Reflections on an Outward Journey (4) – Borders

Posted: January 9, 2012 at 4:24 am

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

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