To write about Douala, I have taken an easy route, which is to highlight moments, so far, that has fascinated me, sparkled me. I am in this business like a photographer, to see first, record, and then attempt to explain, a lesson learnt from Berger’s Way of Seeing. There is no time for sociological theory, for detailed scholarship, maybe that might come later – perhaps by Christian, who’s a Researcher by vocation. I am labouring myself with a question: what do I see?”]
Once we got into Douala, and into our beautiful apartment, we discussed practical necessities. Food. Christian offered to cook. He came up with lettuce and bread as a starter, potatoes and fish as main course; the dessert never came. I was tasked with capturing his cooking on video. Watching him behind the camera, I felt jealous that he was able to make food within hours of arriving in a new city. He told me, later, the next evening, when I met him at the balcony with an empty plate, that for him the process of making food was a way of discovering the city. He had finished licking avocado pear, reminding me of Ile-Ife, where a Professor friend of my family occasionally brought basins of avocado pears which fell from a tree in her compound. I thought, later, that although Christian hadn’t cooked a Doualan meal, he had, at least, mapped the city because he cared to buy ingredients, and cook.
Another meal was prepared, the next day, by Dilong, Jide’s friend from Facebook, whom he was meeting for the first time in Douala. She’s a model, and queen – the reigning Miss West Africa. She became friends with the team, and towards the end of the evening she asked that I join her in a photo, that I was the only one who she hadn’t spoken with. (I am, characteristically, shy with new women – and that evening I was burdened with the blog). The meal Dilong prepared was typically Nigerian with Camerounian flavour. The soup is called eru, prepared the same way afang is, only that this time the leaf is not mashed. There was an option of fufu or eba. The meal took at least three hours to prepare; by the time we ate it was midnight. I remembered home, my mother.
Mario has emphasized that we are living like family. Emeka said it would make sense to have us stay, henceforth, in apartments, in every city we worked in. Why this makes sense is that, assuming what we’re doing is a moving art residency, it is enough for me to live with seven other artists, with varying outlooks and convictions. It is enough for us to share the wonder of being in a new city. The idea that I am seeing, and writing, through collective eyes is intriguing. Like being a photographer who always shoots landscape photos.
We are working here in collaboration with Doual’art, whose president is Princess Marilyn Douala Bell. Her name, which immediately connotes a kinship with the Doualan soil, equally suggests how she gives away an indefatigability, a tireless interest in the development of contemporary Camerounian art (I shouldn’t say too much; I have scheduled an interview). She arranged a small press conference for us, the day after our arrival, and we spoke to the journalists and artists present about our travails in trying to get to Douala. There was an animated conversation around our work, covering mostly the work of the photographers.
There is sort of a rule in Salman Rushdie’s declaration – language is courage. I hated French in Primary school, which was the last time I made a formal attempt to learn the language. That morning at the Press Conference, I felt I’d been unjust to myself. I felt shame for an inexplicable reason, shame that I hadn’t been courageous to learn French, that I am 23 and I cannot speak an international language. I cannot use ‘shame’ for everyone – Emeka, Christian and ‘Novo are multilingual. The lesson, however, is clear: language colours a city, and any visitor who doesn’t understand the spoken language would feel disadvantaged. Like me, any such disadvantaged visitor, should be concerned with interacting with the city in a manner that transcends spoken language. It is a difficult task, though.
Which is why I am supportive of Jide’s Stranger Series – in which he tries to photograph as many ‘strange’ people he encounters. Yesterday, in a Senegalese restaurant, there was a busty lady holding a sucker. Given that her cleavage was distracting, we all agreed that Jide was very daring to ask her if he could take her photograph. She agreed. All the while, on our table, our conversation ranged from how most Camerounian ladies exposed their cleavages to how strange it was to find a grown-up lady with a sucker. Of course, we were generalizing – once in a while, I think, generalization is inevitable, especially if one is coming from a different country.
It has become sort of a rite to visit the Nigerian foreign mission in any new country we visit. We had scheduled a meeting at the Nigerian Consular office. We were received quite warmly by staff of the office, who explained to us the unavoidable absence of the Consular-General. We discussed our trip, the practical challenges, commendation on our effort, recommendations for subsequent editions. One of the questions raised by the staff, specifically by Mrs Esther Ogundipe, was what plans we had to engage the government of the countries we were visiting with the outcome of our work. It suddenly occurred to me – and Emeka shared the same sentiment – that this was an important element we shouldn’t miss. Would development be possible in Africa if we do not, at least, show our willingness to share our thoughts with our leaders? Aren’t we all, every single one of us, the government?
Although Rayo’s help in recounting our journey would have been invaluable, I know it is for the best that she has returned to Lagos. I will keep trying to collect a montage of the moments we are experiencing.