mardi 17 novembre 2009

Spot of bother - our misadventures in Mali

Monday 16th 2009

I tell you, if I were superstitious, I’d say today is not our lucky day.

We are all ready to head home. It has been a wonderful yet exhausting two weeks. Productive, energising, relevant are just a few understatements that come to mind, now to feed them into the focus.

It is early on Monday morning and as our two taxis turn off the road into the motor park, several touts mill around us aggressively. It is like stepping into a zone. They commandeer your car, leaning into the open windows. They attach themselves forcibly to you, they won’t let go, no matter what you say. The energy changes around us and from that moment, we have hard faces with cold eyes and dry lips bellowing rudeness at us in foreign languages and harsh voices.

Once they have captured us and our luggage, and brought us into their office, we are little more than prisoners of war and the hostility is unmistakeable. There is juju hanging over the doorway, and the ambience is shoddy and sinister. Lucy is told that as a woman, she has to get off the seat by the desk. Even though she graciously obliges, after that, whenever she gets on the phone the meanie turns the volume on his tinny radio right up. He sits there on his male throne, dozing for most of the morning. The room is full of dust and rubbish, with wires hanging out of the wall and random objects hanging on wall fixtures. There are maps stuck to the wall and price lists for the various destinations stencilled on the walls. There is also a lot of random graffiti, names and phone numbers scribbled on the dirty paint.

It is when he tells her she can not stand in the doorway that I give him a piece of my mind and the sharp side of my tongue. Afterall, we had paid on Saturday night for a Monday morning bus and having today at first been told it was leaving at 4pm, sometime later we have been told it would definitely leave before 9pm. A shouting match ensues during which we express our indignance loudly and vocally and in Franglais. The air is heavy, you could cut the tension with a knife. We are told we are not in our country and this is how it’s done in Mali. Threats are made to break our cameras and to call the police. We are not impressed. We too would like to speak to the police and they soon abandon the idea.

They now try to make us relocate to what Uche has dubbed the holding cell, a room behind the office where other prospective passengers wait uncomfortably and uncomplainingly. We stand our ground, we will only move ourselves and our luggage once a bus is produced. Two young Igbo men on their way from Senegal join our chorus for justice. They had been told the morning before that they would leave at 4pm the afternoon before and had had to sleep at the motor park the night before as they waited for a bus to finally leave.

I am all for quitting while we are ahead. If these people are treating us like this now, how much more when they have us at their mercy for the entire duration of a journey that at best, will last for three days, but on many an occasion, has been known to last longer? Emeka and the others struggle to keep the group together. I call Simone, our landlady at the Bed & Breakfast to book the room I have just checked out of. I am heading back to her beautiful oasis. But Team IB09 stop me. The bus will soon leave, they reckon. Charles has a drink of ataya, a traditional mixture of green tea and peppermint poured into shot glasses from a height. Then the men go off to look for food and luckily for them, come back with greens because I am really no longer in an agreeable mood and chlorophyll never fails to lift one’s mood. Lucy and I have the orange hawker come into the cramped space with her bowls and peel us a dozen oranges.

Eventually, we are called to the bus and as we pile in, the tension rises as if we are prospecting for plots of land, not seats on a coach. We get out to complain yet again. Surely having paid on Saturday, and being a group, we should have first dips on seats. We are all herded out again, and given little benches to place in the limited shade we now also have to fight for. With our benches, we pursue the shadows as they duck away from us during our long wait. It feels like the Sweeper is sweeping us away along with the litter when she sweeps the dust and garbage right in our direction before Crazy Rude Man comes again and starts acting up and flinging his arms around to make us flinch just to exert his power over us by making us move the bench to an impossible spot.

Finally we are told that the manifest will now be called and so everybody rushes to the front door of the bus because the back door is locked. Men are pushing women aside shamelessly until the man with the manifesto asks the women to the front. He then proceeds one by one, to remove bags and clothing and foodstuffs that had been left to colonize the seats. After an eternity of calling out every item and reuniting it with its owner, the bus magically fills with lots of thuggish-looking types and there is lots of shouting in foreign languages again. We stand jostled up against each other holding all out luggage in our hands, supposedly ready to beat everyone else to all the best seats once they say we can board.

