Image by Jide Odukoya. Libreville. IB 2012
24 – 25 September
“The politics of keeping an afro has been overrated,” I lie to myself, and a friend who always takes me serious. Although I am trying, it is difficult to know if I would succeed in keeping an afro. Preoccupied by such inconsequential practicalities, after, of course, a glance at the mirror, I walk down the stairs towards another part of town I haven’t seen. I tell myself that I would not give in to the exoticism that could characterize the writing about walks and of solitude. I set my objective: “although I am not a photographer, it has become expedient to see.” It’s like groping within the surface of Libreville, conscious of my personage, and conscious of the subtlety I want to remember when I am gone. Simply.
Behind the motel are roads to other parts of the city. It is not a good idea to bother the reader with describing what road I decided to walk on; it is only important to illustrate, with as much vividness as I can muster, the exchanges that took place, which I noticed while I was on it. The premise is a ‘disarticulated social field,’ words used by Abdoumaliq Simone in one of his essays on Douala. There is a sense one gets, walking on a busy road in which people are mostly transiting, of disarticulation. And then when one thinks some more about disarticulation, one begins to come around to another word – ‘makeshift.’ Which suggests that things are made to shift in the social space which they occupy; that although humans are movable and houses and sheds are not, the temporality that characterizes the human experience is also possible for the structures that form a locality.
I began to notice, quite immediately, temporality. While I walked on the road that led up to the tower bearing the words ‘Tolerance’ I found many demolished structures. Nearby there was a caterpillar and it occurred to me that there were more buildings to be demolished. The pattern seemed to be buildings close to the road, which could be defended; perhaps the road was going to be expanded. The night before, I’d read an interesting paragraph in Douala in Transition: A view of the city and its creative transformative potentials, an essay by Iolanda Pensa:
“What is called ‘development’ is not measured just in terms of electricity, water supply or drains, but in people’s ability to express their thoughts and feel they are the protagonists of the place where they live. The uniqueness of works of art, their ability to communicate in a new and different language, causes upheavals and opens doors onto unknown worlds, showing some of the inconceivable paths that all men and women have before them.”
This was certainly what came to mind when I overheard, on that road, arguments in Igbo and Yoruba. In the quest for a better life, Nigerians have sought refuge in ‘smaller’ African countries, finding such luxuries as constant electricity and cheap housing irresistible. ‘Better life’ is a slippery term, surely; the women arguing in Yoruba are selling things on a tray. They remind me of Ibadan, that city of seven hills, with its character of careless, uncoordinated enterprise. They remind me of autonomous and independent wealth creation, on how the burden of survival is more incumbent on individuals and households in Nigeria than on a larger interdependent social network. So why were the Yoruba women retailing in Gabon other than in Nigeria? I suppressed the shame that I began to feel. Shame for what? Surely not because these women sold things on trays. Perhaps because they could be doing the same business in Nigeria, and yet they’d chosen Gabon.
I realized, immediately, that unless I spoke to those women, introduced myself as a Nigerian that understood a smattering of Yoruba, in Libreville with a group of artists, I wouldn’t be able to know certain facts about them. Yet, the very thought of fact-collection for the sake of writing an essay was repulsive. I doubted that I could be genuinely interested in their stories for their sakes – and what measure of improvement could come to their lives by merely reporting that there are two women on a street in Libreville who sell things on trays, and are Nigerians? Perhaps I’m missing the point, perhaps it’s not a question of improvement; perhaps it’s for the sake of highlighting existences that one should state the fact of those women’s existence.
I walked into a nameless road. I would learn later that Libreville was named in numbers, that the area we stayed was ‘five’ and that the naming continued in that manner upwards. I could only tell that the street I walked into was composed, in almost equal measure, of residential and commercial buildings. Most of the commercial structures, however, were makeshift, although imbued with an undeniable permanence. On this street, there was no demolished building, but several buildings had uncompleted parts, in such a manner that I was tempted to consider it fashionable.
While I walked, and because it was not even 8.00am, I wondered if Libreville was an unhasty, reluctant town, that felt perpetually free. Around 1849, Libreville was founded by freed slaves. Could this account for this unhastiness I perceived? There’s equally the fact that the city is not overpopulated. A 2003 estimate puts the occupants at 611,000. And then the fact that Omar Bongo ruled Gabon for 42 years, an entire lifetime. If people, I surmised, could be ruled for as long as that time, without effectively putting up a restraint, their collective character could become coloured by reluctance. But, then, I said to myself, there probably had been a measure of resistance to Bongo’s life-rule. Yet, I saw a man wearing a campaign T-shirt, ‘vote Omar Bongo’, from 2005.
On the road I walked, interlocking pavement stones divided the road into two, around me the tapestry of survival was evident – a woman complained in Igbo, something about her business, someone annoying her; another woman was dusting her shed, which had empty egg trays, as though she’d resumed from a long holiday. Thinking about ‘tapestry of survival’ reminded me of words I’d seen on a T-shirt, while a man hurried past, earlier, as I walked: “I saw the future of your game on a milk patrol.” The idea of milk, as a metaphor for plenitude, stayed with me.
In relation to plenitude, workers of the Casino supermarket in Mbolo are protesting work conditions, resisting the labour policy of the Chinese management of the supermarket; the protest is in its third day; the headline of Gabon Matin for 25 September reads “Mbolo: Les Employés Durcissent Le Ton.” Mbolo is located in the Centre Ville, a wealthy area, with a ‘hyper marche’ and a café where Coca Cola is sold for 1500 francs, where we are not staying, where Institut Francais’ large compound is located, where we often go to use the internet. It is the area I have chosen to explore next, to find if possible exchanges would leap to my view. This exchange is happening for other members of the group – Lesedi and Emeka have been filming Naneth, a Gabonese lady musician; Jide has been making photos around the theme ‘occupation,’ endearing himself to taxi drivers, shoe retailers, the Nigerian community in Garutier; Novo has been immersed in what she terms ‘the corporate life of a market woman,’ working specifically with a woman who supports her extended family from the proceeds of her business.
The idea of exchange is premised on, I believe, an equality of gaze. I am conscious of receiving an experience while here, but I can’t tell if I am offering myself enough. I could give the excuse that I don’t speak the language, and of how frustrated I felt when, at Institut Francais, when I needed to get additional internet time, I frowned impatiently at the attendant who insisted that I got some change before he sold a ticket. It seems frivolous to say I can’t offer myself enough because I don’t speak the language; it is quite an escapist’s summary. Bothered by this, and trying to understand the terms of our exchange, I went to Emeka, who’s endlessly speculating on the ever slippery dynamics of our task. His response, in sum, was that being in Libreville, with the honest willingness to engage, was the part of ourselves that we were giving.
Then, easily, what we are tasked with is to, in the pursuit of honesty, approach incomprehensibility.
I am still here.