Most mornings I pass by the American Embassy on my way to the gym. There is always a long queue of people waiting patiently, expectantly, hopefully, clutching envelops and file folders stuffed with documents, photographs, receipts. Seeing them fills me with a huge sadness. This whole business of applying for travel visas can be remarkably gruelling and, I dare say, downright abusive.
I’ve never had occasion to visit the American Embassy but several years ago during one of my Ghana sojourns, I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a conference that was being held in the U.S. My travel had been arranged in such a way that I had to change flights in the U.K. Because, at the time, I only had permanent resident status (i.e. green card) in the United States, I had to obtain a transit visa for the privilege of spending five long hours in London breathing the foggy air, being shuttled from Heathrow to Gatwick in a large coach, and strolling through airport shops gasping at the injuriously overpriced merchandise.
The real experience, though, was applying for that transit visa; it was, in fact, one of the most humbling and humiliating experiences of my life. I spent an entire morning at the British High Commission, where I was treated like vermin, something not even worthy of being stuck to the bottom of a shoe. I was either shouted at, spoken to as though I were mentally impaired, or wholly ignored. It was the sort of dehumanising treatment I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, not even my worst enemy. (Well…okay, maybe my very worst enemy!)
“You are not nice people at all,” I said angrily to two officials whom I’d just approached to ask a question. The instant they’d seen me coming, they’d started shooing me away in much the same way one would shoo away a flying insect. I found that so deeply offensive.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate being treated this way,” I added. I was about to launch into a full verbal assault when one of the men said, “Wait,” and started waving me toward them.
“Are you American?” he wanted to know. I shook my head, held up my Ghana passport and started to walk closer. Annoyed as I was, I also realised that this was an opportunity; I’d been given a tiny opening to be heard and, with any luck, helped; so I kept talking. The men were sympathetic—more, I suspect, to my apparent “Americanness” than to my circumstance. After all, mine was a straightforward visa request and this was proven by the fact that once they decided to grant me access to the officers inside, I was finished in less than fifteen minutes. Hmmm….
At this point, it would probably be journalistically responsible for me to assert that I have little reason to believe applicants for travel visas are routinely treated in this same manner at the American Embassy—or, for that matter, at the British High Commission. My experience could well have been an aberration. Or not.
Regardless, it is what immediately comes to mind when I see that sinuous, ever-present queue in front of the American Embassy. (Or, as one taxi driver referred to the place last week, “that mighty building.”) I think what truly makes me sad is the knowledge that for the small number of Ghanaians who will be granted an opportunity to visit or reside in America, the visa application process is only the start of what will likely be a lengthy series of disappointments and humiliations.
So many Ghanaians speak to me of an America that is utterly unrecognisable, essentially mythical. It is an America of ease and television-style perfection, an America of abundance, where wealth is not simply accessible, but guaranteed, to any-and-everyone who wants it.
I often wonder if, in their desire to build a better life, Ghanaians wanting to go abroad are not doing in reverse what so many of us repatriates tend to do—allow the fantasy of the place to eclipse its reality. I grew up in the United States during the 1970s and 80s watching Ghanaian immigrants with postgraduate degrees work 18-hour days driving taxis and doing menial labour in order to make ends meet. Mothers who’d left their children “back home” in the care of their aging parents or extended relatives would take jobs as live-in nannies or eldercare attendants watching over somebody else’s children, somebody else’s aging parents.
They would save nearly every cent of their salary, using only a small portion for bills and, occasionally, the purchase of shoes, undergarments and medicine for the folks back home. Whenever a friend or acquaintance was travelling to Ghana, the items and money would be entrusted to them to carry along and distribute accordingly. (This was well before Kwesi Amoafo-Yeboah and Kofi Amoah brought Western Union to Ghana and revolutionised the way in which remittances are sent.)
Back in those days, life as an immigrant, especially as an African immigrant, was hard. But not anywhere near as hard as it is now. Lately, the American economy is in shambles and working class people are having an extremely rough go of things. Though the national unemployment rate in the U.S. is about 9.5%, in many states, like California, the unemployment rate is nearly 13%.
There’s a housing crisis as well. In 2010, more than 1 million homes in America were repossessed by banks. And as if all this weren’t enough, there’s a significant backlash against immigration, one that—surprise, surprise—falls along racial lines. (Meaning that the fate of white immigrants is markedly different than the fate of brown and black immigrants.)
I know that life in Ghana can be challenging. How could anyone not know? There is a nonstop stream of newspaper articles, radio and TV programmes describing ad nauseam the supposedly sorry state of our affairs. When it comes to issues like economy, education and workforce efficiency, the media is fond of comparing Ghana to America and other more developed nations.
Yet people rarely touch on issues like emotional welfare, strength of communities and social support networks, all of which are equally as vital to an individual’s overall quality of life. Anyone who has ever lived in the Western world knows all too well that the lifestyles there can be isolating, resulting in a type of loneliness that is not often experienced in Ghana where, despite certain hardships, there is always the presence and the embrace of one’s community.
Since my return, whenever I complain about anything my friend Mavis says, “You’re home, so what’s your problem?” That usually shuts me right up because for Ghanaians living abroad, the biggest problem with which most of us grapple is being away from home, not being able to figure out a way to get, and stay, back home; and all other problems seem to pale in comparison.
It is only when you are here in Ghana, able to take for granted the beautiful weather, long lunches, house help, ice-cold beers, drivers, chichinga and Guinea fowl, Fridays off for funerals, and weekend visits to the village that you begin to imagine the grass is somehow greener abroad. Then before you know it, you find yourself standing in a queue at an embassy being spoken to like a cretin, or living in a foreign land working harder than you’d ever worked in your own country, spending what little free time you have praying that you’ll one day be able to go back to help make it a better place because, you now realise, no place else is as sweet as home. Home, sweet Ghana.