*Visa Free Africa: Revitalizing the Concept of Mobility across the African ContinentThe much-awaited day was finally here. On the 5th of December 2016, my father chauffeured me to the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Aiport of Mauritius. Throughout the entire road journey that leads to the airport, I kept babbling about the iconic landmarks I intended to visit during my stay in Marrakesh. My father responded with occasional approbatory nods. His mouth was curved in a broad smile whilst his eyes remained glued to the seemingly endless winding paths ahead of us.
Two weeks earlier, I had learnt of my full sponsorship award to represent my native country, the Republic of Mauritius, at the “Morocco Forum for Adolescent and Youth Human Rights driving Sustainable Development”. The prestigious scholarship donor was the United Nations. From then on, I was basking in the pride of being an ambassador of Mauritius at an international youth conference. I was eager to meet other conference participants from different walks of life and embark on a steep learning curve journey. It was also my first time envisaging travel to a Northern African country.
Upon arrival at the airport’s departure terminal, we hurried to the check-in desk even though I had three solid hours before boarding. Seated behind the counter was a lady, possibly in her mid-twenties. Her hair was tied in a neat bun and her smile exposed her perfectly aligned teeth. I timidly greeted her and provided her my travel documents. She skimmed through my passport and glanced up at me. “You need a visa for Morocco”, she said. “Yes, I know”, I replied. I further explained to her my purpose for traveling to Morocco and pointed out that the conference organizer, the United Nations, had arranged for my visa on arrival. In an attempt to support my explanations, I handed her the duly-signed visa sponsorship letter, conference invitation form along with email trails I had exchanged with the conference’s logistical officers. I silently thanked my lucky stars that I had printed all these documents. From time to time, she furtively shot me a blank stare while leafing through them.
After a couple of minutes that seemed like an eternity, she said, “Our flag carrier runs the risk of bearing huge penalties in case you are denied entry in Morocco. So, I shall call the airport authorities in Morocco to ensure your visa on arrival documents have indeed been arranged for. We have had too many cases of Mauritians having been rejected in the past for a visa once they arrived at the Moroccan ports of entry.” Too baffled at this unexpected turn of events, I mumbled an inaudible “Okay” and moved to the side of the check-in counter. As the clock ticked away, I clutched harder at my passport with my sweaty palms. My mind was rapidly racing through the myriad of possibilities of what could happen next. I kept wishing that there was an embassy of Morocco in Mauritius where I could have obtained a travel visa beforehand. I fixated the ground staff and each time I found her hands wrapped around her phone, I strained my ears to listen to the conservation. Later, when we narrated the story to other family members and close friends, my father admitted that his legs had turned into jelly at this point.
After a countless number of passengers had checked in, the ground staff signaled us to come over to the counter. She informed me that her co-workers in Morocco could not find any visa procedures that had been initiated for me by the United Nations’ staff. “I am sorry. But, you cannot board this evening’s flight to Morocco”, she said. A wave of adrenaline swept over me and my heart pounded so hard in my chest I thought it would explode. My father, aware of the sacrifices I went through to be able obtain this merit-based sponsorship, pleaded vainly with the ground staff to allow me board the flight.
As soon as I regained my composure, I called one of the program organizers who regretfully informed me that there had indeed been some last-minute bureaucratic issues while handling the visa procedures for a group of participants. Like me, many other participants were unable to catch their respective flights to Morocco. Some of them had traveled during several days from their African villages to reach their closest international airports. This is the farthest they made through in their journey to the land of hammams, deserts and olives. The sole comforting thought that occurred to me was that I lived on an island whose size was comparable to a tiny dot in the Indian Ocean and thus, my home was reachable after a mere half-hour drive from the airport.
The next day, I canceled my annual leaves at work and resumed duty. Since then, catching a flight to go to another African country is an ordeal for me. I believe it is a nightmare for many other fellow African brothers and sisters. Whether we will make it to our intracontinental destination remains a question mark until we physically get there. Sadly, in an era where globalization dawns upon us, Africa’s seamless integration remains an improbable dream. In my opinion, all African countries should mimic Seychelles’ visa liberalization policy and provide free access to all other African nations. Increased mobility will follow. Africa’s population is the youngest amongst all the continents and it is of utmost importance that all Africans enjoy access to better educational opportunities and more competitive labor markets. From a realistic perspective, Africa will not transform into a visa free continent for its citizens overnight. As goes the dictum “old habits die hard”. It may take a while for the ugly bureaucratic norms to fade away. Nevertheless, more than ever, the transformation into a visa free Africa demands to be initiated today.
