U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman.

As a teenager, my dream to study abroad was shattered when I was denied a visa to travel to Canada after landing a scholarship.

As the great Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, but I missed mine and my only undoing was that I was coming from a poor family with no name recognition and they felt that I would go to Canada and not come back.

At the embassy, they threw my papers back at me without dignity and I cried. The experience from the security guards to everyone who served me was horrible.

The visa process is a colonial system put to maintain the status quo that the poor will always remain poor and the rich will always remain rich because of their bank accounts. The rich will always travel and take their children to the schools they want abroad.

I did not give up. I remembered the words of Marcus Garvey that “if you don’t have confidence in yourself, you are twice defeated in the race of life and that with confidence; you have won even before you have started”.

I got another opportunity to study in the Netherlands, and this time I became smarter, I borrowed someone’s bank account to apply for a visa in an effort to show that I could afford to live in the country but I was denied again. I met people who told me being poor is worse than committing a crime.

Again, I got another scholarship opportunity this time in the United States of America. The visa application process was not smooth as well. Imagine as a student, you have to wait for months or even a year to be granted an interview. In the end, you could lose the opportunity and remain hopeless in Kenya.

Finally, I went to the US and after studying, I came back to Kenya and to continue building my organization, Shining Hope for Communities, that is now recognised world over, including in the US. I would later apply for the renewal of my visa which also took a long time to be renewed.

So many dreams are being shattered. These countries have a right to deny us their visa but we are asking for dignity where people have time to listen and avoid this colonial mentality.

There is a ray of hope and we have seen what is happening at the US Embassy in Kenya. The new US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman took less than two months to institute a raft of changes, aimed at expediting the visa application process.

Part of the changes saw individuals applying for visas being able to see interview wait times until their next appointment after the embassy updated its website to reflect the same.

Further, the site also clearly shows the type of fees that are non-refundable to allow Kenyans to make informed decisions before submitting their application and paying the associated fees.

The US Embassy also instituted a visa renewal process that does not require in-person interviews of applicants with the change applying to Kenyans renewing visitor (B1/B2 category) or student visas (F category) whose visas expired less than one year ago.

In yet another change, the embassy introduced expedited appointments for emergency situations, including the death of an immediate family member, the need to travel for urgent medical care, and for students whose programmes start in less than 30 days and who will suffer irreparable harm, such as the loss of a scholarship, if they cannot travel.

It took a strong woman like Whitman to change the colonial system that has been there for many years and the United Kingdom Embassy has also taken cue by bringing an end to the long wait for their visa.  

Kenyans are not begging, but they are asking for dignity. A person from a slum in Kenya is not asking for any favour, but dignity. A girl from a remote village in Rift valley is not asking for any special treatment, but dignity.

It is encouraging to see that the current regime has noted this and I want to congratulate President William Ruto for quickly striking a deal with the South African government, allowing Kenyans to travel to the country visa-free. 

This is how you build strong diplomatic relations where there is no anger involved. With the youth getting easy access to such opportunities, it keeps them away from joining criminal and terrorist groups like Al Shabaab.

We can silence the guns when we open our boarders for people to get opportunities in different countries. We must treat people with dignity and love.

Dr. Kennedy Odede, is the founder and CEO of Shofco, a member of USAid Advisory Board, World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, multiple humanitarian award winner, including 2022 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year, best-selling author. kennedy@shofco.org.


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