Your visa has been denied.’
‘My visa? Has been denied? But…why?’
‘I don’t know.’ The woman behind the glass shrugs as a trace of sympathy flits across her face. Faint enough to leave her professional detachment unruffled. Perceptible enough to assure me that she’s not a humanoid robot powered by piles of paper and applicants’ exasperation. That’s good to know. Robots make me nervous. But it does nothing for the fact that my flight is leaving – at this rate, without me – in 24 hours. I take a deep breath, careful to keep my tone calm and expression neutral. These are border blues. Can’t shoot the messenger, or anyone for that matter – you have no shots in this power dynamic. The only option is to appeal and hope for the best.
‘Can I speak to the person who handled my application?’ The woman disappears and returns after a few minutes. ‘She said she’s busy. You can phone her.’ She slides me a number and I trudge outside, dreading the conversation with this faceless officer. Perhaps she is The Robot, that’s why I can’t see her in person, an imposing but efficient machine strapped together with miles of red tape…
My suspicions are soon confirmed. ‘You did not provide a valid proof of address for your host,’ she barks down the line, her blatant hostility causing my stomach to sink even further. I am arriving two days before my work engagement begins, and will be staying with a friend, whose lease I submitted along with my application. I point this out. ‘Yes,’ comes the response, ‘But there was a witness signature missing on the lease.’
It’s the last answer I was expecting to hear. I’m struck speechless for a couple of seconds as I struggle to compute the reasoning. How can an entire visa be denied without warning because of one missing witness signature on a lease – despite the signature of the lessor, lessee and other witnesses, despite this extra stay constituting only a tiny portion of my trip, despite the rest of my documents being in impeccable order? It’s vaguely comical, but the maddening inconvenience of it all pre-empts any laughter.
‘Can I submit an alternative proof of address?’
‘No. Your file has been closed. You must submit another application.’
I try to appeal. ‘I’m not here to negotiate with you,’ she snaps. Her tone gets increasingly irate until, mid-conversation, she hangs up. I am officially back to square one.
As life’s delights go, visa-related red tape is right up there with root canals and Rick Ross. But it’s an integral part of life for holders of African passports. We are all-too-familiar with the tediousness of ticking one’s way through a relentless list of visa requirements ranging from your great-grandmother’s fingerprints to a sample of unicorn blood.
It’s just gotten even more outrageous for our West African brothers and sisters – if you’re a Nigerian or Ghanaian hoping to visit the UK after November 2013, prepare to part with a bond of £3,000 in order to get your visa (see also allafrica.com’s opinion piece: £3,000 UK Visa Bond – Is Government Huffing and Puffing?). Immigration struggles feature prominently in Chimamanda Adichie’s new novel, Americanah, in which a romance is torn apart by border blues. One character of Nigerian citizenship finds himself living underground in London after overstaying his tourist visa, while another feels “suddenly, guiltily grateful that she had a blue American passport in her bag. It shielded her from choicelessness.”
It is this feeling that appeals to most Africans I know who have applied for European or North American passports, driven not by a desire for a different identity, but for a different degree of convenience. Anyone would be grateful to be rid of that nervous discomfort you feel as you approach the visa desk, the uncertainty about whether this stranger behind the counter will be pleasant or obnoxious, helpful or unreasonable, and the knowledge that there’s little you can do about it either way.
Well, there is always at least one option. You could stay home. That was the choice made by Bousso Dramé, a Senegalese woman who won a language competition organised by the French Institute in Dakar. Her prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Paris, to take part in a documentary film-making training along the themes of human rights and global citizenry. As it turned out, the French Institute would have been well advised to offer that training to its own employees, and to those of the French consulate who treated Dramé with so much contempt that she eventually turned down the trip and wrote a public letter to explain her decision:
“It is high time for Africans to respect themselves and to demand they be respected by others…An all-expenses-paid trip, even the world’s most beautiful and enchanting one, is not worth the suffering that my fellow citizens and myself endure from the French Consulate…the pain of enduring these kinds of behaviour unfortunately widespread under African skies. As a matter of coherence with my own value system, I have, therefore, decided to renounce that offer, despite being granted a visa. Renounce symbolically. Renounce in the name of those thousands of Senegalese who deserve respect, a respect they are being denied within the walls of these French representations, and on Senegalese soil moreover.”
