Friday 24 August 2012

Invisible Borders 2012 Kicks off/ Follow us on our official blog

We are happy to announce the 4th edition of  the Invisible Borders Trans-African Road Trip Project. After successful completion of the IB 2011 from Lagos to Addis Ababa, the Invisible-Borders team plans to travel from Lagos, Nigeria to Lubumbashi, Congo for the 2012 edition.  This year’s trip will feature ten artists from different countries in Africa precisely Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique. Traveling over 13,000 km within 49 days (through mostly rough terrains) from the 23rd of August to the 9th of October 2012. 

The group will make stops of about five to seven days in the capital and important cities of Nigeria, Cameroun, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo (Kinshasa and Brazzaville) to create artistic works in collaboration with the indigenous artists in the cities, while networking within the art community. However intermediary stop will be made in towns between cities according to the on-ground reality of the trip.

Participants of Invisible Borders are dedicated to creating works, which portray the dynamism, richness as well as contradictions of the various modes of existence of the African people. In doing this, they reject a simplified notion of Africa nor a tidy definition of it, but instead hopes to create an archive of works which “complicates” the depiction of contemporary Africa, one which sees the continent as work-in-progress, rather than a foregone conclusion...

During the course of the road trip, we will keep a daily blog with interesting stories from the road, through images, short videos and of course writings. To follow the trip, subscribe to our facebooktwitter and Youtube

For more information on the road trip and to discover the participating artists, click here

This project is generously supported by Prince Claus Fund, Canon Europe, Institut Fran├žais, Doual'Art, Picha and many wonderful individuals alike. 


We have moved our blog to the official Invisible Borders website. We will no longer be blogging with the blogspot platform. To follow the Invisible Borders 2012 Road Trip click on this link: Also save this page on your browser so as to revisit it frequently as the journey unfolds. 

If you are already subscribed to our blog, please take some time to subscribe to our newsletter at so that you will continue to receive notifications about our blog entry during the trip. Fasten your seat belts for the 50-days ride! Thank you


The Invisible Borders Team

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Burying The Mountebanks - An occupyNigeria Dispatch

Note: Although mainly a photography organization, The Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Project is committed to ensuring that art and artists are useful tools in bringing about transformation across Africa. The recent protests in Nigeria provided another opportunity for Invisible Borders' members Ray-Daniels Okeugo and Emmanuel Iduma to use their art as a testimonial to change.

Photo: Ray-Daniels Okeugo

It is similar to what has been written: “For the first time in your life you leave second-person singular and become first-person plural. For the first time in your life you feel whole.” [1] For the first time in my life, I was part of a revolution. I wasn’t told. I saw for myself. You could feel it. You could feel that you weren’t quite just yourself anymore. You had became yourself in the midst of many yourselfs, and when you spoke you weren’t speaking in an unspoken voice. For the first time in my life I felt whole.

To speak about this polyphony that is gradually insinuating itself. Of the many vestiges that cluster around one’s heart after you’ve watched yourself emerge. Of the signs of that emergence, the proof of it, because otherwise there’s no logic. A revolution is always naturally logical. You can’t speak of change in abstract terms. It doesn’t just work. Unless you are afraid of being true to yourself. Unless. But I can’t be. This speaking-to, not merely speaking-about, is the logical follow-up of the sudden shift of consciousness.

May I suggest, dear reader, that if you don’t have the stomach for small things, less fiery, less samizdat-styled things, may I suggest you put these lines down? The writing that follows does not protest, at least in the physical sense. The protest has moved from our heads to our souls. This is not the time to speak from our mouths – these lines that do not protest from the mouth. Consider the necessity of writing this – a collage of bits about the ad hoc Nigerian revolution. Consider.

Channels TV
My Uncle Otu says, “Channels has done well during this protest.” But speaking about the news is tricky, even waiting for it. We sat around the television for hours, watching the change in programmes – Sunrise Daily, Politics Today, Face Off. The Channels people brought in every conceivable analyst. It provoked me and I posted: the fact of life is that we are all political analysts. The Channels people brought in people that spoke for and against. Like a school debate. Since you went to school you’ll remember. A debate is a quest, sort of. Winner/loser. Head/tail. Fluentness/stammer.

The media gives the feeling that rhetoric possesses almighty power. They seem to ascribe too much to saying. For us who have been said to, all our lives, who’ve been promised and promised, saying has an ill-reputation, almost impotent in the face of our hoax. The potency lies elsewhere. Who isn’t tired of what has been said?

