Travelling within Africa can be fun - real fun. Because meeting other Africans in their own countries adds a certain flavour to one's experience of the continent, a good opportunity to share in the continent's alluring natural scenes.
It is even more exciting to taste other African meals.
The experiences can be at certain times surreal and at others awesome. But travelling within Africa is burdensome, hectic, and almost impossible for most Africans, and that in itself has contributed to a large extent to the lack of knowledge among Africans of each other's culture and general worldview .
The challenges of travelling within Africa begins with the high cost of transport fares both by air and by road. The cost of travelling to neighbouring countries is prohibitive for many Africans, sometimes more than it costs to travel to Europe or the USA.
Most average Africans cannot afford the transport costs ranging around $1000 or more.
There is also the high cost of hotels on the continent.
Then there is the visa requirements, often more stringently applied for Africans than for Europeans and Americans. Indeed, it is often easier for citizens of these continents to acquire visas to African countries than it is for Africans themselves.
For instance on the website of the South African High Commission in Ghana is a list of 40 countries exempt from requiring visas to enter that country and the only African country on the list is Botswana! Probably all other South African Development Cooperation (SADC) countries, 12 of them might be exempt as well, but there is no information on the website about that. Botswana is a member.
I started writing this piece as I waited at the Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek Namibia on transit to Durban via Johannesburg on December 1, 2011.
My trip itself was eventful. It started with the application for visa at the South African High Commission in Accra. I filed my application two days to the start of the trip on December 30, 2011. That was so because I had only returned from another international assignment in Addis Ababa the previous Friday November 25, 2011, late in the afternoon and therefore, the only time I could put in my application for a visa to South Africa was Monday November 28.
The Embassy staff minced no words in telling me that I couldn't apply for a visa when my trip was only two days ahead! I overheard some applicants being told to return for their passports in two weeks! What?! I thought. How should a visa to South Africa take two weeks to process? But that's the rule!
There is however, this very intriguing story of a friend I met in Addis Ababa. He told me of his ordeal in the hands of immigration officials at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. He was in Ethiopia at the invitation of a state institution. There is no Ethiopian Embassy in the European country where he lives and so he had to get his visa on arrival at the airport. But on arrival at the airport, he was detained and questioned over what he was coming to Ethiopia to do! Meanwhile, as my friend was being questioned, other visitors of another race were being waved through immigration with broad smiles.
He asked the officials why they have detained him an African and yet allowed the visitors who might be coming from Europe to go through so easily. This was what the official told him, "these are tourists and our country's economy depends on tourism."
In spite of pointing out to the officials that he was in their country at the invitation of a state institution and that they should check on the list of guests for the specific event that he had mentioned, indicating that his name was on the list, they were adamant, until one official recognised him, because of his job in the media and asked his colleagues to let him pass.
A week after this sore incident, my friend returned to Ethiopia at the invitation of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), just as myself and he was detained again. It took the intervention of an official who recognised him during his first detention to get my friend out. This is Africa, and yet Africans cannot enter each others' countries freely.
Well, back to my story with the South African High Commission in Accra. I was given the visa on Wednesday afternoon November 30, 2011 and I was able to make my trip.
But my experience at the High Commission was no different from what I would have gone through seeking a visa to a European country. Interestingly however, my experience at the US Embassy in Accra was smoother than I had thought, but it is perhaps, because I was going to the US at the invitation of the US Department of State Foreign Press Centre. And my experience at the Ethiopian Embassy so far was the best! Each time I had applied for a visa, it was issued the same day within an hour! And all I needed to submit were my passport, one passport photograph, an invitation letter from my hosts, an introduction letter from my office and the visa fee.
At the South African High Commission, I was asked to submit my hotel reservation form and bank statement, even though my trip was being fully sponsored by Siemens Southern Africa. I was asked to submit an introduction letter from my office, even though this is not indicated on the requirements for a visa on the application forms. It takes more than four hours to go through the visa application submission process with a cranky security man at the gates calling the shots and deciding on who he would let into the premises.
Meanwhile, the requirements for applying for a visa as stated on the application form are as follows: A passport; proof of booking of airline ticket; two identity passport photographs; prescribed visa fee if not exempted; supporting documentation confirming the purpose of the visit and vaccination certificate if required. But at the High Commission, officials would ask of bank statements and letter of introduction from employers - these are not stated among the requirements for visa application!
Travelling from Ghana to Nigeria by road can be a nightmare! The unnumerable security checkpoints on the roads and the extortions are just unbelievable, often done brazenly and cruelly in broad day light by uniformed officials on duty.
It is equally gruelling to travel from Ghana to Ivory Coast. Some of the drivers collect money from travellers to bribe officials on the way, just so they would have smooth passage.
Only last month the African Trade Policy Centre (ATPC) of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) organised the first Africa Trade Forum that looked at how Africa can trade itself out of poverty. And some of the issues that came up were the physical and non-physical barriers that exist beween African countries.
Although global trade is valued at around $30 trillion, Africa's share is only about 3% and intra-African trade is currently estimated at an abbysmal 10%.
It is necessary for African countries to take a second look at the facts that create these difficulties, that obviously hamper the continent's growth. It is being trumpeted now that this is Africa's time, as the continent has been experiencing growth, in the face of the challenges facing Europe and the US.
A good example that other African countries can also learn from is the relationship between neighbours South Africa and Namibia. As I experienced at the Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek, I was able to purchase Internet airtime at the airport using the South African rand and was given change in the Namibian dollar. The currencies of the two countries are valued at one to one. I gave the attendant 100 rand as I bought 20 Namibian dollars worth of airtime, and I was given change of 60 Namibian dollars and 20 South African rand!
That certainly is a good example worth emulating by other African countries, apart from making travelling across the continent less cumbersome even as countries take into consideration security issues.