There’s a sentence in John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet: “The number of lives that enter ours are incalculable.” I know the meaning of this statement twice—as the culmination of my work on previous road trips, and as the premise for the ongoing one.
As a culmination: I knew I would write something extended at the end of the trips, but traditional travel writing formats didn’t appeal to me. My memories, I perceived, had taken uncertain detours, as a result of passing time. So I set out to complete a manuscript structured as fragments; a collection of stories imagined, remembered, and collected (forthcoming as A Stranger’s Pose). I wrote about the lives that entered mine: co-travelers, photographers, wayfarers, strangers, and residents. (Most of my thinking on this were highlighted in the A Walk in a Draa series in collaboration with Emeka Okereke).
As a premise: I want to build on my recent work by locating myself in the narratives handed down to me. My prompt has always been the notion of an intimate stranger: a person who’s in a place for a short period, but hopes to relate with those encountered with empathy and attention.
Yet what does it mean to be an intimate stranger in the country of my birth? I am habitually skeptical about collective identities. I distrust words like “nation,” “citizenship,” and “home.” Not because I do not recognize the near-impossibility of living today without an international passport, but because we cannot escape the circumstances of our birth.
To be named Nigerian, I believe, is to be in an eternal contemporary. While the history of colonialism remains hard to suppress, there’s also been a history of decolonization. I suppose the strides we’ve taken collectively—the Biafran War, violent regime changes, mafia-like coup d’états, a neoliberal democracy, recycling of public office holders, fundamentalist religiosity, sectarian violence, etcetera—have left us in a stupor, with more paradoxes. I come into this stupor with a conflicting sense of who I am becoming: raised in several Nigerian cities, now trafficking between Nigeria and its diaspora.
Hard, pressing questions. To simplify things, I began my reckoning with Nigeria in essays for The Trans-African. My work with historical and press images is based on possibly responding to history through conceit and imagination.
For my daily work in the course of the trip, I am speculating on how the private enters the public: excerpting the images I encounter in newspapers and magazines, suspending their given meanings, until they reveal something more individual, idiosyncratic, and ambivalent than the news proffers.
I now continue work on the notion of an “intimate stranger,” writing about my life as it enters into that of others, taking from historical and contemporary images.