There was the feeling of waiting. Last week was a dangerous time to wait. Because while you wait for the news at 10.00pm, or wait for the broadcast of Mr. President you feel too much. And feeling too much, being angry too much, will not solve things.

My Uncle says something like, “I feel so bad now.” He was watching Channels. I think it was Ngozi speaking. And yes, I saw her on the cover of The News. Beside her photograph were the following words: “Ngozi Wahala.” No wonder my Uncle felt so bad.

Don’t you know? You feel so bad when you spend so much time taking in all those stuff they throw at you. All the stuff they want to make you believe, and disbelieve, the propaganda of their right and their wrong. Because a Television is not a mirror. You never see a reflection of yourself.

The Nigerian who lives in America and does not know the President’s name. No Naira to her name. She’s carrying a beautiful boy. The boy is an American citizen. He’s better than all of us. Or is he? Is she?

Her Arik plane bound for New York was without jet-fuel. It’s day 3. (Have I mentioned that naming the days is a killer? It’s like counting the days but not knowing why you’re counting, if your math is right.) There was a friend of my Uncle who could not return to the Island by 12.00am or so. My uncle has to go and pick her at the airport. I am with him. We go and she is not alone. There’s Ogechi and her beautiful boy. Ogechi is friends with my Uncle’s friend.

I’ve asked myself how it feels knowing this is home without wanting to be in it [2]. You speak the language, you don’t look a foreigner, but you’re not here. An elsewhere has been invoked into your subconscious terrain. This is home and not home. So I found a word. Subjoined. And I thought, that must be it. You’re a mishmash. A hyphenated being. Nigerian-American. Or even Nigerianamerican. Or Americannigerian. You live there, and for some reason you want to return to your life, and you’re stuck here. Here. There.

What did Ogechi think? I heard her sighs, unspoken regrets. Like, why am I here in the first place? And she said, “I just pity some people. You go back and you lose your job.” Job came up more than once. Job. Those Nigerianamericans have jobs. These Nigeriannigerians are sitting at home. They have prolonged, even protracted weekends. 5 days of doing nothing. Of watching only TV. There are many jobless people at Ojota. They protest for a living.

I left her, on Day 5, at the Departure Hall. You could see her repressed irritation when she joined the long queue. I pulled her bigger box to her side, asked if she was okay. She said she was. I know she guessed I was itching to return to the car. And that was what I wanted to do. She’ll go back to her job and I’ll go back to mine. I protest for a living.

But she called my Uncle when she got to America, thanked him. Maybe she’ll forget the protests? Maybe she won’t.

They are the revolutionary singers. The son, in Ojota, said his father fought for the same things he’s fighting for. No change. This year will be 15 years since his father died. Add that to the number of years he sang, in which his life was indistinguishable from his music, in which he was everything at once, from prot. Add that and you have about 45 years of his music, if you’re counting from mid-1960’s.

It’s been, at least, 45 years of protest music.

And we’re still singing. Because it was his music we danced to, right there on the streets, because a man like him cannot be silenced. You cannot take away a voice. No grave can hold my body down.

Because in my room I played Teacher No Teach Me Nonsense, Follow Follow, and my favourite Sorrow, Tears and Blood.

Because relevance can be measured.

Tunde Bakare
Let’s imagine he isn’t a pastor.

I regard Bakare highly, because he speaks. You see, there are those whose parishes/churches/congregations/assemblies/ministries entertain millions, and they do not speak. Here, a man speaks because he is a Nigerian. So what if he was the CPC flagbearer? The mistake is not that many fail to realize that churches are empires, but that they fail to understand that those empires are powerful. Powerful. You can drive past Lagos-Ibadan expressways on that famous first Friday. Who no know go know.

If we imagine he’s not a pastor, simply the leader of Save Nigeria Group, then we might become lenient, and consider him differently, and his politics relevant. But he’s a pastor, and church and state is church and state; black and white, word and opposite. A pastor has no business in rallies. That’s just it. Take it or leave it. Is that so? I’ve heard that he sold out the church, even betrayed his calling. I’ve heard that he was a prophet but he has joined politics thereby making him a false, opportunistic prophet. And those who are talking are too good for politics, and politics is an unchristian thing, or maybe they haven’t been called.

They say the opposition hijacked the protest. It’s a very suffusing lie, and those who peddle it know how potent the lie is. Opposition is a word for political enragement. It is used for propaganda, to create antagonism. But the real opposition are those who feel threatened by a Pastor’s protest.

So what if he’s the opposition? He speaks the language I am speaking. It’s a different thing if he controls my thinking. He doesn’t. I thought out my protest and his voice reinforced my thoughts, and I listened to him.

