Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sending For Visas

After just under a month at home, I will be traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, to be a fellow in the main office for Mothers 2 Mothers, a program that, in brief, strives to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child. I’m in a whirlwind of paperwork and logistics—insurance, financial concerns, and of course, the dreaded visa.

I lived in France when I was 13 because my parents took a sabbatical from Thacher, the boarding school where I grew up and that I attended for high school. We didn’t get visas because the French application process required extensive paperwork, including handwritten forms in triplicate (as I remember it). This meant that we entered the country as tourists and had to leave the country every few months so that we could remain legal. Now, with the Schengen Agreement, which dissolved internal borders between some European countries, it would be more difficult to dodge the visa. But it meant that every so often my sister and I were pulled out of school (or not—the French get a ridiculous, though very nice, number of holidays) for trips. We would traipse off to Switzerland, or across the Chunnel to London (which was a letdown—I had imagined it to be really cool inside, like the mine in The Temple of Doom—it was actually just dark), or to the Isle of Jersey. This was my mother’s favorite because, despite the rough ferry ride, she could stock up on cranberry juice. We would go for day trips, always careful to have our passports stamped going into Jersey, with large rolling suitcases so that we could buy enough Ocean Spray cranberry juice to keep her happy. We’d go to this great Thai restaurant that had a contest in the men’s bathroom that challenged the viewer to pick the woman who was once a man out of the pictures of scantily clad fancy ladies on the wall. On one occasion, my mother got my dad to check the bathroom so that she could sneak in and make her guess—and of course, she got it right. This was my first experience with temporary residence in a foreign country.

When I was in college, I studied abroad in Senegal for just under five months. I expected a seriously confusing visa process—Senegal is an ex-French colony, after all. The application was one page long and only required a trip to a New York Post Office. I got my visa in less than five days. Granted, I was going as a student and had a sponsoring letter from my program, but I was shocked, especially once Senegalese friends began to outline the process for obtaining a visa to the US. I did overstay my visa by a few weeks, but there were no raised eyebrows or questions as I passed through the airport—I was leaving.

The visa process for Sierra Leone was equally easy, and I completed it between New Orleans and Atlanta during a road trip to return my sister to college. I also got my visa in under a week. Once I got to Sierra Leone, things got a bit more complicated. It turns out the multiple reentry visa, good for one year, is actually useless. All visitors receive a one-month stamp upon entry to Sierra Leone, and that is the golden ticket, not the visa. Outstaying your stamp date can result in “fines” paid without a receipt to the customs agents that shake you down at the airport. I tried several times in Freetown to get my stamp extended (on one occasion the entire immigration office was closed for a funeral), only to find out that it required exorbitant fees, paperwork, “honorariums” to various officials, and trips to multiple government bureaus that had decided upon different regulations that would increase their individual piece of the pie. It turns out that an expatriate, especially one coming to volunteer for an international NGO, is seen by the government as much as by the average Sierra Leonean as a vast and untapped source of unimaginable and fabulous wealth. Unfortunately, this will ultimately result in deterring NGO work and volunteers—who wants to pay several hundred dollars after shelling out airfare and visa fees (not cheap), and committing to work for free for a humanitarian purpose? It’s especially hard to say yes when you know that the money will be eaten. So, I did what many NGOs in Sierra Leone have done in the past: I went upline to deal with my paperwork in the more relaxed and friendly atmosphere of Bo.

In Sierra Leone, it’s relatively easy to get away with things. As long as those activities don’t involve smuggling kilos of cocaine from South America and involving high ranking government officials, which caused a huge scandal in September (though I can imagine that a lot of the planes transporting coke from South America to Western Europe don’t get stopped). Actually, the men arrested for this and tried were recently convicted. The day of their conviction, American forces of one kind or another (allegedly) entered their cells and whisked them to a helicopter and then to a plane that had been waiting several days for the conviction to fly them to the US for drug-related crimes committed on American soil. The US Embassy had no comment. I haven’t found a report online for this yet, but I heard it on the BBC here. Apparently President Ernest Bai Koroma issued a deportation order, which made the American action legal, but all I can imagine is a bunch of spooks in riot gear and balaclavas throwing tear gas into the prison, tearing down the doors, and pulling terrified men out of their cells, putting bags over their heads, and throwing them into the trunk of a car. Though I’d wager that US prison might be a bit more comfortable than the Salonean variety.

Anyway, it’s easy to get away with things—thieves are so brazen precisely because the police don’t respond (unless given a “gift” by the victim, I am told, or unless the victim has good connections), and there is no version of 911 outside of Freetown, and even then, you have to have a certain cell phone carrier to call it. We have the personal phone numbers of friendly policemen in Bo should there be a problem. Almost anything can be bought or swept under the rug as long as you can “remember” or “send for” the responding officer. This means that there is a lot of vigilantism—thieves might be able to get away without being arrested, but they could be severely beaten or even killed by a mob of people should they get caught.

Now, I’m looking at a visa form for South Africa that requires things I’ve never had to do before: chest x-rays to ensure that I am TB-free, proof of financial means, and a background check from the FBI. It all feels a bit excessive. But then again, I’ve been in Sierra Leone for almost eight months now.

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