Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ebola And A Black Traveller At London Heathrow

By Gershom Ndhlovu

Towards the end of January, I travelled to the Philippines for a Global Voices Citizen Media summit in Cebu City on the island of the same name. I enjoyed every bit of the trip until I landed back at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 4 aboard Philippine Airlines.
A few days before flying out to Manila and onwards to Cebu’s Mactan Airport, I had checked with the coach company, the National Express, whose services I used to get to Heathrow from my small Hampshire town that booking a return ticket to and from the airport would not be in my best interest because I would miss the return coach by between 15 to 20 minutes by the time the plane landed and cleared passport and customs control.
And true to the word, when I got to the National Express kiosk, I was told that the coach passing through my town had left 15 minutes earlier. I had to make a choice of taking a Rail Air coach to a Surrey county town before catching a train to my town otherwise I would have waited for over two hours for the next coach service directly to my town.
Prior to my departure from Cebu, Global Voices hosting over 100 of its contributors, and its host organisations including the City of Cebu—thankfully—hosted a farewell party at the old prison turned museum. As I was among the first four people who were due to fly out of Cebu by 04.30 hours, I had intended to miss the party. I was, however, convinced to go and just have a couple of pints—yeah right!
Well, I was still among the earliest to leave the museum prison—after Global Voices founder Ethan Zuckerman who said he had to leave because of teaching obligations waiting for him back in the US. I had to go and pack, sleep a bit and wake up in time for the 03.00 hours hotel pick up.
I discovered that the other three people to be picked up from the hotel for the early morning flights did not even attend the farewell party! I quickly packed but seeing that I still had some Filipino Pesos in my wallet which would be rendered useless upon leaving the island nation, I dashed off to the rooftop bar to have a quick drink. Well, call it a quick drink but I left well after midnight and when I tried to have a shut eye, sleep just evaded me as it had done the one week I was there which I suspect to have been caused by the eight hours-time difference between the Philippines and the UK.
The wake-up call I had booked promptly came and I went downstairs to check out and wait for transport. The other three passengers also came down—two of us were travelling to London via Manila while the other two were going to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan via Dubai straight from Cebu.
For the two of us London-bound, our Cebu-Manila flight promptly left at 04.30 and the 14 hour Manila-London non-stop flight taking off at about 07.30. Having not slept for close to 24 hours prior to the flight, I quickly fell asleep—and I did sleep for quite a while into the flight.
The flight was almost uneventful until an old man sitting in the adjacent seats in our row had a diabetic or similar attack which caused some commotion with some passengers and crew alike who went to help.
Landing at Heathrow around 15.00 hours GMT, I cleared through passport control, and knowing that I did not bring in anything worth declaring with customs, I went through the nothing-to-declare channel. Apart from the stuff I had left with a week earlier, I only had two new Global Voices T-shirts, a 50cmx25cm piece of cloth with a GV badge and a simple reed music instrument, all given to summit participants gratis. I did not carry any summit literature because there was none anyway as most of the stuff was electronic.
I had no reason to declare these items as I confidently walked out of the arrival hall, picking up my suitcase from the carrousel. I did not expect any trouble at all. Wrong!
As I walked out, I saw two people, a youngish looking male wearing rubber gloves and a mask covering his mouth and a similarly garbed female companion. The two approached me out of all the passengers. At first I thought it was customs officers who had noticed that I had gone through the nothing-to-declare channel.
Cebu Local Government offices, venue of the Global Voices 2015 summit.
It quickly dawned on me who these two people were! They were screening travellers they suspected to be travelling from ebola-infested areas and being of distinct African origin, I was the obvious candidate! Surprisingly, other non-African looking passengers were not approached at all.
I consider myself a polite person but as these two approached me, I skirted them and continued on my way out. If they had worn some sort of uniform, I probably would have stopped. My mind was singularly focused on locating the National Express office and get on my way home to help prepare my last born daughter’s 10th birthday which was due in a couple of days’ time.
I knew I did not travel to Africa and the closest I got to West Africa were two summit delegates from Nigeria and Ghana, respectively. The former being an acquaintance for longer, I spent more time with him than with the latter. I knew all along that these two did not come from ebola-hit countries and I was, and equally all summiteers were, safe.
I have been wondering, ever since that encounter at one of the world’s busiest airport, whether the people tasked to monitor ebola have a schedule of flights to target or their ambit is to ambush black people passing through the airport regardless of where their flight originated from. Or, most likely, it is that ebola has colour to it—any African looking person must be screened!

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