But I will not mention any of this to my Uncle, who feels Bakare is selfish and has messed himself up.

Jeffrey Sachs
If you can’t, don’t try to interpret the mood of a people. That’s all we have to say. [3]

Ripe Plantain
Trust me, you won’t get an unripe plantain during the protest days. I went with Uncle Otu to a small market here in Ikeja, and every plantain that was displayed were ripe, some overripe. My uncle wanted unripe plantain, but that was impossible to get, seeing it would have to be transported – not even the buses Mr President released worked during the protests. And what happens to tomatoes, fresh fish? It’s similar to what’s told in The House of The Spirits [4]. The story is told of shortage of food-goods, which was soon to be a collective nightmare. We didn’t get to this point last week, but it was one of my fears.

I believe it is more or less a you can’t eat your cake and have it thing. You can’t stay off work, shut down the country, and expect to eat. My aunty Sokari asked me, on Day 4, what would happen when people’s storage rooms became empty. And I told her the protest might get violent. People might say, what’s there to lose anyway? People might begin to destroy things, a disease of desperateness overcoming their sense of patriotism. More divisiveness and hatred would grow, and the protest chants will go out of tune.

Forgive me, I imagine irreverently. The manner in which things returned to normal, the swiftness of that return, suggests to me that unless and until every protester crosses the border of self-gratification, stomach-filling, and normalcy, the revolution will stop where hunger begins. The fact is that it’s only natural to want food, good food. But when one becomes conscious of the sacrifice that s/he needs to make, bodily matters become less cogent.

I can’t say I have crossed that border. There are few people who ever will.

Such large crowd. The anger is everywhere.

“…is a poem…a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”[5]

Photo: Ray-Daniels Okeugo

It’s on Facebook that you join the conversation.  

I am thinking of Gimba Kakanda specifically, who uses the network as a tool. Let me tell his story, the one he told on Facebook: Gimba says he and his friends surrounded a church, waiting for the Boko Haram people to show their faces. Then he posted a picture of himself beside a policeman, on Day 1, at Minna. And sometime later, he says he received a call from an SSS man, calling him in for a chat.

I have made a mental note to check his profile again to read what came out of his chat with the SSS man. Gimba never fails to update his status. But he puts his mouth where his actions are. That’s why I think he is a hero.

I am inclined to trust Facebook news better. Every night, Day 1 to Day 5, I religiously read the news feed, scarcely commenting, but reading. In that way, I was exposed to hope and spite in almost equal measure. There was arrogance, disrespect, insults, yes, and I have no regard for persons who post unpublishable things on their pages. But there was more humanity, more laughter, and more ingenuity, than I had seen in the traditional media.

That’s why I predict that SSS men will soon begin to hunt Facebook protesters. Facebook is a protest, but it is a pre-protest, a rallying point, and it must not replace action.

T Y Bello
Goodbye yesterday, tomorrow is now for the taking. [6] It reminds me of “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” [7] I can’t say ‘gutter’ or ‘tomorrow’ without thinking of the past. T Y Bello is right, then. We’ve had a past. And we have a future. It is true that “the past isn’t just another country, it’s another universe. The mystery is how we get from there to here.”[8] At the heart of the nation, changing history.

There were about 3 YouTube videos with this song as their soundtrack. And it’s playing in my ears now, on repeat while I write. To listen to the future. To sing about the future. To be that future. That’s our calling now. The future has come.

How can they say we are finished, we have just begun? It’s a work of unburial. “…this refusal to give in to a passivity which would play the game of death.”[9]

Burying the Mountebanks
I think everyone is agreed to the fact that there are deceivers lurking in government positions. Mountebank is derived from a late sixteenth century Italian word montambanco, which was used in reference to quacks who sold goods (fake medicines, predominantly) on a platform. Do you see the direct correlation? Here are the incisive words: quack, medicine, sell, platform.

Quacks: aren’t they quacks? They are prescribing (selling) medicine/palliatives without knowing the sickness. They’re right there on the supposedly democratic platform, and yet they deploy soldiers to the street. I am not very surprised, “oppression looks like a lack of imagination.”[10]

I spoke of an unburial, the means through which we will take our future, the process of standing from the mire. But I must also speak of a burying. We have begun an operation, unseating them from their platforms, because we can no longer tolerate mountebanks. It’s that simple.

