Wot I did in my Summer holidays

I spent most of my Summer in Uganda, which explains the recent silence on this blog. I’ve been trying to understand how those on the margins of a developing society – especially refugees and migrants – negotiate their way through the maze of papers and identity documents you need to live a life beyond subsistence. The answers – black-market passports, fraudulent voting slips, local citizenship cards, even a stint in Baghdad as a security guard for allied forces – are fascinating stories of enterprise and strategy, startling in their diversity.The trouble is, trying to make draw this web of corruption and creativity into some semblance of a narrative, now I’m back in the UK and surrounded by the paperwork of university life, leaves my head spinning. Where do you start when you’re trying to work out the gulf between legal and legitimate behaviours? When does corruption offer people choices that would otherwise be denied – and when is it necessary to survive in an opaque paper-bound system?

So perhaps the obvious place to begin is with my own story. Here follows my own tale: which was if nothing else, an education in how well-meaning bureaucratic obstacles can effectively leave people with no choice but to enter the black market.

Maybe it was inevitable that, having spent two months negotiating round the edges of Kampala’s networks of document-brokers, I’d end up there myself. But it wasn’t my intention, and in fact, I only resorted to document-buying on my very last day in Uganda. I was travelling on to Ethiopia: and the international travel regulations say you have to have a valid YellowFever certificate to enter from another endemic Yellow Fever area. I’ve had the vaccine. But – 24hrs before I was supposed to travel – the actual certificate that I’d brought with me in July? Now lost.
I called the GP at home. Fairly clear the receptionist didn’t have a clue what a yellow fever certificate was, but after some persuasion that data protection wasn’t my main concern here (I wanted people to know I’d got the vaccine), they agreed to email a copy of my vaccination record. The result was a semi-official printout: probably enough to get you through a check, but not quickly, especially not if a cash-hungry official wanted to make trouble.
So off I went to a Kampala practice. Perhaps – with a fax from the GP in the UK – they’d be able to help? No. Not unless I was already on their system, because – the nurse said – of the high incidence of certificate fraud in Uganda. I could have the injection again: but the new certificate wouldn’t become valid until 10 days later, so wouldn’t solve the paperwork problem for a flight later that evening. And I didn’t need the vaccine: just the papers. Having rated my chances of passing through Bole Airport at 50-50, the nurse confirmed again there was no official solution.
But aha, she’d mentioned fraud. And by now I knew all about Kampala’s alternate document systems. Time to check it out? A google later – and it appeared that the place to get your fake yellow fever certificate was outside the (KCCA) City Council’s health centre, amere five minute boda ride away. Arriving at the gates, I waved my UK-printout and explained the need for a new certificate to match the batch number and date. And within five minutes, I had a pre-stamped official certificate, batch number already entered, handed to me by a man in the car park for what was undoubtedly a mzungu price of around $15. My vaccination proof was sorted – bought from a man selling them out the back of his van. Presented at the airport in Addis on request some six hours later, I was waved through in less than a minute.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Apart, of course, from the obvious one – don’t lose your yellow fever certificate in the first place. But it seemed to me – as I negotiated my way around the need to find a certificate and avoid a really bad start to my week’s holiday in Ethiopia – this was a short experience of the troubling economy that binds migrants, refugees and others living in the shadowlands to underpaid and corrupt officials. To avoid paying a bribe I could not control at one end of my journey, I negotiated my payment at the other end. I would have gladly paid more for a legitimate, official replacement certificate: but faced with a dysfunctional system that could not do that, you circumvent. It underlined the gap between legality and legitimacy which many urban migrants and refugees face: I obtained my certificate illegally, but I had a legitimate claim to get one somewhere: I’d had the injection. Not so unlike the migrant who’s built a business, a family, become part of the local community without legal papers. Are the ones they bought really illegitimate, or do they just represent a practical, reasonable (if illegal) shortcut formalising integration that’s already taken place?
And yet the experience was also very troubling. When everything has its price, value is distorted. And when we move away from abstract concepts like citizenship to the very real consequences of infectious disease, the real impact becomes clear. I’m no health expert, but there arevery clear reasons why – for personal as much as public health –everyone in Uganda shouldbe vaccinated against yellow fever. I’d had the vaccine. For me it was a one-off. I’m legit again: on my return to the UK, I got “real” replacement yellow fever certificate. But most people buying the papers haven’t and won’t have the vacine. So the ready availability of black-market certificates clearly helps to perpetuate a cultural reluctance to take the need for immunisation seriously. That is wrong.
But the existence of the market also reflects the problems inherent in relying on paperwork rather than persuading people. Given similar reports of fraud from Nigeria, I’d be interested to know whether WHO really believes that yellow fever certificates – so easily forged, a relic of the pre-computer age (my vaccination booklet also includes a page for smallpox) – really play a role in controlling yellow fever’s spread through international travel in parts of the world where borders are porous and – as so many of my interviewees told me – ‘money is everything’.
For if my summer taught me anything, it’s that sometimes it’s the paperwork itself that prevents legal behaviour and distorts legitimacy.  Papers are powerful, but they’re no panacea: and in cases like this, they may even be part of the problem.