There are two stories to be told – the Nigerian Embassy story, and the Tchadian Police story. But these stories, of course, are being told from a visitor’s eye, the outlook of a first-timer in Tchad. I am preoccupied , deeply, with how to feel at home in N’djamena. It could be argued that I have no business feeling at home, that I will always remain a stranger. And there’s even the point that I am here for only seven days. The question becomes, for me, however, how to find a crack in the surface that identifies me though I am an English-only-speaking visitor. I perceive that this is the same for the rest of the group, more for most of us who understand very little French.
Even more, I suppose we must come to the understanding that invisible does not, necessarily, and in fact, mean ‘absent.’ ‘Invisible’ comes with the expectation that the lines are there but they can be crossed. Or better, that the existent lines do not define Difference, that they are there because structures are necessary for patterned living. The borders, then, are here-but-not-here, and all we seek to do, in my understanding, is to consciously engage, evaluate, define, redefine the presence-absence of African borders in spatial and neo-spatial terms. In addition, our understanding of this presence-absence comes with the realization that identities are equally singular-plural, that although culture ensures individual patterns of seeing, all humans possess eyes. I am convinced that our primary concern, as a group of young African artists, is to emphasize the plurality of eyes and to celebrate the respective singularities of seeing. For, in the imminent and final analysis, we cannot all be the same.
It is an attempt to ‘regularize’ this sameness that made us decide to visit the Nigerian Embassy in Tchad. The Ambassador of Nigeria to Tchad’s residence is less than a minute’s walk from our hotel. We had thought it was the embassy. Redirected, we walked another five minutes to the Embassy. Understanding the legal importance of an Embassy (of how being in one’s country’s embassy meant such person was in his/her country), we made ourselves at home immediately. Our cameras began to click, our voices were raised – we were, in short, guilty of the ebullience Nigerians are accused of in foreign lands.
A man’s head popped out – “You think you can just enter an organization and begin to take photographs?” Then he asked, “Who’s your leader?”
First, I thought, this is not an ‘organization.’ For the first time in many weeks, I felt at touch with my legal education, wondering how the Head of Mission of an embassy would make little of his office. But that would be the least of his stunts. Conversing with Emeka and Ray, he insinuated that we should not have embarked on the trip without a letter from the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Ministry. His voice was dismissive and unsupportive of our project, until Emeka emphasized that attention has been drawn so often to ‘prodigal sons’ and never to ‘prodigal fathers.’
I must make the point that our generation has become an easy scapegoat for the failures and ineptness of our predecessors. We are told that we are foolhardy, ignorant of the severe dangers of our exuberance. Yet, all we are trying to do is cover up the distance that was uncovered by our parents. We are told there’s such a thing as African culture, but there are little (or no) documents that narrate with enthusiastic clarity what this ‘culture’ is, or is not.
So, we understood how easy it was for our Head of Mission to emphasize, in great and painstaking detail, how dangerous our route is. There is no question of our constant exposure to danger – Monday brought with it our second arrest. Yet, we are hardly encouraged by the preceding generation to systemize our adventures, to record our present realities, to demystify our dangers. We are constantly accused that our intelligence has been reduced to Facebook and the internet, and yet these tools are so powerful that we are able to use them to topple governments. These tools are so powerful that we are confident that, away from our bases for 45 days, our story will/must be told.
The picture is not completely grim, though. The officials at the Embassy were concerned as well as willing to help make our visit ‘official’ and they took the pains to write letters to the Tchadian foreign ministry and the Sudanese Embassy. Yet, I must emphasize that our generation must not be dismissed as unserious, glitz-and-glamour seeking ignoramuses. We are, certainly, not one thing.
There is a price to pay for our adventure, though. (I am not comfortable with summing this project as an ‘adventure.’ Even ‘seeing’ does not suffice. My point is that we cannot be summarized or emphasized as this or that.) Given that we are always found with our cameras, it is safe to say that we are always keen to make photos and/or movie clips. There is an interesting legal slant to this – does the artist always have the right to make art, whether or not it is a photograph? And does the artist’s subject possess the intrinsic right to choose to be a subject?
