Tolerence & Humility, Brooding Letters to Nigeria

Ever since I can recall, road travel has terrified me. It may have something to do with the grotesque scenes of road accidents splayed in the papers. Back in the 1990s, that was the tactic of choice against speeding on Ugandan roads – clearly to some effect.


Emeka Okereke, Many Have Gone, 2011. Forest-Jos Road, Jos, Nigeria. Courtesy of Invisible Borders, 2011.


And so when it came time to take our annual family road trips to Mombasa, via the famed Lagos-Mombasa highway, my excitement for the holidays was always overshadowed by the anxiety of what dangers might be lurking on this great road linking west with east – starting in Lagos to meander through Cameroon, Bangui, Kisangani, and Kampala before ending at the sea port city of Mombasa.

The Invisible Borders art initiative of photographers and writers have traversed on this very same highway. I have to admit, finding this out brought those childhood misgivings tumbling back into my mind. It was this as well as numerous other notions, that now prompt me to consider the very nature of both the invisible and visible borders that exist when crossing African borders. Thoughts further illuminated by a young writer, Emmanuel Iduma who participated in the trans-African crossings emanating from Lagos in 2011 and 2012.

The Uganda-Kenya border in Malaba was always an excruciatingly frustrating experience for the hours it took to cross that border, and so I asked Iduma about encounters with border officials. He spoke of one particular incident on a very rainy evening at Bitam’s border office between Gabon and Cameroon. After spending considerable time reasoning with a border official, telling him that they were strangers to Gabon, Emmanuel and his colleagues were ordered to provide copies of the required forms. Invariably this meant doubling back to the nearest town, Minkok, some 23 kilometers away, in search of a photocopying machine. Late in the day and with no other choice, they would fail to cross the border that night as Iduma recounts on the Invisible Borders blog.

Though I am ignorant of the numbers that try crossing the Bitam border everyday from Gabon to Cameroon and vice versa, I am certain that the bravado of that immigration officer is just one example of the numerous challenges faced on border crossings throughout the continent. Ask most anyone in Kampala if they have one such story, and the odds are loathsomely high. With this in mind, and reminded of my own lingering fear of the open road, I was curious to confront my own perceptions on the practicalities and benefits of artists engaging in a performative social intervention.

As I thought about that border guard, I wondered what was it in particular that could have set him off ? Was it seemingly naive for artists to exercise the freedom to travel? Was their journey any less worthy or meaningful? Reading between the lines, it became clear through Emmanuel’s description of the official at that remote border outpost : “The immigration officer on duty was an arrogant, surly man. When we mentioned that (we) were Nigerians, his disdain was bright as day.”

This statement puts me ill at ease, for it speaks to something far more sinister than the obvious bid to illicit a bribe from a weary traveler. Why should it be that being of another culture could summarily deem someone an interloper? The circles of insider/outsider and myths that engulf their dichotomy, are fleshed out in Iduma’s wonderings and wanderings so movingly in his essay, Trans Wander.

A ‘thinking’ piece, it reads as an earnest bid to process and articulate the journey taken from Lagos to Libreville in 2012. In keeping with Invisible Borders intention, Iduma’s musings bring to light “the continent as a work-in-progress, rather than a forgone conclusion”. However, away from the road and once back in Nigeria, Iduma departs from the diary style blog posts made on the trip. In Trans Wander he offers detailed musings of a longer nature. I find myself particularly captivated by a series of brooding letters addressed to a fictional character—a lover simply called ‘V’. Their intimacy signal a safe and enclosed environment, such as that of a bedroom and far from the hectic environs of the road trip.

Coming back to the Lagos-Mombasa highway, I wonder what obstacles linger in this post-colonial era? According to Wikipedia, the Trans African Highway Network—of which the named highway is part—reveals how imperialism persistently divided and created animosity between the different African domains. A phenomenon that continues today, in scenarios where, the disunity of some African countries leads to the permanent blockage of specific vital links in the highway network, making it impossible to cross certain borders.

Whether present-day challenges be buoyed by a post-colonial narrative, current geopolitics or something appearing more mundane—like the condition of the asphalt or its lack—weighted thoughts come to light through self-reflection and humour in Iduma’s writings. Hoping to keep some immediacy with V, he ruminates on how to find value in contradiction.

In Northern Cameroon, Iduma and company’s journey grinds to be a near halt, he recounts.

