Monday, 19 December 2011

Reflections on an Outward Journey (2): Transportation

Thirty Kilometers per Hour. Gondar to Matema, Ethiopia. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

I: The Cars

Which is more important – covering the distance or the mode of covering the distance? Let us leave the question hanging.

Our mode of transportation included airplanes, buses, cars, motorcycles, donkeys and foot. Donkeys are included since at Matema (the Ethiopian border) they transported our baggage. The plan had been to use our own van, but this failed for reasons of logistics. This gave us no option but to travel with hired buses and cars. In retrospect, the unavailability of our van gave us the freedom to act based on the logic of probabilities. The logic of probability is the fact of uncertainty. In this instance, without our van, we could move without worries that our van would not be allowed into a country, or that the driver would be unable to drive without a drivers’ licence, etc. etc. A useful lesson: blessings might appear in disguises.

But then, this is not to forget the unpleasantness of travelling without our van. Had we travelled with our van, crossing the borders would have been easier. In several instances, this difficulty was repeated during our journeying. For instance, when we got to the Sudan/Ethiopia border, the jeep that brought us to Galabat (Sudan) did not have authorization to enter Matema (Ethiopia), and thus we had to find alternative means (a donkey conveyed our baggage and we crossed on foot). Similarly, when we got to the Cameroun/Tchad border, the drivers that had driven us up to the border had to transfer us to different Peugeots, which could move into N’djamena easily. The fact of being without our van equally resulted in moving back into Kousseri, on our return, with our baggage tied to motorcycles – I recall Kemi’s difficulty in sitting on the motorcycle with her bags behind.

Yet, to say we were subjected to local modes of transport is an overstatement. ‘Subjected’ is a word that makes us seem without option in the choice of transport. True, when we arrived Gamboru-Ngala, for instance, we could only travel to Kouserri, and then to N’djamena with the old Peugeot cars that were customarily used to move across that border. Yet I speak of the fact that, for us, the choice had already been made: our subjection to local transport was as a result of our choice. In the face of difficulty, we were destined to pray, “not our comfort, Lord, but your will be done.”

Willingly, we cramped ourselves in Peugeots that would have otherwise sufficed for only our baggage. Willingly, we sat in buses that had little spaces for our legs. Willingly, we drove in cars with drivers who became our friends only when they began to drive us, and not before. Our willingness was influenced by the need to make the journey, a need that overrides any preoccupation with discomfort. What we have done is akin to enduring the cross for the glory yet to come.

I recall the hours spent at the Utako Motor Park in Abuja, where Emeka, Ray, Tom and myself tried to arrange a bus that would take us to Jos. Or the heated argument between Emeka and two Peugeot drivers in Gamboru and Kouserri – one of them, in the desert between Gamboru and Kouserri, threatened to leave us and began unloading our baggage to prove his seriousness. And, necessarily, I repeat the question I began with: which is more important, covering the distance or the mode of covering the distance?

You should be certain that I consider the act of crossing more important than the mode of crossing.

We were unable to ascertain what means of transportation we would use in crossing into other countries, but we were certain of the fact that we had to cover the distance.

III: The Journey and the Destination

In the 18-minute long documentary film from the 2009 edition, Uche James Iroha, a participant of that year’s edition, declared that the project was not about the destination, but the journey. In considering this statement intricately, and using our experience as a backdrop, I am wont to consider a helpful distinction between the journey and the destination. As has been noted, the journeying process is fraught with uncertainties, and the destination is imagined as a rest-place, a place of succour from the discomfort of journeying.

If the destination is to be equated to the journey, then there would be no point in travelling by road. Travelling by road is certainly a dangerous and difficult way to journey. Even if the distance of the journey is not considered (in our case, 12,000 km in all), the danger one is exposed to given the terrible condition of some roads emphasize this difficulty.

Why, then, the choice of road? I suppose the reasons are not farfetched. Simply, the invisible-borderlessness we envisage is almost impossible to achieve if we travel in a different manner. The borders can be accessed by road; there are towns that cannot be accessed except by cars. Had we entered N’djamena with an airplane, it would have been impossible to understand/experience the stressing difficulties that are evident at the Cameroun/Tchad border.  