We stand there in the heat, body to body, for near on an hour, then at last we board the bus which feels like a sauna inside, and we sit there for going on another hour until we finally leave. They have balanced 15cm-wide planks of wood between the aisle seats and have seated another two passengers on each of them. We are like sardines in a tin, and it occurs to me that this was a mild insight into the way Transatlantic slaves must have felt. We are suffering just a fraction of the indignity, discomfort and anguish, but even this is enough to fill us with despair.

The feeling of temporary elation when we finally drive off is short-lived. At the next stop, just minutes away, we watch with weary eyes and wonder just how many dozens of men it takes to fuel a coach. So much milling around and confusion, and we spot somebody lighting a cigarette, right over the jerry-cans being filled. We begin to knock frantically on the windows but the young man looks at us nonchalantly with disdain and passes it on to another, even closer to the pump. Our knocking and shouting from inside our trap escalates before the cigarette is removed from the scene. The fuelling is done and finally we move again.

Relief once again washes over our exhausted bodies and fatigued spirits. Once again, it is short-lived. We have moved no more than twenty metres and are now parked in front of the public toilets, as is manifest in the odours that waft into the bus. Another near hour on that spot, and even those whose need for the toilet might have been induced by the stench, are not getting off the bus to use the ‘facilities’.

We do move in the end and the drive through Bamako and onto a dual carriageway on the outskirts would seem to indicate that we really had this time finally set off on our journey. We check our watches, it is two minutes to nine. The guy had been right. The bus had left before nine, just like he’d said. When the bus suddenly pulls over yet again, we are wondering if it is to fasten luggage properly, or check a wheel or something that might have been noticed in the nick of time before we have left town. We are but mere spectators as the crew – the driver, the guy in the t-shirt with the capsule on it, and all the rest of these guys – get off to buy drugs, which they begin to smoke even as we watch from inside our prison, as we roast in the overcrowded bus. Emeka has had enough and gets out to enquire what the reason is for this zillionth stop.

Out of nowhere, a scuffle ensues and before you can say Babangida, a full fledged fight has broken out, in which the junkies are baying for Emeka’s blood. There is total confusion. Emeka is holding his own, but none of us is about to allow anybody harm one of our team mates and we are all right in there – yes, in the very middle of the fight – trying to deter the mob of drugged-up motor park gangsters from injuring Emeka. It has now become a Nigeria-Mali thing and the thugs are threatening that somebody will die today and that there is no way they are taking us on this journey. Music to my ears. Emeka’s T-shirt and vest have been shredded, ripped off his body during the fight but our luggage is tied to the roof of the bus, so he will have to continue to show off his gorgeous black torso.

We all get back in the bus and after a while realise that it is actually headed back for the motorpark, where it parks outside the ticket office and a renewed fight breaks out. Not only are we outnumbered and trapped in the bus, but this is the motorpark and these guys are all on drugs. One of them gets onto the bus brandishing a knife and baying for the Rasta’s (Emeka’s) blood. There are scuffles, hoarse shouting matches, much threatening and a lot of gesticulation, before the owner of the bus, who had ordered it back to the motorpark because his accounts were not balanced (though we did not know this at the time) begins peace-making, because we are asking for our money back and there are seven of us. Everyone else Team IB09 allows him to placate them, but I have decided I’m disembarking. I ask Lucy to look after my suitcase , which is tied to the roof of the bus, and I call a taxi, gather my hand luggage and leave for the Bed and Breakfast. No toothbrush, no fresh clothes, but I couldn’t care less.

An hour after I arrive back at the bed and breakfast, Lucy calls to say she is coming to join me. The bus had been unloaded and a ‘new’ bus had been brought to do the journey instead. Lucy and Uche had taken one look at the old American school bus and decided that they too had had enough. Modu, our landlord, a Senegalese Sufi goes to pick them up.They soon arrive and we sit around in the beautiful grounds of the Bed & Breakfast and recount our experiences, joined by our fellow guests, Andrea and Sophie from Berlin, and none other than Akinbode Akinbiyi. The rest of the guys had decided to leave by whatever means of transport was available. Dan, a lovely caring young member of our team had lost his mother just before we had left for Bamako. He had spent the days before our departure from Nigeria arranging her funeral, and was rushing back to make it. He could not afford to stay on. And the others went with him out of solidarity.

