I was dismayed to discover when I arrived at Lusaka Airport on last week Monday that due to a mix up there was no visa waiting for me on arrival as I had expected, but this was nothing compared to my shock when I was told to pay the equivalent of $400 (four hundred US dollars) before I could be issued a Temporary Permit (or TP, in the crisp, bureaucratic language of the immigration officials). Let me explain that I had not at any time requested to be issued a TP; all I wanted was a visa for one week to enable me to attend a conference, and the immigration people had all the documents on the conference. Furthermore, it was not my first time in Zambia so if the many forms travellers are compelled to fill at every airport means anything, they ought to have had information on me in their files. They would have discovered that I was not a terrorist, or maybe they discovered that I was not an "investor", of which more anon.
It took a lot of to-ing and fro-ing before the conference organisers managed to get the amount reduced to the equivalent of $200 (two hundred US dollars) and I am now the proud owner of a beautiful, red Republic of Zambia Temporary Permit number 0771063, which entitles me to stay in Zambia for three months but prohibits me from engaging in "illegal activities, local politics and overstaying". Zambia is a very beautiful country and boasts many world renowned sites including Victoria Falls. But unfortunately I have no desire to stay for three months or even a day beyond my original departure date. Therefore, in this case, the Zambian authorities have simply ripped me off, even if the money did not come from my own pocket. I have bad news for the Zambian authorities: The African Union is considering a proposal by Libya's Col. Gaddafi to create an African passport "to remove obstacles" to travel by African citizens in AfricaŠ.
Strictly speaking, the Zambian immigration authorities are within their rights to demand their pound of flesh, so to speak but even my Zambian friends think that I would have received more favourable treatment if I had been a citizen of say, a European country, the US, Canada or Japan. I believe it: about six years ago, I made a visa application for Zambia at its High Commission in Kensington in London. I was in the company of four other people who were all British. None of my companions spent more than ten minutes before they received tickets that entitled them to pick up their visas the following morning. When my turn came, the Zambian official told me that it would take at least three weeks before I could receive my visa. For one thing, they would need to fax pages from my passport to Lusaka; secondly, blah blahŠ I withdrew my application since the event I was attending was just a week away.
This is not just a Zambian issue: African travellers face a lot of hassles when they try to get to Europe, US, Canada and almost everywhere on earth but you would think that travelling in Africa we would be less frazzled. You would think wrong. We face as many problems travelling in Africa as we do in Europe or the US. After I was allowed on a TP into Lusaka, the conference organisers received information that the chap attending the same conference from Guinea had been detained in Johannesburg because the Zambian authorities had not submitted his name to the immigration officers in Johannesburg. This was technically correct but he was replacing a delegate whose name was on the original list. I have a feeling that if he had been a non-African, with all the proper documentation he held, he would have been allowed to travel on to Lusaka. Again, it took a lot of wahala (or is it counter-wahala) to get him into Lusaka a day late for the conference.
While wondering why we Africans are so unblessed in the land of our birth, we have to realise that unless we make travel easier for Africans within the continent, the dream of harvesting a lot from tourism - which all African countries harbour - will remain an illusion. There are 800 million Africans on this continent which has so much to show to its own people, and it beats me why we do not encourage travel by Africans in Africa. It is the same "white investor" complex that conjures images of foreign white people every time we hear the word "investor", while we collectively are by far the major investors in our economy. Almost all African countries pay more caring attention to white foreigners at their airports than Africans and this includes arrivals at our own Accra International Airport. I have observed how sometimes the queues for Ghanaians and "ECOWAS" move very slowly while the "foreigners" lane vanishes rapidly. Of course, the reverse is true of arrivals in European and North American airports where, especially Africans are made to understand that they are "aliens".
It is not only government authorities such as Immigration that make travel a nightmare for everyone within the continent. The airlines make sure you do not thirst after travel any time soon after they deliver your wearied self at journey's end. Take some of the new airlines operating the "West Coast" routes vacated by the likes of the hapless Ghana Airways, Nigeria Airways and the like; generally, they operate on the principle that they are doing you a huge favour for which you ought to be eternally grateful, and quiet with it. And they are not cheap: travelling to The Gambia costs more than to go to London or Paris, and almost as long, with a stop in every capital on the map of West Africa but with none of the few amenities to soothe your economy class cramp.
However you would expect that the more established long haul cross-continent airlines would do a bit more to make travellers comfortable. Not so. Returning from Zambia this week was yet another nightmare. Kenya Airways, which had done such a splendid job on the outbound leg showed its true colours on the return journey. It was late at every phase of the journey but provided no information or explanation at any of the airports at which passengers were stranded. Indeed, our three hour delay in Nairobi was nothing compared to the misery of some of our fellow passengers who had spent an entire night at the airport in Dubai with no food, drink or explanation. We met other passengers who told us they had spent 36 hours in transit. To be fair, Kenya Airways has comfortable planes with individual TV screens, and the food, apart from the execrable, no-choice mess served on the Nairobi-Abidjan leg, was eatable, but none of those counts if you are stranded at an airport for hours with no Tender Loving Care.