We are proving a point, making a historical statement. To ensure this, we must consider the hotels we stayed in Jos, N’djamena, Khartoum and Addis Ababa less important than the nights we slept in the bus as we journeyed. At the inception of the journey, we signed up for a 45-day usurpation of our lives, which on its own is a form of sacrifice. Yes, we might lodge in hotels that are as good as, or even more grand than our homes. But we were never driven in vans or buses or cars that were as comfortable as our beds or sitting rooms.

III: The Road

When I was a kid, I thought roads had no end. It did not matter that roads branched into destinations, towns, cities, or houses. Or that after a destination the road ceased to matter. As an adult now I realize that my earliest wonderings about roads and journeys might be similar to what one could think of music – the song comes to an end, but the music lives on.

How do you write about the endlessness of a road? How do you contemplate the endlessness of the process of journeying? In road-travel, the terrain stretches infinitely. The destination is always imagined first before it is reached. To travel by road is to be endlessly haunted by the imagination of what and where the destination.

So it was with us. Once we entered that van in Lagos (whose drivers, by the way, were Ghanaians), we agreed to be haunted by the imagination of the destination. What form of imagination is it, this imagination of the destination? For one, it is one that speaks to eventuality, to the uncertainty of the end of the journey. This eventuality is a question, mainly, of when? When will the journey end?

We arrived Abuja at 1.00am, the morning after we set out. If anyone of us had envisaged that we would arrive at that time, it must have been an incoherent imagination. Clearly, then, the time of our arrival was unpredictable – an unpredictability aggravated by the traffic-jam that slowed us as we exited Lagos, the traffic-jam at Iwo Road (Ibadan), and the stops at Ife, Akure, and Lokoja for food, petrol, and to avoid the attack of armed robbers.

In essence, you do not go on a road trip certain of an arrival time, at least not in this continent.

In addition to the imagination of the destination being one of eventuality, it is also one of multiple possibilities. In this regard, one envisages what the destination will bring. This form of imagination was prominent in our travels, since none of us had travelled by road to the various destinations we were journeying to. Where are we going to stay in N’djamena? What are we going to eat? How is the weather in Addis Ababa?

The effect of an imagination of multiple possibilities was that it prepared us for everything and yet nothing. We were prepared for everything-and-nothing based on the logic of probability. For example, before arriving at each destination, we confirmed our place of stay. But there was no way to confirm what such a place looked like, if it would conform to our tastes, and expectations. In N’djamena, we went to four hotels before settling for Hotel Donfong; after a day we left Hotel Dongfong for Hotel du Sahel.

In the event that you have to travel in the way we have, expect everything and yet nothing.

There is an additional reason why travelling by road presents a worthy alternative to other forms of travel. The breathtaking beauty of ‘The Great African Canyon’ which lies between Matema through Gondar as one travels to Addis Ababa sufficed as enough reason to travel by road to Ethiopia. The hills and the valleys in sight, the depth and height of them, cannot be described in words. Only road-travel makes this sight possible.

When you see the Great African Canyon you will think of nothing but beauty and how the world should go on, without end. If you are a Christian, you might begin to think the rapture is a fable.

It does not matter that I am no longer a kid; I still think that the road has no end. This experience of continuous travel for six weeks has reinforced that thinking. To understand this, imagine being in N’djamena knowing that Khartoum awaits you, and that after Khartoum there is Addis Ababa.

It is like that with life, since our life is a journey, and we are constantly in motion. There is a useful lesson here about the infiniteness of time, endeavour, and the process of living. Yevgeny Vinokurov resonates this:

Sometimes, I’d like to write a book
A book all about time
About how it doesn’t exist,
How the past and the future
Are one continuous present.
I think that all people – those living, those who have lived
And those who are still to live – are alive now.
I should like to take that subject to pieces,
Like a soldier dismantling his rifle.

We shall continue the journey, for there is no destination.

- Emmanuel Iduma

Monday, 12 December 2011

Reflections on an Outward Journey (1): Security

As we near the end of this year's edition, I consider it necessary to articulate our experiences and the fallout of those experiences in an introspective manner, using the phases/themes that were glaringly relevant. No doubts, a long, arduous and exhilarating journey deserves just that.

