Kay Ugwuede’s illuminating travel chapbook, A Substance of Things Unseen, begins in the city of Enugu, at the top of a hill. This she translates into the Igbo language as Enu ugwu: a linguistic performance garbed by seemingly measured emphasis. And this presents a sort of manual to the reader’s eventual understanding of this city, Enugu, that the author tells us, means ‘somewhere, home’ to her – a lexical crossroad between geography and identity. Whether she writes Enugu or enu ugwu, she attests to the same locus: Birthplace. Motherland. Home. This is where she stands, at the beginning of her voyage, gazing intently into the long-drawn distance, at the ‘red earthed town’ below and its ‘clusters of brown, green and red roofs’, unclasped by a chimerical interrogative: ‘I wonder what my response would have been had I been assured all of it if I knelt in reverence before the one who promised.’
What does it mean to begin a journey from home, to inaugurate a witnessing on a bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar? What happens when a body becomes the bridge interspersing this space? Ugwuede’s A Substance of Things Unseen illustrates these queries through meetings and dialogues, however inconvenient and short-lived, with people and cities on the trip. This is a motif analogous to the rationale behind the 2018 Invisible Borders Trans-African project – a road trip around Nigeria and other African countries in which the travel writer, Kay Ugwuede, participated – which prompts artists to wear ‘two faces: one at the back, turned to history, and the other in front overlooking a possible future as our feet ground our bodies in an ever-shifting present.’ Because seeing and imagining needs an ‘I’ – someone, somewhere, who will serve as a vessel of documentation.
And so Ugwuede’s story begins with a vertiginous pull and exhausting descent down the hill. It is somewhat Dantesque. But unlike Dante Alighieri, the renowned Italian poet whose book Divine Comedy beguiles us with the redoubtable creatures of hell, purgatory and paradise, Ugwuede brings us face to face with periscopic vistas of myriad histories and the things they incorporate, both the seen and the unseen. Take for example the weird tales of unfriendly spirits that dwell along the road winding up to the hilltop where she stands, and who lie in wait for blood.
When Ugwuede writes about Enugu, she lifts the veil on loss and emptiness: the now defunct Nigeria Coal Corporation formed in the city in the 1950s with ‘its 2 billion metric tonnes of reserves. . . abandoned like an old wife’; the death of General Sani Abacha in 1998 that painted thick dread over the house and the whole city, needled by the blatant expectation of another Biafran war; her mother’s clean laughter, once fulsome but now a muffled simper; and her childhood innocence lost to the wildness of time and existence. And we cannot tell whether it is regret or the quest for a faith that prefaces this riot of gloominess. What does it mean to watch home – a portmanteau of first-times: first words, first baby steps, first struggle with identity, and first love story – transform into a dream that’s no longer yours? Of what essence is a dream if you can no longer live it?
Questions of faith underlie another encounter of hers in Enugu, where we come to meet Henry, a medical doctor and atheist, and her girlfriend (‘comrade in love and faith’); and Chukwunonso, an Enugu-based tailor who ‘somewhat believes in the Biafran dream’ because his parents believe. Both characters depict how people, particularly Africans, navigate religion and politics, with family taking centre stage in their decisions. Henry’s Christian parents do not know yet about his belief in the inexistence of God. Such cases abound in Africa, where religion has been one of the major propellers of war, indiscriminate killings and disownment from families. The traveller, too, isn’t free of the quandary. However, there’s a bolt of certainty when she posits: ‘The idea that one could make something of their lives, find respite in this life or the next without a Christian God was unfathomable’ (p. 7).
Faith arises again as Ugwuede takes us into the wonder of Ikom Monoliths, the open museum in the suburbs of Ikom, a historic trade city in Cross River. What greater wonder awaits this reader than to encounter monoliths as old as the history of Africa herself, dating back to 1500 years ago? Above everything else, perhaps, it’s the encounter with the wisdom stone that nudges the author’s spirit towards an epiphany. According to their travel guide, Chief Sylvanus, the stone spoons a hodgepodge of miracles: ‘It cured illnesses, brought about happily ever afters and children. People came from far and wide to lay their hands on it and they received whatever prayers they had said on it’. On hearing this, the narrator ponders: ‘What is faith if not a firm grasp of what is visible?’ (p. 10).
