Traveling has been a very important aspect of my existence. More so because it represents that phenomenon by which everything living is animated – Journey. To travel is to journey and in every journey there is a story. Stories take you on a journey from what or where you were to where and what you never imagined to be. There is a constant discovery of the limits and abilities of oneself. I say that life will be lifeless without the journey in and away from oneself. To journey is to be the story while telling the story at the same time.
I recently journeyed from Lagos to Addis Ababa in the company of a group of artists –photographers and writers from Nigeria, Ghana and Sudan. The whole idea was to travel by road under the framework of the Invisible Borders project. We ended up traveling by every means imaginable (except by train) as the adventure inevitably offered us more challenges and fun than we had envisaged while everything was still in Google Map.
We spent close to 45 days sharing the same means of transportation as well as accommodations, getting into each other’s skin and of course feeling the heat of never having a “personal time”. As a backdrop, let me reiterate the whole idea of the Invisible Borders project. It was conceived in 2009 with the aim of uniting African artists mostly photographers but also writers and filmmakers towards addressing issues and limitation posed by the disjointedness of the continent as a result of the imposed borders. So every year, selected artists come together and embark on a journey by road, taking off from Lagos towards a specific destination in the continent. This has been consistently so since 2009, and so far there has been two editions. The journey that I am about to speak of is the third.
As in every other project especially the adventurous, there are numerous challenges, but the most significant of all in our case was the issue of security. This played a centre role in all decisions which led to this journey from the West to the East of Africa. We had to travel from Nigeria through Tchad, Sudan and eventually arriving in Ethiopia. These routes are conflict ridden from Nigeria to Sudan with Ethiopia being the most peaceful so far.
The challenge began with deliberations within the participants who were to make the journey. A better part of these deliberations were based on deductions from a constant research in the media as well as accounts from some source regardless of if it were a personal account or hearsay. I personally, recall spending a great deal of time researching these conflicts. Truth be told, it felt like all media agents, had already made up their mind on what and whatnot to report. As if there was some sort of consensus to say just one thing but in different words and different online platforms. It got me all the more excited, it was glaring and obvious that there is a story not being told, one that you will “never know if you never go”. On countless accounts, I stumbled on websites of Countries like England, Canada, Italy etc., warning its citizens of the dangers of travelling to such places as Sudan and Chad and even giving them guidelines on what and whatnot to do in order to be safe. As an African, I reflected: what has this got to do with me? I am neither Canadian nor British; therefore these websites and “Safety Guidelines” are definitely not for me.
On this basis I made up my mind to embark on this journey contrary to all the hearsays even when they were “proven facts”. There were also people – friends and well-meaning individuals who thought we had a death wish; that we were on some sort of suicide mission. But again I say as Africans about to embark on a journey by road in Africa through routes reported to be conflict laden, what other advantage do we have other than our African-ness? And if we do not put that advantage to work by trusting that we will find our way around this soil which gave our feet it’s shape, contours and textures will we not continue to be at the mercy of other people’s opinions? Then what right do we have to say we are Africans when we too look at our continent through external eyes?
When one considers that these media agents, these brokers of exchange between peoples of different realities, these middlemen who are propagators of everything negative about the continent as mostly telling the story as justified from an external point of view, then it becomes glaring that the story missing is that which is yet to be told by those who are internally involved with the continent. I do not think that my family and friends both Africans and non-Africans are wrong with their well-meaning advice, but it is also very important to understand from what mindset they are right. Could it be that they are projecting their own fears and not mine? I do believe that fear is a personal property and is only transferable as long as the recipient is
vulnerable to it.
Of course this point of view is in no way an attempt to insinuate that there is no cause for alarm. Indeed there is, hence the need for precaution – no one wants to replace bravery with foolery. After all, as part of the precautions we decided to go by air from N’Djamena to Khartoum so as to avoid the Darfur region in Sudan of which we were not able to ascertain the level of the conflict in our favour. Arriving in Khartoum, or precisely just when the city came into view, none of us was in any way ready for what we were looking at from above – that was the first practical realization of how messed-up we were in our heads with all the presumptions aided by the media. Just that aerial experience, which at this point could even be termed peripheral, was staunch indication that we know nothing of Sudan despite our detailed research. We merely filled our heads with presumptions arising from the logical follow-up of a country whose conflict has been hyperbolized to leave anyone to be thinking anything good and positive of such a country or people.
