Let the image of Africa that sweets your mind correlate with the one that troubles my heart. The projection of your World on me, threatens the one i aspire to see and live in. Your Africa is a certain human condition while the one i carry in my heart is a HUMANITY.Qudus ONIKEKU
It was the 19 November 2010, in Cotonou. It’s almost two weeks that we’ve been on this very badly organised and traumatic tour. Travelling by road, by air and most especially by the rivers of the French Babylon. We are fourteen in all, from four different nationalities, apart from me with a west African passport, visa issues had been a major headache for the French, the Congolese and particularly the Mozambicans amongst us, as most of the countries toured are West African nations. As if that’s not enough, we still perform in impossible technical conditions. Just a day before today we’ve had a major brush with the management of the French cultural centre, who were supposed to welcome us into Cotonou, due to their bad-mannered attitude, imposing an hostel upon us for an hotel, and most especially for refusing to honour the fact that we deserve a better treatment, even if one could understand the question of low budget.
Flashback: Yesterday the 18th of November, our day began at about 5am, to get ready for the airport; we had our last show in Dakar on the 17th so it can be easily imagined, how difficult it was to get up at 5am. But we must, our flight to Cotonou was scheduled for around 7am. After the whole rush, we were already in the plane when we got the announcement that the plane had developed some technical faults, so the flight was delayed for another 9 hours. We were supposed to arrive in Cotonou at about 4pm, but that’s the exact time we left Dakar. However, the only contact person we have is Mr Amadou Sene of the CCF Dakar, the regional coordinator of the tour, and he happens to be in Paris at the moment, all the mails we had sent to Cotonou earlier, none did we get a reply, so we have no one to contact in Cotonou, but we believed in miracle.
At about 10pm we landed in Cotonou. Here comes the first conflict. Without hesitation, the immigration officers threatened to deport the French and the Mozambicans because they had no visas. As we tried to delay such horrible process of repatriation, Florent quickly dashed to the CCF to get those who are supposed to receive us, a while after Florent returned, they arrived. Jacqueline, the accountant, Mr Noel the assistant director and another lady. Rather than approaching us to know where we are and what the situation was like, they stood few meters away, formed a little caucus with their heads facing one another. That already made me wonder if we were in the right place. After a while trying to settle things ourselves, now we are supposed to go to the ministry of internal affairs to get the visas tomorrow, but we have no idea of where that was. Here is when our rage began to gradually grow towards our supposed hosts, everyone was quite curious as to why they could ever think that it was our responsibility to settle visa issues. But we kept our cool.
Jaqueline eventually took the initiative to come closer, ahh finally, they are not totally blind, only to come ask us “Est ce que vous avez fini?” we all looked at each other in disbelieve, “si vous avez fini les bus sont dehor” Isaak my French video artiste, could not probably take any of their bad manners “maybe we should start by introduction first or don’t courtesy demands that” “no” she replied “on fais ça a l’hotel”. Getting to the cars, we realised that there were only two normal cars with four available seats and a jeep, equally with four seats, so a quick arithmetic tells us that the cars they brought are only enough for twelve people, “madam but we are fourteen, this cars won’t be enough” i told her “we don’t have a bus, so let’s manage it.” Why not? sometimes i tend to forget that we are Africans. It’s normal “This is Africa”.
Arriving at the supposed hotel, the cars parked in a quiet neighbourhood with very little luminosity, I looked across the street to see if there is a sign of a hotel, but i couldn’t see any, so i remained seated, perhaps, they stopped for another purpose, until one of the Congolese dancers came to me from the other car, “Qudus, welcome to your no star hotel” with a very ridiculous laughter, i said which one? And he pointed to a sign on the gate “chants des oiseaux.” and another engraved on the wall "Institut des artisanat." Apparently, we’ve been parked right in front of the “hotel” but my subconscious was not just ready to reconcile with the taught that, any human faeces can even imagine to lodge foreign guests, and to top it all, a group of artistes that they consider ‘the best of Africa’ in a similar junk-yard. Florent, Horacio and myself decided to see the rooms, to give them a benefit of doubt, maybe it was just the superficial appearance that seem like the remains of an underground eruption, but few points made the room a total match with the outside; two bed aligned vertically due to lack of space, mosquito nets drawn across the beds, a fan rather than AC, instead of a running water, we had a bucket of water. We didn’t bother seeing the toilet before we made up our mind. “We’d rather sleep on the street than accept this pile of rubbish.” It was a tough night...
End of flashback.
