It was the voice of a leather-faced Beninois policeman, shocking us to a sudden realisation that we were at the border once again, the Benin-Togo border.
We had crossed the Nigeria-Benin border unchallenged. In fact, it had been like a VIP. affair. The place had been busy with Nigerian and Beninois policemen standing on either side of the road. And they had waved us on without stopping our Toyota Hiace bus, or asking for our travel documents. There were also signs of the presence of some government dignitaries of both countries. We were to learn later that the occasion was the commissioning or so of the ECOWAS buildings at the border.
Twelve of us, artists and critics, had left Lagos a few hours before to attempt a study tour of some West African countries. The party included Clement Emorda, Grace Oji, Helen Uhunmwagho, Kent Onah, Ayo Adewunmi, Anthony Odeh, Cyril Odidison, Joseph Ehigimusoe, Godwin Uffuah, Festus Ladega, myself and Bisi Silva who was to stop in Ghana. Besides Bisi, the rest of us were all lecturers in art in various universities and polytechnics in Nigeria. The uniting factor was our membership of The Pan-African Circle of Artists, the art group that initiated the study tour.
Out of the group, only Bisi and I spoke some French. So we alighted and explained to the Beninois policeman that we were Nigerian artists and lecturers going on a study tour of some West African countries and that the tour would culminate in roundtable conferences in Ivory Coast and Senegal. He demanded, almost shouting, to see our papers and a letter showing that our government was aware that we had left Nigeria. As if Nigeria was one huge prison yard. Whereupon Bisi retorted that Nigeria was now in a democratic nation and that one didn’t even need any such paper to be able to travel in the first place. Apparently alluding to the belligerent tone of the officer, she added, ‘Il n’ya pas de guerre ici-eh?’
‘Pourquoi parlez vous de guerre?’ the man cried almost angrily. ‘Voyez vous des fusils ici?’ With that, he pointed out the immigration post and ordered us to go there and have our ECOWAS passports stamped. We were back on the road not long after.
If that was an unsavoury taste of the much éclat ECOWAS cooperation and ‘free movement of citizens,’ the experience at the Togolese end of the border was more disgusting. One particular officer did not want to hear anything unless we paid three hundred naira each. It took a bout of angry shouting before our papers were accepted for stamping and signing.
The road from the border was like an ugly tapestry on which the image of Togo had been woven. There were patches here and there – no potholes, though. But it was a sharp contrast from the roads in Cotonou. As the bus, hired from Etsako West Local Government in Edo State of Nigeria, sped through the city of Lome, we relished the enchanting scenery on the left side with the countless coconut trees silhouetted against the beach and the mighty ocean.
We had tarried somewhere in Cotonou to have lunch. At Bisi’s behest, a man had offered to show us to what turned out to be a food centre where a conglomeration of women was cooking and selling simultaneously. A Nigerian commercial cyclist had undertaken to guide us through the city. He had been greatly excited when he cited our bus with the Local Government inscription on it. He loitered around while we ate and later chaperoned us out of the city, earning N100.00.
Around 6.30pm in the evening, we got to the Togo-Ghana border. The officials were friendlier and politer on the Ghanaian side, although the process was a bit longer. It was the only post where the officers did not directly or indirectly demand for bribe. When we crossed into Aflao, the Ghanaian border town, we exchanged some naira to Cedis, ate some local snacks a few yards from the border post and sped on to Accra. It was already dark. The stretch of over two hundred kilometres from Aflao to Accra was narrow and ridden with potholes. The many police checks on the road also helped to prolong the journey. We reached Accra around 12 midnight, and after Bisi alighted at the Golden Tulip Hotel from where she was to be picked up by her friends, we scouted for a modest hotel, with the help of a taxi driver, to lay our weary heads.
Ebony Hotel was cheap and good. By the time we finally checked in, it was past 3 in the morning. As early as 7.00 a.m, Helen Uhunmwagho, one of the two lady artists in the party, went round in the style of a town-crier, rousing each and everyone. At about 9.00am we had had a delicious breakfast at a wayside canteen and were on our way to visit Professor Ablade Glover at his Artists Alliance Gallery.
It provided us the opportunity to see a bit of the city. If any city really deserved to be called the ‘Garden City’ in these parts, it was Accra. In spite of the burdens of age and history, the serenity and charm of the city is overwhelming. Maybe it was because it was our first time there. But one could not deny that it was fresh and different from the humdrum that characterises Lagos and even Abuja. Although one of the artists we later visited was to remark that the country was broke, social conditions did not seem to be near hellish. At least, things were working. The lights, including traffic and street lights, worked. Traffic signs and lights were obeyed. The roads were well paved and the absence of commercial cyclists added to its beauty and neatness. We also noticed that the taxies were not mainly rickety vehicles, but fashionable and well maintained cars which underline the order and discipline in this city.
The Artists Alliance Gallery was located on the busy Accra-Tema road in a district called Teshie-Nungua Estate. It was a white storey building with simple but impressive and almost utilitarian architecture. On the ground floor, there was a commodious exhibition hall for contemporary art, a craft hall and another for antiques, besides some administrative offices. Upstairs, too, a big hall and some offices define the space.
Professor Glover, the renowned painter and art educator, and the founder of the gallery, was there to receive us. He was a slightly built man, fair in complexion, balding and wearing a stubble of beard. We were very lucky to find him in the gallery, he explained, as he seldom came there. He had just come to town to attend to one or two matters nearby and thought he could as well come to the gallery.
As most of us were itching to hit the road for Ivory Coast, we spent very minimal time with Glover. We spent a few minutes telling him about our trip and of the necessity for greater interaction among African artists on the continent. Sharing our concern, he lamented the lack of team spirit among African artists and narrated how he started the Artists Alliance.
He had approached some of his colleagues years ago with the idea of an artists’ cooperative centre that would cater for professional needs of artists in Ghana. They had all agreed it was a good idea and pledged to participate in, and support, the project. But when the time for execution came, Glover found himself alone. He refused to relent. The Omanye House – as the gallery is called – stands as a triumph of vision, will, and determination. Although a Ghanaian painter who we were to meet later in Winneba would insist that the Artists Alliance seems to focus more on the works of artists who trained at the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi where Glover had taught for many years, there is no doubt that the gallery is one of the major rallying points for artists in Ghana.
We set out for Ivory Coast after taking a group photograph with Glover. It was around mid-day and traffic was thickening in parts of Accra, perhaps because it was Friday. It took almost two hours to get out of Accra and access Winneba Road from where one could head for the border. Before and after Cape Coast and a few other coastal towns and villages, the scenery could be dreary and jejune. But Cape Coast is an enchanting place, set on a fascinating, beautiful landscape. As you drive along, the ocean on the left is a photographer’s delight, with several groups of fisherman dragging mighty nets from the depths. We would learn on our return journey that this activity was a routine exercise which began in the early hours of the morning and lasted several hours through the afternoon.
^This is the first part of a travelogue, that will be serialised in the coming weeks, taken from the book, Critical Travelogue (2003: The Citadel Publishing Company) by C. Krydz Ikwuemesi.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi MFA, PhD, is a painter, art critic, ethno-aesthetician and cultural entrepreneur. A polyvalent artist of superlative merit, Ikwuemesi has held several solo and group exhibitions. He is the founder of the Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA) where he directed Afrika Heritage (the PACA Biennale), Overcoming Maps (PACA Study Tour of Africa). He is Emeritus President of The Art Republic; Editor, Letter from Afrika, The Art Republik; Ag. Director, Anambra Book and Creativity Festival. He is an Associate Professor of Fine Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Cover photo credit: Ginger Tissier