Last year, I flew into Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) in Lilongwe. From the plane, I noticed the renovations and expansion works underway which required passengers to alight further from the terminal building.
I did not foresee this to be a problem.
As we walked down the corridor from the tarmac to the building, there was a queue dominated by foreign passport holders who have to comply with public health requirements.
Malawian passport holders were caught up in this queue when there was supposed to be a separate counter to handle them.
In the main hall, passengers queued up in front of respective counters for clearance.
The first counter for assisted passengers, the second for Malawian passport holders and the third for returning residents were vacant, with no immigration officer.
The fourth for foreign passport holders and fifth for diplomats were in operation.
As arriving passengers took our respective queues, an immigration officer came to the front and asked Malawian passport holders to use the ‘Assisted Passengers’ counter. We gave up our designated desk so non-Malawian returning residents could use it.
The idea seemed agreeable as there were no assisted passengers, but a group of them soon arrived to claim their desk. As they were sick and elderly, Malawians had to give way for them to clear immigration.
This meant there was in effect no desk for Malawian passport holders to use.
A few of us decided to claim our desk back at which point a South African passport holder complained loudly to an immigration officer that Malawians were not letting them use the desk.
The officers reasoned with us “to be patient and stand aside” while the visitors use the Malawi desk.
Where on earth does a national entering his or her country get treated like a second-class citizen?
I have travelled to different parts of the world. In the event there is a shortage of immigration officers, it is not the national passport holder who is inconvenienced.
Unlike KIA where only 1 out of five or six desks is for Malawians, the reverse is true. Elsewhere, there are many desks to assist nationals and only after can foreign passport holders use a desk reserved for nationals.
We queue in the ‘Aliens’ line at John F Kennedy Airport in New York. We stand in winding lines at Heathrow in the UK. We are served last off a plane in Barcelona, Spain, because we are a non-EU passport holder. We wait. We accept it.
As Malawians, we certainly deserve to come first in our country too!
If foreign passport holders have to wait while 15 or 20 Malawian passport holding passengers are being served, this is standard practice.
Tempers flared as we demanded assistance as though we were asking for a favour. Yet all we were doing is claiming our right to be served at a desk reserved for Malawian citizens. We do not need to bear with anyone. It is our right.
As this is not the first time I have witnessed this, it is high time immigration officers at KIA realised other international airports move swiftly to facilitate smooth entry of the national passport holders.
Malawian passport holders deserve to be treated as first class citizens. If not here, then where?
It is irksome enough that we only have one desk serving us. But to expect us to share that desk as well is unacceptable.
As the new airport terminal takes shape, we expect to see many desks ready to serve us and hopeful for a change in attitude. We anticipate an airport where the essence of the ‘warm heart of Africa’ emanates in smiling faces saying ‘welcome – takulandirani’ before interrogations of what we were doing wherever we were. The new airport should herald a new thinking. n