After the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) summer workcamp in 2004, several of the workcampers from Germantown (Pa.) Meeting had invited my two dear African friends Hellen Kabuni and Teresa Walumoli to come to Philadelphia to become better acquainted with Quakers here and to help us raise more funds for the Children of Hope orphans’ project. We worked hard on this endeavor and planned a busy schedule for them, only to find that the U.S. Embassy in Kampala had denied them visas twice, having taken the required $100 fee per person each time. Stunned and disconsolate, we rallied our local politicians to support us. Their staffs were as helpful as they could be. With the help of Joseph MacNeal in Allyson Schwarz’s office, Mary Faustino in Rick Santorum’s office, advice from Ilona Grover in Chaka Fattah’s office, and e-mails from Arlen Specter’s office, we did get a response from the visa officer in Kampala. He quoted section 214 B of the immigration law and made no apologies for requiring all applicants to demonstrate to his satisfaction enough ties to the homeland that they would return to Uganda.
Inwardly, I raged at this decision and felt it was unfair and, in a word, racist. These women earned $60 a month as schoolteachers, which was not considered enough of a tie to the homeland. The many children they would be leaving behind did not seem to be taken into account. My Quaker meeting wrote letters and I sent e-mails. Then I decided on a very personal approach.
Just before I was to return to Uganda this summer, I sent a passionate e-mail to the visa officer and asked to see him when I arrived in Kampala on July 6. I picked up his return
e-mail in Addis Ababa on July 5. He would see me.
I arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala feeling some distaste for this institution that had dealt such a blow to two such worthy and innocent Africans. It was a bit scary: armed guards, bulletproof glass, high walls, locked gates, electronic screening, lockers for cameras. When I was through all that, I was sent to another section of the embassy with more armed guards and more bulletproof glass. I was embarrassed that my being a U.S. citizen resulted in my getting special treatment.
In the end I did see the visa officer, and what a disappointment that was. He left me with very little hope that my friends would ever be admitted, despite the intervention of all four politicians’ offices, a letter of support from my Quaker meeting of 400 strong, and a letter from the AGLI coordinator. It did not matter that they had 19 children, including orphans, between them to return to, or that, unlike most of the population, they had jobs. The fact that they were property owners was dismissed on the grounds that they were probably small four-room houses of little value. Equally, the visa officer took no interest in their personal bank accounts. In the end I asked, "What can we do to prove to you that these women will return?" As if to give me the tiniest shred of hope, he answered that perhaps if they can convince a visa officer of their devotion to the project they might be allowed a visa. That was it. I left.
On July 20, I returned to Kampala and the embassy with Hellen and Teresa. It was a six-hour journey by bus and we stayed overnight in Kampala in order to be at the embassy at 6:45 am on July 21.
A few days before this visit I had traveled to the nearest big town, Mbale, to e-mail the visa officer, explaining in detail our project and why these women should be granted visas. My North American workcamp team made suggestions to improve the e-mail and were as supportive as they could be.
At 6:45 am there was already a line of about 50 well-dressed but nervous Ugandans outside the embassy. The armed guards were there, but otherwise the embassy was closed. At about 7:25 am the visa officer arrived, got out of his car before driving through the iron gates, and hurriedly stated that he would be seeing only 45 applicants, and no second-time applicants. There was a collective gasp from the line. I peeled off from the line and started the whole security rigmarole again: bullet- proof glass, scanners, confiscated camera, etc. Hellen and Teresa lost their place in the line.
Eventually I got up to the next building and (thanks to being a U.S. citizen) saw the visa officer. Again he was dismissive: "Why should I see these women again? What news do they have to report?" I answered that I thought we could prove devotion to the cause, this worthy project, and I gave details. He agreed to see them.
I returned to the line with my African friends. Once again we were told we would not be admitted because they had their quota of 45. Once again I broke out of the line and pleaded for Hellen and Teresa. The personnel were always polite and helpful. They phoned through to the visa officer and after a short amount of time, Hellen and Teresa were allowed back in the line.
So we paid the nonrefundable $100 for each woman and waited from 6:45 am until 2:30 pm, with no food, only water. Hellen and Teresa were dreadfully frightened. They read their Bibles. I tried to reassure them, but they remained very quiet. As the hours passed, I began to get a bit nervous myself. I sat in the waiting room and watched and listened as each applicant was called to be interviewed. Almost all of them were denied visas. I could sense what each of them must be feeling. For a Ugandan to put up $100, be denied a visa, and lose the money to the U.S. Embassy must be a terrible blow.
At 1 pm it was almost our turn. We were numbers 41 and 42. The visa officer, after finishing with number 38, drew the blinds and went to lunch. We sat and I doled out water, which Hellen and Teresa did not want. They sat quietly and with great dignity continued to read their Bibles.
At 1:45 pm the visa officer returned and saw two others before it was Hellen’s turn. Hellen hardly had a voice, she was so nervous. She showed the bank statements for the project. That seemed to make him sit up and take notice. He asked difficult questions. Finally, he asked something that Hellen did not seem to be answering. I was quaking in my seat. The dear, compassionate, armed Ugandan guard who was stationed near the door, but between Hellen and me, silently indicated that I ought to go to the window and support Hellen. I hopped over to the guard to ask him if that would not be detrimental to her case. He pushed me over to the window. I found my nerve and spoke for Hellen. The questions continued, and in the end a visa was granted. The visa officer told me that my name would be on the visas and that if they did not return, I would be held responsible. Inwardly, I grinned. I should have thanked him, but at that point I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. To me, the whole process had been unnecessary from the start. I did understand that he was just a functionary, trying to do a job under difficult circumstances. Teresa got her visa and we left the embassy.
We returned to our lovely village of Bududa late that night. As we sat in the mutatu (the public bus/taxi) that would take us out of the chaos of Kampala, I asked Teresa how she was feeling. She said in her clipped Ugandan accent, with a big sweeping smile on her face, "I am perfect." Then I asked Hellen how she was feeling and she said, "I am the same."
I looked out on the vibrant African scene of the Taxi Park in Kampala and wondered what these women would think of North America when they arrived in October.