Not welcome here: Travelling while African
Welcome to a new series of articles, guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola, exploring what it means to travel as black and African.
This is the first essay in the six-part series guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola. Additional editing by Ayodeji Rotinwa. Illustrations by Diana Ejaita.
Travel has changed so much in the last 30 years.
Millennials in Nairobi were the last generation to experience the viewing deck at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport; when you could take the circular route 34 bus all the way to the airport just to watch the planes take off and land and call it an afternoon out. My first international flight in the early 2000s was around the last time that family and friends could walk travellers all the way to the gate. Gen Z travellers may be startled to learn that less than three decades ago you didn’t need to take off your shoes or belt to go through airport security, and no one cared if you had a full tube of toothpaste in your carry on luggage.
Many of the changes in the global travel experience are attributed to the threat of terrorism and the need to make global travel more secure. But there are things that some of us experience through the process that are deeper than that: ritual humiliations that have been introduced to the process of travel that are designed to remind us that we are outsiders and unwelcome.
We are the ones who need certified bank statements covering a three-month period and proof of home ownership just to set foot on the embassy grounds. We are the ones who get pulled aside for “random searches” every time we enter certain airports. We are the ones who need a letter from our fathers or suitable male relatives to apply for tourist visas. We come from the countries where global airlines send old planes that rock and rattle through take off before our dinner service featuring dry bread and off brand cola. We are ones who get yelled at by the cabin crew instead of spoken to kindly. We are the ones who lose entire days at the visa application centre scrambling to prove that we are not trying to run away.
On their own, they might be reasoned away as petty indignities that are not worth dwelling on, but the cumulative experience – going through these micro-aggressions every time you plan to take a holiday or attend a conference abroad, every time you go back to your university abroad after a vacation, every time you go even begin to dream about international travel – the cumulative experience if left unexamined and unprocessed weighs us down and changes the way we experience the world.
Over the last 25 or 30 years, the unspoken consensus in other parts of the world has been to raise the bar on international travel for Africans so high that only those who absolutely need to will brave the embassy experience, let alone make their way through the airports. A Kenyan passport holder needs 6 weeks to apply for a visa for Ecuador; Thailand does not allow Nigerian women to travel as tourists without proof of permission from their husbands and fathers. Yet the reciprocal has never been true. With a handful of stand-out exceptions, Africa has remained open to the world, even as the doors, gates and drawbridges have been slammed shut against us.
We started collecting these essays in what feels like a completely different time – long before any of us knew what a coronavirus was or that it would be even comprehensible for up to one third of the world’s population to be under some form of curfew or lockdown. Many of the fears that permeate the structure of international travel have been turned on their head. Contrary to the heart of darkness tropes that dominate popular culture in films like Contagion, it was the world that made Africa sick, not the other way round. What will travel look like in a world with a coronavirus? What new procedures will travellers have to endure? What will these new fears and ambiguities do to the decades of suspicion and profiling that black and brown bodies already endure when trying to travel? Will Africans be left carrying the stigma now that the disease has finally reached our shores? If African governments fail to control the disease, will African travellers be subjected to even more racialised scrutiny? What will travel look like, but more importantly, what will it feel like?
The collection was inspired by tweet threads, Facebook posts, and late night conversations after conference sessions, where we compared battle scars about the many hoops we had been subjected to just to go and share our work with our peers. The idea for the collection was born in a world where an African country banning European travellers, or making a medical test a condition for a European or North African to enter an African country felt inconceivable. The pandemic has changed everything, even for a season.
Our contributors are united by an important index – they travel on what the Global Passport Index considers some of the weakest passports in the world. They not only experience inferior treatment when travelling to Europe and North America, but often when travelling between African countries. They test the promise of free movement on the continent when even travelling to neighbouring countries can be an enormous challenge. We head to Zimbabwe to learn more about what happens when the government arbitrarily stops producing passports, and drop in on Sudan where attending a family wedding in Europe requires weeks of practical and mental preparation. We learn that even with a tremendous amount of privilege, doors can still be arbitrarily shut on those who hold Cameroonian passports, and we listen to a Nigerian who has a golden opportunity snatched away though an arbitrary decision about her worthiness. We travel along the Jollof Road, across West Africa and learn the borders dividing the nations in that region are arbitrary and it could easily instead, be a superstate.
These personal narratives are just as important as any systemic analysis.
Often when we talk about the politics of international systems and organisations, we forget to stop and test the weight of human experience – we describe the system and name the injustices but forget to ask how people experience it, feel. We lose something in the process – that even the most technically efficient process on paper can still be violent and inhumane based on how human beings experience it. So we decided to go in a different direction. We could have easily asked a bunch of experts to analyse abstract statistics and put some maps together, but instead reached out to people who we knew had felt the weight of micro-aggressions and inequalities when it comes to travel and asked them to tell us how it made them feel. We invited them to reflect on the injustices they have experienced during travel because they are Africans, because we want to make room for a conversation on these injustices that sees people, not just processes.
Because at the end of the day, these injustices don’t happen to systems – they happen to people.