Travel – The road trip from hell

2014-11-16 16:00

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In June, a group of young African writers, photographers and film makers set off from Nigeria on the ambitious Invisible Borders Trans-Continental Road Trip.

They would tour 11 African cities and several in Europe, meeting like-minded communities and generating work. By the time they reached Amsterdam, six of the seven participants| quit, levelling serious allegations against the organisers. Lindokuhle Nkosi was one of them

By the time you bring the cup of coffee to your lips, the liquid in it has gone cold.

The end is irredeemably anti-climatic. After four months, 15 countries, and 10 687km of struggle, survival, adventure and learning, it has come to this: a boardroom on the fourth or fifth floor of a narrow face-brick building in Amsterdam, a long oak table, Dutch sugar biscuits and coffee, nine bodies exhausted with desperation.

You will try to find the words to describe all the emotion, but all you can do is speak around it. Next to you, someone is crying, but there’s no screaming or shouting. No fireworks declaring our decision to quit Invisible Borders in the same explosive manner that we feel it.

It’s over for us, the 151-day journey from Lagos to Sarajevo with the goal of using art to challenge misconceptions about Africa and Africans, and question the realities of movement and migration. The decision is not made in haste. It is the cumulative effect of four months of untenable circumstances.

Johannesburg, South Africa, May 2014

You meet the man, as arranged, at the filling station a few minutes’ walk away fromthe Nigerian embassy. There are people outside, a few celebrities demanding “Bring back our girls”.

You hand him an envelope: passport, the agreed upon amount in R200 notes and a form correctly filled out. You already have most of the other visas. Applying for and securing so many of them is a mammoth task. Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania ... For Spain, France, Amsterdam, Germany, Austria, one Schengen will do. The only countries that do not require a visa are Togo and Benin.

Lagos, Nigeria, June 2014

A friend once mentioned that the reason Lagosians talk so loudly is because of all the noisy generators in the city. You were mildly offended then, but now, in a compound in Maryland on the Lagos Mainland, you can’t hear yourself think. The city buzzes with the energy of 5 million generators – myriad miniature helicopters rotating.

You stay in one of the newer structures. The block of apartments is a flattened arrangement of pinkish grey. Two generators are planted outside and a pride of white limousines are lined up in a row. The illusion begins to crack when you make it past the plastic doors painted to look like wood. Things are not always as they appear.

The geysers are purely decorative. Even though the light blinks red, there is no hot water. The fan intended to keep you cool cannot be used without tripping the power.

We are left to our own devices – except for holding two press conferences. We are tourists, nothing more. We wonder when we will start engaging with local artists. We leave Nigeria.

Passports do not define where you come from, but rather where you can go.

It will take us longer to get through the Seme border to Benin than to get to it. Four and a half hours to be exact. The border seems porous enough. Men, women and children zigzag their way across the two countries carrying luggage on their heads, babies on their backs. They deftly dodge the customs officials and the notorious Kelebe Boys.

The Kelebe Boys work hand in hand with officials. They seem to have good intentions, offering to help with your bags, your documentation. What they are in fact doing is sussing you out. If they feel that you’re travelling with lots of cash, they will send a signal to the security officials who, like Gandalf, shall not let you pass.

Trying to get out of Lagos would make all other encounters, mad dashes to border gates, a night on a concrete slab at a border motel and fitful sleeps in roach-infested brothels seem like a walk in the park.

Lomé, Togo, June 2014

You did not realise when you got to the hotel in the cover of dark how close you were to the beach. In the morning, you walk there with your camera. Women in wraps collect shells and sand to take home. Boats docked in the bay carry messages of inspiration. Young aspiring rappers repair a fishing net under a tree. It is calm here in Lomé. You remember to breathe. We write and photograph and document, building our archive, posting on the blog.

Accra, Ghana, June 2014

On the drive to Accra, just past the Volta region, a man has been knocked over by a car. His head is split like a dropped watermelon. Soldiers surround the van, guns pointed at the corpse, at the crowd.

I hadn’t expected that this trip would be easy. Before it began, I would imagine the various scenarios I could possibly find myself entangled in. Never once did it cross my mind that the abuses would come from within the team.

We get to Accra and find that we have been booked into a brothel. Nigerian artist Emeka Okereke, the artistic director of Invisible Borders, will see nothing wrong with this.

An argument ensues.

A fellow South African artist and I will be threatened with being “kicked off” thetrip with no flights home.

You will stay in more brothels and the organisers will begin to dislike your outspokenness. You have become a problem. They will censor your work. You are not to write or create work that is feminist. Your work is too political. This is not a political trip, says Okereke.

Bissap is a juice made from hibiscus leaves and ginger. You drink it till your stomach hurts. At the risk of seeming impolite, you won’t finish your okra soup. You also turn down the cows knees and the snails cooked in pepe soup.

Abidjan, Ivory Coast, June 2014

A traditional breakfast in Abidjan consists of pain au chocolat, chocolate croissants.

A curator at the Galerie Cécile Fakhoury will warn you about the drive to Mali. Rebels litter the path. Despite the warnings, you will stop at a mammoth cathedral.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro is Vatican Land in Ivory Coast. There is an ATM and a gift shop at the entrance, a UN truck nearby.