I got into this little auditorium of about 100 seats and a small stage; a “high” table with three chairs set on it, looking down upon the 100 remaining seats. We were supposed to have a meeting to “resolve” the issue at hand, so i wondered who was to be on the “high” table. Prior to this meeting, i had tried to clear my mind of possible impatience that might suddenly jab my bad humour, and i was quite serious about that. Just as we were called in for the meeting at about 3pm, simultaneously, the Mozambicans and the French had to go to the ministry to go pick up their visas. Horacio can obviously not be in two places at a time, so I andFlorent intended to retard the meeting for about 30 minutes tillHoracioreturns, since we are three representatives on this tour.
The first blow of this meeting hit me when this director of the cultural service of the French embassy in Cotonou came in, I didn’t quite know who he was but something told me he would definitely be someone much taller – than every other person we’ve seen – in hierarchy. He reminded me of a scene in last king of Scotland, if only he was black and bulky, i would have easily mistaken him for Indi Amin. As soon as he came in, i immediately left the room, for two reasons; one for strategy and the other for precaution. I ran out of the building to get the voice recorder from Charles, but he already left with the bus. Awww ! Still i wanted to remain a bit out there. Breathe in... and out, remember don’t pant for you are not running from nothing and nothing is running after you.
Just as i envisaged, an office assistant came out “C’est qui Outus?” the first call entered a voice mail, again “...c’est qui outus?” “You mean Qudus?” i replied. "Oui” well i thought as much.“Ok c’est moi j’arrive, i’ll be there,” but i guessed he has been given an order as well, as what tend to drive people in this establishment is orders, he refused to go and seeing the way he tries so hard to pace me up already gave me a clear picture of how it will all go in there. When i got back to the auditorium, obviously they’ve all been waiting for me. That for me was the first gesture of a counter intimidation, for i know that, intimidation will be the main missile that will be used in destroying our egos.Guillaume the graphic designer was sitting on the first row, right wing of the auditorium seat, beside him was Mr Noel the assistant director, and on the tip of the stage, sat the accountant, Jaqcueline – the most rude last night – and indi amin. Florent was sitting also in the auditorium but on the left wing on the second row, so i decided to sit on the third row behind him. Shake! Check! But no handshakes - French or English? a little “bonjour” from far will do.
That i accepted to speak in French will be my first effort towards diplomacy, however, in moments like this i thank my star for making it so effortless for me to have learnt and spoke French fluently in just three years, for i have understood that it requires a certain spoon length to dine with the devil, for you have to be accustomed with the menu list even without looking. For the benefit of writing, the whole of the meeting that happened in French will be translated in English, just as all words passes through an English screen in my head, before i digest them in Yoruba, my mother tongue.
Can we start the meeting now...” it sound to me like a question.
“Horacio is supposed to be in this meeting, he said we should w...”
Here goes the first interruption, i was wrong, it wasn’t a question “No no no, we cannot spend the whole day waiting, we have to clear this issues on ground as soon as possible, My name is Monsieur LEROI ” Yes i could have guessed, his name has something to do with ‘The King’, he went on with his plenty titles.
"...i am the So so and so of the French embassy in Benin, i have been told about all that happened last night, i was told that you refused to go into the accommodation arranged for you at the chants desoiseaux, and that some of you said some very strong words to my colleagues, that is very very uncalled for, i don’t at all appreciate such attitude, they told me that you wanted another hotel or you will remain on the street, lucky you that i was not there last night, because you would have actually slept out there, for i wouldn’t have arranged for another hotel for you...”
That was how he went on with an admonishing lecture that lasted for almost ten minutes, as he spoke i made sure that my eyes never at any moment left his eye balls, looking straight into his eyes, my hand placed below my jaw in order not to show how astounded i was, for if i let it go, it will drop and my mouth will most definitely go wide in awe. In just two minutes, his ego and arrogance became bigger than the auditorium.
“...Let me tell you guys, you need to bring your feet to the earth, yes, you won an important competition, good for you guys, but before you begin to feel like stars, remember that is not the end of the world, my wife is a dancer too, so don’t think that i don’t know what it means to be artists and to be on tour, i can understand that there was fatigue, you’ve travelled all day, but you should as well be appreciative, people here are doing everything for you, you need to know how much effort and how much money has gone into your coming here, it was not in the program, they had to look for a way to make this happen, and you really need to recognise all that effort...”
