Letter from Africa: Frosty frontiers

US Marine Lance Cpl Torffic Hassan from Ghana looks over his citizenship certificate on Wall Street on 22 March 2013

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian Elizabeth Ohene considers the changing reception Africans receive when travelling to the West.

I had quite forgotten what indignities come with travelling on a Ghanaian passport.

I am on some travels currently and I was given the full Ghana passport treatment at Heathrow Airport in London and a slightly better one at one of the New York airports.

The immigration official at Heathrow was not satisfied that I needed a whole week in the UK to do whatever I wanted to do.

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By the time he stamped my passport and let me through, there was nothing attractive or welcoming about London”

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He was not persuaded that I had any friends of much worth in the country and I was questioned closely about the possibility of my seeking work.

Images of a 60-something-year-old Miss Ohene serving hamburgers at a fast food restaurant flashed through my head.

I think after he took a closer look at me he changed his tack and embarked upon another string of questions that would show I was trying to enter the UK to live illegally and to make use of their social security benefits.

By the time he stamped my passport and let me through, there was nothing attractive or welcoming about London and if I did not have urgent business to conduct, I would have taken his advice and left the UK after a day.

A week later I presented myself with much trepidation to the US Border and Customs Protection official at the airport.

'Exuding energy'

This time around it was my luggage that was more the centre of interest.

I was "randomly" selected and my suitcase put through a scanner as I was questioned about whether I was sure I had no food, what about smoked fish, surely a few snails, palm oil?

Muhey-Deen Kamal, originally from Ghana has a haircut at a local barber in West Ham, London, on 20 February 2013 Many people of Ghanaian origin live and work in the UK

Now, none of this is really new and in my years of travel around the world on a Ghanaian passport, I know it comes with the territory.

But I am thinking about my recent airport difficulties only because of an encounter I had with an interesting Ghanaian immigrant here in New York this past week.

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The immigration official who allowed him in about two decades ago did America a world of good”

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There are probably thousands of such Ghanaians around the world with similar hair-raising and captivating stories.

Let us call my new friend Gabon. He tells his story with disarming charm and honesty.

Gabon's route from Ghana to the US was, to put it mildly, interesting.

He does not talk about how he left Ghana but he and a group of friends certainly arrived in Egypt, then they went to Israel.

They worked there, came back to Egypt, some went to Qatar, others to Kuwait, back to Egypt and he finally got to the US.

And for the past 20 years he has built and run a thriving business.

He exudes energy and he knows all there is to know about his line of trade.

Eternal shame

As Gabon talked, I tried to imagine him at the airport being questioned by the immigration officer some 20 odd years ago.

I wondered how he managed to convince the official to let him in.

Ghanaian women  walk along The Mall in London on 13 March 2007 Ghanaian passport-holders are sometimes viewed suspiciously

He had no money, but he had a lot of enthusiasm and a determination to succeed and here he is today, still not very fluent in the English language but with a small successful business.

Looking at Gabon, I felt sad that there was now such a fear of "foreigners" and potential immigrants in the UK and the US.

The immigration official who allowed him in about two decades ago did America a world of good.

This man is certainly an example of why the US has succeeded as a country.

And it is to our eternal shame in Ghana that such a person did not feel there was room for him to make it in his home country.

But who knows, maybe now that it is less and less likely that such enterprising people will be allowed in the traditional target countries, they will stay on in Ghana and other such countries and make a success of their homes.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Although my below comment may seem harsh, its only stating the facts, I think the correct questions need to be asked to all foreign nationals entering another country, but they should be asked in a proper and correct manner, Britain needs to stop the mass influx of foreign nationals coming in for nothing but self gain, health and social service tourism needs to be stopped, quit Europe and its laws

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Im British living in Lagos, Nigeria, here you bags are rifled by the authorities for nothing more than personal gain, ur expected to pay them money just for the sake of it to get through immigration and customs, the corruption of officials at the airports here is terrible, ive been to Ghana many times too, and my experiences there have been very good, Britain is too soft, we aint a dumping ground

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    7 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are now located in Africa. Attitudes will eventually change overseas..

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    And what's with the picture of the Marine? What does he have to do with immigration policy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    What exactly is so chilling about the writer's reception? I'm an American citizen and I get asked those questions, too.

    Also, it's not up to the individual customs agent to decide whether someone is granted access to the country, just to decide whether his or her documentation is in order.

    I get the feeling that this article is the victim of some sloppy editing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    When i traveled to south africa and was passing through customs in Durban i was treated with hostility. (i carry a british passport btw). Its not just a western trend to be frosty at airports its a global one. Something we have to accept in an age where airline security comes over ones personal feelings.

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    Comment number 43.

    I read this story twice, and was moved to muse that a world traveler should know to take the bad with the good. (Airport security and Customs and Immigration certainly qualify as bad.) What I would like to know is what a picture of a United States Marine Lance Corporal in his dress blue uniform has to do with the story?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    White British people have to face such issues too. I recall visits to Vancouver and Lesotho where the immigration officials made me feel like a criminal. The US immigration officials I must say though, have actually always treated me much better than their reputation would suggest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    John Okwewe and the others, what part of the article did you guys not understand, because she clearly wants Africans to stay in Africa and make the place a success. Then only will all the issues you have raised be solved. Ghanaians can equally list bad treatment they have encountered in your countries, yet that will not take us anywhere but beggars all the time. Think.


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