Monday, May 20, 2013

May 20th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Over the past few years I have been able to take several young people on the their first international travel tour. I have learned a lot. Perhaps the distinct difference of my experiences to most peoples is that the young people I have travelled with, would not have normally had the resources or opportunities to travel had it not been for the projects I was involved in.

Normally, international travel from a developing nation is made possible for those from the higher reaches of society – generally those from the cities and well-paid jobs. Those with prior experience of eating in restaurants and visiting hotels. In my line of work, the empowerment of the rural dweller is key, and with it new challenges have become standard in the mission to travel internationally.

I will share with you some of the challenges experienced, and hope that some of you will gain a greater understanding of the issues involved – and embark on similar projects!

First of all there is the birth certificate. It appears that many of the young people in rural Ghana are not in possession of a birth certificate. The chances are that their very birth was never registered. Obtaining such a document takes time, effort and, of course, money. It is important that the birth certificate matches the name and date of birth that may occur on other documents already in the system, such as school certificates. Let us complicate the matter further by needing the details of parents, and at times Grandparents details get asked for! Many older people in Ghana seem to have several names, dates of birth, and documents with conflicting information – it seems that there age oscillates depending on the needs of the moment!. Getting a ‘clear and consistent’ set of information to complete a birth certificate for a young person is just the first step on the ladder. It will require several visits to the registrar’s office and of course several ‘administration fees’. Of course, it is not unusual to require some legal statements, especially in relation to parents’ names that do not match and an affidavit here and there! Clearly, each item needs ‘administration fees’ and takes transport to and from the city –with an accompanier to ensure that the right things are accomplished the first time.

Next our young person needs a passport. The birth certificate is needed as part of that application. Now, you are up against a bureaucratic system that appears, from how I perceive it, to be determined to place multiple obstacles along the path towards the issue of a passport. It is not as if you can just send off for one. No, you must pay for the forms from a bank, then take the filled in forms to the passport centre – on the specific day of the week, in a limited time frame, depending on where you are from, and which may well have such a long queue that you take several visits to finally get your passport interview. If you are unlucky you may have to pay ‘administration fees’ too. If they agree to issue you a passport you will need to return a few weeks later – again several times before you finally take possession of the required travel document. All of this takes time, effort, funds and wears the patience down.

Next, our intended to travel youngster will need an international yellow fever card to show on the way back into the country, and perhaps for their visa application too. Not as easy as you think! This is the experience we had for the last card issue:

  1. Go and get the injection at your local hospital. They will then take an ‘administration fee’ for the FREE jab.
  2. Travel to the regional capital to submit that you have had the injection and then pay an ‘administration fee’ for them to process the international traveller’s card.
  3. Return to collect the card a few days later… if it is ready.
 Next comes the visa application. Obtaining a visa is not the same as applying for a visa from a European country or from the USA to come to Ghana. Not at all. You will need to download some forms from the internet, prepare a dossier and undergo a visa interview, and make a payment. Here is the good part, the embassies are predominantly transparent in their payment system, and you will not normally be asked to pay unexpected, non-declared and published ‘administration fees’! You must, however, take with you your flight reservation (even though you may not get the visa) and have already paid for, and be in possession of your travel insurance (even though you may not get the visa). The visa fee, of course, is non-refundable, whether you get the visa or not. On average we spend around 20 hours of preparation per visa interview pack, and then need to travel at least three or four times to the city to complete the various formalities (photos, insurance, copies of documents, etc.). We have to seek letters of invitation from the countries to be visited, provide bank statements, copies of passports of accompanying team leaders, details of where we will stay and the reasons for every single day of the trip. If we are travelling to Europe and the visa application is successful it will be for the EXACT number of days of travel. This must normally be completed around 90 days before travel. If it is an application for the USA, we are advised to begin at least 100 days before travel, but the USA visa issued is for 5 years.

The interview process itself is harrowing, especially for somebody from a rural area who finds themselves in a different environment and with a different level of English to what they are accustomed to. The interviewee must go in alone, and must be fully able to respond to the questions asked. This takes some time to learn new words such as names of the towns to be visited; ‘Friedrichshafen’, ‘Frankfurt’; ‘Gunskirchen’ in Germany, ‘Aberystwyth’ in Wales or ‘Ashby-de-la-Zouch’ in England (yes, it is!). The interviewee must be fully conversant with the trip details and able to explain who all the different people listed in the itinerary are. This is a challenge; it requires a lot of ‘pre-interview’ preparation by the young person. Of course, it is easy to get towns confused – especially on a complicated trip to several locations. The young person will want to focus on the part that interests them most, such as a visit to museum, and that in itself can cause confusion and the subsequent refusal of a visa. Any unintentional statement that sounds like they want to remain in the country of visit can result in an immediate refusal of visa – even if it is just a conversational comment such as ‘I think it would be wonderful to live in your country’! It is not easy-oo, and nor should it be, since there have been many abuses in the past.

Our intrepid young person will need to travel back to the city to collect their passport, generally in person, to discover if they have been successful.

Next week, we will look at the trip itself!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail )

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