At this point, my blood pressure was rising abnormally. Breath in, breath out, start all over again... and again. Wished i had recorded his speech and able to transcribe all that was said, eventually he concluded
... normally we from the SCAC don’t intervene in the affairs of the CCF, only at rare cases, now the director is not around, so i need to find a solution to this, all of these just has to stop, for all i have heard don’t make me any happy at all, the condition defined for you is to go back to the hostel arranged for you or nothing else, our budget cannot afford anything above that, so i’m ready to listen to you. What have you got to say?”
When things get to this point, something very influential and significant has to be done to avoid decay, there was a very stagnant silence in the room, but not in my head, in there, there was a traffic of questions necessary to establish an algorithm for a counter reaction, should this silence go on like that? Who should speak first in such situation? The Nigerian part of me or the francophone? The Muslim or the activist? The poet or the martial artist? But i was certain, there is no room for Diplomacy? ...No he didn’t bring that, an ebb and flow; our response must be recurrent and rhythmical with the pattern already established. Let’s have a valse.
‘The king’ has displayed a kind of arrogance that breeds nothing but aggressiveness even in his most apathetic resolve. The psychological trick bags were all too evident even in his supposedly neutral tones of coming to “intervene” and arriving at a solution. Now i wonder what he really thinks, is he thinking that we will deny all the ridiculous scrap of information he has been fed with? Or he sees this as his celestial right to treat us as subhuman, unworthy of a point of view. Ignorant about why, about what purpose his harassment will eventually serve if he has a the slightest idea of how much i know about the French politics and their so called ‘soft power policy’, about how many times my Nigerian passport had been stamped with an entry and exit stamp in various airports of this world. I know too well that the most prestigious overseas address which he can offer is any address in republique francaise, where i have had a residents permit for the past five years. These were merely useful preparations for me
Just before i finished my mathematical process, i guessed Florent had picked up the relay baton, in order to break the silence, "My name is Florent Mahoku, i am the choreographer for studio maho, and i would like to start by correcting an impression that we are feeling like stars...”
Precisely that word – STAR – that word was what gave me the key. The password. I already saw the tone. Florent was heading towards diplomacy, but NO! I quickly tapped Florent by the shoulders and immediately broke in, which might appear rude to mr ‘The King’
...Yes we are STARS” he probably didn’t believe his ears or didn’t hear me properly, i repeated myself two more times, then
“...Yes, i said we are celebrities, celebrated by many more than you can imagine, and we are actually flying in the sky right now with the vultures...”
There was no need for introduction or similar formalities, for i sensed that we are not in a United Nations sitting.
"Good for you” he replied,
but i was just beginning. “...in my mother tongue, there is..."
“Your mother tongue is English no?”
“In Yoruba, there is a proverb which say ‘the elder who comes in to separate two kids fighting, and based his judgement only on one side of the story, he is the real problem.”
He seemed a bit confused “I can’t hear you, what do you mean? Come closer, i have a problem with my ears.” That i don’t doubt. Perhaps my Yoruba proverb, that was initially translated into English then to French, had lost its sagacity in the pipeline, so i moved to the front row now, and the distance between Mr ‘The king’ and myself is less than one meter, I rephrased and my words were composed.
“I mean, since you have decided to listen to one side of the story and basing your judgement on that, now, you are my problem...”
"I am not making a judgement, and when i say you i don’t mean you in singular, i was told one of you said...”
“Excuse me, we allowed you talk for ten minutes without breaking you...”
no i didn’t talk for ten minute, i know my counts, it was 3 minutes 20 seconds...”
“...will you allow me? ... You weren’t there last night, you don’t know who we are, you have no idea of where we are coming from, and you sit us down here, talking as though we are your kids or a set of students you need to teach some moral values. I am very disappointed at you, you are supposed to be a diplomat i imagine, no matter how small we might seem to you, we still represent a certain authority different from yours, so this is still a diplomatic relationship and if you are proficient enough, you should have known that there are some manners at which you don’t address another diplomat, is this all France can afford?...”
I could see right in his face that he didn’t see that coming, one of the disadvantages of what we refer to as the “white skin” is that its physiology easily reflects whatever turmoil threatening its entire biology. That was an assurance that my words were very well received. My many experience in France and my understanding of the French language, as a very aggressive language, which i have encountered in different forms while i was in school, made me realise that the impotence that comes from this kind of encounter can easily be crippling and mind-scattering when allowed to dock. The knowledge that one individual has the monopoly of words and for no individual can hold the power to limit me in my movements, all in his own right, without the need to justify his actions to me or to the society of which we are both a part of, that such power has been revealed in ‘the king’. I will however not allow him to muffle my private life by circumscribing my movements and jeopardizing my dance-trade, so i went further.