Many Have Gone - Forest/Jos Road, Plateau State, Nigeria (Emeka Okereke)

You know and I know that donkeys are stupid enough to face an oncoming car. They damn the consequences, or maybe in a donkey’s head there are no consequences, no possibility of danger.

The donkeys were right in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, as our van steadied towards Addis Ababa. The driver screeched on several occasions; we panicked more than once, but even with the lightlessness of the bus I could see that the driver was without fear. Avoiding donkeys was a simple matter.

This was not the case when there was news of peasant thieves. The driver panicked. Despite the chilling cold, which had hit us when we reached Gondar, the driver, his assistant, and the soldiers whose help our driver had requested, alighted from the bus and began taking away the stones that were lined across the road. The stones had been placed, supposedly, by the peasant thieves.

We would never come face to face with the thieves; and what if they did not exist? This question is rarely asked. It was the same in Lokoja, at the first leg of our journey, when our bus driver received news of an armed robbery operation ahead. Alongside other passengers, some of whom would not continue their journey that night, we waited until we received confirmatory news that the armed robbery operation was over.

The untamed donkey is not at the mercy of a newscaster.

Yes, there are rumours that turn out to be true. But there are rumours that never turn out true, rumours that are not true. There are even warnings that are given based on past occurrences, based on the fear that what happened in the past might reoccur. The instant challenge when you receive a warning is to understand that an event is not bound to occur, that the future is not the past or the present. The future is yet to happen.

So it was with us. We received warnings.

The roads we were to take, especially between Nigeria and Sudan, was, so to speak, a conflict-laden route. Of course, conflict is defined by the media – the combined effect of bombings, politics and the media has contributed to the popularity of Boko Haram (a fundamental Islamic group, who antagonize western education, and western influence).

There were those who sent us clippings, links, reports of the non-safety of our route. They did this, perhaps, for good reasons. Who could blame them? Maiduguri is the home of Boko Haram, and Darfur has been the stain of Africa’s conscience since the beginning of this decade. All of these assertions have been repeated so often their veracity has become banal. To doubt those banal assertions might be unsafe, and to undoubt them might be equally unsafe. Then, how safe is safety?

What about the option of seeking security personnel? In Nigeria where security is an illusion, and where ‘the blood of Jesus’ is invoked in times of insecurity, how secure is an option of security agents? Moreover, we mused that if we came upon danger, our innocence and political neutrality will be questioned, given the apparent untrustworthiness of the Nigerian Police.

I remember this question, asked severally at the first meetings of the team, “What are we doing about security?”

I wonder why our political neutrality would have been questioned if we travelled across Nigeria with mobile policemen. If the police were impassioned safeguards of lives and property, and detectors of crime, as the Police Act defines, no doubt would be elicited as to their reasons for being with us. But we considered the possibility that our choice of travelling with policemen could have meant we had ulterior plans and hidden motives. Is this not why there is a shared distrust for Nigerian political leaders? They spend too much on security, leaving us to wonder why they are hiding behind tinted car windows, and in a convoy of armed personnel. To think that we might have been compared to insecure politicians is a thing of disgust, enough reason not to consider having a policeman.

Let’s imagine that we happened upon a roadblock stationed by Boko Haram operatives. First, let’s imagine that there was no Policeman with us, we were alone, with our cameras, laptops, baggage. If the Boko Haram operatives decide to question us, we could tell them, “we are Nigerian photographers on a road trip from Nigeria to Ethiopia.” I cannot tell if they would consider our response a testimonial to Western education, or an indication of our apolitical stance. It has been hard to decipher any logic in the activities of Boko Haram.

Let’s further imagine that a plain-cloth detective was with us when we were stopped by the Boko Haram operatives. The detective would undoubtedly be with a gun, maybe a pistol, maybe an AK-47, as is common with Nigerian policemen. I cannot imagine clearly what the detective could do – clearly he (if we are with a man), would be outnumbered by the Boko Haram operatives, so shooting at them would be foolery. Consider, also, that the detective could be asked to identify himself, as everyone else in the bus would have done. I imagine, clearly this time, that he would say, out of fear or devilish courage, “I am a policeman.”

You are free to imagine if we would be shot, lynched, or told to drive on.

Truth is, every speculation we have made has been exactly what it is: a speculation. When we opted to change our bus in Jos, after our driver from Abuja (a man whose snuffbox was more handy than his car keys) showed signs of uncertainty, we speculated on the dangers of travelling with a bus that was donated by the Borno state Governor. The lettering on the bus was big and bold. We balanced reports that attacks were usually made on buses that made any form of political statement against our confidence in the driver’s knowledge of the road.

Logic disappears in the face of speculation. There was no graspable means of knowing what option would guarantee safety. Every time we were faced with making a decision that could either endanger us or ensure safeness, there was no rule of thumb to ascertain that our eventual decision was best, or better than its alternative.

Which is why I think safety is an imagined word.

Which is why I agree with Ray-Daniels in his considerations; “it is riskier not to take a risk.” I repeat, safety is an imagined word. And I doubt if our world would become any safer than it is, or safer than it is not. I do not consider that the efforts of goodwilling individuals to make the world safe, to take away the danger of terrorists, rapists, and all those human-faced impediments on a peaceful world is a hopeless sham. But I equally consider that there would always be reasons to doubt the safeness of humankind. If there are no wars, there would be terrorism, and if every form of physical danger is taken away, the internal conflicts would take more vicious forms. It is, in Arudhati Roy’s words, an algebra of infinite justice. Our world is subjected to an endless quest for safeness. And just like America, we would always look behind our back, expecting that someone, whether aggrieved or not, is targeting us for doom.  

I will speak, then, of a different form of safety, as is relevant to our case – the form of safety applicable to artistic interventors and exceptionists. In a previous post, I made the point that those who seek exceptions would be safe, words which are doubtlessly suited to our reality. Safety, in this regard, is daring the unknown. There is the fear of the unknown, a condition Desmond Tutu prayed we are delivered from in his book, An African Prayer Book. The fear of the unknown is a leech; it sucks the tangibility of the known, presenting the unknown as a worthy alternative.

If we were fools, we would have believed in the tangibility of the unknown. You ask me, “what if you were attacked by Boko Haram?” Then, we would have been attacked! We are not attacked until we are attacked – a simple and obvious fact. You will sound more reasonable if you asked us to take precautions, which we did, and not when you ask us not to venture at all.

I deem this a requirement for every artist – the compulsion of creativity must overshadow the uncertainty of danger. We have been faced with such uncertain dangers: if or if not we would be allowed to cross a border; if or if not we would sleep in a brothel; if or if not we can find an internet hotspot. And of course, there is the uncertainty of whether we would live through the night while we journey in the dark.

To trust in the possibility of safeness is the key. To neglect the hypothetical realities of danger, to be consumed by the prospects of creative perseverance, is to travel in the manner we have travelled.

The dangers we were exposed to could either be accidental or manipulated. If the former, the dangers would be those caused by a car crashing into ours, a little girl crossing the road while our bus advanced with overwhelming speed, or a herd of cows crossing the road in the dark while we approached. Our driver’s ingenuity would become pertinent. But if the latter, where we are exposed to dangers caused by the operation and activities of deviants, our hope would rest on a combination of heaven’s grace, earthly skills of negotiation, and our ability to convince antagonists of our innocence. This, again, is witness to my stance – safety is an imagined word; safety will always be without guarantee.

If after writing this, we are killed or we die while journeying back, it will not be a case of fighting safety by staying aloof, by not trying. It will instead be the case that we have envisioned a borderless Africa, and that we have backed up our irrefutable claim by traversing our continent in a difficult manner. Left to mourn us would be those who warned us, those who might say I-told-you-so, and hopefully those who would understand that, as Coldplay sang, “the hardest part is letting go, not taking part.”

And just like an untamed donkey, we will not stop moving, we will take part in building a trans-African artistic highway. And we will not be at the mercy of a newscaster.