Her letter made the rounds on the internet, instantly striking a chord with Africans all over the world. Many of us have no doubt experienced the urge to tell certain consulates exactly where to stick it, but for various reasons – in my case and probably most people’s, work or study obligations – we instead take a deep breath and suck it up. Oppression thrives on this dynamic, the knowledge that we need or want something the oppressor has, and in our efforts to get it, will swallow the bitter pill of disrespect.
So when Dramé spat it out, sacrificing a prestigious trip that she had desired in defence of dignity, her action assumed heroic status. A flurry of online comments added up to a resounding ‘Bravo’, a seemingly universal consensus on the need for Africans to stand up against the institutionalised racism that oozes from foreign consulates.
But absent from most of this conversation was a consideration of how we as Africans treat each other when it comes to immigration. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), ‘Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements. This situation is even more restricted for Africans traveling within Africa, as compared to Europeans and North Americans’.
The experience I recounted above was not from a European or American consulate, but from the South African embassy. Immigration woes have been a frequent companion throughout my life of intra-continental travel, beginning in infancy when my mother and I spent a few days stuck in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, denied entry into Kenya until she could obtain a passport for two week-old me. The eclectic album of border blues that I have since experienced pales in comparison to other stories out there. And in many of these cases, the people responsible for inflicting border blues were not technically outside the law. They were following rules and regulations – sometimes with malicious relish, yes – but at the end of the day, immigration officials are simply faces of a rigid bureaucracy that has embraced hand-me-down tools of divide and rule.
Consider the history of borders. Starting with the Berlin Conference of 1884 when seven European countries carved the continent up into pieces, Africa was gradually broken up into an illogical clatter of nation-states, the borders of which had no regard for historical groupings and identities, and would shift depending on what was most politically and economic expedient for the colonising country. At different points during the first half of the century, for example, Burkina Faso was part of Cote D’Ivoire, Niger, Mali and Senegal, before eventually coagulating as the Republic of Upper Volta.
In the early 1960s, as more African states gained ‘independence’ and moved towards the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, border blues drove one of the earliest rifts in continental politics. The ‘Casablanca group’ of states led by Kwame Nkrumah advocated a radical approach to African unification, while the ‘Monrovia group’ led by the President of Liberia called for a more conservative approach, one that held the borders of nation-states in higher esteem.
The Monrovia group won, and one of the first resolutions of the OAU was to endorse colonial borders. 50 years later, the African Union (AU) celebrated Africa Border Day for the first time, declaring the need to turn barriers into bridges, to see a well-defined border as something that ‘opens the door rather than closes it; allows for a healthy process of cooperation and integration’.
But despite these noble ideas, there are only five African countries – Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique, Rwanda and Seychelles – that have opened the proverbial door, allowing all Africans either to enter without visas or to obtain visas upon arrival. On average, Africans need to apply in advance for visas to enter 60% of other African countries, with East Africans requiring the most visas despite being the world’s second most open sub-region.
This openness comes with tangible benefits. The AfDB points out that Rwanda has witnessed a 24% spike in tourism from other African countries since it adopted the continent’s most liberal migration policy in January 2013. Leave aside the ideological politics of free movement within our continent – according to the Bank, relaxing intra-Africa immigration restrictions will have tremendous economic benefits for tourism, trade and skills transfer.
But still we cling to borders. These arbitrary lines of division have been used to inflict disrespect and inconvenience – remember the diplomatic showdown between Nigeria and South Africa over yellow fever vaccination cards? – not to mention downright inhumanity on Africans moving within the continent. It seems to me what infiltrates our psyche even deeper than colonial geography is the spirit that inspired the origin of borders: the violence of competition for survival, perceptions of superiority and inferiority, selective openness determined by levels of perceived threat and/or historical animosity.
These dynamics are not an overseas phenomenon. They are alive and well amongst us, sustained by social mind-sets; borders merely arm them with institutional teeth. So as we throw stones at foreign consulates, we might do well to reflect on the fact that our own walls are made of glass.