Friday 28 June 2013

I. : Why the Route May Have to Change

Dear I.,

Remember how I mentioned that things could change, we might have to adjust our plans, schedule, and route depending on the situation?  Well, cross your fingers, because nothing has changed yet - but we're on the edge.  It's not the war in Nigeria or the Congo.  It isn't a flat tire (we've had two so far), a car accident (though we do need yet another roof rack, which would be Rack No. 3) or malaria (though I do have a bad cold, the first for both of us of the whole trip).  We haven't lost our big folder of documents, or passports, or international stash of money.  The politics are as stable as we could hope for, the roads still passable, and unlike some beloved hometowns, the rainy season hasn't washed us out.

No, it's bureaucracy.  Pure, simple, non-straightforward "oh well, it's Africa" bureaucracy.

It's the end of the business week, which means our embassy shuffle must cease for Saturday and Sunday - not a big deal, because we're we're swimming in the blue pool, crashing into the tall waves, and enjoying a beachside hotel to ourselves at the former French colonial capital of Grand Bassam, which is pretty much a resort suburb of Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast.  We arrived on Monday after a mad dash of driving on terrible roads from Liberia, and went straight to the Ghanaian embassy on Tuesday morning to get our visas.  From our research, we anticipated problems for this one.  Officially, Ghana only issues tourist visas in the home country of the applicant.  Because we are driving and taking a long time, applying in advance from France would not have been possible: the embassy would not issue us visas, and even if they did, they would likely expire by the time we got to Ghana.  Most people applying for visas, of course, travel by airplane.

The officials couldn't care less about our situation, wouldn't let us speak with the Consul, and said all that we could do was to apply for 48-hour transit visas.

Why is it so important that we get more than 48 hours in Ghana?  Because, in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, we intended to apply for both the hard-to-get Nigerian and the Angolan visas.  What happens without the time to do that?  We must take our chances and apply in other places (in Benin for Nigeria, and in Nigeria or the DR Congo for Angola), where there is no guarantee that we'll get more than transit visas for both; because, in those countries we'll need to apply for further visas (the Cameroon visa, applied for in Nigeria, and the Angolan visa, applied for in Nigeria or the DR Congo - because we cannot apply now in Ghana).

Sound confusing?  Don't worry about it.  This isn't really the problem.  Once we're in a country with a transit visa, we can spend weeks in the morass of paperwork and officialdom extending our stay: being in the middle of an application for an extension means you aren't overstaying your allotted time.

No, we discovered the problem when we came back to the internet to research the domino-effect consequences of a Ghanaian transit visa.  There is news from the DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Ghana and Angola were the four countries for which we worried most about getting visas.  I explained a little about Angola in my first letter to you, but the other three governments also state officially that it is not possible to get a visa except at the embassy in your resident country.  We know there are ways around this (the 'African Way'): Nigerian visas are still issued in Ghana and Benin, Ghanaian visas in Sierra Leone or here in Abidjan, Angolan visas in Nigeria, Ghana or the border town of Matadi in the DR Congo, and DR Congo visas in Libreville (Gabon) or Brazzaville (Congo).  We get this information from travelers who made this same trip just a few months ago.  And, even if these things change, there is always the power of patience, perseverance, shuffling around and giving people a hard time, and the bribe.

But here's the news: as of only a few weeks ago, DR Congo border officials are refusing entry to people who carry a valid visa in their passport from an embassy that is not in their country of residence. Not only that, but these officials stamp a large 'VOID' sign on the visa, so it is not possible to try again and again at different crossings or different days.  And, if the crossing is attempted and the visa refused, we will find ourselves on the other side of a river (Congo and the DR Congo are separated by the Congo River), without clearance to return to the other side (our passports will be exit-stamped upon boarding the car ferry).  It is possible that our truck would be impounded, and we could be stuck in no-man's land until we're clear to go back the way we came.

Add to that, the political situation is the eastern DR Congo has changed: the rebel group, Mai Mai Kata Katanga, is threatening to march on Lubumbashi next month.  If we drive through Angola, this shouldn't be a concern; but if we can't get the Angolan visa, we must cross the DR Congo on the notorious road from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi.  If the rebels do indeed take the city, or even get close, this Plan B is suddenly off to the wayside.

Why not skip the DR Congo, you might wonder?  We can't.  There is no viable, even reasonably safe route from where we are now that does not pass through at least part of this vast chunk of Africa.  The Central African Republic, Chad and Niger - countries through which we would pass in order to go straight east from where we are now - are extremely dangerous for travelers, particularly in the regions we would have to go.  It is not possible to simply go back the way we came, and across north Africa to Egypt, then drive down to the Sudan, because the border between Morocco and Algeria is completely closed.  We could return to Europe and get a ferry to Egypt, but this involves not only reobtaining visas for the countries we've already crossed, but also getting a new carnet de passages (a process that takes up to a month) with more pages, and one special page for costly Egypt.

The real problem is time.  If we stick to the DR Congo route and play the diplomatic game, we'll probably eventually get through - after months.  We read a recent account of a traveler who waited in Brazzaville for 90 days to sort out his visas and letters of invitation and so forth, and he didn't bother with a car.  And, if we return to the Mediterranean to attempt the eastern route, we would be too late (it would probably take a month just to get back up there).

So what are going to do?  At the moment, we're in contact with all sorts of embassies and officials who write fancy, stamped letters, to see if our intended route is possible.  We may be able to send by overseas express courier our passports and visa applications to the DR Congo embassies in our resident countries (one to Ottawa, one to London).  We first need to confirm that this is possible (the embassies don't like answering the phone, or doing much work at all), then confirm that it could happen in a reasonable amount of time (the website for the DR Congo embassy in London says 10-18 days to process mailed applications, which is too long, but could it be expedited?), and then we need to get letters of invitation from the DR Congo, notarised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and who knows how long that will take).

Failing that, we change the plan: this means shipping the truck back to England from here in Abidjan or from Libreville in Gabon.  We'd then fly ourselves to Kenya, Zambia or somewhere else in east Africa, and reach Tanzania on foot.

The one thing I really have absolutely no clue about, is how does the DR Congo's policy give any benefit whatsoever to the DR Congo?

Most people here answer that question with, "it's Africa, that's the African way".

No, it's not.  It's bullshit, any way, and Africans deserve a better one.

Please tell your mother I'm sorry about the language.

Will be in touch,