Traveling is often thought of as a thrilling experience in which one explores the enchanting diversity of our world. In today’s globalized world, it’s almost considered shameful if you can’t rattle off a list of countries you have visited. It’s a status symbol, a mark of worldly perspective and cosmopolitan flare. But traveling is a privilege, one not only defined by wealth but by how you look like and where you come from. Before you get to the sandy beaches or see the arresting architecture of your final destination, there is that little thing called a visa. If you are an African, successfully passing passport control at the airport will be more of a triumph than embarking on your vacation of a lifetime. If you are the holder of an African passport, the life-altering journey will not happen on the trip you hope to make but will happen through the arduous, and often absurd, process of acquiring the visa. For African passport holders, the real travel is in navigating customs officers and security checks with your dignity and self-worth still intact.
I’ve had my fair share of humiliating encounters at airports and consulates. There was that time in college when I was denied a UK visa and was the only member of the group that had to stay behind from a conference. Or that time when I was in line to board the plane but was told that the computer had flagged my name for additional screening. I had to step aside, spread my arms and legs, and have my luggage searched (again) without a single explanation. I was the last person to board the plane, walking down the aisle to my seat, trying to avoid the sea of eyes. The overhead compartments were packed and the flight attendant had to frantically find a space for my luggage, because the plane was already behind schedule. I slumped into my seat, put on my headphones, and tried to sleep off the rage.
And the countless times that I’ve been asked if my hijab can be patted down, as if it were a choice. I remember asking an officer once, “what could possibly be hiding under a small, semi-transparent piece of cloth that hasn’t already been detected by the million dollar body scan that I JUST walked through?” She ignored me and curtly asked me to turn around so she could begin patting down the back of my head. And then there is always the questions, the interrogations, and pointless line of inquiries that make you feel like a fugitive: “What’s your employment? Place of residence? Length of stay? Reasons for your trip? People you traveled with? Are they related to you? Reasons for you return?” On and on.
I have had to painfully witness the humiliation of other travelers and hear horror stories from family and friends, all of them from African/Arab/Asian countries. I remember watching an old Iranian couple being berated by a customs officer, who shook their American passports in front of their faces, shouting, “you’re supposed to speak English to get these you know that?” Or the Nigerian whose carefully packaged gifts was torn apart as the security officer ripped through his luggage intently looking for something that wasn’t there. The pained look on his face, as each of his gifts was flung aside like trash, was too much to bare. Or my friend who endured 5 hours of interrogation before being allowed to leave the airport. For the first time in my life I saw tears in his eyes, as he struggled with the realization that being born and raised in the US and having an American passport did not compensate for his skin color and Muslim name.
While most of us swallow our pride and take it, others refuse the indignity and prefer staying home. Reading the story of Bousso Dramé, a Senegalese woman who declined an invitation to attend a training in France, is a refreshing counter narrative to the desperate African trying to escape his/her country at all costs. She realized that facing the demeaning treatment of the French consulate for an all-expense paid trip was not worth her self-respect.
I have a long list of countries I hope to visit and international trainings and conferences I hope to attend. But traveling while African has proven to be too daunting, and like Bousso, I’m wondering if it’s really worth my self-respect.