“In that mud, pushing the van, helping to shovel out mud, burying our feet in the mud, I felt that if I would be true to the situation, I needed to forget who I was before those moments. Each of us had to forget our qualifications, the acclaims our work had received, the comfort of our beds, rooms, our social status. We needed to focus on the job we were carrying out: surely performance demanded taking new identities for the duration of its act. We had become like everyone else in that pathway during the 22-hour period we spent; people who drove past with motorcycles, vans, jeeps, people who walked back. By entering into that space, and doing everything possible to pass through, we became one of them. The sinking mud assured us of our ordinariness.”


The road ahead and without a four-wheel drive it would mean that the Invisible Borders van would take longer than most to navigate the muddy terrain.
Courtesy of Invisible Borders, 2012.


In the banality of mud it dawns on him that he has found a sense of mutuality, and belonging. This transcendence, unfurling through seemingly insignificant moments,  is what makes Trans Wander a poetic work of creative non fiction. Hoping to achieve a profundity through words Iduma strives to use his pen, like the lens of his fellow traveling photographers; his goal being to create art in-situ. And so his brooding letters to V, who remains in Lagos, contain this urgency and stream of consciousness.

In one particular episode in Gabon, Iduma encounters Nigerian businessmen who speak of xenophobia in Libreville. The letter fraught with self-analysis – starts and stops, evidence of his thinking and re-thinking. Between the excerpt penned to V, he broodingly wonders if she will understand and even relate with his self-interrogation.

“You must know, that sometimes the question is simple, and it isn’t. The question that had actually played in my head for a long time, after hours at Gare-Routiere, a commercial hub in Libreville, hours spent mostly with two Nigerian traders, was ‘what does it mean to be Nigerian?'”

The very act of changing location, brings with it new, if even unintended, questions. While in Libreville, Iduma is pressed to negotiate identity; meeting Igbos outside of Nigeria reminds him of how it was that he became an English-only Igbo – at his father’s behest. Obvious to his deliberation is the push and pull between Nigerianness—the “default”, and Nigerianness—the Other. The contention of duality of self, becoming more stark when grappling to see the humanity of the Gabonese whilst acknowledging the plight of Igbo Nigerian traders in the capital. Remarking on this, he writes that it is important to remember that this debate is happening not in Europe but in an African city, amongst trans-border Africans—continental migrants whose stories remain grossly under told.

As I too try to find the tools necessary to navigate these waters of identity politics, I lean to writings by philosopher, cultural theorist and author, Kwame Anthony Appiah. In particular, Global Citizenship, where Appiah speaks about cosmopolitan encounters. He writes, “At the heart of cosmopolitanism is respect for diversity of culture, not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter and cultures matter to people.” He more clearly traces the origin of this theory to Diogenes (b. 412 BC), the first person to declare himself cosmopolitan (or citizen of the world), who believed in a “tolerance for other people’s choices of how to live and humility about what we ourselves know”.

Reading Trans Wander, and trying to metabolise this beautiful yet at times exasperating journey of what it means to read and hear stories told by my contemporaries, I am reminded of art’s necessity. Its magnificence stems from its ability to bring humanity to the fore.

What Iduma’s pen has successfully begun to do, is offer one meaningful story and personal journey that starts to fill in the blanks between real and mythical perils, and equally important, the boons to be had from trans-border wanderings. If I am, If we are to continue to untether our fears, then the path is clear for who no know go know.

Read Trans Wander



Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographic Initiative is an art-led initiative, founded in Nigeria in 2009 by a group of passionate artists – mostly photographers – with a drive and urge to effect change in the society. This initiative intends to tell Africa’s stories, by Africans, through photography and inspiring artistic interventions; to encourage exposure of upcoming African photographers towards art and photography as practiced in other parts of the continent; to establish a platform that encourages and embraces trans-African artistic relationships within the continent, and to contribute towards the socio-political discourse shaping Africa of the 21st Century.

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Emmanuel Iduma (b. 1989, Nigeria) holds a degree in Law from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and has been called to the Nigerian Bar. He is co-publisher of Saraba Magazine, editor of 3bute, published author (Farad) and content management supervisor of the Invisible Borders project. In 2011 and 2012, he worked closely with Invisible Borders as writer-in-residence during trips to Libreville and Addis Ababa. As a poet, Iduma has been lauded by Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa and novelist Uche Umezurike. He works as a manager of creative projects in Lagos.


Written by Moses Serubiri


Nigeria | Doing our part to combat immappancy


All images courtesy of the Invisible Borders and Emmanuel Iduma. All rights reserved.


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