There’s a final thing: A revolution never ends. It only begins. [11]

[1] Jonas Khemiri, Alt. Ctrl Delete, Five Dials 21
[2] I had a conversation with my friend Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and she said “I love home without wanting to be in it.” She is from Zimbabwe, and she lives/schools in South Africa.
[3] I use ‘we’ because there have been various responses to Sacs, especially on Facebook. Richard Ali, for instance, wrote a rejoinder on his page.
[4] The House of The Spirits is Isabel Allende’s most famous book. She wrote about the Chilean revolution.
[5] When thinking of Ojota's crowd on the days of the rally, I recalled the first sentence of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
[6] Italicized sentences are parts of the lyrics of The Future by T Y Bello. I implore you to listen. I believe it's available for free download on her website. View the video here
[7] Attributed to Oscar Wilde.
[8] Peregrine Hodson, A Circle Round the Sun: A Foreigner in Japan, Heinemann: London, 1992, p. 2
[9] Attributed to Pierre Salesne
[10] Alexandra Fuller in this conversation.
[11] I ended a series of short essays on Black Looks with those words. Find them here, here and here.

By Emmanuel Iduma
(Emmanuel Iduma’s first novel, Farad, will be published in April 2012 by Parresia.)

Monday 9 January 2012

Reflections on an Outward Journey (4) - Borders

Custom Control II, Matema Border - Ethiopia by Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

On her face, there are worried lines. She looks older and melancholic. And he, sitting beside her, has a similar look on his face. It could be that they are sitting at a shanty Custom post in Gamboru-Ngala, or Kouserri or Matema. She could be Kemi or Jumoke or Nana. He could be Ray, Emeka, Tom, Ala or Emmanuel. Names do not matter; the border is faceless, and cares less what your name is.

The border does not care what your name is. It is beyond you. The starting point would be to understand, as Nick Vaughn-Williams points out that bordering practices are not actually new but rather continuations of broader historical modes of inclusion and exclusion. The border, together with the officials that safeguard it, did not know we were coming, and if they denied us exit, the border would not collapse.

If this was a question of the anthropology of borders, a question of the kind of lives lived by those whose essentiality is defined in relation to the border, it could be the case that the border would mean something more significant than a politico-legal space. But it is not; each time we came to a border, we were confronted with the laws of the instant countries, we were made to conform to what policy was in operation. There was, for instance, the Ethiopian policy that demanded ten percent of the cost of our equipment. And the Sudanese policy of Alien Registration, requiring us to pay up to 50 dollars as fees from each of us (aliens) aside the similar amount that we had paid earlier.

Which is why I assert that there is a form of borderness that will always remain. Simply put, the emergent politics of identity is in large part determined by the old structure of the state. Borders have, and will always exist, whether as physical spaces or as mental spaces.

I would lay emphasis on the border as a mental space. The question is, what happens to the mind when the body is crossing the border? What happened to our minds while we waited at the police post in Cameroun, in need of a transit visa? Cameroun was simply a country we had to traverse en route Tchad. But ‘simply’ applies only to us; in the logistical scheme of things, there are procedures which must be followed. And the several hours we spent resulted from Nana’s nationality. A Ghanaian, it was declared, needed to get the transit visa from Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Or what was happening in our minds when we were almost denied entry into the airplane heading to Khartoum because there was some stamp missing in our passports, whatever it was?

I propose that there would always be some form of torture in a border. It does not matter to whom, or in what circumstance. The border is a passageway, and a passageway accommodates friction; a border excludes and includes, it welcomes and unwelcomes. Not everyone who wishes to cross into another country is allowed in.

You would thirst while you wait for the officials to declare that you are worthy of being included. Flies would hover around your head, ear, hand, leg. The donkey that is carrying your baggage will stand facing you, and you would pity the animal, since there is no way you can pity yourself.

I propose, in response to the question of what preoccupied our minds while we waited to be allowed into Tchad/Sudan/Ethiopia, that we felt demeaned by the possibility of exclusion. There was the hanging question, “what if we are not allowed in?” The torture of the border is defined by this possibility; to consider the fact that we had travelled hours, and that our minds had envisaged the photographic grandeur of the cities, is to fully comprehend the extent of the torture I speak about, the demeaning that occurs when a stone-faced official shakes his head, implying the negative – implying, “letting you in is going to be a problem.”

Foreignness cannot be overshadowed by globalisation or deterritorialisation. Each time we announced we were Nigerians, or Ghanaian, or Sudanese, our listeners, those officials who supervised bordered activities, immediately judged us foreign. To prove that this is true, consider the fact that we were asked, severally, “what are going to do in Tchad/Sudan/Ethiopia?” Only foreigners get asked this question.

