By November, I had spent just about three years, or one-eighth of my life, in London. I think, after the third year, I have adopted a manner of the comfortable confidence of a local: I know where the good restaurants are, where the good things to see are, where I like hanging out, who I like being around.
I try to think back on what London was like when it was new, but by the time I moved here permanently in 2020, it already wasn’t that new. I had been here three times: twice for internships and once for a work conference. And even then, being only one timezone (and for only half of the year) and a six-hour flight away, the city has many familiar faces: people I knew from school and the Lagos tech scene, but also familiar sights and sounds: Afrobeats blaring out of cars speeding away; phrases of Yoruba and Igbo and Edo in conversation beside busy train stations; and that one time I overheard a male voice speaking on the phone on the train back home: “If I have a girlfriend, will I be talking to you?” Not a known Nigerian ethnic language, or a particularly Nigerian-sounding voice, but surely a distinctive Nigerian logic.
After three years, in the place of a small newness, questions: Do I like it here? Do I want to stay here longer? How much longer? Where do I want to be? I become a permanent resident in two years and can stay or leave as I please. But two years in the wrong place is an eternity.
There are few things as humbling as immigration applications. Come modestly.
In February, after months of procrastinating, I applied for the Global Talent Visa, the UK’s program for “talented or promising individuals who want to work in the UK’s digital technology sector”. Like the US’s O1 visa (and unlike the UK Skilled Worker Visa), the Global Talent Visa offers the opportunity to stay in the UK without a sponsoring employer and with a more friendly timeline towards permanent residence.
Applying for visas as an Other Passport is a long-winded pick-me plea. And this one more so. To prove that I am a talented—or worse, promising— technology worker, here are pages and pages of damning evidence. I paid 500 pounds, compiled my GitHub contributions, letters of recommendation, cutouts of personal awards, analytics from my blog, reviews of projects I made, and a discursive personal statement. The crime is a propensity to contribute to the UK’s technology sector, and here is proof that I am very guilty.
I had many friends who had (mostly successfully) applied for the visa, and so I had many helpful reviews and comments. After almost too many, I submitted my application.
I received feedback a short month later: “Tech Nation has advised that you do not meet their criteria for Exceptional Promise...” Oh well. A Proforma was to follow, and I had the right to submit an appeal if I believed an error was made in the processing. The Proforma (from Latin, prō fōrmā; for sake of formality; out of courtesy) detailed the reasons why my application was rejected.
- “The reviewers felt that the applicant’s track record was sufficiently strong to be endorsed under Global Talent: No.”
- “The reviewers felt that there was sufficient evidence [...] that the applicant could be considered a leader/potential leader in the field of digital technology: No.”
- “The reviewers confirm that the [...] applicant has demonstrated exceptional talent or promise within the last 5 years: No.”
I remember an old essay I read once decrying the growth of automation in society. The author argued that people should handle public services rather than machines because a human can understand and empathise whereas a machine cannot. “Please wait! Wait for me!”, someone running late can cry, and the train driver holds the doors open a minute longer. A machine-run train will be much less forgiving. With people, people can negotiate. I can negotiate.
I sent an appeal soon after chronicling where I thought I was misjudged, how I thought my application was misread, listing out things I thought the reviewer missed or left out. But the response was resolute still: my work wasn’t that compelling; I haven’t been recognised at the national or international level; I haven’t shown that the impact of my work contributions can be attributed to me alone. Oh well.
Could this be my pivotal moment? My canon event? I should hang the scathing words of my reviews above my desk, meditate on them from waking day to quiet night, and dedicate my work and life to proving them wrong, as the negative motivation to do so inevitably corrupts my soul in the end. Or I could just re-apply later.
University was one of the last few places I remember people being proudly and freely ambitious. Whether with academics or volunteer student organisations, there was a dense, young energy of caring about making and doing things that I have not seen as much since.
California was a lot like what I remembered school being. Swift, bright, energetic, confident. It did feel like a place for bold dreams and big opportunities.
In 2022, I got accepted into the Interact Fellowship, a “community of technologists”, and as a part of the program, members get invited to an annual summer retreat in California. My Nigerian passport isn’t capable of supporting trips to the US on short notice, so I had to wait a year to go.
The retreat was great. It was July, bright and sunny. We glamped (“glamorously camped”; a word I learned then for the first time) in a beautiful resort in Northern California: playing football, hiking, and talking in the day; making marshmallows, staring at stars, and talking some more at night. On the last night of the retreat, an especially cold, quiet, and gentle night, we had a Talent Show. People danced and sang and recited poetry and did impressions of cowboys. I played Mac Miller’s Surf on a guitar someone had brought along.
In the second half of my time in California, I stayed at an Airbnb in Berkeley. It was a Victorian home just as beautiful as its city. The living room had large shelves of comic books and various artefacts of their characters, rows and rows of them. The shelves told of a kid who loved Wonder Woman dearly and parents who did not mind.
The house had a lot of guest rules: rules on how to lock and unlock the door, rules on where to keep the kitchen towels, rules on where to keep the bathroom towels, rules on how to dispose of things, rules on where to keep your things away from those of the other guest.
My host was a small, gentle, elderly woman, like a wise old lady you might read about in a children’s book. The pictures on the fridge suggested she was Grandma. I quickly learned how much easier communication was when I listened carefully and spoke loudly.