But after many more trials and tribulations, even Dan and his group trooped into the Bed & Breakfast in the small hours. Uche, Lucy and I were already asleep, but I got up to welcome them, just as Modu, our landlord brought out a huge tray of spaghetti Bolognese and four forks. I cannot describe to you the looks on their faces or the exclamations of sheer joy from my four battle-weary teammates. Surely we must have exhausted our lifetime supply of bad luck today.

As I said before, if I were superstitious, I’d think that today has not been a lucky day. But because I’m not superstitious, I am certain it was a really lucky day. There’s nothing like real-life action to make you feel alive. Nothing like seeing the grass on the other side to remind just how lush and green-white-green your own grass actually is. Today I am extra-specially proudly Nigerian. Tomorrow is another day.

vendredi 13 novembre 2009

Pure Luck by Unoma Giese

Many aspects of western culture have crept in to fuse with our own many African cultures, and today on Friday the 13th, I ask myself if as many people here on the continent are preoccupied with the concept of luck on this day as are in America, Australia and Europe. Incidentally, Friday the 13th has always been lucky for me.

What exactly is luck? A rationalist perspective on luck maintains that luck is probability taken personally. Fortune favours the prepared, another saying goes. But there are times when, no matter how hard one tries to prepare, it is as if there is a conspiracy of forces to hold one back. Is this what is conceived to be bad luck? The troubles we had last week with Maria our van were uncanny at the time. One minute she would be working perfectly, the next she would just not work. Every single time that happened, it happened when Maria had got us to a point where we had to be. Every single time. Was that good luck , or was that bad luck, or was it both? And if you had both good luck and bad luck, then did that mean they cancelled each other out and you had no luck at all?

At the time it was happening to us, we saw it as bad luck because we felt we had done the necessary prep and because we needed to get to Bamako by a particular time. But in hindsight – which everyone knows is always 20-20 vision – we realised that the journey would have been arduous if not impossible with Maria. Moreover, the control we lost with the grounding of our vehicle meant that we were then set to truly encounter and explore hidden borders of the type we had no way of even anticipating. That was what we had wanted, right? Be careful what you wish for…

Luck is a thing that many Nigerian Christians do not believe in. Some even claim the word luck comes from the name of Lucifer and such people will revoke it if you wish them luck, vehemently claiming a blessing in its place. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find a young lady at the Music Society of Nigeria wearing a horse-shoe, who upon being asked, said it brought her luck.

I don’t believe in luck myself. Perhaps this is because I do not believe in coincidence. But I believe in Providence, or God, as some of us call it. So I wake up this morning after very little sleep and don the bikini and go for a quick swim with Lucy before breakfast, with the charming Andrew and Guy for company as they have breakfast by the pool. And I think to myself how lucky we are! Thank you Lord.

Then we check out of the hotel and get a taste of Mali traffic – perfect for making images, this is fortuitous. We’re off to visit Malick Sidibe at his atelier. There we get ushered in to have our portrait taken by the master himself. Again we're feeling very fortunate, we hadn't reckoned with this! There’s a lot of arranging of clothes and legs and arms and chins and we freeze for the photo. Trust me to blink just as he clicks.

Anyway after that we check into the most charming Bed and Breakfast (with bread for breakfast) in the Hippodrome area of Bamako. By now we're feeling like we’ve hit the jackpot. Who says Friday the 13th is unlucky?

So as I catalogue all the good stuff life has given me – my children, this trip with nine huge personalities and great individuals, and so many countless things, big and small, mundane and profound - I find myself doing exactly what Uche Okpa Iroha did when presented with the Grand Prix – I find myself thanking God before all else, for everything that is good, everything that is blessed, everything that is lucky in our lives.

