It is clear to me that when a day starts late it ends up being long. I cannot tell why we did not eat breakfast until about 11.30 am, and why when it was eaten there was no call for haste. Our meal was yam and a stew prepared by Uche, Kemi and Chidinma (active contribution in that order). There is a speculation that such festive breakfasts might become rarer as we move on. Or we might have no breakfasts at all. I will add that there is a missing image in the montage we have sold to a vast (un)cheering audience – this journey is not simply Fun with the capital F. It has become more tedious as we keep on, with unexpected twists in our story, like an unfolding narrative. We do not feel fun anymore.
On being flogged
We walked out at about 2.00pm, unsure of whether it made sense to decide to make photos at late afternoon, with the sun at its best, the heat at its worst. Looking back, that decision will rank as one of the best we made in Abuja, for the simple reason that after that afternoon, I saw Abuja in stark-true colours; this city has finally taken away its hood, standing bare, like a prodigal.
Kemi was chased by an old lady beggar, with a stick. We had been standing beside one of the entrances of the National Mosque – Kemi, Jumoke and I – waiting for the taxi bringing Ray, Tom and Emeka. There was a group of women beggars across the road, most of them in wheelchairs. True, Jumoke had mentioned how good a photo of the women might look, to which Kemi replied that she was interested in making a photo. Kemi had barely taken out her camera before the women screamed out to us, refusing to be subjects. I figure Kemi lost all interest in making a photo – but this did not stop one of the women, in her sixties or seventies, from attacking us.
She ran across the road, cursing in Hausa, cutting a branch from the nearby tree, advancing speedily toward us, towards Kemi. It happened so fast I was not surprised, perhaps I was flabbergasted. Of course, Kemi ran for her dear life, citing later that it was not fear but surprise that made her run. It is not a good thing, I guess, to recall being flogged by an old woman who misunderstands.
The old beggar chased us so hard that soon there was a small crowd of other Hausas. Some laughed at their kinswoman, others begged us to be on our way, some intoned that we were trouble. By this time Emeka, Tom and Ray had alighted from their taxi, and they witnessed firsthand the fray.
We were soon on our way, uninterested in any dialogue with the men who had crossed the road to come to us, speaking in Hausa. Not one of us is fluent in Hausa; it is interesting that I got an idea of what was being said. The language hoax dissolves in the face of danger – one usually understands when safety is breached, because the antagonist speaks not only with the lips, but with eyes and gestures too.
And so, today we had our first assault. I wondered what had gotten the old woman to that point where she felt she was strong enough to resist being photographed, or what gave her the guts to launch an offensive against us.
Right here, on the same street, is calm
A group of women and children were sitting a few yards from the National Mosque. I cannot tell if they were beggars or simply Muslims lounging on Sallah day.
One of Tom’s project for the journey is to give toys to kids we meet on the way and take photographs of the kids holding the toys. He proposed to the women to give a toy to one of the kids, and take her photograph. The women agreed, easily.
Tom made dozens of photos of the girl, an older girl, and a little boy, while the women cheered him, excited at the idea of being photographed. I made photos of Tom making his photos and one of the women asked me to make a photo of her small boy. This was before Tom began to make photos of the older girl and the little boy. So, gladly, awash with elation at being considered worthy to make the photos, I obliged the woman. And Jumoke joined soon, making photos of the women.
Leaving the women, we had a conversation on how easy it is to dismiss the women and their children as poor and underprivileged. Some narrative, we argue, is lost when such categorizations are made. Too much fuss seems to have been made of poverty that it is presented in terms convenient for the lazy definer. People considered poor, like those women, always seem contented and happy.
Tom’s girl is named Aisha. We met her and her mothers right on the same street Kemi had been chased with a stick.
Do not snap me
Our journey took us to Wuse Market. Just after the point where we alight from the buses, sacks are laid out on the floor, serving as spaces to display goods for sale – children shoes, electronic appliances, second-hand dresses, shirts, trousers, and whatnot, as long as it was not edible.
While we made photos around this spot (a long pedestrian walkway leading to the market’s gate), many of the sellers, rudely or politely or a combination of both, warned us to avoid making photos of them. They shouted that they did not want to appear on television, mistaking us for an AIT and NTA crew, saying we were stepping outside our boundaries.
It happens that our ‘boundaries’ exist because these sellers feel undignified and ashamed of their businesses. There is a sense of incompleteness that is displayed on their faces. Perhaps I am wrong, but I doubt if this feeling of Less does not arise from socio-cultural ‘correctness’, the realm in which one’s job or means of livelihood determines if he/she is admissible in the league of life.
What are you guys up to? / You look different
Entering the market, we were faced with a different attitude. Sort of, we were confronted with varied ideas of who we were and what we had come in to do. I recall hearing a man who saw that Jumoke was making photos of a girl’s hairstyle saying loudly in Igbo that the girl’s hair was going to be used for money ritual.
And one man asked me, quiet rudely, what ‘program’ we were representing. I was impatient. I simply told him it was not a program.
Rudeness followed us everywhere. Two men said ‘Hey, come here’ to Jumoke in a manner that said, ‘this is my territory, you’re a stranger, I call to you when I need you to come.’
A young man said to me, ‘What are you guys up to? Where are you from?’ When I made a brief explanation, he said, ‘Okay. I thought you were from Cameroon or Burundi.’ Amazing, I thought. Cameroonians and Burundians are exempted from photographing in Nigeria! More seriously, I began to think of the large visible lines that separate us in Africa, a point that has been made severally by other participants. For instance, it costs close to 400 Euros to fly from N’djamena to Khartoum, a flight that is as short as flying from Accra to Lagos. The borders are inscribed in the subconscious of many, so that in a simple conversation, its tiny vestiges come flying out.
There were those in the market who requested for photographs, thinking we were commercial photographers. I wondered how logical it was for commercial photographers to tour a market, searching for subjects, making money in the least likely places.
On a more intricate level, I wondered how/why photographs generated so much curiosity and opened-eyes. Perhaps there is a part of us that fights memory or a direct confrontation with it, a part of us that says the past did not happen, time cannot be captured, and that we must not be judged by images of our relationship with the past and consequently with history.
While we waited for Kemi and Jumoke to buy foodstuff, Tom found a young boy wearing a shirt that said ‘Vodafuck’ in bold font. The boy pulled off the shirt when Tom asked to make a photo of the shirt. Another boy held the shirt while it was photographed.
I suppose the least likely things can be found everywhere. Only that the eyes with which these things will be seen is often covered with a film of nonchalance and the absence of wonder.
There are several other happenings – Nana’s arrival (Nana Oforiatta-Ayim is the other writer, a Ghanaian, who has worked as a filmmaker); Tom’s deep interest in China’s intercourse with Africa. But we got home late, and I am too tired to be talkative. I will save the strength for tomorrow, our last day in Abuja.