This is also what most people in the Western countries do: they sit in their living rooms, legs crossed and read from a newspaper or watch from a television, they watch a programmed vision which at most is a twisted reality. Then they pride in being “up-to-date” with the “news” but in reality the news has been tailored to leave them stuck in the olds, in an outdated perception of Africa. Therefore, the so-called advancement “being-in-actuality” through the media is nothing but an illusion. Africans too are becoming like this especially when an incident that took place in Africa will first be reported in BBC, CCN or Aljazeera before it is disseminated by the local news agencies.
On landing at the airport terminal, everything immediately became exceptional: the mere fact that it was one of the most sophisticated airports in Africa; that we were immediately able to connect to the internet and inform the world that “Invisible Borders team just arrived in Khartoum”; that there was a big signpost saying “Welcome to Khartoum… I hope you brought your Camera”; that just to be sure, we asked one of the immigration officers if we could begin to make pictures right from the airport and he said “yes!” were all too good to be true considering that we were in Sudan of all places!
Meeting with our Sudanese friends and colleagues was the first introduction to the hospitality and warm-heartedness of the Sudanese people living in Khartoum. Ala and Faisal proved to be efficient hosts in all sense of the word. Despite all of this, we still remained a bit skeptical until the last minute. Some of us even thought it was all orchestrated to feel and look so considering that Khartoum is the seat of Government, so they will try as much as possible to keep it “cool, calm and collected”. Compare that to N’Djamena, where the president has been in power for some twenty years. Yes, he is one president who has tried to dislodge the idea that all dictators are bad. But by merely arriving at the airport in N’djamena, one already begins to sense that there is something really wrong about this country.
The airport is practically in shambles and one wonder how it could ever fit into the standards of the international aviation industry, how any country can allow its national carrier to land in such shambles. Then the president’s abode is not too far from that airport. It stands well protected with torrents of guards at every corner of the building (And I remember asking myself “does he have a private airport in his mansion? Does he not take off from this same airport every time he wants to travel abroad?”). Then comes the only monument worthy of praise, Place de Nation standing prestigely in the city Centre – but of course right in front of the presidents Mansion. Most of the citizens believe the president has their interest at heart. But as a visitor, it is so obvious this is not so, that this people have been cajoled into believing so.
One of us pointed out that the many bottles of beers and numerous bars for which their nightlife is greatly defined by is some bribe from the government to the Chadians in N’djamena. When one walks the streets of N’Djamena, there is always this unsettling feeling; people are a tad too alert for comfort. You sense that they are not free people; they are just walking the street looking so. At every hundred metres there is a policeman or a soldier.
As photographers, going out to the street everyday, it was a struggle because you have to first of all fight off this mental imprisonment, and then when one eventually summons effort to lift his or her camera, you were immediately confronted! From the taxi driver, to the child on the street, it was constant hostility to the cameras! But in attempt to transcend that Invisible border, our attempt to make photos despite the opposition came off as a protest, a manifestation against this notion of “imprisonment”. It became more so when we were arrested at the Central market and held for six hours, just for making a photo in the market.
The fact that we were stooped from making photos for at least six hours did not stop our work for one minute, for amongst us was Emmanuel Iduma the writer who though without a camera was able to “capture” the experience in writing. In the future, Invisible Borders will concretise this idea of its participants being an admix of photographers, writers and filmmakers because at this point it proved the only way our work could not have been interrupted.