Writing the Journey Bobo Dioulasso to Bamako

direction Bamako, photo by Unoma Giese

Monday 9th November 2009

Monday morning; and we are all up, dressed and ready to roll by 5:30am. We leave and head for the bus terminal in Bobo-Dioulasso. Formalities proceed as in interstate travel with luxury buses back home. Our luggage is tagged and stowed away. We commence our journey at 9.00am. All goes well until we begin to receive all manner of visitors as “attachment” passengers. We allow none in our part of the aisle as our laptops are stowed there and we want no damage to them.

The sun is an ever constant force, in this part of the continent. The sky is free of clouds and the sun bursts through in radiant glory. The sun’s energy zaps our energy. We sleep. We wake. We alight for border checks. We board the bus again. We pick up more passengers on the route including a ram. We can’t wait to arrive Bamako.

Expectations rise, dip, rise, dip… Bamako Bamako, where art thou Bamako? Almost twelve hours tick by and then, we arrive the outskirts of Bamako. Brightly shinning orange street lights announce the city. Tired, and tense, Bamako elicits different things to different people. For Chicken Feathers, “It is almost an anticlimax, having paid so high a price in time to reach it.” She is however willing to explore the surprises that the 2009 Biennale Africaine de la Photographie will unfurl.

Bamako looks like old, old Lagos trapped in a time warp. The buildings look as tired as we are. Immediately, one notices the flashing of a green neon crosses as one drive into town. It is Bamako’s way of designating its pharmaceutical stores. The flashing green neon breaks the monotony of the night.

photo by Lucy Azubuike

We have missed the opening ceremonies of the Biennale. But we are in time for the evening get together. We dash into our hotel for a quick check in and rush off to the Musee National -the National Museum – venue of the PUMA Creative sponsored get-together. Photographers of all hues across Africa are munching, drinking, dancing, chatting, hugging, and reminiscing.

Ah ha! Ah ha! We see a number of our compatriots - Bisi Silva – Art Curator and Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, George Osodi , Bode Akinbiyi, Andrew Esiobo, Abraham Oghobase- photographers, Mr. Ozolua of the Nation Newspapers. There’s also Antwyn Bryd, our adopted brother and Fulbright Scholar currently on a stint with the CCA.

From other places, there’s Sita Valloni of Congo- Brazza(ville), Pieter Hugo, Billy Bijoka of Cameroon who has flown in from France, Claude Agnel of the Foundation Jean Paul Blachere, Kenneth Montague of Wedge Curatorial Projects, the lovely Lucy Taiya of Cultures Finance, Simeon Ndjame from Cameroon, And so many other great people.

We get compliments about our blog- a surprise because we didn’t know so many people were following

our journey. We feel honoured and encouraged.

The party goes on and winds down about midnight. Later, we drift off to the BlaBla restaurant. The place is pulsating with the sound of photographers- among them George Osodi who insists on buying us food and drinks. We accept. George regales us with exciting tales about his evolution as a farmer, banker, and now a photographer. He flips through the store house of memory and exclaims,“I will do photography for life!” He is quick to add that he still retains a soft spot for farming. Billy Bijouka comes around to crack a joke or two; other merry friends drop by and off again. It has been a pleasant, though tiring day. We haven’t all slept enough and some of us begin to nod in agreement with sleep as though drugged. It’s time to leave BlaBla for BlaSleep… Zzzzzzzzz…

mercredi 11 novembre 2009

Surprise SurPrize!

Uche Okpa-Iroha, a Nigerian photographer and one of the 10 photographers of the Invisible Borders 2009 has won the Seydou Keita Award at the Bamako Photography biennale, in addition to a recent award from the Fondation Blachire! Thumbs up! This is only the beginning!

It’s midweek and we’ve not stopped since we got here. Partying, meeting and mingling, as well as catching up on a massive backlog of work. No end of hustle and bustle. We are all still sleep-deprived but all the strain is gone. We have bonded over drinks, over lots of work, over breakfast, lunch, dinner and over midnight snacks. We have bonded in each others rooms, in taxis whose drivers knew the way to our destination little more than we did, in auditoriums, and sometimes in private with our own room mates.

