Guitarboy, if you see mammy water,
Never never you run away….
– Victor Uwaifo
I will now recount the part of our recent journeying that suffices as a dream. In other words, I seek to be enmeshed in the dreaminess of travelling non-stop across Central African countries, being a Nigerian in a van with a Nigerian plate number, and being with artists equally dreamy. The practical demand of our travelling makes it quite utopic to write on a daily basis; not even once in two days is possible. Given this I am determined to render our experiences in an anthological manner, compiling feverish moments and unforgettable coincidences. A honest representation of experience, even though sometimes incomprehensible, then, is the goal.
Landry Mbassi jocularly used the hyphenated word ‘border-brother’ more than once. That was what he became while he was with us. His family complained that since our arrival he’d abandoned them. In thinking about the manner he became ours, I find that there couldn’t have been any other word than the border-brother. The manner in which he crossed into our terrain, into our ways of being and seeing, and the manner in which we crossed into his, established a connection that emphasizes the sort of trans-African networking that cannot be undermined. Landry travelled down to Douala from Yaoundé on a Saturday, hoping to return the next day. He ended up staying with us all the time we were in Douala and then travelled with us to Yaoundé, joined us as we slept in Ebolowa, and then joined us to the Cameroonian border town. Landry had an energy I found astounding, an unbeatable endearment, and as is said, a charming personality. In the days he slept in our apartment, he slept the least, was always found around the dining area typing on his computer. Some of the texts he worked on were, indeed, connected to Invisible Borders. Frequently he used the expression ‘dropping ideas’, which meant that as words fell into his consciousness he hurried to type them into an open Microsoft Word page – there were times when it was my computer he hurried to. To find someone like him that understands the slippery concept of Invisible Borders is quite rare; not only did he give himself for our service while in Cameroon, facilitating meetings and guiding us around, he also conversed with us on the ideas that gave shape to the project. He left us promising to write an essay on Invisible Borders and performance in public space. I hope his endless dreaminess would permit him.
Joined by Landry we headed towards the Cameroonian border. Aside the numerous checks that confronted us, there were, should I say, magical encounters. For one, there was a policeman who, after stopping the van, spotted a fault with the brake lights. Emeka and Landry reported that after he took our passports, the conversation took a new twist. They shared experiences of where they’d visited. This policeman had been to Cape Town, Rio de Jeniro, Lagos. This was unexpected, to meet a policeman manning a road block in a minor road in Cameroon who’d travelled quite well. It reminds me of another police experience, days earlier, when we had met a policeman who saw American visas on some of our passports. He said, “oh, this people have been to America.” Then he asked us to cross. Back in the van, Emeka said that he could return home and begin to investigate how to get to America. I think, therefore, that this is the sort of borders that becoming blurred by virtue of our activities – the incursion into the mind-spaces of others, and the beauty that is always found in that incursive act.
When we got to Minkok, a town that lies between Cameroon and Gabon, our van became sort of an attraction. We’d parked in a market, which was the filthiest space we had entered since our journey began – this was on a Sunday, and the day before had been a major market day. These explanations did not lessen the awfulness of the sight the market presented, or, even more, the fact that the people selling things did not seem to care, normalized in the midst of decaying plantains, buzzing flies, smelly gutters, etc. And so, when we parked in a central space in the market, eyes feasted on our van. People came closer – aside the fact that a Ford van is scarce in those parts, there’s also the fact that our van bears a Lagos plate number. Travelling by road from Lagos towards Gabon is a rarefied act, sometimes dismissed as impossible. We have, then, succeeded, using our van, in painting an image that symbolizes resilience, survival, an endless connecting rod, hope. Our van presents the image of a tunnel, in which we struggle through, determinedly reaching for the light, for the sky lined with silver.
And then, after less than 5 kilometres, our passports and our Custom papers were stamped out of Cameroon. Although, just before entering the filthy market, we’d had to give some money to a Cameroonian policeman, receiving no receipt for the transaction, there was no other demand for a bribe. But about a kilometre later, we were faced with a Gabonese policeman, who although it was about 5.25pm, refused to let us in, citing that each of us needed to fill a form, and we’d have to make copies of the form ourselves. We seethed; the word ‘wicked’ passed from mouth to mouth, given the shocking coldness with which he received us and made his decision – in fact, when we asked him to help with the photocopying, since we were new in town and couldn’t possibly find a photocopier at that time, he took the form, saying we’d complicated matters for ourselves. We discussed animatedly around his callousness: how had he managed to become so unfeeling? How frustrated had he become? Was this the kind of unwelcome we’d receive in Gabon? Did he expect us to roll on the floor begging, the kind of gesture he received from people crossing the border? Didn’t it matter that we were travellers, aliens to the territory he manned with such inhumanness?
