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Despite all its claims of being a nation that welcomes immigrants, a melting pot that embraces diversity, the United States has been anything but for the vast majority of non-white populations, especially Africans, who seek to enter the country either as visitors, students, temporary residents or as immigrants. I didn’t know just how unwelcoming the US was to Africans until I recently applied for a US visa. This was not the first time I had applied for this visa; I studied in the United States, and have been back several times since I graduated in the 1980s. I am not among those Kenyan students who went to the US and never came back home.  I have never been refused a US visa and am not a member of any terrorist or criminal organisation.

Even so, I was given an interview date of 21 March 2024, which is almost two years after I sent in my application online. This after I had already parted with a 19,200-shilling non-refundable visa application fee, which in itself is an abomination. (Note that US citizens simply have to apply and pay US$50 for a Kenyan visa online that they are assured of getting within five days.) You could say that this highly unequal relationship is because we are a poor country with little international clout while the US is a rich superpower. And we need their dollars more than they need anything from us. However, in foreign relations, reciprocity is an accepted tenet. Not any more, it would appear.

Money-making scam? 

It is estimated that the US embassy in Nairobi collects millions (if not billions) of shillings every year in visa fees from thousands of applicants who may never get a visa or who don’t need a visa anymore because the event they were supposed to attend in the US has already taken place. Basically, this means that Kenyans are subsidising the operating costs of US consular services. Why don’t they collect the fee when they are issuing the visa? This way, unsuccessful applicants would not feel cheated of their money. As one of my Twitter followers stated after I posted my frustration about my visa application, the process is a scam because it collects the money before any visa is issued or any interview date is scheduled, which means you cannot even change your mind about applying for the visa because the fee has already been paid in advance and there is no chance of getting it back. In fact, you have no chance of getting an interview date unless you have paid the fee. And even if you wait patiently for two years and do arrive at the US embassy for the interview on the scheduled date and time, you are not likely to get the visa because the interviewer will probably ask you why you need a visa to attend an event that has already taken place.

In its defence, the US Embassy posted on Twitter that these delays are occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, which I find hard to believe because visa and travel restrictions during the first two years of the pandemic made it less, not more, likely for Kenyans to travel abroad. Kenya was the target of travel bans by many Western nations during the early months of the pandemic. Despite having the among the lowest infection rates in the world, Kenya was among a list of African countries whose citizens were denied entry into the UK and other European countries where infection rates were skyrocketing. You could say that at the time, an African travelling to European countries and the United States was more in danger of being infected with the coronavirus than if he or she had stayed home.

I didn’t apply for a US visa because I suddenly felt an urge to visit America. I have been officially invited to an academic conference on African cities in New York convened by an international organisation that has relations with a university in New York that has provided academic input to the conference’s various papers. The organisers have sent me a letter stating that that they will pay for my travel and accommodation. The conference was originally scheduled for June this year, but realising that many of the Kenyan participants would not get their visas on time, the organisers had to postpone the conference to sometime next year. But it looks likely that the conference will be postponed yet again or cancelled because it might take the majority of African participants at least two years to obtain a US visa.

Delegitimising African scholarship

When I tweeted about my predicament, some of my followers suggested that I attend the conference via Zoom. Others said I should not travel to the US at all, and should look for more Kenya-friendly places to visit. One follower even sent me a list of 70 countries where Kenyans do not require a visa or where they can apply for visas on arrival. (I have added Nepal to the list of countries I will be visiting.)

These sentiments have also been echoed by academics like Haythem Guesmi.  In an article titled “The gentrification of African studies”, he wondered why the African Studies Association’s annual meeting and the annual conference of the African Literature Association are routinely held in North American cities. Guesmi, who was a PhD candidate in English Studies at the University of Montreal when the article was published, was commenting on the absurdity of situations where conferences focusing on African issues are held in Europe or North America and have panellists exclusively from the Western world – people who by virtue of their skin colour or citizenship have easy access to these venues, a privilege that citizens of African, Asian or Latin American countries do not have.

But it looks likely that the conference will be postponed yet again or cancelled because it might take the majority of African participants at least two years to obtain a US visa.

“This reality,” wrote Guesmi, “has generated numerous difficulties for Africa-based academics and scholars who are now forced to pay exorbitant, non-refundable visa fees in foreign currencies not always available to them and struggle to secure international travel funding. The resulting displacement and exclusion of continent-based Africanists have undermined the true purpose and identity of African studies; a pathological process commonly identified as gentrification.”

