As an Arab-African, Muslim, female, solo traveller, identity is one of the first stumbling blocks to getting a visa to go anywhere.
This is the second essay in the six-part series Travelling While African, guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola. Additional editing by Ayodeji Rotinwa. Illustrations by Diana Ejaita.
When travelling with a Sudanese passport, you get accustomed to hearing "no". You can't be spontaneous: we need at least a month of planning and collecting supporting evidence before we can even set an visa appointment date. So if you are thinking of sending your Sudanese friend a message asking, "Hey, want to go to Amsterdam for M's 40th?", you'll need to send it months in advance.
I'm lucky I live in Khartoum. For those further afield in Africa's third largest country, the costs and logistics of applying for a visa would surely put anyone off travelling abroad. There's more to it than the cost of the expensive, non-refundable required fee, even. There's also the cost of running around Khartoum to gather documents, notarise them as needed, get them translated or copied. There's the cost of the invasion of privacy and the loss of dignity from having to jump through so many hoops.
We have to prove we have health insurance with a value of more than €35 ($41) a day, show extensive bank statements, and provide evidence of "sufficient ties" to our home country. This is meant to guarantee we return, but "sufficient ties" are always insufficiently defined. Is it not enough that my mother is staying behind? And after all this, some countries like the UK don't even give you the dignity of being interviewed in person as their visas are processed in South Africa.
Another cost is the anxiety that comes from knowing you might lose all the money you've put into your trip just to apply for the visa. As well as needing invitation letters, embassies sometimes ask you to book your plane ticket and accommodation in advance - even while reserving the right to reject your visa. A Sudanese passport also means I sometimes have to travel abroad just to apply for a visa. Once, I wanted to go to Argentina, but the closest embassy is in Cairo, Egypt, so I had to abandon my plans.
To be undesirable
The cash shortage crisis in Sudan the past year coupled with the steep depreciation in value of the Sudanese pound against the US dollar, has made the visa fee astronomical and very prohibitive. But we are still required to pay the fees in cash. As Sudan is going through one of its most substantial political changes in 30 years, rejections have gone up and we now have to think twice on whether to apply for a visa for any reason. At the time of writing, a 6 months UK visa costs £98 GBP ($126), $160 for the tourism/visitor visa to the US, €60 ($70) for a Schengen country and $90 to head to Dubai. A 10-year visitor visa to the UK costs 46,785 Sudanese pounds ($846). Imagine carrying a stack of nearly 50,000 Sudanese pounds in cash to the embassy for a visa application knowing very well there's a high probability of being rejected.
Even when you've managed to successfully navigate the official application process, a few curve balls can still be thrown your way. One truly absurd embassy request came when I wanted to travel to Morocco for a wedding. I was asked to supply a letter from the Sudanese embassy in Cairo, where I was residing at the time, attesting that I was of sound background and reputation. It had to come from the ambassador himself. So there I was standing in the ambassador's office asking him to write a letter saying I was an upstanding member of the Sudanese community, and that I won't go to Morocco to engage in debauchery and sin. The ambassador laughed while handwriting the letter and kept asking me "Are you sure you still want to go?"
At the Jordanian embassy in Khartoum, I was told in uncertain terms that my being single was problematic. Apparently single Sudanese females don't travel for a weekend getaway with friends. We only go with family and usually for medical reasons. I was told if I had a connection in Amman they could help in getting the visa by "verifying" me. I cancelled my travel plans to Jordan.
The Thai embassy requested a letter from a male guardian that he supported my trip. I had to get one from my younger brother - me, a woman in her 40s needing a letter from her younger sibling. My cousins and friends who went to Europe were told to report back to the embassy after they returned so that it would go on record they didn't stay indefinitely and that the embassy's vetting process is alive and kicking.
And after all this - after you've endured the humiliation and the indignities of applying for the visa - the visa stamp is still no guarantee you'll be allowed in. You still have to navigate the passport control agent who always has the final say on whether you're allowed in or told to stay out. I was placed in a holding room at JFK airport for more than an hour, along with the other "undesirables" from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia.
I couldn't ask why or how long it will be (I had a connecting flight to catch from the domestic terminal) and for every query I made the agent would bark back at me "We will call your name". To this day I don't know why I was held up. No reason was ever given. Another time at Boston Logan airport, I was once again in the holding room and asked to provide my credit card details. When I asked why the reply was "Ma'am if you want to enter the country just answer the question". I kept checking my credit card statements for a while after that trip to make sure no strange transactions were made.
A recent report in Newsweek stated that a European passport holder can travel freely and without worry about having a visa to some 163 destinations, while some African citizens enjoy that privilege to only 61 countries. According to the Global Passport Ranking, a Sudanese passport holder is the 7th least powerful in the world. We were beaten to the top 5 only by Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia.
Travelling the world as an Arab-African, as a Muslim female, as a solo traveler is certainly difficult and complicated. But will I stop travelling? Absolutely not. I am just more selective as to where I go - the countries that are open and won't put me through an inquisition just because I want to visit.
Travelling is joy, it's a journey of discovery but the hoops one has to jump through just to get on that plane takes some of the joy out of the experience. With borders, barriers and walls being put up to stop us from making that journey, our options of where to go get smaller, especially if one is holding an "undesirable" passport. But I hold that passport with pride and will take it to where it's accepted and welcomed.
In the words of Ibn Battuta "Travelling - it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller."