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