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The colour of travel

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American civil rights icon, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, once said, it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11am on Sunday morning, highlighting the irony that churches, at the time, were split along colour lines. Today, I submit that the international departures and arrivals terminals at airports around the world, and increasingly around the African continent – which are supposed to serve as a meeting point for people from all cultures and backgrounds – are the most segregated place in African society. Predictably, those holding passports from Sub-Saharan African nations, bear the unfair brunt.

In addition to the ominous class divide, the colour of one’s passport in many ways, determines the kind of experience and treatment one receives at the airport when travelling overseas, and there are fewer passports that reveal this reality like the green Nigerian passport which I proudly yet nervously carry. It is an invitation for suspicion and added scrutiny, inappropriate and ignorant questioning, and sometimes outright discriminatory treatment, most times tacitly sanctioned by the host government.

This colour divide was unmistakable during my recent trip through Aeroport Mohammed V, Casablanca, Morocco. I was en-route to Monrovia on a Royal Air Maroc flight from London and missed my connecting flight due to my own fault. With no more flights out of Casablanca that night, and yet another African country which allows western citizens visa on arrivals but denies fellow African nationals the same courtesy, I was forced to spend the night locked up in a nicely named “Transit Salon.” The next morning, as I arrived back at the terminal, I turned my camera on, to survey other travelers and get their experience traveling to and through Morocco. Here are some of their stories:

Wilfred, a Kenyan citizen en route New York was in transit for six hours and asked the staff to point him to the transit area so he could get a drink. He was dismissed. He remarked at how rude the staff were to him and other black people. He blames his Kenyan passport. “Cheap is Expensive,” he said. Talking about Royal Air Maroc’s cheap but highly inflexible rates, which rope in unsuspecting customers going to other countries in sub-saharan Africa and then treat them like refugees who are being air lifted.

Adelagun Harrington, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and permanent resident of the United States, was heading to Cote d’Ivoire for a cultural exchange program and decided to stop over in Casablanca for a few days. She alleges that staff at the Moroccan embassy and Royal Air Maroc in the US assured her she didn’t need a visa to transit in Morocco. On arrival, however, she met a different reality and a vastly different attitude. She was denied entry into Morocco on the grounds that she did not have the very visa she was told she didn’t need. She says what was even more upsetting was the treatment she received at the hands of the airline and airport officials who were hard to distinguish from one another as they often performed roles interchangeably.

Lastly was Renee Barette, a Canadian tourist who was visiting Casablanca and Marrakesh to see some of the popular tourist attractions. I caught up with her on her way back home and asked how her experience in Morocco and with Royal Air Maroc had been. She said it was brilliant. She told me a story about how she had an overweight bag, which she would’ve been mandated to pay an extra fee in excess of $100. But that on getting to the check in counter, the agent asked her to take the bag to the back to get it wrapped. After which she paid just $10 and they let the bag through. She wasn’t sure whether it was for the wrapping, or as a bribe but she was ecstatic about the fact that she saved that money and insisted on showing me the photo of her wrapped bag.

While the French-Arabic language barrier limited the sample size, the exercise exposed the subtle ways in which bias shows up in travel settings. It isn’t always glaring and illegal, which is easier to prove and prosecute. Sometimes it’s the difference between being treated with courtesy by attending staff and being dismissed rudely; it’s the difference between being given vital travel information and being misled by conflicting airline information; it is the difference between letting a slightly overweight bag slide and insisting on paying the difference in excess baggage fees, and for the wealthier folks who pay a premium to avoid poor treatment; it is the difference between staying in the airport lounge indefinitely during extended layovers and being reminded of the 3hr maximum.

It is up to governments and the airlines to reform policies and procedures to make sure citizens holding all colours of passports are treated equally and fairly. It is up to them to make sure that their members of staff are trained to recognize their own biases and limit its impact. It is also up to passengers to continue to speak out, file complaints, leave reviews and report when they or others are treated poorly. Only then can we get travel to be the bridge builder across cities, nations and cultures.


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