*I first became aware of borders at ten years old, on a road-trip from Malawi to South Africa by way of Botswana. We spent hours at borders, tucked in lines between fellow agitated travelers, waiting to have our passports stamped and our entry manually logged into the books. The queues in Zimbabwe were particularly long- our transit in the country made even longer by the fuel crisis. Be this as it may have, because we only crossed SADC territory, the trip simulated the closest thing the I have since experienced to borderlessness. As Malawian nationals, we belonged. We navigated the Southern African region with little difficulty. At ten, I was learning that depending on what passport you held, the world’s demarcations could be porous.
In the years that followed I applied for Visas to visit Western countries- England, Germany, and then the United States for my university education. I learned how dehumanizing the process of moving about in the world could be. How reductive and intrusive. Unlike my stint of geopolitical comradery with South Africa, I encountered borders in new ways. I was no longer eligible for exemption- I was automatically under suspicion.
I discovered what it was to stand in long, painfully slow Visa lines, folder-in-hand, shifting my weight this way and that, hoping I had everything the application required. Proof of residence. Proof of birth. Proof of funds. Proof of invitation. Parental consent. Proof that my family was staying behind in my country of origin. Proof that I did not and had neither endorsed nor ever been associated with a terrorist group. Proof that I admired their country enough to wish it no harm, but not too much that I would try to stay. I navigated the Western immigration authorities with relative ease. With each application that I survived, I breathed a little easier in the next. That is, until I applied for a visitor’s visa to teach in South Africa as part of a fellowship.
When I submitted my application in May 2018, I was in the United States of America, where I was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Because I wasn’t applying from my home country, the process was tangled up in a set of geopolitical intricacies that proved that even the strongest trade bloc could not shield me from the impossibilities of navigating Africa with an African passport.
International students studying in the United States of America on F-1 Visas have sixty days to leave the country after they graduate before they are out of status. Mine were set to run out on July 19th, 2018. By July 16th, I was still in America, had no flight booked, and was yet to receive my passport from the South African consulate. Phone calls went unanswered, and the few times that they were, there wasn’t progress.
“We can send you your passport back, ma’am, with or without the Visa,” said a voice I’d grown familiar with. It was abrasive, curt- unbothered by my angst.
I’d planned to leave the United States shortly after my graduation in May to attend the African Leadership Academy Indaba in South Africa. The Indaba presented an opportunity for me to reconnect with a network of young, dedicated African leaders who are committed to Africa’s growth. As a young woman entering the workforce, it was a space in which to posture myself towards collaborative connections on the continent. However, there I was, stuck in Maryland. Moreover, I was, in Trump’s America, on the brink of being there illegally.
By July, I’d been forced to move from my college-town in Massachusetts to Ellicott City, Maryland, where I lived with my Aunt Eunice while I waited anxiously for the outcome of my application. Aunt Eunice is a fast-tongued woman from Kenya whom I’ve known since I was 12 years old when she and her family lived in Malawi. They live in the U.S. now, and are no foreigners to the hair splitting processes of moving from one country to another.
As had become a ritual after my daily calls to the consulate, I spent hours commiserating with Aunt Eunice.
“Weh!” she would exclaim, “This is not good! How can they not give you a clear answer?!” When Aunt Eunice spoke, Kikuyu words and phrases fell off of her lips at random intervals like short, intercessory prayers made in secret on my behalf.
I ended up missing the Indaba, but making it to South Africa eventually, right in the nick of time. Regardless of my eventual success, the process left me on my knees, and completely undid the sense of comradery I’d felt visiting South Africa as a ten-year-old. I was no longer under the illusion that I was African and by virtue of this fact, a welcome visitor to this country. If anything, amid reports of xenophobic violence that peppered the news, and the apparent commitment of the South African immigration services to frustrate my efforts to move here, I was newly aware that in many ways- real and imagined- I was undesired.
I am not naive to the fact that the arduousness of my Visa application to South Africa is part of discourse- part of a long history of the immigration of black Africans into this country, part of the consequence of the South African apartheid state, and its continual and colossal failing of black people, in particular. I cannot think of immigration here without historicizing it, and without understanding the socio-political forces that have shaped it into the exclusionary, othering bureaucracy it is. But I also cannot help but grieve it, and how it consistently confronts me with how real the manifestation of something as constructed as a geopolitical border are. Borders aren’t real, and yet they are.