The marginalisation, or what Guesmi calls “gentrification” of African scholars from the field of African studies has led to an absence of Africans from public discussions and intellectual debates. “In the news or in public venues, there is an embarrassing preference to invite white Africanists to comment on every single topic, ranging from women’s oral culture all the way to electoral violence, and anything in between,” noted Guesmi.

Guesmi made a valid point – why should a conference about Africa be held outside the continent? Wouldn’t it be preferable if the conference to which I have been invited was held in Kenya, which would ensure maximum participation of Kenyan and African academics and professionals? Moreover, by holding these events in the West, are we not contributing to delegitimising home-grown African scholarship? Do Africans have to travel to the West to gain acceptance in the world of academia?

But both Guesmi and my Twitter followers have missed an essential point, which is that travelling abroad has become almost impossible for Africans, and this is simply unfair. Why do we have to go through torturous visa application processes? Why are we being denied an opportunity to mingle and network in person with our peers from the West, a penalty that is not imposed on people with more “acceptable” passports? Why is Africans’ participation at these events viewed with such suspicion by visa-issuing authorities? Why are we being denied the right to travel to whichever country we want yet an American or a Brit can waltz into this country without ever experiencing the kind of humiliation that Kenyans and other Africans are subjected to?

9/11 and its aftermath 

How did we get to this ridiculous place? You could say that while the US has generally been hostile to non-white people entering its borders, this sentiment intensified after the September 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington that injected a feeling of paranoia and xenophobia among US citizens and the US administrations that became wary of foreigners on their soils. Yet even though the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Centre were Saudis, no visa penalties were placed on Saudi nationals wishing to visit the US. Instead, the focus of US policy towards immigrants and visitors turned sharply against Africans even though to date no African has been implicated in a terrorist attack on US soil. Yet citizens of Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, can travel freely to the United States.

Kenya, or rather, the US embassy in Nairobi, was the target of the first major terrorist attack by Al Qaeda in 1997, but instead of extending a hand of compassion to Kenyans, who bore the brunt of that attack, with some 200 Kenyans losing their lives, Kenya was punished. (Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, was a Saudi national.) Al Shabaab’s terror attacks on Kenyan soil made it even harder for Kenyans to travel, as radicalised Kenyans, both Somali and non-Somali, were viewed as a potential security threat.

Why are we being denied an opportunity to mingle and network in person with our peers from the West, a penalty that is not imposed on people with more “acceptable” passports?

Yet, Kenya does not produce refugees as do neighbouring countries like Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea. The dinghies carrying migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe are not full of Kenyans. We tend to travel legally to other countries (even when we over-stay our visas). But with this punitive visa regime, is it surprising that an increasing number of Africans are using human traffickers to gain access to Western nations? There is no doubt that some Kenyans who travel to the US never come back to Kenya and choose to remain illegal immigrants, but the same could be said of many Americans who decide to make Kenya their home yet are not subjected to punitive visa requirements. On the contrary, I know of many Westerners who have lived in Kenya as “tourists” for decades. Yet, despite following the rules, Kenyans are heavily penalised.

How can we continue viewing the US as the land of the free when that freedom is only accorded to people of one race? Has America’s “caste system” (as author Isabel Wilkerson defines it in her book Caste) once again relegated Africans to the bottom of the pile, as it did for four centuries when African slaves were defined as cargo or property, not as humans? During the transatlantic slave trade, Africans were forcibly taken to the US against their will. Now Africans are denied access to a country that their ancestors built with their sweat and tears, and for no pay. The war In Ukraine has showed us that this caste system also extends to refugees. While African, Syrian, Afghan and other non-white refugees and asylum seekers trying to get to Europe are generally vilified, European countries have opened their arms to the white refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Now Africans are denied access to a country that their ancestors built with their sweat and tears, and for no pay.

President Donald Trump did not hide his contempt for immigrants and non-white people, so Africans could expect to be treated badly at US embassies during his administration’s tenure. But under the more tolerant Biden administration, this kind of attitude is not just counter-productive, but also reflects badly on a government that is trying to clean up the carnage that Trump left behind. America’s superpower status may make it feel like it can treat citizens of poor African countries badly without suffering any consequences. But in a world as polarised as ours, it would be prudent for the US to show a kinder, more welcoming face to the rest of the world.