In effect, after he collected the form, we were sentenced to a second night in the van. This created obvious complications, as the unfeeling policeman had predicted. Our passports had been stamped out of Cameroon, and they had not been stamped into Gabon. Meaning that any non-Nigerian with a single entry into Cameroon could not return, meaning that we were effectively confined to no-man’s territory. We drove back and parked yards before the Cameroonian border post that faced Gabon. It began to rain, heavily. Minutes later, when the rain had subsided, we were accosted by Cameroonian policemen who began to frisk us for illegal materials. We explained how we came to be there. He calmed down and advised us that it was best to cross into Cameroonian territory, the border area was a dangerous place. We were led back to the filthy market, which by now was lit, buzzing with music from bad speakers. It was like being in an esoteric trance, experiencing an experience that was peculiar to all of us because we’d been in such circumstance before. The procedure for sleeping in the van was now familiar. Each of us curled into a comfortable sleep-sitting position, only that being comfortable was an illusion, a feeling perpetually sought.
Early the next morning we headed to the Gabonese border for another try. This time, surprisingly, it was easier, a younger police official manned the post. He gave each of us the forms, advised on how to fill it, helped Mario complete his. He called our Gabonese contact to verify our mission, and then opened the border. Strangely, the Customs and Immigration posts were flung around the road leading to Bitam, the first major Gabonese town. We coursed through Police posts, got to a small Immigrations office, then a Customs office (where we had to pay 10,000 FCFA for our van), more police posts, then the Central Custom Office. In that office we met Commander Hans Ndong Ogoula who was dressed with such finesse that he could be mistaken for a bank official, his beards neatly trimmed – immediately I saw him I ran a hand over my chin, feeling my unshaven face. By this meeting, I considered the possibility that the callous policeman at the Gabonese border the night before was a blessing in disguise, that the night spent in the filthy market was given in exchange for a smooth ride in Gabon. Then there was an equally important lesson – generalization was a mortal sin because it myopized humanness.
In Bitam, at the final immigration office, we met a crowd waiting to get residence permits. Our van attracted Clifford, an Igbo trader from Imo State, who offered assistance because we were his brothers. We accepted his offer, and he helped us secure audience with the immigration official who was to stamp our passports. Knowing that most Igbo traders I’d met would do anything to ensure that their goods were bought, I struggled with dismissing Clifford’s gesture as linked to the fact that we eventually bought SIM Cards and recharge cards from him. Yet, if Clifford’s blessing was cloaked in commerce, we couldn’t dismiss Pastor Clinton’s assistance as such.
Pastor Clinton, also from Imo State, Nigeria, introduced himself as a Pastor with Deeper Life. In a matter of hours, we’d befriended him enough to take our baths in his house, a bare residence that fit with the image I retained from growing up as a preacher’s son in a manse. And his openness and hospitality also fit with my background – waking up to find strangers in our home, strangers who’d never be seen again, ever. I considered how I might never be in that house again, in that bathroom, so I cherished the experience, appreciating the dreamy coincidence of meeting Pastor Clinton. This is why our project is performative in nature; we enter into spaces knowing that our entry and exit are lifetime events, perceiving that we are leaving behind the trace of our presence as though walking on water. To further establish this, there’s the fact that Emeka and Ray found fufu, and the fact that Novo and Jide were unable to eat rice (sauced with groundnut stew) served from a giant flask carried around in a wheel barrow, irritated by the conditions in which the food was presented.
The entry procedure complete, we headed out of Bitam, smelling fresher, our van swept. Night began to descend, and we continued the journey, determined to get to Libreville by the next morning. It might be banal to repeat the endlessness with which we were checked by policemen. The distance between some checkpoints was often not up to a ten-minute drive. But I repeat this banality because, knowing that Gabon consists of about 1.2 million people, I wonder if their conservatism is occasioned by the need to protect any form of intrusion. Even when dawn opened Libreville to us, there remained the nagging feeling of being in a self-contented place, a place in which the status of ‘visitor’ was as strange as a van travelling from Lagos to Libreville. And the dynamics of strangeness, the magic of it, was best represented by the manner in which our van attracted large numbers of Nigerians. Emeka and Ray reported that, after being taken to the Nigerian and Cameroonian area, they were asked by Nigerians if we’d transported the van in an aircraft. Because, thinking about this, and given the ordeals we’ve experienced, Gabonese people are shocked that we have no commercial interest in driving from Lagos to Libreville. Perhaps our universe is one delimited by artistic ideals.
Gabon, a small Central African country, is already presenting us with interrogative templates. For one, I am interested in Francophone-Igbos, who are as Gabonese as any Gabonese, a community that originated from the number of Igbos that fled into Gabon during the Biafran war. The children of the men and women that fled are now Gabonese policemen, civil servants, businesspersons, citizens. And they speak fluent French, a smattering of Igbo, a word or two in English, and there are those who speak indigenous languages.
Victor Uwaifo, legendary Nigerian highlife musician, sings of a sort of dreamy bravery – one encounters a water spirit, but shouldn’t run away. Doesn’t that summarize our recent traverse? Here and there are several spirits, the good and evil ones, as in a dream, and yet we are telling our story.