The border was as tough as it had been when we passed the previous Saturday, though not the same officials except one. This time the police openly requested 3000cfa before they would touch our documents. Whereupon we interjected that we had almost exhausted our funds and were just managing to get back to our country. Besides, we had paid 6000 cfa when we passed the other day and it was not receipted. We were asked to see one officer after the other until we came to the immigrations rooms where the same request was repeated. We gave the same response as before and were asked to wait outside until they could attend to us. After about 30 minutes of waiting, they signalled us to come and pick our stamped passports and present them to the police for signing. It did not take long for them to finish. The bus was registered, too, and we drove on to the Ghanaian side. Once there, we heaved a sigh of relief as we went through the processes with the characteristic politeness we had noted on our previous encounters. In a little while we were in Elubor, the Ghanaian border town, changing currencies. The journey from Elubor was uneventful, especially as the Ghanaian policemen that stopped us at the few checkpoints on the way were not aggressive; nor did they keep us for any reason.
We arrived Cape Coast at about 5.00pm in the evening and proceeded to the University of Cape Coast, hoping it had a Department of Fine Art, but some lecturers we met in the Arts Faculty told us there was none. We got someone to lead us to a modest hotel where we were to spend the night, but we had to go out again to look for something to eat. We found it in a wayside canteen; they called it fufu – some lump of pounded plantain and cassava served in a pool of light soup with some pieces of goat meat. It was not great, but it was fun, so funny that although most of us had two helpings, we were still looking for ‘something to eat’.
In the morning we went to visit St. George Castle, otherwise known as Elmina Castle. Elmina is the Arab word for harbour, and is essentially a common name given to the area by the Arabs who dominated trade in the 15th century. The castle was conceived and built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a warehouse to facilitate their commercial activities. Human goods were later to replace inanimate commodities when the slave trade became lucrative both for the imperialists and the local chieftains. The castle was later taken over by the Dutch who did much of the (in)human commerce, having occupied the castle for 235 years. The British made a number of attempts to dislodge them and take over the castle, but failed each time, until the Dutch left on their own sometime around 1872, well after the abolition of slave trade. The British did not use the castle for slave trade, of course, but it became an administrative base for the imperialist colonial government.
The fact that the castle was named after St. George, the patron saint of Portugal, and sheltered the most callous commerce of all, is a capital irony. It betrays the hypocrisy and contradiction which men wove into the fabric of religion.
The castle is the most significant and first European structure outside Europe. Although the first Christian church and formal schools in Africa started in the castle, it stands as a monument of inhumanity and as a testament to the West’s eternal indebtedness to black Africa. As our guide, Mr Stephen Korsah, a vibrant Museum Educationist with a likeable diction, led us through the cells, the death chambers and the dungeons to the room and door ‘of no return’. Spasms of shivering took hold of me and let me go simultaneously. It is through this room and door that some estimated sixty million Africans went to board the slave boats and ships in chains. Of that number, I am told, only about 20% survived the attendant nightmare; some died of disease, while others took their own lives. But they are all heroes, those who survived and those who didn’t. The sweat of the survivors and the blood of the dead certainly combined to re-shape the face of civilisation. As Mr Korsah escorted us back to the entrance after about a two-hour tour of the castle, everybody was sober, shaken and lonely. As I walked with my colleagues towards the bus, the images of horror, pain and anguish went with me.
The spell was broken by the voices of some young boys trying to sell sea shells and other mementoes to tourists. Some of them were not really selling, actually. They simply asked for your name which they inscribed on the shell; then you could have the shell for a token – any sum you could part with. Some of them would also want to exchange contact addresses with tourists for possible penfriendship. Some of us had given them our names before we went into the castle. They had done the inscriptions in ink and held out the shells excitedly as we approached the bus. For their very youthful age, they appeared too intelligent, clever, and knowing, with a sharp sense of humour. And they spoke good English, which is rare among children of comparable age, class, and circumstance in Nigeria. Of course, that was the major thing about them that fascinated us. Shells, money, and postal addresses changed hands, and we were back on the road heading for the University College of Education, Winneba, to see Benjamin Menyah and Septuagenarian Philip Amonoo, both painters.
A young man we met in the Art Education Department offered to take us to Menyah’s residence on the campus. Menyah had attended the Commemorative Conference of PACA’s 3rd Biennale at Enugu, Nigeria in September 2000. When he appeared through the door initially, he did not recognize any of us. As he came closer to the vehicle skewing his askance face this way and that, he was struck by a vivid sense of realisation.
‘From Nigeria! From Nigeria!’ he shouted as he leaped into the air, embracing Ayo, Tony and me. ‘This is a very wonderful day! I had a funeral to attend in Cape Coast, but something kept holding me back. I can now understand! Come in, come in.’ He led us into the house, prancing and shrieking with joy and excitement.
We had a conversation on the art situation in Ghana over drinks and suya. Menyah noted more than once how he admired our sense of concert in the Nigerian art scene and how it had helped us to advance. He refused to believe that the same problems of slothfulness which, he said, undermined the pursuit of common artistic causes in Ghana were also at work in Nigeria. But sincerely, I believe that lack of team spirit, empty rivalry, and endemic jealousy are at once among the makeup and bane of artists everywhere. It is only that in some instances, and, perhaps, more often than necessary, it is allowed to upset and derail the common good. This is probably the problem among art groups in Africa where apathy is high and where economic hardship and the various political upheavals have driven people, including artists, to utter individualism, if not crude selfishness. It also accounts for the problematic of political correctness and intellectual passivity which characterise and have marred local scholarship in the field of African art.
