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GUEST POST: Traveling While African On A Kenyan Passport

By Mark Karanja

Traveling while African can be a pain and it all starts with visa denied.

I am enraged by my position, because this is the second time I am here.

I dared believe that I was somehow different from those I stand with in the land of the undesirables. Those of us who hold the all true blue Kenyan passport, that repels Western visas like no other.

I will start from the beginning.

I am a social introvert. Simple social encounters are reduced to managing awkward stares and inappropriate questions often hurled at me. So over the last couple of years I have found myself relying heavily on the internet to form connections with people all across the world. It is easier there. It is a wonderful world of possibilities online. I have formed meaningful, even long lasting bonds with digital penpals turned good friends.

My first real online liaison quickly turned romantic. It was with a splendid Spaniard who insisted I should move to his country immediately and we would tie the knot. I was young, 20 and the prospect of a happily ever after with my very own real life Lothario was too good to pass up. So I said yes.

I was on the cusp, living out my fantasy. I insisted I would not move just for the sake of love, but I also needed to continue with my studies. I was a second year in college. So after accelerated Spanish classes, and a long but successful process of gathering all the requisite documents, payments, bookings and successfully registering at an accredited institution in Spain, I was finally in a position to apply for my visa.

Suffice to say, I did not get the visa. Reason? Insufficient documentation. This was after months spent gathering, posting, printing, translating, notarizing and presenting heaps upon heaps of documents, not to mention the anxious forty-five day wait to find out my status. It was a hellish time crowned by a letter of denial tossed at me to sign before I could even read it. My passport equally disrespected and I was summarily dismissed.

I did try to appeal, but my appeal was never officially accepted. Instead, I got a

Please tell that monkey he will never get a visa here’ courtesy thrown at me by a Spanish lady in charge of document collection at the embassy. Her black African colleague seemed proud of herself while handing me the letter of denial, in a language I had spent the better part of four months studying day and night. I understood what she said. But what can you do when you are twenty, alone in a cold embassy lobby, disoriented by dreams coming to a screeching halt and the sting of racial slur hurled at you? Nothing!

Cut to August 2016. A new friendship is budding between me and yet another online friend. He is from Sweden. We have been friends for quite a while now and spend protracted periods chatting about everything from the world economy, to the immigration crisis in his home country to what men prefer, boxers or briefs.

The idea of a visit has been thrown about casually in conversation once or twice and the consensus has always been it is much easier for him to travel to Kenya. He does not need to apply for a visa before leaving the Swedish territory and I would have to go through the hellish ordeal of applying for a Schengen visa and a hefty sum of money in fees.

Out of curiosity, my friend insisted on seeing the criteria, to ascertain how difficult the process was.  I found the Swedish embassy link and sent it to him. Not so much, he thought.

So, in yet another hugely stupid leap of faith, I agreed to apply for a friends and family visa, aided by my real Swedish friend. I had been burned before; I should have been more apprehensive. But the bad experience was five years ago and clearly time heals wounds. I still maintained a healthy sense of scepticism and did not tell any of my friends of my decision to apply for a visa as I went about the affair quietly.

I felt this time it would be different. It was remarkably different. I was older and wiser, and I knew what I was doing. And just to be sure of the fact, I enlisted the assistance of a travel agent whose sole duty it was to make sure I had all the documents I needed, to dream up any and all unforeseeable problems in the horizon that would lead to my visa being denied.

‘The Swedes love paperwork, and I have more than enough’

Picture, all 65kgs of me strutting confidently into the VFS visa offices in Westlands to officially apply for my visa. Carrying an entire folder of documents that I had been working on getting and preparing for the better part of two weeks. The VFS setup suited me well, as the Swedish embassy is one of the many embassies, which has now outsourced the visa application services.

Which means, when you apply for a visa, you are not asked insensitive questions by an older, cynical, mildly racist pasty man who judges purely on the merit of the presented document. You become a file number. Nothing better than taking the emotion out of bureaucracy.

I sat impatiently as I observed those who came before fumbling over the application process. It seemed all the people on that day were applying for a Swedish visa. The clerk at the Sweden desk was visibly irritated as he kept sending people back with instructions. I sat there, cocky because the previous night, I sat with my documents splayed on a large table, checking and counter checking the spellings, the consistency of my signature and all that I needed, with my travel agent assistant on the other end of the phone.

It was soon my turn, and as I suspected, my process was a lot faster. The clerk was impressed as he ticked the documents I presented against an application compliance checklist. My two weeks of running around gathering letters of recommendations from my employers, digging up my files for my employment contracts, supporting documents from Sweden and being entirely anal about the process was about to pay off. I cracked a joke with the clerk. ‘The Swedes love paperwork, and I have more than enough’, he agreed and we laughed. I was further buoyed by the clerk’s amazement at the state of the documents presented. How could I not get this?

Unlike the Spanish student visa ordeal which took 45 days, the Swedish response came faster. On day fifteen of fifteen expected processing days, I was called to go collect my passport at the VFS center. It was a Friday afternoon, and even though I was anxious and excited about the outcome, I waited till Monday to collect it. My Swedish friend and I filled the weekend with light prediction talk. I also went out to take the edge off.

Monday morning I rushed to VFS centre with confidence in my step. I looked at the other poor souls in the visa application hall and felt pity. Most of them had no idea how to go about the process. But I did. I had time, an assistant, piles upon piles of supporting documents and past mistakes to learn from. I had learned the hard way how to do this.

Upon handing my application receipt at the passport collection desk, I got a sealed document which seemed to contain more than just my small passport. I knew my fate at once and had to work hard to steady myself while I tried to coolly walk away from the passport collection desk.

