Colonial suspicions and hollow partnerships: one African research assistant’s failure to obtain a visa for a research seminar

By: Sekou Kouyaté

“As a member of the Humanitarian Health Ethics Research Group (HHERG), your presence is requested at a Dissemination and Workshop Event in Geneva, Switzerland hosted by CERAH (Centre d’enseignement et de recherche en action humanitaire de Genève – Geneva Centre for Teaching and Research in Humanitarian Action) from 23 September to 28 September 2018…

When I received this letter on July 9th, 2018, I was overcome with joy and hope. First, joy: for the feeling that I will become known by several colleagues I had corresponded with for over a year, and never met, and have the opportunity for them to hear me share my thoughts first-hand. Hope:  to meet international researchers in a renowned city. I immediately agreed because, as an African research assistant, the opportunity to participate in a workshop in Europe that focuses on public health research which affects thousands of Africans is rare and therefore impossible to refuse.

The first step for this trip to Europe, I quickly learnt, posed an immediate challenge. I was to obtain a visa at the Swiss embassy located not in my home country (Guinea), as there was no such embassy in Guinea, but in Ivory Coast. Travelling there was costly. My economic limitations made me begin to lose hope, as travelling there overland would take days, and a plane ticket would cost 300 USD. The visa itself would cost 60 USD. Luckily, these financial concerns were short-lived. As soon as my Canadian supervisor and professor, Elysée Nouvet, heard that I needed to travel out of country for my application, she assured me all costs of this process would be covered by the project, and sent me the funds. I was off to Abidjan.

The submission of the application files, and the discussions that followed did not allow me to expect a departure to Europe. Neither my commitment to return to Africa after the workshop nor the invitation letters from CERAH and HHE, and the authenticity of my own files were sufficient or reassured the Swiss Embassy to grant me the visa. I was granted an interview at the embassy in Abidjan. During interview with more than one official, I was told that I seemed honest enough, but inevitably as a young African (I was 40 at the time), I essentially posed a risk of illegal migration. It seemed impossible, statistically and socially, to the officials, that I would return to Guinea if I made it to Europe. I was stunned, and frankly offended, that it was assumed no African would choose to stay in Africa if given access to Switzerland. I entreated my interlocutors with as many details of my commitments in Guinea. My father had been a diplomat, and I knew the situation was delicate and not in my favor. I learnt that my lack of PhD seemed to evoke distrust in and of itself: how could a socio-anthropologist without a PhD (from Africa) have enough to contribute to a workshop to merit his invitation to such an event? In the end, the interview lasted less than an hour. I felt devalued and judged. I felt I was being seen as a potential criminal and liar, which was like being called a criminal and liar. I am a deeply religious man, and my word was my honor, but this meant nothing. I showed them proof of dependents in Guinea and two small children, as well as research positions that were contingent on my ability to conduct interviews and analysis in Guinea: this was insufficient.  

From the Ivory Coast, grief, shame, and disappointment filled my heart and my head. These combined to create in me a feeling of profound rejection. I did not answer my phone for several days afterwards as I processed what had happened. This failure to obtain a visa was not only a notification of non-participation in the workshop. It was confirmation of the existence of unfair assumptions about the inherent appeal of moving to Europe for all Africans, and the bias of visitor visa granting based in colonial thinking and policy.  It was then that I lost all hope that the symbolic partnership would be transformed into an authentic partnership between researchers from the South and the North.

I write this short piece, because I think it is worthwhile to record. I aim to share my experience with all the decision-makers in health research, in humanities and policies, so that processes for visa applications and approvals for researchers from the south be rethought. Colleagues from the north come to Africa with ease, and with relatively limited worry over visa. Current policies strike me as unfair. They are also extremely costly, stressful, and even depressing. If we are serious about decolonizing research, there has to be more support for the mobility of African researchers to partake in international events where their contributions will be discussed. It is time to replace rhetoric. It is no longer acceptable for Africans to be on the receiving side of lessons from non-Africans. We are not just part of research to color the soup. 

During seminars and workshops in Europe, the consideration of the perception and experience of African researchers beyond Skype is an important element in the re-foundation of this cooperation. In the relationship between southern researchers and colleagues from the European and North American continents, it should be mentioned that the only initiative that can achieve sustainability is the one which facilitates the free movement of researchers.  

It is regrettable to consider that in the 21st century, the remnants of colonization are still visibly persistent in health research, while security, international trade and politics have been able to repaint the board. Nowadays, political advisers, diplomats, and security experts are no longer worried about their status (beginner, intern and senior) for obtaining visas to travel to Europe or America.

In the context of public health, Africa is considered a research site on diseases (infectious, non-infectious, neglected, experimental studies…). For a better understanding and consideration of the experts’ recommendations to policy makers and financial partners, it is necessary for Africans to participate in disseminations and to be given a voice in explaining the perceptions, reactions and representations of diseases. After all, the idea of the principle of justice is one of the pillars of health research ethics.

 

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