If the humans who left East Africa 150,000 years ago had to get visas…

Saturday June 15 2024

If the humans migrating out of Africa 100,000 years ago had to pay for visas, in all possibility, Europe wouldn’t be what it is today. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Many Africans are miffed by the news that has come out in recent days, that in 2023 they spent €56.3 million ($61 million) on visa application fees to the European Union, which were rejected. The number of rejected visas represents 43.1 percent of the total number of rejected applications — even though the continent accounts for 24 percent of Schengen visa applications.

The US seems to make less from rejected visas for Africans, though its refusal rate is higher. Its denial level for African student visas, for example, was 54 percent in 2022. That is average. Regionally, visa denials for West African students was 71 percent. The previous year, the US State Department pocketed $23 million in rejected visa applications from Africa.

Speaking to an African who has become sanguine about Western visas from decades of heartbreak, he raised a wacky question: “How would the migration out of Africa 100,000 years have played out if there had been visas and trade regimes?” 

There were no modern Westphalian states or even primitive governments then, so the question is moot. Yet, it is also extremely fascinating.

For a long time, most research and science held that the physically modern humans outside of Africa descend from a population of Homo Sapiens that migrated from East Africa 130,000 to 70,000 years ago and headed for the East Mediterranean region and Arabia (some studies show the migration started much earlier — 400,000 years ago). These African descendants then spread on the southern coast of Asia and to Oceania about 50,000 years ago.

Along their path, they encountered an earlier species, the Neanderthals. Like many encounters with migrating humans, it didn’t end well for the Neanderthals.


Anyway, the Homo Sapiens trekking out of Africa would theoretically have been asked to produce visas by powerful Neanderthals, or the Johnny-Come-Lately migrants would have been required to do so by the Originals who got there earlier.

There was no paper, stamps or fingerprinting then, so the passport and visa would have been very crude. Maybe a mark on the back of the neck or forearm with a big thorn would indicate that you had an approved visa. However, because humans had already invented fire by then, it would have played a role. It would have been easier to burn a visa on the back, ribs or arm.

What form would the visa fee have taken? Certainly, a stone would have been in the picture. A stone sharpened into a cutting tool or a spear. The migrants were also carrying food, so some dried beast meat would have been thrown in.

And, in one of the most enduring Homo Sapiens depravities, a child or two would have been collected by the “Immigration” officers of the time.

This whole process would have played to the advantage of the stronger Africans, who had the energy to shape stones and hunt the deadly and massive animals of the period. These strong men probably had more “female companions” (the institution of marriage is barely 4,000 years old so it was a totally unknown thing then and there couldn’t have been wives or husbands). And they would have more assets, in terms of children.

The nerdy, small, but clever ones, who couldn’t run fast or kill animals, would not have done well. Their visas would have been rejected EU-style, and their sharpened stones lost in the quest.

The rejects who stayed behind would have been weaker, but cleverer. They could have built and developed modern states earlier, but perhaps they would never have fierce descendants like Shaka the Zulu or Bunyoro’s King Kabalega. The Islamic and Christian missionaries would have found it harder to spread their gospel, but easier to conquer them in battle, so one can’t be sure what the outcome would have been.

There would have been few smart Homo Sapiens making it farther into Asia and Oceania, and without their intelligence, the visa-holding ones wouldn’t have got very far.

The East Mediterranean down to the southwestern flank of the Red Sea would have been littered with customs and immigration roadblocks and checkpoints.

The migrants would have left many stones and wild grains there as visa fees and export taxes. That would have left them with little to carry on their journeys, slowing their progress as they held station to make new ones. Also, fewer tools and foods would have spread far.

However, having been taxed into poverty and extorted with visa fees, the fact that they would have been in greater peril would have been an incentive for them to be more creative and adaptable. On the whole, however, the trade taxes would have been unhelpful.

Then, as today, taxes would have had a “resource curse” effect that we don’t talk much about today. If you can easily shake down people for taxes to pay for running the state and social bribes to citizens, you don’t have to be imaginative. This is why, in many countries, you find that the government is staffed by a far higher percentage of mediocre people than private businesses, which have to be competitive to succeed. 

If the humans migrating out of Africa 100,000 years ago had to pay for visas, in all possibility, Europe wouldn’t be what it is today. And trade taxes would have meant that the world would be somewhere around 1924, not 2024.

The visa question wasn’t wacky, after all. It’s worth a cool $61 million.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3