As a black and brown person, you need to have a privileged passport to be able to travel the world. I figured that out and got myself one.
I am from Sierra Leone in West Africa but have lived most of my life in Switzerland and Canada. For the longest time, I only had one passport, my Sierra Leonean one.
For me, it was a matter of love and pride. I love my native country, and in my eyes, my Sierra Leonean passport is as good a passport like any other. That was until I started traveling extensively.
Quite quickly, I realized that my Sierra Leonean passport had lesser value than say for example a UK, US, or French passport, and this made it extremely challenging for me to travel.
I remember my first business trip to London in the UK. I had to apply for the entrance visa two full months in advance. I literally received it a day before travel and had to jump through hoops to even get there.
First, the consulate requested a police report stating that I had never been in trouble with the law. If I had ever so much as shoplifted in my youth, the visa would have been automatically declined.
They then requested copies of my salary and bank statements. They even wanted to see my health insurance coverage and I had to provide an attestation to prove that I was in good health. It was simply ridiculous, not to mention lengthy, personally invasive, and onerous.
I even had a 1:1 interview with a consulate official who seemed to think that once I got to the UK, I would disappear or request asylum. The whole process to obtain a simple visa for a one-night stay in London was cumbersome and traumatizing, to say the least.
And then came a conference in New York City. Again the process was extensive. My entire life from womb to the moment I applied for the US visa was minutely studied under a microscope. I had nothing to hide, but I felt vulnerable, exposed,
As work trips kept coming up in rapid succession, I realized that with my Sierra Leonean passport, there was many a trip that I was going to have to cancel or miss simply because I couldn’t obtain a visa for those countries on time.
Despite my explanations, my colleagues with European and American passports, or should I say “privileged” passports, rolled their eyes when I recounted my experiences. They could not understand why I spent most of my workdays in consultates.
They hinted that I must have committed some illicit activities in my past to be subjected to such lengthy procedures. Some also wondered if I was just finding excuses to avoid travel. Maybe I was not interested or motivated in joining these trips and always found the perfect “I don’t have a visa excuse” to get out of them.
Few were empathetic or understanding. I mean, how could I have expected them to, they had spent all of their lives cocooned in privilege with one or even several privileged passports at hand, how could they even imagine being in my shoes for even a second?
And truth be told, I did envy them a little. They’d be able to hop on a plane for a last-minute meeting or a romantic weekend in Paris. They’d get to see many different places, meet extraordinary people, and have unique experiences.
We had all gone to the same schools and universities, we lived in the same country: Switzerland, and yet their passports allowed them to travel to wherever they wanted in the world while mine did not.
I had resided in Switzerland for several years and was eligible for a Swiss passport. As I stood in a three-hour-long queue at the French consulate in Geneva trying to obtain yet another visa, I realized just how fed-up I was of spending days on end literally begging to get admitted into countries.
I loved my home country, and I wanted to travel with my Sierra Leonean passport, but I was tired of all the power trips of consular officials, the passive-aggressive behaviors, the rudeness, the humiliation, and the contempt. It was unbearable.
It was at that time that I knew it was time to apply for my Swiss passport. I too wanted to have a taste of the privilege that most of my friends and colleagues had.
After a 3-year naturalization process, the Swiss government granted me the nationality (as a black woman, that process was not without its challenges, but I’ll expand on that in another post).
I was eager to go on my very first trip with one of the most privileged passports in the world, and indeed that first trip did not disappoint.
I didn’t have to worry about filling in lengthy visa application forms, getting background documents to prove that I was an ethical and moral person, and surviving through torturous interrogation interviews. I was finally able to move my magic wand and find myself in almost any country I wanted.
But then came the doubts and the questioning. Many of the countries I visited had never met black Swiss people before so I had to sit for hours on end while they investigated whether the passport was genuine.
It wasn’t only foreign governments that did this, it was also Swiss immigration officials when I tried to get back into the country.
So ironically, even with a privileged passport, I was still stopped and interrogated, but anything was better than the visa application processes I had been through in the past.
Once as I was heading home from New Delhi, India, an immigration official held up my Swiss passport and said:
“Where did you get this from, it’s forged”,
“It is a genuine passport, I am a Swiss citizen,” I asserted.
“Maybe white people believe you because they can’t tell one African apart from another, but you can’t fool me, I know you’re not the same person in the photo. You’ll get caught someday,” he said sternly as he ushered me through.
I stood there in dismay, shocked by what I had just heard.
Overall, however, getting a privileged passport has changed my life. Often times though, I see black and brown people with African, Asian, and South American passports get harassed by immigration officials and police. I see the stress and anxiety in their eyes. I see the emotional turmoil and distress.
I recall the pain and humiliation I felt when faced with similar situations in the past.
I am the exact same person I am now than I was then, however, because I have a privileged passport now, I am less subject to discrimination and racism when I cross borders.
The whole system that dictates that one country’s passport has more value than another, was one set up by white supremacists in their quest to give more value to white lives over brown lives.
The visa system is a vector through which white culture further exploits black and brown lives by asking them to pay exorbitant fees to visit white lands.
What is ironic in all this, is that white colonizers pilfered black and brown countries to build their countries. And now they ask us to pay through the nose to visit those same countries that our resources helped build and make rich.
The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
With all the racism I have endured, it is clear to me that this only applies to white lives. And we must all work hard to make sure it applies to all lives.
Thanks for reading my perspective.