So our skepticism in Khartoum was well founded considering that we were flying in from N’djamena! But the sense of relief at experiencing Khartoum was a highpoint in the entire journey. It was at this point that all the excitement that will take us to and fro the journey came rushing in! Making pictures in Khartoum was of a blessed experience. The people were constantly receptive of our presence and moreover curious as to our purpose of visit. We had authorizations to make photos from the office of the ministry of tourism, but we never had to use it except when a policeman thought we photographed him. Besides making photos, we had the opportunity (and luxury when compared to Lagos, Abuja, Jos or N’djamena) to have a lengthy conversation with our subject and share the photos with them through the display screen of our Canon digital cameras. Some of us (the ladies) even got gifts form those they photographed and shared with. I personally speak of this second dimension to our photographic experience – this gift of sharing and conversing with our subject after the picture was made – as the most priceless of all experiences of this journey. We would go on to experience more of this as we traveled from Sudan to Ethiopia.
If I should then make a sub-recap of our experience at this point ofreflection, I would say that contrary to popular opinion, we had the best time and liberty both in working and networking as we traveled from Sudan to Ethiopia, than we did traveling from Nigeria to Chad.
In Nigeria, the areas of conflict were mostly Jos in Plateau state and Maiduguri in Bornu state. The later happens to be the headquarters of Boko Haram as well as a site for some of their horrendous attacks on innocent lives, while the former is the battleground between Moslems of the Northern Nigeria and Christians of the Eastern region. Abuja, the capital of Nigeria seems to be the laboratory for the experiments by Boko Haram and some people who lived there have been made the specimen.
In our chosen route, we had to drive through the heart of these cities, while spending nights in some of them. In driving across Maiduguri, the city was like a collage of battlefield and residential town. Soldiers were everywhere with sandbags at every corner of the city. These soldiers were there to ensure peace. On our way back, we had to drive past Maiduguri by night! I was really impressed with the dedication of these soldiers. All night they stood in watch at practically every 500 metres, in the cold from the desert wind, sometimes sitting around a coal fire to keep warm. Because of them, it was possible for us to drive through Maiduguri to Jos at 1 am in the morning. Besides, they were nice and courteous, as long as we were cooperative. When I saw them standing in the road, in the dead of the night with nothing but dark forest to remind them of their location, I was forced to ponder on what would make the soldier chose a job like this, and why he was dedicated to it. Does he really believe in serving Nigeria and her citizen as his ideal quest, or is he just doing this for lack of something better? It would indeed be more noble and satisfying if the former was the answer, but something tells me it is more of the latter because truly Nigeria and the way she is run by the elites leaves one with little or no cause to believe in nationhood.
As we journeyed across countries cities and tribes from West to East, we experience differences which were only highlighted by adopted cultures and mentality, but when it comes to indigenous ways of being, there is this feeling of oneness, this understanding that exist even when there is no understanding. Even when regarded as peoples of different tribes and languages – Ethiopia feels like Sudan, just like it could feel like Tchad or Nigeria, not of course in an absolute sense, but more by basic modes of existence and behavior. Often times, we hear one of the participants exclaim: “this could be anywhere in Nigeria!”
There is that thing about the people of Africa, their modes of living, reasoning, “being” that makes Africa feel like one gigantic country but with countless tribes. At this juncture, I am propelled to contemplate the existence of national borders; its relevance or better put, its detriments. Especially when we know how they came to be in the first place, that it was a result of nothing but a gluttonous scramble for the continent. Therefore should we allow these borders determine our relationship with each other since it has already outlived its usefulness? Of course I am not proposing that the borders be physically eradicated but I believe we could reduce its importance to mere formalities while we continue our lives and relationships unhindered by it. For I agree with His Excellency, Ambassador Paul Lolo when he affirmed that it is a glaring fact that Africa is better off united than divided
These borders pose unnecessary bottlenecks, but more so because the leaders of our respective countries – our fathers in whose sense of judgment and conscience lies the future of the toddlers of today and those unborn – have chosen to make this of secondary importance. But if only we can understand the pricelessness of knowledge especially in the wake of globalization, then we will immediately realize that there is something priceless lying on the other side of the walls which we have erected for ourselves for whatever reason, be it for protection or in a bid to assert our identity. And it is in our best interest that we explore what lies on the other side. True human development can never be achieved in isolation, more so when this isolation is from immediate neighbours.