As it was past five in the evening, Menyah suggested we spend the night in Winneba rather than go on to Accra. He secured accommodation for us at the National Sports College which was located there in the University College. As the rooms were being prepared, he took us to visit the Southern Campus of the College, then a fish market by the beach before heading for Amonoo’s house nearby.
Amonoo was sitting on the veranda of his house as we drove in. He was tall and his face was one that must have looked strikingly handsome many years ago. Although he was old and somewhat spent, he bristled with experience and a remarkable will power. Amonoo was one of the few African artists who had hailed the founding of The Pan-African Circle of Artists in 1991 and took part in the inaugural exhibition in June 1992. He had shown a lot of interest in our activities, but the unreliable postal system between Nigeria and Ghana did not allow us to carry on a smooth correspondence. He had not heard from PACA (and vice versa) for several years until that surprise meeting at his residence in Winneba on Wednesday, September 5, 2001. He could not stop congratulating us for keeping the flag flying and for advancing the cause of art with much consistency. He talked profusely about hard work and said it was the watchword of every successful artist. He had retired many years ago from the University College, but still found time to engage in his most favourite exercise as an artist – painting beach scenes and landscapes. He had even gone out to paint earlier that day and hoped to continue the routine as long as he lived.
As I looked at him, I knew he represented an endangered species, that crop of African artists who set themselves the goal of beating the whiteman to his own game, as far as representational art was concerned. Not that they could not move beyond the realm of realism, but they thought, perhaps, that it was important to explain through their works, that the characteristic abstraction in classical African art was not a child of deficiency in draughtsmanship and visual judgment. In Nigeria, this class of artists had as their quintessence, the late Aina Onabolu. Although the uncharitable attitude of the emerging brand of scholarship and the exclusionist aesthetics that have been foisted on the art scene mainly by exiled or diasporan African scholars may hold little or no regard for the works of these artists, history can never deny their role in art development; nor can any critical appraisal of their countries’ art traditions be attempted without conceding to them their front-row position in the enabling narrative.
Amonoo was the last major artist we met on the trip. The next day was committed to the homeward journey. We set out from Winneba at 6.30am and reached the Lagos border at about 7.00pm in the evening. The journey was uneventful save for delays we experienced at the borders where corrupt officials, including police and customs men, brazenly attempted to extort money from us. In fact, one policeman at the Togolese border ridiculed himself, his country and the entire ECOWAS, when he momentarily seized our passports and insisted that we needed to have some covering paper from their embassy (God knows which of their embassies!) before he could stamp our papers! At the other end of Togo again, before getting into Benin, a policewoman demanded money after stamping our documents. When I told her that we had no money, she threatened that she had remarked me and would get me on my next trip.
The scenario was repeated at the Lagos/Benin border. An official at the Beninois post insisted we must pay 2000cfa before he could touch our documents. When we threatened to remain there till daybreak, he had a change of heart and stamped the passports, but not without delaying us for about twenty minutes. But the Nigerian side seems to be the worst. There were about two or three desks in the veranda with some curious looking men behind them. As you headed for the office, they beckoned you to come to them with torch lights, in the style of the policemen that populate Nigerian highroads. Then they would ask silly questions, sniffing at you in every sense of the word, before finally requesting for money.
When we wriggled out of the hands of these hawks, the officials on duty refused to stamp our documents on the grounds that they were not stamped when we first crossed the border. They refused to accept our explanation that on the day we left, the ECOWAS buildings in which they were operating were being commissioned and everywhere was rowdy. When they eventually accepted, they demanded for the sum of N150.00 per head to enable them roll back the stamps. By the time they finally settled for N100.00 per passport, we had spent over two hours. It reminded us of the delay at the Ivorian border few days before. But this one was more painful, considering that Badagary was just there, and what separated us from our country were just some empty drums and long wooden planks.
We travelled to Abidjan by road largely because we at PACA believe that there should be more interaction among peoples on the continent irrespective of the constraints of the artificial geo-political borders, and also partly for dearth of funding. Besides, travelling by road would afford us the opportunity to meet more artists and have a better feel of the environment in each country. To a large extent, we achieved these goals. But the lessons are many.
The major one is that corruption pervades the entire continent, although it may be more alarming in some countries. Beyond this, the countries seem to suspect each other in certain vague ways. It is regrettable that Africans cannot move freely within their continent and that it is easier to go to Europe than to travel from Lagos to Accra, for instance, whether by road or by air. Many who have experienced air transport within the African continent and in the West African sub region have stories of woe and disappointment to tell. This obviously accounts for the perpetual lull among art circles inside Africa. Afraid of the nasty attitudes at some of the borders, stuffed with ethnic bias, and handicapped by language barrier, most artists are localised in their native countries, lacking the courage to venture out. When they do, it is to Europe and America. This, of course, is very dangerous not only to the arts and cultures of Africa, but to other spheres of life. Little wonder Americanisation is taking a great toll, wearing the alluring cloak of globalisation.
It is time we began to emphasise seriously the oneness of Africa, irrespective of the geo-political differences enacted by the colonialists. In doing so, the role of art as an instrument of cultural integration must be recognised. Art remains the only agent of civilisation and development that defies atomisation, and its salve must be sought in the current efforts to achieve real unity in the continent. Beyond endless conferences and talks usually dominated by bread-and-butter politicians basking in the spoils of office, such bodies as the ECOWAS and the new African Union should take practical steps to encourage and protect creativity in the continent. For empty philippics and the brazen pursuit of ignorance have never propelled or survived any civilisation. What makes or mars a people is the power of their imagination and how far or otherwise they are able to stretch, exploit, and concretise it.
^This is the third and final part of an extract we started serialising few weeks back 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: rednasz