Our national identities are constructed, but constructed things live, breathe, and have being. They decide who has access to which resources, and uphold historical emphases of difference. They shape the stories we tell of ourselves, of others and cement the rifts between us.
*SOUTH AFRICA: A TALE OF A PROCESSING VISA‘158. Number 158, please step to the counter’
The sound of the attendant’s bored voice snapped me out of my reverie. I was number 160 and if I didn’t pay attention, I would forget to answer. I had entered a place I liked to call my ‘if only I could world’ but this time instead of some farfetched dream, it was a dream that was so close I could almost hear the judge’s strange accent asking if I thought imposing liability on social media was a good decision – policy wise and in concordance with current practice. I could feel the pressure of the eyes of the audience waiting for my answer, could see my practiced smile falter and at that very moment it would feel like my hair was falling out of the carefully constructed bun I had spent hours in front of the mirror packing.
However, I digress, even till now it’s easy to fall into the dreams when all that had happened in the end was me lying on the floor of my living room spaced out and wondering what exactly happened.
That day was the 18th of January, 2019 and I was sitting down with my friend and fellow traveler on uncomfortable iron benches, which for some reasons businesses insisted on having, waiting for our numbers to be called at the VFS Global office, Ikate to submit my visa application. We had spent 13 long hours the day before on the road, had just been scammed by touts on the roadside, insulted for holding up the queue at the ATM, and were still wiping the sweat off our brows though we were already inside the overly air conditioned room but that all paled in comparison to the excitement I was feeling.
The Regional Rounds of the Oxford University Price Media Moot Competition holding in University of Johannesburg, South Africa, I couldn’t help a little smile as I thought of it.
The process of applying was easy and systematic and of course, through the process, I told all the attendants and everyone who sat next to me where I was going and for what, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to South Africa too.’ Insert hair twirl ‘We’re going for the Oxford University Price Media Moot Competition. The Regional Rounds’, trying to sound indifferent but hoping they would pick up on my emphasis.
The man next to me informed me that there had been delays with visas; this was confirmed by the attendant who made us sign a waiver that our visas may not be ready in a week. However, I was not to be deterred, there were over three weeks till the 12th of February, my planned departure date. I left VFS Global, my bag filled with visa documents grinning like a mad man and praying like a zealot.
I went back to university with dreams of South Africa. I had missed and was missing classes so I could get approval documents for school ready to get consent to leave. I was going to miss my mid-semesters for this competition and would have to retake them but it was all going to be worth it. I remember sitting in the lecture hall, academic knowledge passing through one ear and out the other, researching weather conditions; it was going to rain. I should probably pack an umbrella, I thought.
I’m not sure when the anxiety set in, maybe it was when my professor made a general statement that the South African embassy does not grant visas to Nigerians or maybe it was even before then. I do remember waking up, rolling out of bed annoyed that I had a 7’o clock lecture and checking my phone only to realize it was the 1st of February, the month of the competition and I still had no visa.
My friend was also starting to worry and since we couldn’t both be distraught, I had to be the voice of calm and optimism. ‘There’s still time, let’s just keep practicing’ but the sinking feeling in my chest was now a crater sized hole. One day, she told me that she, along with students from other universities who were also participating, had sent an email to the Head of Mission; the subject was ‘Please help us achieve our dreams’. There was no reply.
Desperate and approaching the deadline, we tried to contact people who could have links within the embassy but no one knew anyone. Finally, we got a number given to us by a friend of a friend. We weren’t sure who the person was or if he was actually legit but we were desperate students trying not to give up on a dream we had spent sleepless nights on. He told us he could get our visas ready and buy our tickets too at a cheap price and that he was an official in the High Commission. We were scared but to allay our fears, we checked his True Caller profile; it said South African High Commission. We decided we were just being worrywarts and sent half of the amount. A few bad decisions later, he scammed us of N150, 000. We stared at each other in utter silence.
However, we were determined this was not going to be the end; there was still a week to go. We sent more emails and finally, a professor contacted the travel and logistics department in our university and they assured us they would help. I was sitting in my Conflict of Laws class when my friend pops her head in and mouths the words ‘We got it’. My heart beat so fast and so loud, I was sure no one could hear my lecturer over the din.
I met her later in the hallway ‘Apparently, there was a miscommunication, there is no visa.’
We followed up on the other contacts we had and finally, it seemed as if there was a breakthrough. According to ‘our guy’, we were definitely going to get the visa so all we had to do was go to the South African High Commission in the morning of the 12th and collect it then leave to South Africa on a night flight. It sounded simple enough and I slept with dreams of a featureless but somehow attractive black South African boy.
