This is the story of how I took six flights in three days, slept in a five-star hotel and the Abidjan airport, talked my way onto an EgyptAir flight to Accra, almost got deported from Ghana, and finally made it safely to my current position under a thatched roof restaurant as rain thrashes into the reeds above my head and lightning zaps the hills around me. I have ridden the highs and the lows, but at last I am employed, well rested, and back in Africa.
I began my journey in Philadelphia, because I was there to celebrate my sister SWG’s graduation from Haverford College. It is clear that Haverford’s standards have improved considerably since I was a student there, because they are turning out a far superior class of graduates these days. Not only did SWG receive high honors and several distinctions in Latin that I personally cannot read, she also did so while maintaining an active social life in her sorority. Congratulations on rushing Phi Beta Kappa, kid! They are lucky to have you.
My first inkling that I was in for a rough trip came on Friday at 22h10 in the Philadelphia airport, when the man checking me in for my British Airways flight to Accra via London asked to see my Ghanaian visa. This surprised me. My employer, several friends based in Africa, and a woman in a British Airways call center (the connection sounded like she was speaking to me from a mailbox underwater) assured me that BA would not check my visa to board, and I could purchase a visa upon arrival in Accra. The guy did the airline-employee-shrug and told me he could put me on a flight to London but that there was no guarantee that I could travel on from there. I called my employer and he assured me that I should go to London and from there they would find an alternate way to get me into Ghana; he would arrange a visa on arrival. I was at a decision point: would I board a flight knowing that I had no next connection, no visa for my final destination, and no experience entering or working in Ghana? I thought about it. I eventually decided that I’m an American, not an American’t, and this was worth a try.
So. I checked my bag to London, boarded the plane, and divided my time between reading technical specs for Tailing Storage Facilities on gold mines and watching the latest James Bond movie. The Bond movie was good, but maybe it just shines by comparison. I arrived in London and checked my email to see that I had a new itinerary. After a six-hour layover I flew to Casablanca, and from there I traveled to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. That night I stayed in the only five-star hotel in Burkina, which has absurdly good security and very strong water pressure. The next day I boarded a flight to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, with the intention to transfer to a South African Airways flight to Accra, Ghana. Disaster struck. The South Africans asked for my visa as well, and refused to let me board without one. I was trapped: no way to travel to my destination, and no Ivoirian visa to allow me to leave the airport. I spent the night on an airport bench, and on Monday convinced an EgyptAir gate attendant that I would definitely be able to acquire a visa in Ghana and if I didn’t then I would not be their problem. I evidently demonstrated more confidence than I felt, because they let me on the plane.
When I got to Ghana I was met by a man named Paul who was to be my fixer in the visa process. When I explained that I had a letter of invitation from my employer, the price of the visa in US currency, a complete disembarkation card and a valid visa for another ECOWAS member country he grimaced and told me this would be difficult. Apparently to buy a visa on arrival you need to have obtained in advance a letter from Ghana immigration services which says “We know that Sam wants to buy a visa upon arrival.” I approached the immigration counter, presented all my documents, and was told to wait. I waited an hour and a half before being told that it was impossible. I would have to leave Ghana. Calls were made. My employer spoke to the immigration officer, then connected to a colleague in another department of the airport. Nothing. A high level member of the Ghana immigration services was contacted. The immigration officer spoke on the phone with him. I was given a form to fill out. Then I was given a visa. I really don’t know how it happened, but I was in. I hustled away to catch a flight on a propeller plane to central Ghana, then was met by a driver and carried on.
I do not recommend this means of travel to anyone. Please don’t walk away thinking that you can negotiate your way into any African country: ultimately my entry was fully legal and documented, although some paperwork was filed at the last minute. In every other African country I’ve visited there is an option to purchase a visa on arrival; you just fill out all necessary forms, pay in cash, and get the stamp in your passport. I honestly admire the fairness of the Ghanaian system. If a Ghanaian can’t pay cash for an American visa on arrival in the US, then why should a US citizen be able to do that in Ghana? It was an immensely stressful three days of traveling, and I’m so glad that ultimately I was able to legally enter Ghana with all of my baggage and some of my sanity intact. I slept for 11 hours on my first night here.
“But Sam, what are you doing there?!? Why did you even do this?” you may ask. Basically, I work for a gold mine now. I’ll give more details when I understand them myself. I look forward to sharing more updates from West Africa—don’t change the channel.