Thursday, June 11, 2009

Visas, embassies and things

As many of you know, I am heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC) on Saturday night. It will be my first time there in three years, since I spent a year there as a Fulbright professor at the University of Kinshasa; there will be lots of happy reunions. These last couple of days, I have been busy preparing for my departure, complicated in some ways by the quarantine of my office. It means I have to rely of the kindness of friends for printing. It also means, most sadly for me, that a number of books I planned to give to colleagues are exiled in my office and will not be making the trip with me.

While this week is busy with preparations, the same has been true for the past couple of weeks, really since before the semester ended. In addition to making formal arrangements with my hosts, I have been doing a lot of more informal reaching out to people there and abroad about details related to my visit.

I got my ticket on Kenya Airways through Nairobi. For the return trip, the airline changed once leg of my trip so that my one-hour layover was reduced to an impossible fifteen minutes. I was given a few options by the travel agent, and I chose to spend 24 hours in Nairobi on my return. The airline is putting me up at a hotel too. I have never been there and this seems like a good (albeit too brief) opportunity to check out the city.

The other major activity involved acquiring a visa. During my previous trip, as a Fulbright, I had the US Department of State at my back, which I too gladly accepted (despite my lack of love lost for the administration and its policies). I had even met the RDC consul in person at a reception in Washington, DC, so it was relatively straightforward. I fed ex’d my passport to DC and got it returned by mail a short time later. It was a simple 1-month single entry visa, and after I got to Kin, I was able to have folks at the US Embassy in Kinshasa take care of arranging for me to get a year-long, multiple entry Visa de Courtoisie.

This time, I was more-or-less on my own. I had a faxed copy of an official letter of invitation from the office of the Rector at UniKin. (Academics do have substantial political clout in RDC.) I called the embassy and went to their office with 4 copies of a stack of documents—the letter of invitation, my airplane ticket, proof of the legality of my stay in Egypt (and that I would be allowed to return), proof of Yellow Fever inoculation, my previous Visa de Courtoisie, passport-size photos, and a few other things I may be forgetting.

On the Cairo map I was using, the embassy was marked by the country’s former name, Zaire. But the building was immediately identifiable because the huge concrete wall was painted the colors of the new flag—powder blue and yellow. Though a bit run down, the architecture of the building, located in a historic and fashionable Zamalek neighborhood, is still impressive. The wall around it, however, does make it difficult to appreciate. I should have taken a picture, but perhaps I had subconsciously channeled the Kinois interdiction against public photography.

For my first visit, I deposited my paperwork, filled out a detailed application form, and left my passport. They didn’t give me a receipt for the passport because, they explained, I had not paid the visa fee yet (and I would need to return to do that later in the week). Receipts are rare in Egypt; they are ubiquitous and extremely formal in Congo. Not sure which system was at work. I suspect it was a combination of few receipt requests from people living in Egypt, and an unwillingness to give anything but the most official of documents. Anyway I didn’t expect a problem and there was none.

I received a telephone call and returned two days later to pay. I think they needed to review my materials before accepting money. In order to pay, they told me the amount (the equivalent of a little bit more than $100US) and gave me their bank account number. Since they don’t have a cashier there, I took this small piece of paper they gave me and went to the bank branch where I made the deposit and got the bank deposit receipt. I exchanged the bank receipt for an embassy receipt, and was done for the day.

By the end of the week, I was able to return—for a third time—to pick up my passport with the visa stamped inside of it. It was a bit time consuming—I had to travel to Zamalek, which is about an hour away from my house, three times in one week. But on the whole it was easy and smooth. I suspect I was a bit of a novelty—a US citizen applying for a RDC visa on a US passport in Egypt. When the person at the front desk announced my arrival to the consul, he asked in French if the passport was ready for the Americain. No name required.

The embassy here serves several countries in the region where the RDC does not have embassies: Turkey, Lebanon, and Kuwait (as I recall). The procedures are very different than what US travelers typically experience when traveling abroad. If a visa is needed (and it is not in many places including EU countries), it can be gotten at the airport (as in the case of Egypt, or as I will do during my transit layover in Kenya). All I can say is that the RDC is a country that foreigners, including those from the US, have tried to overthrow on several occasions in the past half-century, so it is more than reasonable for them to be careful when admitting outsiders. I recall a case when I was there of a presidential candidate with dual US-RDC citizenship who hired a private US firm to provide security. The security officers, who had no experience anywhere near RDC, expressed shock that they were arrested after they were found with a huge cache of technological equipment—computers, satellite phones, walkie talkies, etc—and some weapons. They were quickly released and expelled from the country. But what looks like the tools of the trade to a cop from Orlando, Florida, looks a lot different in the suitcase of an American in Kinshasa. It seems reasonable to expect a traveler to have at least a basic understanding of the history of the place they are visiting.

I don’t know a lot about current relations between RDC and Egypt, but the historical ones are strong. When Lumumba was assassinated in 1961, there were massive demonstrations in Cairo, which included the destruction of the American Cultural Center. President Nasser, a great pan-Africanist, expelled the Belgian ambassador as well. Lumumba’s widow and children settled here after at the personal invitation of Nasser. Today, one of Lumumba’s daughters lives here, and works with a regional NGO. And just last week I saw a street named for Lumumba in Alexandria.

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