It’s bad enough when a black man is hassled in U.S. airports because he’s African. When he’s hassled in African airports for essentially the same reason, it’s worse.
Ogo Sow is a native of Senegal, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a veteran broadcast journalist. He’s dedicated himself to bringing America and Africa closer together. That makes him a man with one foot on two continents, which is a blessing.
Until he goes to travel. Then, it becomes a curse.
His story highlights the problems facing African emigres who wish to re-connect with their homelands and African-Americans who want to visit or invest in Africa.
It also shows how long and hard the road will be for the Mother Continent to raise her global profile as a travel destination.
On our side of the Atlantic, Mr. Sow faces extra scrutiny and heightened suspicion in U.S. airports if he shows up dressed as he is here, in the traditional garb of his birthplace.
On the other side, just trying to enter an African country can result in hours of delays and hundreds of dollars in fees — and that’s each time you try to enter or leave most of Africa’s 53 nations.
As a Georgia resident who flies frequently out of Atlanta, Mr. Sow is hardly unfamiliar to the TSA screeners. Senegal is not on the federal government’s list of nations that support terrorism, and to his knowledge, he is not on anybody’s “terrorist watch list.”
But wearing traditional Senegalese dress, he says, is enough to get him treated as if he were a suspect.
“If I go to the airport in Western clothes, they treat me like anyone else, no problems,” he says. “If I wear the traditional clothes of Senegal, they put me through the machine ten times.”
Okay, we know what this is about. Call it Post-9/11 Stress Disorder. But at least once his flight touches down in an African country, he can look forward to better treatment, right?
Mr. Sow’s Senegalese passport allows him to travel freely among all 15 West African countries belonging to ECOWAS — the Economic Community of West African States. Once outside of those 15 countries, things change, he says.
On a recent trip to Kenya on behalf of the Africa Travel Association, he was held up at the airport for 12 hours. Kenyan immigration officers refused to recognize a passport from Senegal, he says.
With him was ATA president Edward Bergman, traveling on an American passport. He was allowed through, no problems.
“I am traveling on an African passport and I am delayed 12 hours — in an African country?”
HERE A VISA, THERE A VISA, EVERYWHERE A VISA
And it’s hardly just Kenya. While many Americans tend to think of Africa as a single, unified entity, the fact is that Africa is 53 nations, each with its own priorities, its own narrowly focused agenda — and its own immigration policies.
(Contrast this with the European Union, which did away with separate visa requirements for its member states. You can visit any or all of the EU’s 27 countries on a single visa.)
“You go to Benin, you have to buy a visa. You go from Benin to Mali, you have to buy a visa. You go from Mali next-door to Senegal, you have to buy a visa,” says Mr. Sow. “Each time, each country, you may be paying more than $100.”
Having to shell out a Benjamin Franklin every time to want to enter a different country can let the air out of your travel budget in a hurry. Who wants to bother with that?
This wilderness of red tape also discourages would-be investors who are looking for countries that offer fewer hassles, not more of them. Among those being discouraged are Africans living abroad.
“African emigres send billions of dollars every year back to their families back in Africa, more money than all the foreign aid that comes into Africa,” says Mr. Sow. “Many would like to come back to invest, to build, but they make it difficult to come back. African-Americans also should be welcome to come and invest. Instead, they make it difficult.
“In the African diaspora, we are three families together — Africans, African-Americans, African emigres. We should be united. We should be together.”
From here, it all seems a bit shortsighted. Visa fees may drop a few dollars into the national treasuries of individual countries, but a streamlined immigration control that makes their countries more inviting for travelers — and investors — could bring in a lot more, to all of them.
Indeed, there’s talk now of setting up a diaspora visa, allowing African emigres and African-Americans to travel throughout Africa the same way we can now travel throughout Europe, on a single visa.
Meanwhile, whether in the West or on the African continent, the frustration of men like Ogo Sow is growing.
“I’m tired of this blockade, on both sides,” he says. “We don’t have the respect we are supposed to have.”
Greg Gross is a member of the Africa Travel Association
Photos courtesy of O. Sow
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