editor of the Johannesburg Review—the essay’s first home—told him that the Guardian UK wanted to re-publish his essay. Not because of the publication’s prestige—one quickly learns that Nkiacha isn’t crazy about things like that—not because the piece had been rejected many times, but because it was a well-deserved gold medal at the end of a marathon. 

He tells me, “The thing is, I have had a long and rocky artistic journey from when I started small and with no laptop, writing seriously in exercise books and pieces of paper as an undergraduate student at the University of Buea, with nobody to give expert advice on what I was doing for a few years. I didn’t know if it was all trash. So, it was an honour for me to be globally read and well received like that.” 

The essay chronicles his many unpleasant encounters with consular officers in Cameroon while trying to travel for residencies abroad. Characteristic of its author, the essay adopts a sardonic tone, laying bare the facts of each case and leaving the gavel in the reader’s hand. But it is also lathered with moments of poignancy, acid honesty, and Nkiacha’s trademark humor. His reaction to a consular officer calling him an unaccomplished writer? “I thought about many things during that moment. But the first one was in Pidgin. ‘You check say you be don for kwat. Make thunder chakara that your clueless head for dey.’”

But there were other things on his mind: how he had to maintain a writing routine while holding a demanding job at the Douala International Airport, while living in Douala, a “hot, humid, noisy, congested and polluted” city with “satanic weather.” How he had to find alternative means of literary nourishment in a country where creative writing was dead-ended by government repression and a slowly emerging literary scene. All the sacrifices he had made to earn invitations to reputable artist colonies abroad, only to be rejected by a consular officer with glee. Nkiacha took the embassies’ collective declaration of his unfitness for travel as a writer and poured all his resilience into it. Since then, he has lived as writer-in-residence on Sylt Island in Germany, is in his second year of an MFA program, and will finally travel to Ghent New York in May for his deferred residency at Art Omi, where—he tells me—he’ll be working on a mysterious, longer project.

One thing that made him happy in the aftermath of the viral re-publication was the essay’s karmic landing. “One of the watercooler stories about this essay is that Cameroonians were not just sharing it everywhere, but some Cameroonians were also tagging the US embassy in Yaounde on Twitter as they retweeted it, which I’m sure they read, although no US embassy employee ever responded to the tags or reached out to me—I never tagged dem sef. Summary: the unaccomplished writer is the one who succeeded to write a viral essay about their consular officers and that essay pushed itself forward into The Guardian UK and Longreads, and haunted them right back with the same words they told that unaccomplished writer. It’s a last laugh kind of thing.”

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