These are my ideas: history is a scar and history is a weapon. A few paragraphs from now they would be justified.
The group’s major activity today was visiting the Slave History Museum. Twice. I had been with Emeka and ‘Novo when the others visited the Museum. We needed to sort out bank payments. Led by Elder Francis*, they saw without us. Rayo’s tweets and the consensus by others that the visit was instructive, convinced Emeka and Novo, and myself, that we needed to be there…Too many things to say, to write about. The problem is that I am still in the Years of Impressionability, that time in one’s life when he is a sponge, seeing everything, listening to everything. To travel in this form is to be excruciatingly aware of detail.
In a Mama-put joint – food arranged in containers beside a kerosene stove, benches arranged in front of a hospital ward – somewhere in the environs of the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, a man captured our attention. Lesedi and Rayo had joined Emeka and I to have lunch. (Having to eat lunch in place of breakfast comes along with the pressing need to work; only when our stomach bites do we consider the pressing need to eat). Immediately we sat on the benches provided in the joint, the man began to speak to us. He is sort of a person that is considerably educated but whose social status passes for someone less educated. (I believe it is interesting to note how formal education, manifest in articulate grammar, does not guarantee economic prosperity. Education simply trains the eyes to see; it cannot guarantee vision). He tried to make jokes at us. He warned that Calabar is too cold, “make you no dey alone anyhow.” He was blatantly making sexual references, which we didn’t find uncomfortable, found even laughable. What I figured was that he was being a host in the way he knew best, because it is difficult to encounter people like us in a city. Could this be true? That everyone who met us, and understood our mission, was immediately conscious of hospitality, of correctness in the portrayal of their city, at the risk of revealing the undesirable about themselves?
The undesirable, I think, about that man, was that he ate and didn’t, couldn’t pay. I tried to capture his exact words when he stood, done with eating, and attempting to speak with us. He said, aloud, to the woman that sold food: “Update my record. Make sure you do appropriate statistics. No minus, no additions.”
That history is a scar, that the Slave Trade has formed a geyser in the African narrative, one in which our individual histories may also be found, is the inescapable conclusion that I dared to reach after we were led through the museum. The story of slave trade was re-enacted before our eyes, and for our ears – a slave-trade movie was played; audio recordings of cries, instructions, punishment by drunk masters. The procurement of slaves, facilitators of the trade, resistance and punishment, slave revolts, abolition, etc. In a museum like this, one finds history organized into capsulated facts, and the danger is to dismiss events as a matterless blur, a far-away narrative, an artefact.
But I believe we managed to transcend this possibility. The slave route cut through Arochukwu, where Emeka hails from; he had only recently discovered that his ancestors were slave traders, who aided the Europeans. To transcend the ease with which history is made matterless, we had to assert that slave trade was not a product, on the deeper level, of racial difference. But of human nature. If we point that out, it will be easy to understand why there were indigenous slave traders, why they helped in creating that monster. Christopher Odeh, who was the tour guide, agreed to grant us an interview outside the Museum. He spilled out the facts – Christopher Columbus ‘discovering the new world, the Papacy at the time giving Brazil and Portugal the right to explore Africa, European conquest of the continent beginning. I didn’t want to be flabbergasted by his vastness of his knowledge, so I asked him how knowing all of that helped him understand his place in society. His response was cliché – the knowledge of history, especially that of slave trade, helped him to know his rights as an African man, and the intensity of racial hatred, which was the tool of the European, which is close to what he feels. He didn’t use those exact words, but came close to it.
If history would be a weapon, it must transcend facts. It must be a hybrid between personal reflections and facts as they existed. All the while I was on the streets of Calabar, I was thinking of how to write in a manner that intersects what I saw with what I hoped people were seeing – which is the only way to write and create visual work about a place which we’d ‘occupy’ for a maximum of three nights. Put together, our personal narratives are the futures that existed when the slave trade – indeed every form of historical fact – occurred. We always have to return to that point, where the future was.
In imagining the journey ahead, I recall that we met a Camerounian woman and her daughter, who are due to return to Cameroun tomorrow morning. But they were heading out in a ferry. We chatted, standing beside the Great Calabar River, which was one of the three ports used to transport captured slaves from the Bight of Biafra to Europe and America. It felt surreal knowing that, unlike earlier contacts of today, we were making friends for the future.
I have been reading Keguro Marcharia again, this time his short reflective essay about Occupy DC. “I am thinking, now, of the generation-making work taking place through a shared commitment to labour.” It is easy to think about this in relation to our work in the African cities we’re visiting. Yes I do. But I want to deconstruct it and think of it in relation to the architecture of Calabar, especially as manifest in the colours of Cross River State. Blue and white. I’ve seen this colour code replicated in flags, buildings, buses, taxis, entrances, exits.
I will leave Calabar tomorrow thinking blue and white. Akin to what Marcharia calls ‘the seeing of occupation.’ That word, ‘occupy’ is used loosely, of course, to symbolize a demand-less performance in public space; that like the Americans who occupied public spaces last year, we’re occupying cities, demanding for nothing in particular, but everything in general. Because blue and white flags mean a lot, as the millions in revenue from Cross River State’s tourism industry. Because the ordinary matters.
* Elder Francis Eyo played a huge role in the success of our stay in Calabar, literarily abandoning his job as a fumigator to take us around. We owe him a lot of gratitude. Thanks also to the management of The Noble Place Ltd. where we took residence while here. We head on towards Douala.