Border crossings in Africa

Living in Europe and travelling between one country and another doesn’t really make you think too much about the fact that you are leaving one country and its sets of rules and entering another. Nothing like a border crossing between France and Germany to get the heart racing huh?

In other parts of the world, border crossings are an endearing manoeuvre of amiability,  and a blend of diplomacy and sheer bloody good luck. You get the feeling that if you do not smile, if you lack charm or annoy the country guardian (as they see themselves), you are not going to get into the country. Tough luck mate, better luck next time.

I have done many border crossings in the last few years. The ones that stick are in East Africa

The easy ones are the international airports, as they mainly bring in international citizens looking to spend their hard earned money on tourist attractions (awww look at that zebra) or undertake obscure business enterprises (plastic bottle company was the person in front of me last time). Border officials rarely give a monkey’s about them. Too many rules and regulations to be bothered about.

Smaller airports, often the national ones, can be annoying, but generally if you smile and have the right documentation, they let you go in peace to your next destination

The tough ones are when you arrive by car. And even here we can distinguish two different arrivals at the border:

– arrive in a big 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser (the daddy of all cars out in East Africa), wearing a white tailored suit, some cool top gun sunglasses, and the driver taking your passport to the border official. In this case, you will have no problem getting into the country. A bribe might be expected as a common courtesy, simply to get things moving a bit quicker, but nothing more. The border officials even feel that holding you up at the barrier is a bit embarrassing. God I wish I was that man sometimes, because when I cross the border, boy do I NOT look cool and collected. This brings me to the second type of border crossing in a car.

– arrive in a beat up old taxi, usually with a couple of other taggers on, with the music blearing out some old revamped Celine Dion tune. At this point you are usually late, because of the time you spent bargaining with the driver to give you a good rate for the 6 hour drive to the border. So you do not waste time and go straight to the border official, and give him your passport. An expectant pause, waiting for the shuffling noise of “un petit quelquechose” (a little something) that would make things go much faster. Generally, at this point, the person will take a step back and look at my person, and realise there is no way I have any money in reserve. Battered old shoes and jeans, a really really old t shirt, maybe with moth holes, a harried, stubbly-bordering-on-unshaven look. One step away from the dog house basically.

So at this point, again, we reach a junction. He can either accept the inevitable and I can set my irresistible charm on him and the passport gets stamped quick as you like (he’s probably seen the rich businessman behind me and wants me out of the way before another border official gets him), or we reach an impasse. He is just not bothered about doing his job correctly/lazy/really corrupt (delete as appropriate) and I am simply not bothered sucking up to one of the above. I have spent a lot of money (including about $150 for a visa in the UK) and way too many hours getting here to be stopped and ridiculed by a man whose sole purpose is to wean enough money for a beer at the end of the day (although I can admit that does sound appealing). I slyly point out my business, mention one or two names of high ranking officials on the other side of the border, and usually the crossing is done at a leisurely pace. See you when I leave your country in two weeks, and we can repeat the whole charade again!

So a checklist of things to do pre/during border crossing:

  • get yourself a tailored white suit and aviator sunglasses
  • get a cheap taxi to within one kilometre of the border, then hire a really nice car to travel the rest of the way
  • work on the first few words of greetings in the local language, it really makes a world of difference and will get them on your side
  • learn the names of local politicians on the other side of the border. Drop their names in if you feel it’s appropriate
  • buy a batch of local fruits, cheaper than a bribe
  • make them remember you in a particular way for the next time you cross the border

Right so that’s your lot about border crossings.

Has anyone got any further tips to add to the ones I have given? Any funny stories about border crossings?


4 thoughts on “Border crossings in Africa

  1. Aw, this was an incredibly good post. Finding the time and actual effort to produce a great article… but what can I say… I hesitate a lot and never seem to get anything done.

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