Can faith still be found in the most desolate of places? There’s something in the air when the traveller arrives at an IDP camp in Ogoja, just a few miles from Ikom. Something that smells like despair. Something that calls to memory her mother’s now-defunct poultry farm. An upsettingly harsh reality lived by refugees who were victims of the ‘anglophone crisis’ in South-western and North-western Cameroon which has displaced over a hundred thousand people since 2016. Ugwuede’s clear-eyed description makes us fully present as she leads us through the camp: the hall clustered with people, mostly women and children and ‘their belongings – hastily packed plastic or bagco bags, clothes tied into a ball, plastic plates, cups – stacked close by (p. 15).’ Here we meet Delphine – an inhabitant of the camp with her mother and three-year-old daughter – who’s earnestly searching for her husband ‘and unsure if he’s alive or dead’. When we abscond home with nothing but remnants of our lives, what’s left to live for? Who proposes love where faith is buried?
The narrator’s experience in Yaoundé sheds some light on this Cameroonian political crisis. There, we meet the boyish-looking Lingom and her friend with their opposite interests; while the former seems knowledgeable about Cameroonian politics, the latter holds an apathetic gaze. Through Lingom, we come to understand the bone of the country’s anglophone-francophone crisis as a question of language and culture, rather than the false stories propagated by the media. Collectively, most African countries face the same badge of rusting begotten by their colonial masters who unified colonies without considering their linguistic and cultural differences. ‘I don’t want to be defined by the language I speak,’ Lingom says, a dream and a prayer in one, the solemn call for an African Renaissance.
The road takes Ugwuede to another country well known for its troubled history – but it is also a place where the traveller grapples with her personal history and her relation to life on the road. While at Kimironko market in Kigali, a fruit seller pokes at the narrator’s love life. This is after their conversations veered from heritage to the neediness of love. Here, the traveller grapples with loneliness and how it leaves one wanting, to a point where one no longer recognizes its feel. She writes: ‘Sometimes, I think that I have forgotten what it feels like to be lonely. . . Aloneness, they say, space to feel and breathe and experience life together with the people who come and go at varying points in my life, is very much like the road. (p. 19.) And what’s the road if not “a journey that never stops?”’
The road guides the narrator to another part of Kigali where she meets with the Burundian therapist, Reynolds, who rents out ‘part of his spacious apartment as an Airbnb to tourists and visitors who now flock to Kigali to see for themselves if the stories are true.’ Their discussion hinges mostly on Rwanda’s history and what the road to the future breeds, especially the significance of the Rwandan massacre of 1994 on the people. There are other questions too: from the Biafran genocide to the existence of little relationship nonfiction by Africans for Africans (as though to take a short walk away from the blinding horrors of war). ‘Do you believe that all is now fine and good in the country and everyone is now at peace with their neighbours?’ the narrator asks at the end of the meeting. To which Reynolds replies emphatically, ‘People did not forgive because they wanted to. They did because that was what everyone else was doing. They did because they could not retaliate and not get caught.’ (p. 34).
Ugwuede is more than just a witness because she doesn’t only observe and imagine but uses her journalistic inclinations to draw patterns out of the chaos that spans the stories in the book. And this remains the unique characteristic of her travelogue: her narrative ability to lead the reader through different plots, plunging in and out of cities and people’s lives like a neatly arranged photo album, excavating stories that haunt and cause one to reflect on the possibility of a future for the afflicted. She doesn’t play an all-knowing and judgemental God over these characters and places or erase herself from the sheer messiness of the world. The proof is the harrowing silence that impedes over each chapter, a crowd of questions left swinging before our faces without answers. It’s also how she begins her journey from her hometown, Enugu, as though to announce that she, too, isn’t a foreigner to the world’s affliction.
Ugwuede’s narrative is episodic, sinuous, and borderless. And even though a reader may sometimes lose track of the cities in her stories, there’s cohesiveness in the way each city brings us closer to the realisation that we are not alone in our suffering and that faith is the ‘foremost premise of our existence.’ In fact, to call this chapbook a story about faith isn’t a wrong assessment. Because faith, whichever way we look at it, preempts the road of our existence. That’s why people live under the harsh realities of the IDP camp in Ogoja in pursuit of home, why survivors and mark-bearers of afflicted countries walk the earth in pursuit of unrumpled happiness, and why people still find beauty in the fractured streets of Goma and its disappearing culture. The road, perhaps, is faith in motion. And this book is reaching into that faith.
Njoku Nonso‘s work has been published or is forthcoming in Chestnut Review, YabaLeft Review, Agbowo, Bodega, 20.35 Africa, Rising Phoenix Press (Pushcart-nominated), Memento: An Anthology of Nigerian Contemporary Poetry, Ake Review and elsewhere. A 2022 Unserious Collective fellow, he’s a finalist for the Open Drawer Poetry Contest, Lumiere Review Inaugural Writing Contest, and most recently Chestnut Review’s Stubborn Writers Contest. He loves stray dogs. Hook up on Twitter: @NN_Emmanuels.
Cover photo credit: Invisible Borders