Michela Wrong is refused a visa

It's the way an embassy turns down your visa request that tells you everything you need to know abou

The Congolese official behind the glass didn't even bother to make eye contact as she pronounced the words. "You will have to go to the ministry of information in Kinshasa to get authorisation."

For a moment I stared at her, wondering if she was pulling my leg. Given that I was applying for permission to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first place, suggesting I go sur place to sort things out made all the logical sense of an Escher diagram. Her face remained expressionless. If she had just realised the insane silliness of her words, she couldn't be bothered to engage with the fact. Suddenly, neither could I. Lethargy washed over me. Congolese embassies tend to have that effect.

As a writer, I've always had childish fun tracing analogies, finding potential parallels in mundane details. I once liked to think you could tell everything about an African country from its airport. Then I wavered. Maybe "the fittings of the ministerial waiting room" (plastic roses or Chinese calendar? Jeune Afrique or Korean magazines? Air-conditioning or the aroma of onion soup?) was a better metaphor. Having spent an unhealthy amount of time last year failing to win permission to visit various African countries, I now realise I've been barking up the wrong tree. It's the way an embassy turns down your visa request that tells you everything you need to know about the state in question.

Let's start with Congo. Some would argue that the country has been a figment of the world's fevered imagination since King Leopold carved its incoherent form out of Central Africa. A diplomat friend, posted more often to Kinshasa than was fair, used to delight in quoting Gertrude Stein: "There is no there there." It's a nation where the thug who mugs you is probably a policemen, where soldiers are paid less each month than the price of a London cinema ticket, ministries are staffed by thousands of ghost workers and fashion-obsessed locals would rather starve than sport last year's haircut.

For a surreal country, a surreal visa application process. Behind the partition at the embassy's offices in King's Cross sit staff who must wake each morning thanking God they escaped a nation in which, since the civil war, nearly four million people have died of malnutrition and preventable diseases. Yet each application is processed on the quixotic premise that outside the door prowl tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Britons just itching for a chance to relocate to DRC.

I watched a young Englishman, who had clearly been through this before, try to display his bona fides. He had a ticket proving he would return to the UK. Bank statements showing he could pay his way. A prepaid coupon for one of Kinshasa's most expensive hotels. Vaccination certificates proving he wouldn't infect anyone in the country, which experiences the odd brush with the likes of ebola and bubonic plague. From where I sat, even the backs of his knees seemed to be pleading. The visa officer leafed through the papers, pretending to suspect him of nursing some secret plan to become an intolerable burden on her phantasmagorical state. "You're missing one paper." She pursed her lips with satisfaction. "You'll have to come back."

Then there's Ethiopia. I've written too many articles criticising Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government to expect an easy time getting a visa. Would it be yes, would it be no? Neither, as it happened. I should have remembered the words of the late John Spencer, Haile Selassie's legal adviser, who wrote wonderingly of "the Byzantine arabesques of Ethiopian thought processes, habits and face-saving devices" he witnessed at the royal court. This, after all, is the ancient empire that coined the notion of "wax and gold", where the superficial meaning of a verse serves only to hide its real message. To just say "no" would be not only rude, it would be to descend to the level of the crass "ferenji" (foreigner). Far better to make the applicant jump through hoop after bureaucratic hoop. Eventually, she will tire and go away, uncertain as to whether she was actually refused a visa or fell victim to sheer incompetence.

First step: ask for copies of former articles. Then details of where and how long I plan to stay. Then do the whole thing again. Then ask for a list of those I want to interview. Then more cuttings, please. In this war of attrition, which has now lasted two months, there can be only one winner. It seems unlikely to be me.

Third on my list: Eritrea, where my recent book on a nation few bother writing about has made me into a figure of controversy. A state run by former rebels who glory in the knowledge that they waged their 30-year independence struggle without superpower help - stubborn men and women who refuse on principle to use the forked tongue of diplomacy. Back in the trenches, after all, there was no time for bullshit. I applied for my visa. "Sorry, no," said the embassy secretary. Short, to the point. Very Eritrean. I could have kissed her.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The death of freedom