The Brave Warrior in West Africa 3 – WAWA!

In Travels on January 25, 2013 at 8:49 am

When I lived in Africa in the good old days, one would often hear expatriates of various nationalities talk about the continent and its people condescendingly. I am sure I must have joined in from time to time. But I consider this in the same way that one defines a pessimist: an optimist with real-life experience!

Without digressing further, each nationality would say with great vehemence and assurance that Africa begins at: Calais (British); Lille (Belgians); Lyon (French); Rome (Italians); Lisbon (Portuguese): South of Madrid (Spanish). I am sure you can spot the pattern here. Basically people living in the south of their home countries were prone to the more relaxed, laid back, manana lifestyle that one associates with Africa.

It is now more than 20 years since I left the continent as a full time resident. My regular forays into Africa since those times have not really convinced me that, organisationally speaking, things have changed for the better. So you can imagine my extremely pleasant surprise to see that Ivory Coast issued biometric visas, and much of the tedious procedure could be completed online. So, last Thursday evening in my bed in Mauritius, I set about completing the online formalities.

Two hours later, I had paid for the cost of the visa, generated a fixed time slot interview the following Monday in Paris. Not being completely computer literate, I somehow messed up the actual application form. No problem, I could do this tomorrow morning… Another hour online at the office on the day of my departure, and with a colleague’s help, saw the application, complete with uploaded photo, duly filled in. Why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to know the names and ages of my children remains a mystery, but I can accept that the needs of information and technology are manifold and require the submitting of such trifling additional details. I also prepare all the key documents requested – original of Birth Certificate, Medical Insurance, Hotel Reservation, Invitation Letter, Air Ticket, and Yellow Fever Vaccination certificate. I was a little surprised (and disappointed, I might add) they had not asked for my school leaving certificate or my rather impressive CV!

Of course, even trying to get information about a visa from Congo Republic embassy proved impossible. So, I therefore work on my good friend Laurent’s maxim in life: If you can’t convince them, confuse them! Photocopies of my Mauritian ID, CEB bill, plus everything else asked for by Ivory Coast. The Brave Warrior will arrive in Paris ready for any request…

Monday morning, I wake up bright and early (actually it’s dark and 5:45 am). My computer-generated appointment is at 10:30 am in Central Paris. I am no.13 in that 20-min time slot. It is seriously cold when I head up the hill to Chaville Rive Droite SNCF station. Hanging around waiting for the train is not much fun either. I arrive at the Embassy in good time and within seconds realise that all the sophisticated electronic process is all smoke and mirrors; a mirage, totally misleading! We are channelled downstairs into a dingy room with paint peeling off the walls. An arrogant officer is hiding his condescension behind a veneer of weak paternalistic humour. The whole room is chaotic. People are shoving and pushing, loudly; others (Africans) are complaining about being given fixed appointments online and then having people get ahead of them. The officer calls for silence then explains to us that we must “forget all that stuff we did online”… We are informed that all we need are a few key documents; to simply forget the rest. For a moment, I am gobsmacked, speechless! There I was, so concerned about the fact that I had a copy of my Birth Certificate, but had omitted to take the original. After stapling a photo, over the electronic photo on the downloaded form, we are then given a scrap of paper with a number and told to go back upstairs.

Of course, upstairs is where everyone walks in, so there is real confusion, as newcomers have to realise that they need a session downstairs with Mr. Comic before they can join the real queue. A second official also pretending to be efficient checks our documents. He asks me for the number of children I have; checks if I am OK to be described as male (‘you never know these days’, he whispers); we hit a wall in all this amiable discourse when he wants to know when I’m leaving Paris. Try as I might, Mr. Efficient refuses to understand that I am travelling to Abidjan from Brazzaville, that I have just come from Mauritius. The tone hardens, he raises his voice to tell me in words of 1 syllable that the visa is issued in Paris and comes into effect when I leave France. I shrug my shoulders and confess I don’t have the Paris–Brazzaville ticket with me, but that it is on my laptop and can be viewed. Who would have thought that one needed to show them a Paris-Brazzaville ticket to conform to the strict requirements of a visa for Ivory Coast?

After scribbling something illegible on my application, I join the final queue waiting actually to hand in the pile of documents. Moving inside, I am shouted at from behind a thick glass panel by a not too polite, or very feminine, lady of a certain age. Immediately she picks up on her colleague’s scribbling. She sighs, before calling a more senior personage over who wants to know when I am leaving France, and why I’ve asked for a visa for a date after I leave Paris. Gritting my teeth, I explain the apparently strange notion that I am not travelling directly to Abidjan.
Mr. Senior Smooth Executive takes a while to grasp this weird 21st century concept made possible by airplanes criss-crossing Africa. With a flourish he writes on my form “Appointment Thursday 15:30!” We are Monday morning, for goodness sake… I still have to get a visa from Congo. Of course, they don’t want to know anything and I complete the biometric part of the application by putting my fingers of each hand and then thumbs together on the scanner. I am now convinced that Mr. Allasane Ouattara (the President) must know of my case personally.
As I walk out of the embassy, 3 thoughts assail me:
1. A former friend and colleague said to me in all sincerity back in 1980: “In 150 years nothing will have changed here.” I can attest to the truth of that assessment: certainly very little has changed in the first 32 years. But who knows? There’s hope yet. We’ve got another 118 years to go!
2. I realise with a flash of inspirational brilliance that I’ve finally discovered where Africa begins… It’s at 102 Rue Poincaré, Paris XVI; at the Ivory Coast Embassy!
3. Another expression that floated around back in those good old days was “WAWA’. I can certify that West Africa Wins Again!


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