In nowhere was the essence of such concept as Trans-African exchange felt than in Addis Ababa, which also happens to be the headquarters of the Africa Union and has been so since the time of OAU (Organisation of Africa Unity). Coupled with the history of Ethiopia as the only non-colonised country in Africa, therefore equipped with a strong sense of African-ness, one might be pushed to assume that they would be experts on matters that relates to Trans-African exchanges. But it is indeed the contrary. In as much as they are very hospitable and of calm temperament, their sense of independence has naturally lead to some sought of isolation from the rest of the continent – that kind of isolation that one can readily experience in places like Sao
Therefore while we were in Ethiopia, we realized that our presence was not of a common place as one might be tempted to think, but something that the Ethiopians were just beginning to open themselves to, namely: that hunger to share and exchange with people from other parts of the continent. This hunger coming from the Ethiopians was what made our visit more significant than we had ever imagined. It was readily felt in all nooks and cranny, from the photographers who worked with us to the journalists who reported the project. They were practically confessing “ this project aimed at the integration of Africa is the first of its kind for us”. Not that these ideas have not been over-flogged on various platforms both inside and outside the continent, but to them it was the first time they experienced it is such practical and tangible form as traveling by road from the West to East of Africa just to prove a point on Africa Unity.
Besides Aida Muluneh, the director of the Museum of Modern Arts Addis Ababa, who played the host for the project and grand presentation, there was also the Ambassador of Nigeria to Ethiopia, His Excellency Paul Lolo whose high regard for the project was a staunch prove of the point made above. I will also mention the enthusiasm with which the former Ethiopian Minister of tourism Mr. Ato Hapte Sellasie received us and the project; but also the crowd that showed up for the presentation at the Museum.
The whole idea of the 2011 road trip was to make Addis Ababa the apex of the journey. But little did we know that, this would come to be as a natural consequence and not as a premeditated strategy of the project. Ethiopia may have been the headquarters of OAU since 1963 and that of AU since 2002, but it was glaring that the majority of Ethiopians were yet to understand what that really implies. OAU and AU have only been evident behind close doors of Conference structures and occasionally jam-packed hotels as a result of visiting political delegates, but it has never penetrated the sensibilities of the average Ethiopian. It is only beginning now, through practical and tangible projects such as the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography project and the Addis Ababa Photo Festival . Projects heralded by ordinary citizens of Africa who believe that by using themselves as the proverbial guinea pig, others of their generation and reality might be inspired to walk the walk towards Africa Unity.
It will be pretentious to insist that a bunch of artists traveling every year by road will bring about the big change so needed as urgent as things are. But we set out on this journey bearing in mind that our aim is to inspire others of our generation and predicaments to join the cause. To adopt the words of Kemi Akin-Nibosun, one of the participants of the 2011 edition: “let us be the catalyst and let Africa be our canvas” for which we paint the story that will eventually become our history. To take that further, I will add: “let us use the space and let the space use us”. In this light we are convinced that the Invisible Borders project and the concept it propagates is a landmark by which we can behold that long-awaited era of a new Africa free from self-destruction and destruction enforced by external entities.
In all the countries visited, there is a common denominator: the zeal and passion of this generation to join minds together in working for the benefit of all in the continent. We sense this in form of a defiant energy – that which refuses to be bridled by existing norms. It is true that with the state of things in Africa one can only speak of this energy as existing in only a few Africans when compared to the entire population. But despite that, it testifies of a window towards a new era. We should capitalize on this. We must capitalize on this if history will not repeat itself for the umpteenth time!
When I say this, I do not in anyway place our ability to achieve this in the hands of our respective governments. No, gone are the days when we offer ourselves as humble subjects to our governments only to be short-changed over and over again. No, our government will listen to us, not by us screaming at them, but through our actions they will be inspired to right their wrongs for it will be glaring that they will become redundant if they do not join this sweeping energy. We will continue to demand that they live up to expectations, but we will not do that with hands crossed and waiting for them. They need to be inspired by us. We are calling on our prodigal fathers to answer to that responsibility so that the nobility that once belonged to fatherhood might be restored.
We will not stop in our quest to build a Trans-African Africa. It is not for now, it is for when now will become then.