I tell you the truth: you are as foreign as the name of your country.

Stop! Koussiri Border - Cameroun by Jumoke Sanwo from the Series : Transit. IB 2011

I should point your attention to the officials, whether stone-faced, smiling, or patronizing/unpatronizing, who always confronted us. Do not assume that it matters if they are friendly or not – they are helpless in the face of the system that has enveloped them. Most of them eagerly listened to us, and to the purpose of our travel. Surely, they had not lost their ability to empathize, to rationalize, to wonder at the ingenuity of our journey. What they had lost, or had never possessed, was the capacity to go beyond the nation-state, and the policies to which they were faithful adherents.

How can you expect a Custom official to let you in if he cannot make your entry official? The system is bigger than any individual, whether the individual is a traveller or the individual is a border official.

I recall how the border officials hugged us, slapped our hands, smiled widely when we arrived the Ethiopian border on our way back. These same officials had accepted one of our cameras in the stead of 10 percent of each equipment we carried and they were staunchly adamant about it.

The fact about the border is not the absence of humanness. It is the superimposition of the State over the human.

I will tell a story to illustrate this superimposition. We are back at the Sudanese border. We are returning to Sudan, to catch a flight to N’djamena. The Nigerian Embassy in Addis Ababa had given us a letter, which when we present to the officials at the Sudanese border, has no effect (of course we should have been wiser: what jurisdiction does the Nigerian Embassy have at the Sudanese border?). We are denied entry into Sudan, since there are no visas on our passports, and our ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letter is ineffective to get us visas, as the letter requested. So, we are politely mandated to leave the Immigration office, to go back to the Ethiopian side. But the Ethiopians have cleared us out, stamped our passports as evidence that we have left Ethiopia. We are caught between Ethiopia and Sudan, in no-man’s territory. The official requirement of Sudan has clearly triumphed over our humanness – our long and arduous journey to the border is not considered by the Sudanese Immigration officials, neither is our fate, or the complexity of our situation.

The story continued. Rescue came when the Sudanese Ambassador to Ethiopia called the Immigration officials (our friendship with the Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia became a life-saving resource). Notice the power-play that is the denouement of our story. Power-play because thirty minutes after speaking with the Sudanese Ambassador, several officials from the Sudanese Immigration office at the border hurriedly came to us. In another fifteen minutes, we were cleared to move into Sudan.

The point here is that there are those who are the State’s mouthpiece, and only these mouthpieces can ensure the intersection between humanness and Statehood. The Ambassadors, for instance, are mouthpieces.


But how is it that we have named our team “Invisible Borders”? How implausible, in the face of border-practices and the evident visibility of African borders? It is clear how visible the borders are, physically or mentally, and clear that the structures that divide a state from the other will not, cannot, be made to disappear.

Maybe the idea of a Trans-African Photography Project which we have subscribed to, risked our lives for, is founded on an illusion, implausibility, illogicality. Or maybe there is a way to consider border-practices that would make border-practices invisible. But what does invisible mean, in our context? That would be the starting point.

Invisible is invisible. Invisible is imperceptible by the eye. Invisible is the eye can see but cannot. Invisible says there is a door over there but you cannot see it. Invisible does not deny presence; it implies that a presence is in absence.

We would not dare deny the presence of borders in Africa, or dare declare that they would cease to exist. But we can dare declare that it is possible to create an Africa that transcends the Border, where the officiousness of the border is not superimposed over humanness. We can dare declare that as a result of our efforts, in addition to the artistic/non-artistic efforts of others, we can get to a border and feel welcomed, first, before our foreignness is questioned. Our efforts would make it possible to travel across Africa with a single pass, a document.

I repeat: ‘Invisible’ implies that a presence is in absence.

It comes round to what John Berger writes, “the visible exists because it has already been seen.” Our preoccupation is to make evident the unseen. This is possible if yearly, continuously, without stop, we travel across borders, increasingly drawing attention to the logistical guillotines that exist. Hopefully more people would join us in actualizing this, whether employing artistic means or otherwise.

And why have we travelled across four countries by road? To what end have we dedicated our artistic lives to the invisibility of African borders? There is an urgency to speak in a different way about Africa; in some way there has been a collective misrepresentation, and no country in Africa can excuse itself from this representation. And so, the word that summarizes the work to be done is ‘palimpsest’, suggesting that despite the mistold tales on the ‘African’ manuscript, a new narrative can be forged.

In the last six weeks, our lives have been dedicated to a retelling despite the mistold. Our group comprises Nigerians, a Ghanaian and a Sudanese, which lends credence to our trans-African task – we are looking beyond a national retelling to a continental retelling, a continental borderlessness.

