Botswana has been on my travel and project circuit for the last 5 years but I can’t say that I’ve ever enjoyed the airport experience at Gaborone’s Sir Seretse Khama International Airport.
Having just flow in from Ghana a few days earlier, I was pleasantly surprised that the depressingly old and stuffy terminal building had been replaced by a modern and airy facility which gave the impression that an architect (or two) may have been consulted before construction — a welcome surprise for any weary traveller.
My absolute favourite (back in those days) was dealing with immigration officials who hogged the immigration slips on their own counters. A visitor would first need to rush past the other passengers, pick up a slip, go back to the pen-less wall-mounted writing stations, fill out the form, fight their way past passengers who still hadn’t managed to get a slip before finally joining what could loosely be called a queue surrounding the immigration counter to await processing — there was nothing efficient about it this experience.
If you were unlucky enough to get one of the disgruntled senior female officers, you might as well throw your arms up in the air, do an about-face and get back on the airplane. Not only were they incredibly slow in their data entry, when it came to questioning the purpose of your visit (which by the way, was already written on the slip) they would ask about intricate details completely unrelated to the journey — even after they had read through the invitation letter twice and sometimes thrice.
I was never sure whether the interrogation was related to poor comprehension of the letter in question or difficulties understanding my line of work; let’s be honest — if my family has a hard time understanding what I do, what hope does an immigration officer.
Luckily, on the Australian passport I didn’t need a visa, however, given the fact that I travel more than the average person and have 70 pages in my passport, they would still insist on inspecting every entry and exit stamp, visas, annotations, squiggles, blotches and spelling mistakes – all the while being captivated by the furry Australian animals embossed on the pages. If that didn’t serve as a primer for the general running of the country, the next item in the immigration process most probably would.
Eventually — having lost a mental tally of entry and exit dates — the officer would produce an A4 sheet of paper on which, stamp by stamp, a list of my entries and exists would be tallied and then passed onto a second officer — who would naturally disagree with the number of days I’d resided in Botswana. Further complications arose when some stamps indicated that I resided in the country during a month change — I remember arguing the point that not all months have 31 days and therefore I’m still owed a day or two before reaching the 90 day maximum.
By that stage however, all other passengers had left the terminal and my affair had turned into a real collaborative experience. Everyone from the baggage handlers (with calculators) to the customs ladies, were busy noting down their own versions of my comings and goings — and not for altruistic reasons either; being the last passenger on the last flight for the day I was merely a final barrier between them and home.
On that particular day (3 or 4 years back) the tally reached 89 — but nobody could tell me nor agree on whether it was 12 months from first entry or 12 months within a calendar year that needed to be counted. In any case, by that stage the airplane that brought me to Gaborone had already flown back to Johannesburg — they were stuck with me whether they liked it or not.
Begrudgingly, I was released into the country and given strict instructions to report to the central immigration office the following day to receive an extension on the 90 days. Oddly enough, nobody could give me exact directions on how to reach the central office.
Having this historic “baggage” to contend with you could imagine my astonishment, when, upon entering the new terminal I found immigration slips in neat piles on the writing stations. Barriers arranged in a way to efficiently channel people into neat queues towards the well-thought-out immigration counters — complete with passport scanners and tasteful decorations.
All this glossy fluff aside, I still had to get past the senior female immigration officer whose eyes had by now connected with mine. I approached the counter, handed her my passport and said “Dumela Ma” (Hello in Setswana). She took the passport, scanned it, read through the immigration slip and promptly stamped the entry date into an empty passport page. After punching a few keys on the keyboard, she handed me my passport and said:
Enjoy your stay in Botswana.
I was momentarily shocked at the huge improvement in service and process – so much so that I stood there looking at her with passport in hand until I’d processed what just happened. What more can I say, a welcome and pleasant experience.