You will see the armed men riding past on their motorbikes. You will see smoke from their fires rising out of the forest. You will not know the difference between the rebels and the soldiers. They are all brothers either way. You stop to ask them for directions.

In Ferkessédougou, where the civil war broke out two years ago, your presence will make them feel uncomfortable.

After receiving warnings, you will escape the city in the early hours of the morning.

Bamako, Mali, July 2014

At the market in Bamako, you can buy horse heads, dried chameleons, the chopped parts of hyena. You will negotiate tirelessly, and buy Tuareg jewellery instead.

Dakar, Senegal, August 2014

The French will always return to their colonies to police their investments. In Dakar, French expats lie on the sand like beached whales. At night, when the French retire, the city comes alive.

Instead of eating at the trendy restaurants, you will go to Médina and buy fish directly fromthe fishermen. A lady will roast it for you on the grill while you attempt to make conversation.

This is when you have received your per diem. At times it will be withheld by the organisers and you will have to fight for it. You will go without food.

At the Soumbedioune Market, a man will attempt to sell you real black market slavery chains.

The man who takes you on a tour of Gorée Island lives in an old French cannon. His sister lives a step way in a military bunker.

It is in Dakar that one of Okereke’s frequent verbal attacks ends with him storming across a room and physically threatening a participant.

The issues we encounter are not unique to the 2014 edition.

In 2012, Christian Nyampeta, a performance artist born in Rwanda, participated in the third edition of theroadtrip. He writes in a damning report: “Emeka Okereke, the actual personification of Invisible Borders, demonstrated an astonishing temper that erupted in violently fearsome outbursts...

“We slept in the van for at least 10 days of the three weeks that I travelled with the group.” He describes being stuck in mud for five days which he believes could have been avoided. “The issues relate also to security,” he writes. “Sleeping in a van while displaying cameras

and other expensive equipment is attracting danger, be it in Africa or in London or in the Netherlands. The passports and travel documents of the participants were often held by the members of Invisible Borders for road checks. Returning these confiscated passports was a negotiation ... One of the participants decided to return home once we emerged fromthe days in the mud. [Their] passport was only returned after truly agonising negotiations that left every visiting participant astonished.

“Issuing the per diem was always a haggle ... I would argue that this practice borders on criminality as it holds the participants hostage.”

Invisible Borders responds

#Trending put Lindokuhle Nkosi’s allegations to the organisers of the Invisible Borders road trip, including allegations made in a letter to the organisers and signed by the six participants who quit the 2014 trip, as well as those made by Christian Nyampeta after the 2012 trip.

Spokesperson Emeka Okereke, artistic director of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Organisation, responded to the claims.

This is an edited version of his response:

On claims of verbal abuse:

“[The allegations] absolve the said participants from any possible contribution to the unfortunate events of the road trip. In a project such as this, it is highly improbable that faults can solely come from one side. On this basis already, these accusations are found wanting. We spent four months together, travelling in the same van, and most of the time sharing communal spaces. There were exchanges that sometimes amounted to heated arguments and emotional outbursts. I got a fair share of that [from the artists]. I also reacted on occasions.”

On claims of a climate of fear and bullying:

“No doubt, there was a tense atmosphere during the trip for everyone. From the onset there was the question of distrust. I had reasons to believe that some artists were not thinking of the project beyond their personal gains. To point fingers at one direction or at one person is an intentional manipulation of the account. The participants had tensions among themselves, sometimes forming camps within the project.”

On claims of censorship and micromanagement:

“No formal attempt was made to screen any of the artists’ personal work. Everyone was encouraged to post on their artists’ channel on the app and the official blog. From the onset, we initiated a weekly crit session where participants share their works and thought processes. Everyone had the freedom to comment. No one had more privileges than the other, not even the artistic director. I presented my works on this platform, and got feedback and comments as any other artist. If there were comments I passed with regard to someone’s work, I did so within the framework of the crit session.”

On mismanaged funds and the withholding of daily allowances:

“From the onset, we made it clear to all the participants that our biggest challenge was raising adequate funding. We told them that, if selected, they would have to help with fundraising. We took off on the road trip with only a 20% chance of succeeding, given the lack of funds. We received the Prince Claus Fund Award while on the road and every cent of the €25?000 [R348?070] prize was thrown into the road trip. By our records, there was not a single day out of the four months that per diems were not paid. It is false that per diems were withheld as punishment.”

On lives being endangered in conflict zones:

“This is the nature of road travel in Africa. While on the road, there was no one incident where our lives were threatened in any way. If the participants felt endangered, it is quite understandable given that this was their first time in a project where they had to travel by road. But this was not due to the coordination of the project.”

Any further comments?

“What was sad was that all of this drama played out in Amsterdam, one of the high points of the project, given that we had just received the Prince Claus Award and which included a grand exhibition of works from the five editions of the road trip. The participants took their complaints to our partner, making a case for their caution fee of €1 500, which by the contract signed is only refundable if the trip was completed. Since the project was never about the caution fee, and since they have reduced their participation to the caution fee, we decided to return it to them. In all of this, I sense the desperation to twist their position from quitters to rebels with a cause. I stand to be corrected.”

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