So that the border will not triumph over the human.

- Emmanuel Iduma

Saturday 7 January 2012

Reflections on an Outward Journey (3) - Work

              Collective Wisdom, Omduruman Market - Khartoum, Sudan. By Kemi Akin-Nibosun. IB 2011

There is a photo by Kemi of three old men that remind me of the Jews of Kerala. The story of Kerala Jews is aptly told by Edna Fernandes. Her story is of a dying community of diasporic Jews and Jewesses, whose decline results from discrimination and discord. The intersection between Kemi’s photograph and Fernandes’ story is the fact of a witness to existence – the photograph and the book bear witness to the life of ordinary people. By necessary logic, the work of artists is always an attempt to bear witness to their time.

Our work could be considered in terms of the making of photos, communicating while at work, and the alliances we made to make our work effective. Older posts on this blog have been dedicated to alliances – we could have achieved nothing if Aida Muluneh’s Modern Art Museum did not provide sufficient assistance in Addis Ababa, for instance. Brief lines will illustrate communication; more space will be used in reflecting on the making of photos.

Communicating while at work: In Tchad, Ray and I asked for serviettes but were handed towels. We had spoken in English, but the attendant at the hotel understood in French. The challenge of communication does not come from the absence of words, it comes from meaning. This is peculiar in our case because we consider it relevant to converse with the subject of our artistic creation. Aside Nigeria, other countries we visited did not speak English as a first language. In Tchad, it was French. In Sudan, Arabic. And in Ethiopia, Amharic.

Our success in communication arose partly from our willingness to engage, and the alliances we formed. In Tchad we had Marine, Hyacinth and Alain as our primary guides. In Sudan, there was Ala, Yassir and Faisal. And in Ethiopia, each of us was attached to a local photographer or writer.
But I daresay that because of the example of Mujahid Muatsim, who drove us for days without speaking any English, communication is a line that can be traversed. To this day there is a sticker of a cartoon character on my phone which was placed there by Mujahid. He was kind and considerate, although there was no way we could communicate.

In a related vein, communicating while at work suggests a sharing process. Khartoum, unlike Tchad and Nigeria, presented us with the necessity to share the photos taken with those whose faces appeared on the photos. Sharing what we had made of Khartoum’s reality with Khartoum’s residents is an important form of communication, and must not be ignored.

Jumoke at Work. N'djamena - Tchad. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

The Making of Photos: The lives of ordinary people tell a real difference; this, in sum, is the defining tagline of our work in Abuja, Jos, Gamboru-Ngala, N’djamena, Khartoum, Gondar and Addis Ababa. If I could prove this to be true, then the meaning of ‘ordinary’ should shift to accommodate the extraordinariness of every African person. To ensure that the manner of our work (across four countries) confers prestige on the extraordinariness of ordinariness, I have chosen to reflect country by country.

I: Abuja; Jos, Nigeria

Nigeria, as you know, is a country of assertive people. The question is how we made photos of people who always seemed sure, of themselves, and of their place in the world. The Nigerians whose photos we made were either clearly welcoming or clearly unwelcoming. No grey area existed. 

There was the old woman who chased Kemi with a stick although Kemi, standing across the road, was only adjusting her lenses. This woman was sitting amongst a group of beggars, who had gathered opposite the National Mosque. It was Sallah day. Alms flowed on such days, when worshippers remembered with effervescent zeal their religious obligation. Who could say if the woman who chased Kemi with a stick felt demeaned by the probability of a photograph that recorded her beggarliness? Perhaps a photograph would expose her inadequacy? Perhaps it would record a moment in her life that should not be recorded? It could be that she had listened to David Gray, “some things you do you can never repeal.”

Her assertiveness was her attempt at physical violence. Understand that this is a serious form of asseveration. An old woman, who looked unable to walk for too long without support, decided that a sin that required immediate punishment had been committed. She was both judge and executioner.

A five minutes’ walk from the old lady brought us to a group of women and children whose form of assertiveness was a confident welcoming of photography. This group of women were Jumoke’s subjects, their children received toys from Tom, and they told us their names. The contrast with the old lady of five minutes earlier was well too apparent, even amusing. Can we presume that this second group did not feel demeaned as the other group of women beggars? Did they possess some assurance in their status in life that superseded what any camera or photographer could confer, even ensure?
We could not tell, in essence, what would be the reaction of our Nigerian subjects. This was good and not good. Sure, we had the luxury of communication. But being uniformed as we were, and carrying photographic equipment as we did made us curious cases, so that we spent more time responding to questions of objective (why are you taking these photos? Are you working for any organization? Are you from NTA or AIT? etc.) than actually  making the photos. We thrived on the balance of uncertainty, not knowing whether we were accepted or not.