The constant grind of schedule and agenda has kept us in motion, and today things work up to a crescendo as we all prepare for tomorrow’s projection. Nobody leaves their hotel room. We are up early, begin work at the breakfast table, and work through, some of us without even having a shower. The mood is elevated; we have been able to shake off the tension that had built up on the road. We are looking forward now, gearing up to rise to the challenge of gratifying the interest in our trip that has built up following our arrival in Bamako. We have a 4pm meet at the Musee National to carry out our final edit for the audio-visual presentation on our road trip. Lucy and Chriss remain behind at the hotel, facing the prospect of doing an all-nighter tonight as they are also editing video and sound respectively.

The meet falls through as different people are doing different things in different places, we’ll just have to do it later. Meanwhile all the people gathered at the museum have begun to pack up to attend the award ceremony, and we leave Nike writing the chronicles in the meeting room. I am able to wangle a seat sitting among the dignitaries and ministers, and I settle down to strain my grey matter through a ceremony that is held mostly in French. Much clapping and snapping and we finally come to the grand prize.

Don’t ask me why, but it seems we were completely unprepared for what came next. Not one of the ten Invisible Borders photographers had a camera on them. Thank heavens for Emeka’s iPhone or we would not have had a photo to call our own of Uche Okpa Iroha receiving the Grand Prix Seydou Keita. Our very own Uche! With the Under Bridge Life images he’d made at Emeka’s Paris-Lagos 2008 Project under Third Mainland Bridge at Oko-Baba. From Lagos with Love.

We are taking the prize home! The most visible of the invisible borders – namely the huge body of work of all the participants who exhibited alongside Uche – has been shattered.

Sorry guys, I have to go now, we’re going to paint Bamako red….!

by Unoma Giese.

Writing The Journey : From Bamboi to Burkina by Nike Ojeikere

Bamboi our first stop on the morning of Sunday, photo by Uche James Iroha

entry into Burkina Fasso, photo by Amaize Ojeikere

Sunday, 8th November (Morning)

Sunday; and the sun in Bombai, breaks over our skyline and our heads in a brilliant shine. Bombai is little lay-by town in Ghana’s North. We revved ourselves up with body stretches, leg jigging and breakfast from an open-air roadside “restaurant”. The coffee is manned by a cheerful owner. Some of us are going broke already and cannot eat breakfast or buy water having run out of carry-on cash. We had submitted some of our travel money to corrupt customs officials earlier on in the journey to gain legal access across some Frenchified borders, so, rather than drink hot coffee; they have grudgingly elected to drink in the morning sunshine. Tempers are slithering quietly like vipers behind invisible borders…

photo by Amaize Ojeikere

We study our map.We are f-a-r from Burkina yet! We are taking the less known route which takes us uphill and upcountry from Bombai through Maluwe, to Signekura. Signekura calls to mind the beautiful Obudu Hills in Cross Rivers State Nigeria, with its low-lying, moisture-laden rolls of clouds grazing the green grassy hills. All through this trip, we see differences in language and attitudes of peoples, but we see much more similarities in flora and fauna between our country and the ones we pass through… they all could well have been one single country without bothering borders.

"The Road is still far!" photo by Uche James-Iroha

From Singekura , it’s Sakpa, Seribe, then Bole and the charcoal territory of Gbiegdaa with its piles of charcoal-laden sacks awaiting the excitement of fire. Soon, we enter the Upper West Region: Gbogdaa, Sawla, Nakwabi and Kpangiri flash past our window and after a long while we reach the two- lettered city: Wa.

Wa is the Upper West region’s most important city. Solid structures, a university, and a line up of banks with functional ATM machines are a welcome sight after hours of bush travel. We refinance our dry pockets and fuel the Ford to continue.

We drive headlong till we reach Jirapa. Fried yams under a Jirapa tree in front of the Inland Revenue Service constitute a warm welcome for our hungry stomachs. We alight. I wander around and notice something like Garri in a shop. I move nearer. It is Garri! In the Northernmost part of Ghana. And it is called “Garri” here too! I buy some - just for the fun of it. The shop owner asks where I’m from. “Nigeria”, I say with pride. “Nigeria!, she exclaims; “He is from Nigeria”. She is pointing to her neighbour, a young man in yellow t-shirt. I introduce myself and ask his name. He is Chibuike from Enugu State; he followed his brother here to sell auto parts. His brother is Amaechina, Meche for short.

