Opinion by Ethel Tawe

Travelling on an African Passport: Overcoming the Challenges and Understanding Passport Privilege

@artofetheltawe

Travel is often revered as an exploration of interests, leisure, and rest. We jet off to Timbuktu in an attempt to escape the monotony of routine, for a change of scenery, educational adventures, business, or anything in between. For most however, the process of making these voyages a reality is a luxury in itself — not just monetarily, but it can be facilitated or impeded by what passport you hold. While many in the global north have been arbitrarily saved from the ruthless interrogation of visa and immigration officers, African passport holders know the struggle all too well!

As a Cameroonian, this passport inferiority complex was instilled at birth and followed me throughout my travels. Seeking an education in the West became a strange colonial talent show for the visa gods, visiting my family in East Africa was not much easier, and crossing borders meant tailoring different versions of self. Of course the scrutiny varies on purpose of travel but the stories only change shape. While there has been slow and steady progress in recent years, the long-standing setbacks have been draining and come at major costs.

THE SETBACKS

1. Guilty Until Proven Innocent

It seems as though the automatic response to African passport holders abroad is one of suspicion or fear. ‘What are you looking for in our land of milk and honey?’ ‘Are you sure you won’t overstay?’ ‘What does your medical record look like?!’ The notion of having to repeatedly prove myself to get minimum humane services is a frustrating, baffling, but surprisingly not an outdated experience in this ‘progressive age’. If the pre-travel visa process isn’t dehumanizing enough, you will likely have customs ready to ‘randomly search’ your belongings on arrival.

2. There’s a Fee for That

While some African governments have negotiated decent bilateral agreements, Cameroon passport holders for example still pay hefty reciprocity fees and can only travel to approximately 17 countries visa-free. Due to the frequency of mostly non-electroic visas, we are also more likely to purchase more passport pages in a lifetime. A fee or two or three are added at multiple points of the travel process. As a student headed to the UK for my studies, I was required to pay nearly double the tuition fees + visa fees + health insurance surcharge + extra costs. If you run into any difficulties or need special assistance, an expediting fee + document assistance fee + passport retention fee + multiple added value services are available to you. It seems as though perhaps the more money you have, the more answers you get. However, it's even more complicated than that. We continue to pay for structural failures which we are actively distanced from under a belief that we ‘have no choice’. As the flow of African returnees accelerates and we hone our economic capacity, so should our freedom to explore, exchange, and ‘globalise’ through travel.

3. For Us by Us?

Perhaps Africans should just enjoy travelling within Africa you say? While the creative and cultural renaissance has shone light on new avenues for travel, African governments are still struggling to agree. How is it that I too, can’t just book a ticket to Timbuktu Mali, while a European can do so without lengthy questioning. Flexible inter-African travel is surprisingly not a no-brainer; instead high visa fees, restrictions, and suspicion is prevalent, privileging non-Africans. The African Development Bank’s Visa Openness Report interrogates these dynamics and pressures African countries to reassess their policies. The foundations of these structures are multilayered and complex, but the continent is slowly realising how much it has hindered our advancement as a people.

THE PROGRESS

1. The Pan-African Passport

The mere construct of passport systems and the protectionist politics around them have been complicated. The arbitrary nature of African borders, the commodification of our culture, and the polarisation of peoples, historically fractured our willingness to seek understanding. Leisure travel is predominantly at the disposal of the ‘transnational class’, while other economic migrants, students, and displaced peoples continue to face hurdles in their pursuits. With great anticipation, we now await the introduction of the Pan-African passport as declared by the African Union in 2015. Despite missing its 2018 roll-out deadline, its potential success would be a game changer on the continent only if all governments choose to cooperate. Getting these passports into the hands of the masses is among the major concerns, to avoid it being exploited as yet another tool for the elite.

2. Creating Avenues

Despite the challenges, Africans are still travelling — and not just to the Northern Hemisphere. While major push factors such as lack of economic opportunities lead to desperate mass migration, Africans within the continent are developing, educating, and celebrating ourselves. The change in discourse that removes the West from a pedestal has been facilitated by regional integration, and local exchange of ideas and resources. The creative spirit of Africa is cultivating a necessary way forward, and despite the hurdles, young people are seizing more opportunities across borders on the continent.

So How Do I Make Travel Happen?

Patience and planning. While my African pride runs deep, the bitterness that comes with immigration encounters can be daunting. I have learned to plan ahead, conduct thorough research, and consider travelling to the few but growing list of visa-free/visa-on-arrival destinations for my passport type. The Africa Visa Openness Index becomes a very handy and reliable resource. Be weary of false information floating around the internet, and call the embassy when unsure.

While there is an immense increase in exchange and experiences, African passport holders and others from the global south still often endure more exclusion. It is a strange concept— we are arbitrarily born into our citizenship and our freedom of movement is then governed, restricted, or monetised by political agreements and disagreements. For now, we must continue knocking on doors and calling for structural change, even with my green passport and yellow fever card in hand.

So if you hold a hegemonic citizenship, take a second to empathise and consider your passport privilege. Acknowledging your privilege though, should come with a sense of solidarity with the many who are pushing back against the system. These experiences are not limited to Africa but include much of the global south. Though I still cringe at the thought of visa appointments, I am reminded of the greater terrors of forced migration and displacement. Global political setbacks around these issues are desensitising us to the nuances of freedom of movement. It is certainly time to revisit many customs around how we travel. There is a reason why Africa is a ‘trendy’ destination of late, so Africans need to be reciprocated and reap our rightful benefits.

Ethel-Ruth Tawe (b.1994, Yaoundé, Cameroon) is a creative strategist and self-taught multidisciplinary artist with a keen interest in engaging dialogue on identity and diasporic cultures. She holds an MSc in Development Studies (2018) from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and a BA in International Human Rights with a minor in Art History & Criticism (2016).

View all features