I tried not to return too late when I went out into Berkeley and San Francisco; it would have been rude to wake her up with my arrival. She was always happy to share recommendations for where to visit around the city. They were not the kinds of places I wanted to go, but I appreciated them nonetheless.
Almost everywhere smells of weed in San Francisco. Almost everyone smells of weed in San Francisco.
Where did I leave my inhaler?
On a bus trip across the state, I spoke at length with someone sitting next to me. They looked just about my age. There was an ongoing conversation around us about marriage, and my seatmate mentioned they had gotten married early and had, just as quickly, repented of it and gotten divorced. We spoke for a while about what that was like.
The conversation drifted as we drove. They told me about what growing up was like, Chinese and irreligious, how they were transitioning, and how they had recently converted to Catholicism. In conversational barter, I told stories of what growing up Pentecostal Christian in Lagos was like. We talked a lot about music (they had played in their school jazz band) and God and Christian theology. They sent me some songs they had recorded.
“One second, sorry.” Pop. Pop. One oestrogen pill. One t-blocker. Water. Gulp. “Go on...”
As the conversation dwindled, they burrowed into their backpack and dug out a thin white book. “I wrote this recently, and I’ve been gifting it to people I connect with. Here you go...”
I skipped briskly through the book on my way home. The brown pages spoke of topics we had talked about earlier: stories about God and gender and East Asia. A stray chapter read like a physicist’s retelling of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Another one burst into syllogisms.
I’ve always thought the book had a curious title: &water;. As a standalone C/C++ statement, it takes the memory address of a variable (or macro or function) named “water” and then does nothing with it. An optimising compiler will enthusiastically throw it all away. I don’t remember if they mentioned they were a programmer. I don’t know if the title should be read that way. Water is a strange name for a variable, anyway.
I meet up with an old friend from university in Oakland. We’ve rarely spoken since he left for the US—three or four years, maybe. It’s good to see he’s good.
He takes me to a good Nigerian restaurant in Oakland. The good Nigerian restaurant.
There’s jollof. Plantain. Chicken. All the essentials.
In the queue to get the food, I make eye contact with a stranger as we try to reconcile forgotten faces.
“Remember me from Addax?”
“You taught me AutoCAD there in, like, 2016.”
Ah, of course.
Going home is a revival (re vivere, a living-again) of duties: son, friend, elder brother.
“How was WAEC?”
“How much do we need?”
“How was your semester?”
“How is interview prep going?”
Home is where needs no explanation.
“We changed the generator to run on cooking gas instead of petrol to save money. Just open the valve on the cylinder and then turn it on.” (I didn’t even know that was possible or safe. I studied Electrical Engineering for five years, and it somehow never came up.) No problem.
“We only pump water once a week. Make sure you fill up all the drums.” No problem.
“Check the drum you’re taking bathing water from carefully. Some of the covers have cockroaches under them.” Sure, no problem.
“Sorry. We’ll try to get air conditioning before you come next time so your allergies don’t get so bad.” No problem.
Wearing a shirt and tie under an unrelenting sun reminds me so much of walking to class in university. Then and now, I’ve never imagined the designers of Western formal wear had 31-degree weather in mind. It’s so hot.
We’re parked in front of the Lekki Tollgate, just beside the concrete median. Thirty minutes or so ago, our car had broken down right after the toll. The engine stopped abruptly and fiercely refused to restart. We pushed it a few meters out and to the side of the road to avoid getting slammed by an unsuspecting, incoming car.
An Uber had come to pick up the groom, his best man, and a third friend, leaving me and the other groomsman to wait in the car. Before the abrupt stop, we were already running a few minutes late for the wedding. After a long, unsuccessful bargain with the car to restart, they had to find an alternative way to get to the wedding quickly.
We got help from the roadside officials, who enthusiastically helped us with water to satiate the overheating car. We didn’t ask for it, but they insisted on helping. Most assuredly, they will soon insist on being settled. But it’s fine; it could be worse: we could be getting harassed or robbed.
We’re calling and texting now. The groom and his company had arrived at the wedding in time. They were going to send their family driver to pick us up and take care of the car. He said he’d be here soon, but it’s been more than twenty minutes. Maybe there’s traffic on the way.
I’m fiddling with my phone, alternating between standing outside and sitting inside the car, trying to decide whether I preferred to be where it was airy or where there was shade. I hear someone cry out mockingly towards us in the opposite direction:
“Una no dey go wedding again?”
I look back and then up to see a tall trailer bustling by, wearily navigating a tricky pothole. At the top of the contraption, four or five men, sitting or maybe crouching. I can’t tell which of them had spoken. I shout back:
“We still dey go, no worry!”
I smile. They smile. And I retire back into the car.
It felt good. I can’t scream at strangers like that on London expressways. People might think I’m crazy.
- I wrote only one other blog post this year. I wanted to spend more time making things than writing, but I’ll try to do more of both next year.
- I re-applied for the Tech Nation visa in November and got approved.
- With Ayo, Bayo and the SysDsgn team, I helped organize SysConf, a virtual technical conference on systems design topics, in September, and more than 600 people attended. In December, we hosted 50 people at a mini-conference in Lagos. I gave talks at both events.
- I visited Nottingham and Dallas, Texas, with my friends, and Marden and Oxford with my girlfriend.
- I worked on a few more projects that didn’t pan out as well.
- I tried a lot of things this year and enjoyed most of them. I’ll try that again next year.