The much-awaited day was finally here. On the 5th of December 2016, my father chauffeured me to the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport of Mauritius. Throughout the entire road journey that leads to the airport, I kept babbling about the iconic landmarks I intended to visit during my stay in Marrakesh. My father responded with occasional approbatory nods. His mouth was curved in a broad smile whilst his eyes remained glued to the seemingly endless winding paths ahead of us.
Two weeks earlier, I had learnt of my full sponsorship award to represent my native country, the Republic of Mauritius, at the “Morocco Forum for Adolescent and Youth Human Rights driving Sustainable Development”. The prestigious scholarship donor was the United Nations. From then on, I was basking in the pride of being an ambassador of Mauritius at an international youth conference. I was eager to meet other conference participants from different walks of life and embark on a steep learning curve journey. It was also my first time envisaging travel to a Northern African country.
Upon arrival at the airport’s departure terminal, we hurried to the check-in desk even though I had three solid hours before boarding. Seated behind the counter was a lady, possibly in her mid-twenties. Her hair was tied in a neat bun and her smile exposed her perfectly aligned teeth. I timidly greeted her and provided her with my travel documents. She skimmed through my passport and glanced up at me. “You need a visa for Morocco”, she said. “Yes, I know”, I replied. I further explained to her my purpose for traveling to Morocco and pointed out that the conference organizer, the United Nations, had arranged for my visa on arrival. In an attempt to support my explanations, I handed her the duly-signed visa sponsorship letter, conference invitation form along with email trails I had exchanged with the conference’s logistical officers. I silently thanked my lucky stars that I had printed all these documents. From time to time, she furtively shot me a blank stare while leafing through them.
After a couple of minutes that seemed like an eternity, she said, “Our flag carrier runs the risk of bearing huge penalties in case you are denied entry in Morocco. So, I shall call the airport authorities in Morocco to ensure your visa on arrival documents have indeed been arranged for. We have had too many cases of Mauritians having been rejected in the past for a visa once they arrived at the Moroccan ports of entry.” Too baffled at this unexpected turn of events, I mumbled an inaudible “Okay” and moved to the side of the check-in counter. As the clock ticked away, I clutched harder at my passport with my sweaty palms. My mind was rapidly racing through the myriad of possibilities of what could happen next. I kept wishing that there was an embassy of Morocco in Mauritius where I could have obtained a travel visa beforehand. I fixated the ground staff and each time I found her hands wrapped around her phone, I strained my ears to listen to the conservation. Later, when we narrated the story to other family members and close friends, my father admitted that his legs had turned into jelly at this point.
After a countless number of passengers had checked in, the ground staff signaled us to come over to the counter. She informed me that her co-workers in Morocco could not find any visa procedures that had been initiated for me by the United Nations’ staff.
“I am sorry. But, you cannot board this evening’s flight to Morocco”, she said.
A wave of adrenaline swept over me and my heart pounded so hard in my chest I thought it would explode. My father, aware of the sacrifices I went through to be able to obtain this merit-based sponsorship, pleaded vainly with the ground staff to allow me to board the flight.
As soon as I regained my composure, I called one of the program organizers who regretfully informed me that there had indeed been some last-minute bureaucratic issues while handling the visa procedures for a group of participants. Like me, many other participants were unable to catch their respective flights to Morocco. Some of them had traveled during several days from their African villages to reach their closest international airports. This is the farthest they made through in their journey to the land of hammams, deserts and olives. The sole comforting thought that occurred to me was that I lived on an island whose size was comparable to a tiny dot in the Indian Ocean and thus, my home was reachable after a mere half-hour drive from the airport.
The next day, I canceled my annual leave at work and resumed duty. Since then, catching a flight to go to another African country is an ordeal for me. I believe it is a nightmare for many other fellow African brothers and sisters. Whether we will make it to our intracontinental destination remains a question mark until we physically get there.
Sadly, in an era where globalization dawns upon us, Africa’s seamless integration remains an improbable dream. In my opinion, all African countries should mimic Seychelles’ visa liberalization policy and provide free access to all other African nations. Increased mobility will follow. Africa’s population is the youngest amongst all the continents and it is of utmost importance that all Africans enjoy access to better educational opportunities and more competitive labor markets. From a realistic perspective, Africa will not transform into a visa-free continent for its citizens overnight. As goes the dictum “old habits die hard”. It may take a while for the ugly bureaucratic norms to fade away. Nevertheless, more than ever, the transformation into a visa-free Africa demands to be initiated today.
Shareefa Jewan is the winner of the ’55 Voices For A Visa Free Africa’ Essay Competition.
For more details about the campaign, visit www.visafreeafrica.com