We left in the morning of the 12th of February, 2019 but not before I had seen the dean and he made me stand in front of my entire class and prayed for me: a thoroughly embarrassing but uplifting experience. He let me leave after some good natured teasing on decorum, calling me ‘SA girl’.
After running around in circles, we finally found the South African High Commission, a nondescript building with no marking other than a lonely South African flag on a pole waving lazily. We located the gate and promptly informed the guards with a haughty air that we were here to check if our visas were ready and collect it and they promptly gave us a big fat NO. They told us what we already knew, there was going to be a text from VFS stating that our passports were ready for collection and then we would go there and pick it up. We know that, we argued, but it was the day of the trip and there was still no text and besides ‘our guy’ had told us to come here and pick up the visas. After a roundabout argument that ended in a stalemate, we got in the car and headed to Ikate, the place it all began, well at least where the visa application began.
At VFS Global, we arrived minutes to the close of work and were informed that we needed to write a letter to the Consul General through VFS. We had already sent emails, we argued over and over but lo and behold, that was not the proper method and we needed to submit a letter and a different email to a different email address. We scrambled to get together a hasty letter with the sounds of my mother and the vendor haggling over our heads threatening to, and at that point I was sure it would, drive me insane and then begged the guards to be let in so we could submit it. In our minds, we hoped the visa would be processed within the day and out by the next day so we could catch the night flight to South Africa. Looking back, we might have gotten a little delusional from the heat.
We had made plans to meet at VFS the next day, the 13th of February. The competition officially started 14th and if we were granted the visa, we could hopefully still make it. My dad had to take me to his office first while my friend went on ahead to VFS to collect the visa hopefully. I remember sitting in the hot car fuming at my dad for not taking me straight there when she called.
‘The embassy is closed because of elections’ Please let this be an inappropriate joke.
‘What does that even mean?’
‘It means no visa’ I could hear the defeat in her voice. I could see her in my mind’s eye, probably leaning against a wall with a sad smile ‘I’m going to go eat, Chioma. I’m hungry.’ I’m not sure who ended the call.
The news didn’t really hit me till I was on my bed at home and finally it happened, I felt like I was falling down a deep dark hole and I couldn’t shout for help and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to. My chest started to hurt really badly almost as if someone held it in a viselike grip, I was short of breath and I started hyperventilating. I was having a panic attack.
I had had panic attacks since I was a kid but they had stopped after a while, certain times I had been at the precipice but now after years, I finally fell over the cliff. It was just a visa but in that moment, it felt like a stain on my future and I was just sure that every endeavor I participated in would be a similar disappointment and I would never be able to achieve anything in life. The tears rolled down my face as I ignored a phone call from one of my professors who was obviously calling about the trip.
My friend proceeded to write a post about it on LinkedIn and the company commented with another email that we should send our request to. I must have still been delusional because I sent it, though what I hoped would happen, I’m not sure. There was however feedback; an email which stated that my visa was still processing and in my opinion, was the tiniest bit snarky.
My friend and I weren’t the only ones affected, it affected all the other universities (four that I knew of with at least two participants each) that had hoped to go and couldn’t, even the ones who had applied for a visa months before our application and after further research, I learnt from an online newspaper that the shutting down of the High Commission affected even a lot more people who were left without visas costing them the opportunity to travel whether it was for leisure or work.
The worst part of having to deal with the fact that your dream has been crushed is informing other people and reliving every moment of it. Friends, well wishers and people who knew my name asked me cheerfully how the trip was and I had to go ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t go. They’re still processing my visa.’ They would be confused and wonder if that meant I would be going later and I would have to explain how the competition had already been held and how some other people were probably the winners.
However, the processing visa did not forever remain a processing visa and I got the text to pick it up on the 7th of March, weeks after the competition and my mental processing of the disappointment had passed. My friend went to pick it up and the visas were denied. Reason: event dates have passed. She sent me a picture and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, I think I settled on a smile a la The Mona Lisa style.
This event shaped a part of me and if I had let it might have in ways destroyed me but after a few good curse fests with my friends, I decided to look at the positive aspects and hopefully this essay is one of them. However, as I’m writing this essay, the comment that keeps ringing in my mind is that of my father’s friend after he found out ‘Ah, is it not just South Africa? South Africa, that is in our backyard.’
For media outlets interested in publishing these articles/interviewing the winners please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Not to be republished without the explicit approval of Visa Free Africa organizers.