I wondered whether it showed on my face, but the confidence was gone. I felt deflated, insignificant, hit by a sudden wave of déjà vu. But unlike the last time when I had been alone to deal with an injustice to me, I had an entire room of onlookers, who did not know their fate but might have been trying to speculate mine, or had walked in my shoes and knew the meaning of the face I wore.

After spending eternity in the bathroom reading and rereading my letter of rejection, I headed home. I tried not to berate myself. But it is hard not to. I should have known better.

Even with a mountain of paperwork I was not guaranteed entry into the elite club of visa holders. Those very precious little stickers and stamps that suddenly elevate the lowly blue Kenyan passport to a seemingly higher status. It did not help in the least that my excess of paperwork worked to my disadvantage.

Apparently, having three steady employers was translated into ‘working as a freelance writer’ and further went on to quote the high levels of joblessness to a man who held three! I laughed mostly out of impotent anger.

What do you do when you have presented an almost perfect dossier of documents, with assurances upon assurances of financial solvency and a guarantee to return to your country of origin from not only yourself but by your host and your employers? You realise you are not as helpless or clueless as you were five years ago. There are ways around this or through this, you just need to stand still and think. You also remember you have a voice, and you can talk about this heart stabbing, knife twisting experience.

It is more painful the second time round because, just like most young Africans, I am a member of the global village thanks to the power of internet and media. We foster the illusion that Milan is just a whim away and summers in San Francisco are not to be missed. I should simply just pick a date and do it.

The most insidious thing of all about this exposure to worlds beyond our eyes is the exclusivity of it. You get punched breathless by the realisation that you cant just up and be there.

You have to be from a certain class, with a certain amount of money or doing a certain jobs to expect to be admitted in.

 It is perfectly fine to think of the world as a global village, as long as you do not want to be a part of it, or claim your freedom of movement. Then you come to terms with the real status of an African passport.

Sex and age also have an important role to play in the decision of your plea to join the club. A teacher once laughed in my face when I expressed my interest in studying in Lyon, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. She flatly told me they would never let me in. Apparently black males of my age pose a serious security threat to their European hosts. There was another reason.

I had not demonstrated sufficient ties to return to the country upon the expiry of my visa. Apparently, being a single twenty something year old Kenyan male with no business of my own, a large extended family or millions in the bank was a serious offence. I suppose my working hard every day at my various jobs was not enough. It would seem the irrational fear of the young black male is not only in America but all over the Western lands.

I have had several lamentable discussions with my apologist foreign friends who don’t have a clue of the subtle nuances of racism. They have never had their intellect called to question because of their race, or gotten the milder condescending remark of ‘you are very intelligent for a Kenyan’ or ‘you speak beautifully for a Kenyan’ and what is supposed to pass as compliment, ‘I could hardly tell that you were Kenyan’.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    They do not understand the tedious processes of trying to travel overseas while African. Apparently, African youth cannot just pop into a plane and visit a friend over in Europe because they want to.

It is perfectly fine to think of the world as a global village, as long as you do not want to be a part of it, or claim your freedom of movement. Then you come to terms with the real status of an African passport.

I can’t just hop on a plane and go where the wind and my ‘saved up tips as a waiter’ will take me. I don’t have the luxury of taking an entire year off, backpacking through the silk trail, checking off sights in tropical paradise in search of a summer romance.

Even with a visa, it would not guarantee access into some of these countries I would like to visit some day because it is still a novelty for border officials to be an African tourist in parts of Europe.

I have known the humiliation of getting profiled as a criminal for expressing the slightest interest in experiencing the world out there. A world that is shoved down our throats on a daily basis and where are urged to belong and assimilate.

If, in the future, I do decide to apply for another visa, and pass the scrutiny test,  I will remember Nigerian writer Elnathan John’s advice shared on twitter,

“A good African traveler is one who returns. One who leaves Europe or America quickly. The embassies love them. Good African doesn’t move”.

 

Mark Allan Karanja is young Kenyan content developer living and working in Nairobi. He works  as TV drama scriptwriter and has enjoyed credits for  popular shows on Kenyan television.  He is also a liberal thinking person holding an African passport.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.

6 Comments

  1. Ruby Omondi

    I have read this while at work and I love it. I love it because I can relate to it on so many levels.
    1. I am also a social introvert.
    2. I met someone online. A German. And we’ve been talking for a while now. Even the idea of a visit was casually mentioned. He was to come cos it’s the easiest option as in your case. To cut it short, I’m now collecting documents and preparing.
    But I have heard enough heart breaking stories to know that I should be a little hopeful but expect the rejection.

  2. Erick Wabwire

    Hi,
    Lovely piece by Mark Karanja, that’s a wake up call for us; African youth with dreams of traveling the world. Global village sarcasm.

  3. I hear you Mark.. I thank God my first experience with visas was while working for an airline and since then i’ve never had a problem applying for them. It is a form of racism.. a friend of mine told me about how Nigeria resolved this.. there was a time the US were denying Nigerian Nationals visas for no apparent reason.. Nigerian immigration officials started denying American businessmen entry into the Country and before you know it Nigerians started getting American visas again.. Kenya needs to do the same. Hit them where it hurts, but we are langas, we accept everyone at our borders regardless of how their countries treat us..

    • We should build a wall

    • Chris Kililo

      It is very true. As much as my experience with Visas was okay because i work for a recognized institution, we should start denying these people visas so that they know the pain of rejection the way Us Africans have to deal with it.
      Everyone wishes to travel and explore the world, the west dont have to be so mean about this.
      However, on a lighter note, the far east is sooooo inviting 🙂 why not give them the pleasure of having us visit.

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