[I should state how uncomfortable I am with that word – ‘subject.’ I am hoping the word, as used by photographers, does not strip the humanity off those whose photos are taken. I am hoping it is a convenient term and not a derogatory one.]

Veiled Stare. Central Market, N'djamena - Tchad. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

II: N’djamena, Tchad

The old-lady-with-a-stick syndrome was heightened in N’djamena. This time we were not chased by old ladies, but by a collective apathy to photography. Aside the number of hours spent in the Police Station (Emeka, Ray-Daniels and myself) after Emeka made a photo in the Central Market, ‘don’t film me’ was continually repeated. How is work carried out in a town that openly seeks to alienate and to shun the work being done? How is that border of alienation crossed?

N’djamena is a city that feeds on its self-aggrandizement. It is against this backdrop that I wrote about the ‘institutionalization of paranoia.’ To define this, I argue that when one visits N’djamena, especially with a camera, that person automatically becomes disadvantaged. I am careful to argue about this in a way that does not deride the residents – for what point is to be made from being derisive of a child who tells Nana to delete the image she made of him? That child, I surmise, spoke with a voice larger than him; his voice was only an echo, all he did was repeat the mantra “Do not take my photo.” Given the many times this mantra was repeated, I have begun to think that the collective persona sits on a sort of a political positionality – which is akin to using the word ‘personality.’ In that Tchadian town, with the fear of cameras being the constant feature of residents, I have no reason to doubt that if the town had a different political history, if Mr. Idriss Deby Itno’s tenure had long expired, and if the no-knife/no-guns signage did not appear on several public buildings, it would be permissible to think of an alternative to such political positionality. 

This leads to a question of the distinction between what we sought to do and those who formed the basis of our work. Should we have shunned them, as well? Would it have made some sense if we accepted our inability to work without grumbling? Perhaps we should have left after three days, and not after seven. What, then, made us stay?

First, Tchad had become a border, too. This was more than a physical border; more or less a situational border, a circumstantial border. To cross this border meant we had to be in it, to work our way out. In essence, to cross that border we had to keep trying to click, even if all that worked was our attempt to make photos. It was more honourable to be arrested while we tried to click or after we clicked.

Second, it became imperative for us to find a way to negotiate with N’djamena’s reality. As Emeka affirmed, our task was to see ourselves as fiction in their reality. Emeka argued that fictionalizing ourselves while we worked was the means through which we could arrive at some form of reality. This has obvious complications, and I am not willing to debate what fiction is or what reality is, in this context. A different way to consider this is how we had, upon making the long journey to arrive at N’djamena, become human hypotheses, testing how invisible the borders were. The fact, therefore, is not whether or not we were allowed to make photos. The fact is that we were seeking to understand, basically through photography, what was the reality of Tchad and Tchadians.

I propose that it does not matter if one photograph was not taken in Tchad. I propose that it is not necessary to add ‘we conquered’ to ‘we came, we saw.’ The truth about photography is that not all photographs are taken. Some are beyond the reach of the camera. [Do not assume that we did not manage to make photos in Tchad – Emeka says that he will ‘steal’ photos if he has to, as long as his conscience is fine with that.]
I will take the argument further. Having come to the end of this project, the ‘proceeds’ of our work will be taken to other spaces for exhibitions, presentations etc. In fact, this blog is one of such ‘outsides’. I have been preoccupied with thoughts of how the Tchadians, whose country was our working space, will relate with our work – permanently.Which has led me to thinking of an alternative, in the event that such ambition is rudely unattainable. How about the creation of images upon which Tchadians can construct their varied existence? I refer to images that translate to multiple layers of meaning. And this evolves to the notion that we are adherents of a travelling culture, founded on movement, mediation and asymmetry. Because we might never become residents of any of the cities we visited (Abuja, Jos, Kousseri, N’djamena, Khartoum, Addis Ababa), we become trained in the art of spontaneous introspection. Our creed becomes Roberto Sifuente’s words: “The fact of the matter is that we are constantly pushing, struggling, trying to find our niche, in order to make the work happen in the places where it needs to happen.” Once the work happens in the place where it needs to happen, our mission is completed, and we move on.

