Welcome to Rwanda

The Lost Pakistani | GQ India

21 July, 2012

It may be fair to conclude that my Pakistani and Pakistan-flavoured British compatriots’ recent extra-curricular ventures in India, the UK and USA haven’t assisted in winning me the good graces of law enforcement agents and immigration officers.

Despite travelling on a British passport, less than two years after 9/11, I had to “special register” myself at an immigration office in San Francisco because I was born in Pakistan. Staff informed me that they “would come for me” if I was ever late in registering with them, and thoughtfully clarified that that didn’t mean that they would post me a letter. Post 7/7, the London Met police “randomly” stopped and searched me and another chap of colour from among hundreds of travellers exiting the Victoria underground under the Terrorism Act. (Thanks!)

A retired Indian colonel dismissed my interviewer’s request to advance my job application at a Delhi-based micro-finance enterprise on the basis that because I was Pakistani, I was a “security threat”. London’s Indian embassy never issued my work visa for a research role in Karnataka assisting two top MIT and LBS finance professors.

After being issued a delayed student visa by the London US embassy, Bostonian airport officials welcomed me with pseudo-isolation. They sat me down with five other Pakistani international students but told an elderly lady, whom they were also subjecting to an enhanced screening, not to sit with us. Were they waiting for us to blow each other up? The upside was that we had prime seats to watch what I then jotted in my pad:

Obese American
trips over her less obese brother-in-law’s bag
She lies, arms useless
like a beached whale

I struggle not to laugh. Cracks of hippo proportions aside, Parisian airport staff gave me merde for arriving late for my flight to New York and travelling with only a carry-on. (Erm…okay, I concede that one.) A condescending British immigration officer refused to believe that the L.A. Foreign & Commonwealth Office had stapled two of my passports together and welcomed me back to the U.K. by calling me ‘ignorant’.

Even in my birth-town of Lahore, if I’m driving a Mehran (Maruti 800 to you), haven’t shaved and am wearing national garb, the guards at the Pace Shopping Plaza require a full-body check and the traffic police extort from me what they can. Tired of the ignominy of being Pakistani – even in Pakistan – I thought it time to try a virgin continent: Africa.

When the fair maids of Addis Ababa giggle rather than interrogate you as they paste in a new visa or when the immigration officer in Kigali claps your hand in welcome, you know you’ve arrived where you’re wanted.

My first night in Kigali, my new (crazy) Iranian-French-American housemate welcomed me with three parties, concluding at 4 am. Over the course of the night, we befriended a 26-year-old German who had ridden a ’75 Vespa to Rwanda from Hamburg via Africa’s most dangerous countries, including Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and the DRC. We also met Brazilian footballers practicing their profession here. And I started getting a taste for how everyone in this clean, safe, verdant and hilly city of a million knows not only everyone else in the city, but also many common friends abroad. Not including friends to whom I have been introduced, within two months I’ve randomly met 20 people with whom I have 40 common friends in various cities on both coasts of the USA, London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Djibouti, Kampala, Nairobi, Dubai, Lahore and Mumbai (your very own GQ India digital editor, Varun Bubber).
The single greatest thing about Kigali is that nobody’s given me jip for being Pakistani. One colleague told me that he appreciated how Pakistan stands up to the USA. (!) Rwandan Muslims – of which there are have been a rapidly growing number since 1994 – love meeting me.  Rwandans note the presence of Pakistani U.N. peace-keeping troops on their borders, although their ability to protect is debatable. Perhaps the only local hairdressers who can cut non-African hair are both Pakistani. The owner of the Manor Hotel, a local hotspot, is a jovial British Pakistani. He chose to invest in Kigali over Dubai in 2004 because of the country’s security (it was far from Muslim countries!), better prices and growth prospects founded on its shared border with an untapped resource-rich neighbour to the west.
Perhaps there will be more entrepreneurs like the hotelier investing in Rwanda for its location, as by 2014, trade barriers between East African Community members should drop, and Rwandan businesses should have free access to 135 million consumers.Even expats from other countries have positive associations of Pakistan. A Scottish economist, the second person I met here, was a student of a Lahori cousin at Oxford. A Danish neighbour volunteered in the wake of Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake and said the warmth with which he was received made his trip there the best of his life. A Spanish colleague relishes the conviviality of dinners in Pakistan. An older American who had been a third-generation resident of Pakistan enjoyed the country’s arts scene and knew my father’s late cousin, a producer.
Am I speaking too soon, or have I found a place where it’s not de rigueur to apologise for being born on the left side of Radcliffe’s line?
Imaduddin Ahmed is British and Pakistani, works in development and finance and tweets at @ImadAhmed

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