- Emmanuel Iduma

Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Recount of the Presentation & Images from Addis

It turned out to be a marvellous and chilly evening – although most attendees huddled their bodies together, eyes were focused on the projector screen. Aida Muluneh, Director of the Modern Art Museum, gave an opening address, which was followed by the equally short speech of His Excellency Paul Lolo, Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia. The presentation proper followed: Emeka introduced the project, then he called on me to speak on the blog. Following that, other participants spoke on their works. Their respective images were displayed on the screen as useful backdrops. Nana’s presentation concluded the session. She made an incisive commentary on the works of the each photographer, and gave an insight into her research, telling of the work of the artists she had interviewed in Tchad, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Eric Gottesman, an American filmmaker, whose professional friendship we have enjoyed since our arrival in Addis, made several dozens of photos, which provide a visual testimony of the evening. The photos have been collected into an album, and can be viewed on our Facebook Group. Ensure to check it out. The presentation ended with a small reception in the lobby of the Museum. Beer and pizza were served as refreshment.

We have taken the liberty to include the artist statements of each photographer, as a precursor to images taken in Addis. I believe that the synchronization of the photos and statements will provide a well-rounded view of the work that has been done in Addis, and in the previous cities. 

Boy on White

Cunningham Street Meeting - Piassa

ETC- Telephone - Piassa

Homeless and Passerby - Piassa

School Girl - Piassa

Silk on the Walk - Piassa

My project for this year’s road trip a revisit of an already on-going preoccupation, which I call Fragments of Moments. It is a series of photographic oeuvres produced in the span of Nigeria to Ethiopia through Tchad and Sudan, which looks at the coincidence between space and the people whom that space embodies. It is a visual rendition of the symbiotic relationship between a being and the space occupied in just a fragment of a moment.  The aesthetic landmark leans remarkably on the fact that components within the frame are intentionally structured in a geometric order to give every element – both animate and inanimate – a deserved presence and individuality, as if to say: “You are the Space, and the Space is You, one cannot be less prominent than the other”

Equally, within this structured frame, one can through the myriad tango between lines, colours, textures, objects and people decipher that dynamism, diversity as well as similarities which exist between people and places as we travel through borders from West to East of Africa.

Jumoke Sanwo – My Faces Project

Haile Jesus

Lady at Makato

Shaded - Makato Market

Spice - Makato Market

Colour Blue

A face can be a reflection of an individual’s circumstance or a barrier shielding his internal reflections… I am fascinated by faces and chose to explore the various Similarities and Differences it portrays …  
Ray-Daniels Okeugo – FORTIFICATION 

Foreman 24

Foreman 25

Foreman 27

Foreman 29

Foreman 30

This project is an extension of my growing knowledge of Africa, the disclosure of the ambiguous similarities that exists amongst us. Normally my approach is to flow with the rhythm of each moment but at same time building a body of work that I call “Fortification” which I illustrate by dramatizing my subject (s). I use hard-hat which is used by engineers and construction workers in construction locations as a means of half-protecting themselves from an accident that might never happen and (when it happens the person is obviously not completely protected).

This consciousness towards protection is applicable in our everyday activities as living beings, irrespective of age, gender, skin colour, position, etc. It  is a suggestive idea that juxtaposes itself with our quest for survival. But the questions still remains : Are we really protected when we take these precautions?

Is it not riskier not to take a risk?

Kemi Akin-Nibosun – POKART WAZ ERE

7 Years Back - Millenium Bridge, en route Addis Ababa

Bus Stop - Piassa

Buzz - Markato market

Crossing the Line - Mazegaja Road

My project is about imposing; crossing several borders and forming relationships.

Pokart is a pseudo name derived from a combination of my initials. The ‘waz ere’ is a reference to a popular contemporary English graffiti culture of which I’m very much subscribed to.

My personal take is that we need to be more lenient on the emphasis of telling “a story of Africa”, and concentrate more on the process which begets the story. Let Africa be the canvas! It’s one of two things; Africa can be your canvas or your catalyst and this is one of the thought process  I attempt to convey.


A Time with Myself - Mexico

It is all Connected

Just Another Mask - Piassa

Lost - Piassa

Reset Button...!!! - Piassa

I photograph building and construction sites, whose lines, grids and squares restrict like the limitations present around me. Shapes that open out like Hitchcock’s symphony of rear windows, except that these frames are devoid of content. Their empty geometry triggers senses and patterns of association. Ruins of memory. Scaffolds of things to come.