Each time you enter Botswana the customs officials examine your passport like a hawk. This is when it pays to have a brand spanking new passport. Those of you with well worn passports are doomed, that’s the truth of the matter. And heaven forbid if you’ve had extra pages added (as I have) because then you might as well bring a good book to read while they go through your passport.
The last time I entered Botswana I got off a plane carrying about 50 people. Since I know the drill, and I like to be prepared (like a Boy Scout) I carry a handful of entry/exit forms and have them already filled out before I even enter the terminal. I was the very first person to enter the terminal from the plane- meaning I was the first person in line at passport control. This is NOT an exaggeration: every single other person on that plane went through passport control and were already standing at the baggage carousel by the time they finally decided to stamp my passport and let me in. I don’t really know what the alternative would have been; the plane had already taken off and returned to Kenya by the time they let me through.
Part of the challenge with passport control here is that the Batswana, and Africans in general, love rules and protocol. And if you try to bend those rules the result is not pretty. I have never heard, nor do I ever anticipate hearing the phrase, “Think outside the box” here. It’s just not part of the culture. A rule is a rule is a rule. No wiggle room.
So when they say you are permitted to be in Botswana for 90 days within a 12 month period they take that very seriously. So serious in fact, that the customs officer took out a pad of paper, flipped through my passport and started writing down my entry and exit dates. She wanted to make sure she gave me the exact amount of days I was permitted and not one extra. All was going well until all hell broke loose. She realized I had entered in July and then exited in August. A debate ensued regarding the number of days in July. I even sang her the song, “Thirty days hath September, April, June…” She wasn’t convinced. Someone was called to bring a calendar from a back office. Then there was some confusion because I entered Botswana on August 24 and exited later that afternoon. That means I lost one more day.
After listing all my entry and exit dates and consulting a calendar, the friendly passport control officer whipped out a calculator and began adding. But, this wasn’t enough. She called over another official for a second opinion. From where I stood at Passport Control I saw the passenger who had been in the seat next to me collect his bags and exit the customs area! I began silently repeating over and over again, “I love living in Africa. I love living in Africa.”
Since my contract with Fulbright is for a year I am required to obtain a Botswana Residence Permit to get around the 90 day entry. I’m actually happy about this because it should make my travels in and out of the country significantly easier (i.e. no legal pads, calculators or calendars to consult). However, I was starting to become worried about this because I applied for the Residence Permit back in August and as of last week I still hadn’t received it. The Permit is nothing more than a sticker they put in your passport. But I knew my entry stamp expired on October 25th and on the 23rd I still hadn’t received it. I had no desire to be deported. After asking around I was informed I could not be given a permit because the Immigration office had “run out of stickers.”
I began my PR campaign which may or may not have included a statement such as, “It would be hugely embarrassing for The New York Times to run an article about the Fulbright Scholar who was deported from Botswana after being INVITED to come here because the Immigration office ran out of stickers. When exactly did the sticker supply start running low? I applied for this permit 88 days ago, so does that mean no one has received a residence permit sticker in the last 88 days. Did you deport all of those people too?”
Miraculously, my PR campaign worked and the very next day, with one day to spare on my entry stamp, I received the Residence Permit sticker. Hooray! Queue the music: “Celebrate good times, come on...”
Wait a second! Stop the presses! Upon closer examination my permit expires on…. May 31st. That could be a bit of a challenge considering my contract doesn’t end until June 30th. I’ve already contacted Immigration about the oversight. Now all I have to sit back, relax and wait until May 30th when I should be granted my extension. “I love living in Africa. I love living in Africa.”