To put this in proper perspective, I will tell the story of our (Emeka, Ray, and myself) arrest on Monday. We had gone to the market because we had to pick a few things. As usual, camera’s began to click. Ray was with Emeka, and Jumoke was nearby. Nana, Kemi and I were buying things from another part of the market. Jumoke came to us and announced that Emeka and Ray had been arrested. We hurried to the market’s sub-police station where they had been taken. Getting there, we were to leave, being told that they would be fine. Minutes later, I was asked to come with the small file where we kept letters describing our project.
I lost my freedom the moment I came with the file. Losing our freedom did not mean being behind bars. It meant Ray’s and Emeka’s camera was seized, and that we had to stay on until they were released. So we stayed on. After two hours, we were transferred to a different police station, out of the market. The simple reason why we ended up staying close to six hours is that none of the Police chiefs felt they were the right person to release our cameras. The first chief (head of the market sub-station) was the only one of the lot who did not welcome us with a smiling face. Others did; they chatted with us about Nigeria, our work, examined our postcards, welcomed us to Tchad; when it was time to make a decision to let us go, they shifted the responsibility to their superiors. And so, we faced a total of three chiefs, and we were waiting for a fourth chief when salvation came.
Now, it is important to speak about how Tchad seems a relevant example of the institutionalization of paranoia. Clearly, this country (or this city) stands on an edge, an edge that has been defined by its closeness to Sudan, and political affinity with Libya. An edge that results from the possibility of Janjaweed infiltration. Given these, I perceive there has been mal-information, so that the inhabitants of this town are unwilling to consider the fact that not all photographers/filmmakers (with equipments as good as ours) are propagandists or foes.
Salvation came when Emeka decided to call the French Cultural Centre (CCF). (I reiterate that we were not under any form of duress – the third chief served us sugared coffee, introduced us to various Tchadian musicians featured on the TV in his office.) But we were disgusted by his apparent nonchalance in our plight; for he even slept while we sat and waited for whatever from him. Hyacinth Tobio, our friend at the CCF, advised that we call Mr. Levy, President of Santana Hotel (recall his photograph from our photo story). And that was it. He sent a Colonel friend of his for us; in no time, the same Chief who said he was waiting for his boss returned our cameras, only demanding for our hotel address and a phone number (the Colonel gave his).
I am, unfortunately, still unable to figure out the exact words to use for this city. There is, I know, more poor than rich people, as I was told by another Colonel I met in a Lebanese restaurant – who had schooled in Slovakia, saying how good it was to travel. The poverty is not hidden here in the capital, which explains why things are quite expensive, given that only few can afford the non-Tchadian things (visitors like us, of course). I cannot tell, however, why there are so many flies, even in places where they are least expected (in the CCF compound, for instance.) And no one seems to mind, except me!
Occasionally, when I find someone who can speak English fluently, there is warmth in my heart, and I jump at the opportunity to share, listen, engage. I am writing this in the CCF compound, where there are a good number of young people with books. I have been looked at, gauged, but no one has come to me to say a word, to confirm my strangeness. I doubt if that will happen. Tchadians, like the rest of us, easily determine who is a stranger or not. There is, I believe, a line of difference between being a stranger and being a visitor. Our daily duty as visitors is to purge ourselves of every dint of strangeness; which is why I am wearing a cap now, which I bought in the market on Monday. I have been called Alhaji, etc., and my Colonel friend says it is a really Tchadian attire.
Already, we have attended a book festival, where we were introduced by the Director of the CCF. We made photos of the event where a monument placed to commemorate the death of 170 passengers in an Air France air crash in 1989. On Thursday, we will be presenting the work of Invisible Borders to Tchadians in the CCF. And later on Thursday evening, we will be the guests of the French Ambassador to Tchad.
We are pushing to the end of this, despite unforeseen contingencies. Despite extra sleeping hours demanded by the ladies, and their consequent suspension from the project for a day; despite disappointments, turning-backs, uncertainties. We are pushing to the end of this.
We might be visitors, but may we never be strangers.