Meche is glad to see his us, brethren from Nigeria, in this literal end of the world. He receives us very warmly and treats us to ice soft cold soft drinks. We chill out, under the big shady tree in front of the Volta River Authority Revenue office, opposite the American Consulate - a wooden shop painted in American colours, in end-of-the-world, Jirapa.

Then, another sight for sore eyes: a young American? lady rides very leisurely past on a bike, and then, two others pop out of God-knows-where, on their bikes as well. As we ponder their mission in this back of beyond, Cap 67 expresses the suspicion that they could well be on espionage duty-whilst posing as AID workers!

photo by Amaize Ojeikere

At Jirapa, the road as we’ve known it ends and a dusty laterite road takes over.We run this quiet, almost desolate course for about 3 hours until we reach the Ghana-Ouagadougou border town of Hamile. Hamile@ Ghana border treats us to traditional warm Ghanaian hospitality while the Burkina end treats us to classical Frenchified show-me the-money “hospitality” .After the traditional time-wasting, but no-cash-dropping exercise, we remind them of the ECOWAS treaty and how Frenchified excesses, were standing against its laudable intentions. Almost grudgingly, we are permitted to enter Burkina. Donkeys ferry our luggage to the Bus station where we sit under the hot blue African skies and take pictures whilst awaiting the bus which we had been told “is caming” for over 2 hours…

Sunday 8th November (Night)

When the sun has drained us to our very marrows, and we have drank lots of water, and taken tons of pictures under the techni-colour sunlit spectacularity of this little known town, billowing dust announces the arrival of the “caming” bus. It’s a radical departure from the Blue Ford that brought us here. It is a well -battered, formerly white Urvan bus, decorated with rust at several points; its guard laden with dusty hefty luggage of all sizes and colours. No doubt, this bus has crossed several borders.

The nondescript building that serves as the bus station comes alive. Its only claim to bus-stationhood is a lovely painting of what looks like a “Bolekaja” bus on the wall. A broken wooden window, off one of its hinges dangles besides the painting. This is fine art- we click cameras.

Soon we huddle into our bus. And we are on our way through the untarred stretch. Despite closed doors and windows, dust finds its way into the bus, so we stuff our noses with cotton wool. It’s a funny sight and we cannot help but laugh it off. When we alight to conduct departure formalities just 250metres later, we are all coated in dusty tee-shirts, lashes, beards, hair and all.

We cross to Hamile@Burkina.The officer- in-charge; a good-natured Burkinabe turns out to be a former classmate and friend to Ali Kabre -friend of Director of Espionage and Curly Curly! It’s a small world after all, literally.

We take pictures, and move on. Our destination is Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina’s second major town after Ouagadougou. Darkness falls at 6.PM. We shoot through the blackhole of the road in a never-ending journey to Bobo. Most of us are at our tethers end, wondering when this journey will end.

The journey end s about 5 hours later. We have been travelling for 48 hours plus since we left Accra. We are fagged out, not to mention famished, or filthy, or broke. We stop by an ATM to get the much needed CFA and pray hard that it works; otherwise, no Bamako tomorrow. Bobo may be Burkina’s 2 IC town, but from the little we have seen of Bobo this tired night, it is a far cry from say, Kaduna or even Abeokuta. Street lights work at full blast but the houses bear none of the sophistication of a 2nd in command town, as we would expect. But, the ATM works, mercifully, with ease. No network failure, no story. We are grateful!

Our host at Bobo-Dioulasso is the kind photographer, Paul Kabre- and his lovely wife. He is a good friend of Dreadlocked Kangool. The couple has rooms prepared and we eventually settle in about 2.00AM, after a late-night dinner or-is it early morning breakfast? We task them no doubt, but they remain warm and welcoming with smiles for everyone. We have crossed so many borders both internal and external; it is now time to take a well deserved rest. ZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…