*** This will be a multi-part series of observations, analysis, fascinations and opinions of my travel across sub-saharan Africa for the coming 8 months. Come with me :)
Part 1 — Traveling Africa while Ethiopian
About a month ago, I officially joined the seedstars world family where we are on a mission to discover the best start-ups from more than 60 emerging countries and bring them to a world stage and half a million dollar winning prize. In order to find these start ups, each continental region has a team of 2/3 people that will travel to organize these competitions, network with the local players and to understand the overall regional startup entrepreneurship ecosystem. Therefore, as an Associate for Africa, this basically means that I will be traveling. A lot. Don’t get too excited yet tho, because there is a catch. I have an Ethiopian Passport!
Remember that one document/wiki article which was being passed around with the title “36 countries Ethiopians can travel without visas” ? guess what, LIES. The truth is, out of the 26 countries I am supposed to travel to, I can ONLY go to 3 of them with out a visa and no on-arrival option for any of the countries.
It has been said time and again that it is much easier for an American or European to travel in Africa than it is for Africans themselves. But it is even worse when you have my passport. It’s near impossible to go anywhere in the world. So, in order for me to keep my new job I started try and make sure to get my visas months before my contract even started. Without further ado, here is how that journey has been so far
1. In my feeble attempt to make my life easier, I thought I would write an email to each embassy to ask what their visa requirements are, how long it would take to process and if there is any way my application could be processed faster since I only have one month to get all my visas on my passport.
Speaking of passport, I realized my current passport won’t have enough pages for all these coming visas so decided to go to the immigration office to explain that I would need another passport while using the current one. The guy looked like he has never heard such kind of bullshit in whole his life before he told me to get the heck out of his face. He told me to come back either when my passport expires or when I run out of pages and not for something this far fetched. Kept saying to him self, “I have to be in 26 countries in a year, who does she think she is”!! I mean, Why would an Ethiopian/or anyone really would travel to all these places in a year? right?
Oh yeah so getting back to the 26 emails I sent out, 14 of those email addresses came back with “mail delivery failure” message, I got two replies from Mali and Mauritania embassies and the rest were not even opened.
2. I called each embassy to get few of them to answer the phone. Most didn’t. And from the ones who did answer their phone, most were not really sure of what the visa requirements were and/or had no idea how long it would take to process. In one embassy the lady said “it would depend on the guy”. She says, “he doesn’t come in often so if he is here he would do it for you in 4–5 days if not it might take months. hard to tell”. In another, I was told that my one and only passport, not the copy, would have to be sent back to the country where they would verify it’s “legit-ness” and will send it back to Ethiopia with the visa IF they approve. Says “this could take up to 3 months”. The other embassy told me that “I would first need to verify that am not a criminal in my country. I would then have to take that document to the foreign ministry to get it authenticated that I am also neither an internationally wanted criminal. The people I would be working with in that country will then have to send me the invitation by getting verification from their local foreign ministry about their company’s legal entity-ness and that they are inviting me by taking full responsibility of all the immigration assaults I might commute.This document needs to be sent via DHL and I am not to open it but just bring that with me together with the other documents. They said once I get every document the visa will take about 3 weeks to process”. The one embassy I went to last Friday, I was told that I needed to bring colored copy of the invitation letter I brought so was told to come back next week. On the other embassy, the guy at the desk went ahead kind of proposed. He said he is looking for a wife and I might just be her. He had to take my number for “work purposes” while saving it on his phone and told me to come back on Monday to know how long it would take to get the visa. Because you know I am a young female person, whom he could just tell what to do and I should be okay with that. It’s not like I have work todo or other 20 visas to chase or something.
3 In most places I asked if I could apply as a tourist since I would be going to these places for a short time anyway and partially to also do a bit of touristy stuff if our time permits, turned out since “Africans don’t travel for tourism” I was told that it would be too suspicious and that the outcome would be rejection. So sticking to the business visas for now! Even in Kenya, the one and only officially open country where Ethiopians are allowed to enter for 3 months for free, “no questions asked”, I was given a 3 week visa up on my arrival because the officer in charge told me that was enough to do consulting job I said I was there to do.
4. Prices. It’s not a joke. Every embassy has an average 70$ visa processing fee. When you add that up to 20+ countries, it gets big!! And the flights? It is cheaper to travel from Addis to Helsinki than it is to go to say Senegal. I would now be paying an amount 10 times bigger than what I had to pay for when I went to 14 european countries, the US and the UAE all together. Mess.
5. At this point to say am frustrated would be an understatement. So decided to ask people around if I could get contacts at the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia to see if they could maybe help by writing me a support letter to the embassies or something. I met a brilliant young trainee-diplomat who assured me that this is what the ministry stands for and since what my job will do, is bringing opportunities for young Ethiopians and many Africans she organized a meeting with someone who was supposed to be the right person at the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs. I was excited. Finally my country is going to help. Yay! Got my speech ready, got my letters of support from my company printed out and went to the meeting on time. He is an older guy who was doing nothing but looking all busy. After 5 mins on a phone with his relative, told me to sit and explain why I was there. I told him everything and that what I want is simply a support from them to get my visa processes to go faster since I only have a month. What was the first thing he asked me? “Where is the stamp on the letter form your company”? *insert major face-palm here. I was lost for words. Stamp? I guess living in Europe for a while made me forget that those things even exist. He said, “you will need to contact the Ethiopian Embassy in Switzerland, ask them to send you a verified a.k.a stamped copy of the fact that the company you work for is intact legal and then may be “ he said, “maybe he could see how they could help.” I left.
6. Questions. What the heck is this mess? and why is it still here? Really why is it this difficult to travel across Africa? Who made the decision or these outrageously archaic, bureaucratic and totally outdated requirements for each country? What are we afraid of or more like why are we afraid of ourselves? I mean last I checked it was Americans and Europeans who came and messed the whole continent up. Isn’t it then ironic the fact that anyone with an European or American passport could simply walk in to almost all of the African countries while Ethiopians, whose capital is the sitting place of the African Union Head Quarters are the people who have the least access travel the continent? and vise versa? How come this questions have never been raised before and how can we change this? I understand we are a long way behind to even talk about open borders,but can’t we at least start working on proper, uniform requirement formats that one can use across the continent?