In some way, we were viewed as ‘subjects’ by the Tchadians in whose territory we camped. The roles easily became reversed, the photographer became the ‘photographed’; which is why when we took a long walk around downtown N’djamena, we became ready sightseeing subjects.  How then, I ask, do we strip ourselves of every form of strangeness and alienhood? Is this even possible? We wear identity tags and T-shirts that make us uniformed. But I doubt that if we took away all of that we would cease being spectacles. Herein lies the challenge: to produce works that do not tell of how we became subjects in the spaces in which the works were produced.

A relevant example is an occurrence while we walked around downtown N’djamena. In a small room that faced the street, few people were gathered drinking some drink and listening to the music of a local musician.  The music sounded good, and the room was photogenic, so we stopped. A man on a motorcycle told us we could go take photographs. We heeded. While the photos were made, a crowd gathered – some men in the crowd opposed our actions, gesticulating that our cameras should go down. Majority disagreed, urging us on. This occurrence, more than any other, stamped our differentness. We gave the local musician some money, an amount I believe he scarcely makes on each outing. Of course, this confirms our outsideness, even more.

I ask, given how important it could be to negate this outsideness – is there some possibility that the Tchadian people can see themselves through the eyes of outsiders? Or is this too much to ask, and to speculate? Even cogently, I question why it is necessary for people to see themselves through the eyes of others – how true will this be? If I say to you, “I can, with photos, narrate your life?” How believable will those words sound? To consider these words absolutely, there is the possibility that our work will be considered below the mark. Yet we cannot dare to consider the words absolutely; our goal is not to narrate in complete detail the lives of others; but to show how, when our lives intersect with the lives of others, we are positioned to show the friction that happens.

Ray-Daniels at Work. Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

III: Khartoum, Sudan

In Khartoum, there seemed to be a passionate attempt to accommodate our foreignness. So extensive was this accommodation that the welcoming seemed pleasantly forced. On trips to the market, we were told severally “Nigeria and Sudan are one.” One trader enthused about the oneness of Africa, another told us not to pay attention to the conflict in other parts of Sudan, that the conflict was not a Sudanese trait, and Nana got several gifts from the traders.

We should have understood that too much welcoming happens when there are few visitors. Sudan’s face in the media has scared visitors; there are those who would never know that Khartoum International Airport has free wifi, and that an MTN advert-board welcomes travellers with “hope you brought your camera.”

Well, we brought loads of cameras, and when we were accosted by policemen it was to confirm that we had the required authorization. We clicked and clicked, feeling free and endlessly creative. It was as though a tiny bit of heaven had descended upon us for those few days.

Khartoum, as a city that accommodated our visit, provided a second dimension to our work. As a result of the openness that greeted us, and the fact that we had crossed the border of kinship, our oneness with the residents of Khartoum gave us the impetus to share our work with them. Simply, an exchange had occurred. We were welcome to work, and by extension, welcome to share. Almost every person whose photo we made wanted to see the photo, and Canon’s gift of digital cameras could not have been more useful.

The advantage of digital cameras became apparent, and no darkroom was needed. All it took was the press of a button, and the previously-made photos came to life. I consider this an important element of our work; Khartoum’s reality, from our eyes, was shared with the characters whose story told that reality. This sharing process is as big as an exhibition in any museum. We owe a responsibility to our subjects, first, before any curator.

Ala and Jumoke at Work. Piassa, Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. By Emeka Okereke. IB 2011

IV: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Working in Addis was eventless in comparison with Nigeria and Tchad. There was no need to question acceptance, as subjects stayed mostly aloof to our activities. It did not matter if photographs were or were not taken. This stems from the fact of Ethiopia’s touristical appeal, and how Nikon-handling tourists have taken over cafes, hotels, bars, markets.

 Let me speculate, instead, on how Ethiopia became the melting pot for my claims of the extraordinariness of ordinariness. Nana’s work lends credence to this – in her interaction with local artists, she ensured the unavoidability of their stories, which is the crux of arguing about the importance of the stories of ‘ordinary’ people. Everyone deserves to be heard; writers and photographers should be preoccupied, like Nana, to randomly tell the stories they hear. ‘Random’ is used because no one story is more idyllic than the other, or more epic, poetic, etc.  

David Horn says “you are not a photographer because you are interested in photography.” I agree because Bill Jay emphasizes, “it seems to me self-evident that in order to photograph with any degree of continuous passion, you must have a fascination for the subject, otherwise you cannot sustain an interest in the art of creation for a long enough period of time in which to make any insightful or original statement about it.”
Perhaps we have made insightful and original statements through our work.

- Emmanuel Iduma

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