“...I can see that you are really getting comfortable in Benin. Sitting on the idea of the hand that give stays up above, so obviously you see this as one of those humanitarian aid reliefs you give to Africans, but let me make something clear, apart from the fact that i am an artist, i am also a social entrepreneur, i have my company registered in Lagos and in Paris, and the dance piece that brings you and i together is ‘the product’ at stake, i created this work with 45,000€, my company invested a lot in this work and none of that has to do with you and the height at which you stand to talk down on me. I am not here today because i won a competition, mind you, i am here because i created a piece, an art work that is worthy of its success, a property of Yk Projects, whose value is worth more than whatever you can propose. Now i sell this work to you with certain conditions, if you can’t respect such condition as a normal hotel, where normal human beings can sleep comfortably, then you have bridged a contract and we have the right to ask for what was initially agreed upon...”
It will be a scandal if this day ends in the direction at which i chose to valse, so i guess he was also preparing his algorithm to get another access key, as it seemed quite clear that i have succeeded in sending his ego out of the room. He sprang up again.
“There is nothing wrong with chants des oiseaux, a lot of artistes had been here, even few months ago, a troupe was on a similar tour as yours from Senegal, we lodged them there without any problem, so how is your case so different, dancers come in here from France, missionaries and polytechnicians, we put them all there.”
“Of what use are all these analogies that doesn’t just correlate. Six years ago i was as well on a similar regional tour with Heddy maalem’s company, maybe because it was a French company, i never slept in such hostel, but four years ago i was invited to perform in Fitheb festival, and i was still not lodged as such, and now i think i still don’t deserve such treatment.”
“Like i said my wife is a dancer and i know how difficult it is, you just have to face the reality of your profession, many a time, they have to pay to even perform in places like festival d’avignon, and you still don’t...”
“Maybe ten years ago i would have done that”
“My wife is not a kid...”
That i understood.
“It’s not about age it’s about ones journey in life, i performed in Avignon four years ago and i was paid a professional fee in a decent apartment”
“Good for you, that’s their budget, but we don’t have such budget and can’t invent it from nowhere.”
“Exactly my point, if you don’t have such budget and you are not prepared, and you don’t know how to welcome artistes at the airport, why accept to program them? What gave you the impression that we are that hungry for a show in Cotonou? It doesn’t bother us to tour around six countries – instead of twelve – if that’s all that is ready and competent enough to accommodate our professional needs. You are the head of a cultural sector, and i am an artiste, and this suggests that we are both bind by this department of the humanities, but how humane are we now in our dealings with each other? Don’t you think that our business dealings should have a human face? It really seems to me that in all we have said so far, all you cared about truly is ‘the budget’ so for all you care we can be lodged in hostels where we become susceptible to mosquitoes and sleeping in such unhealthy condition during this entire tour, horrifying forty days with agonizing forty nights. For sure we shall all get back to our various homes smiling in good health.”
‘The king’ was as furious as Sango the king of koso, I made sure that my antagonism was as calm as possible, it might appear that i was very furious too, but inside of me i kept my cool and trying as much to enjoy this tango, what i wanted was to get him even more irritated till his stupidity fill up the entire auditorium. At some point he began to scream and i made sure that each time he did that, i tried as much as possible to scream two times higher than he did. Then i guessed he couldn’t take it any longer, for we were so close that he might be tempted to hit me, but i guess he was telling himself the same thing. CAUTION! To avoid other specials that was not scheduled to appear in the menu. He stood up. So angry, grumbling as he dashed out of the auditorium. A door was slammed!
Everyone was quiet. Guillaume – who had spent the whole of the time trying to make eye contact with me, but i have constantly ignored – he tries to break the mood.
“I think we should stop all these now, if not there will be no way forward”
Florent added to it “This man should stop all this child’s play, his intervention is even making things worse, an issue as little as the issue of accommodation is what the cause of all this is...” Jaqueline who had been muttering blurred words and adding one or two nods to show her support for The king, cuts in. “but we don’t have that budget...”
Florent replied out of irritation “if that’s really your problem, pay us our fee by cash and we shall pay for it if that will make you happy...” At this point i have heard and said enough, i sat back and i withdrew from the conversation between Florent and Jacqueline, i pulled myself out from the entire scene as i try to make further sense of this whole insanity i find myself.
Communication between two human beings – not to talk of two different authorities – can be difficult. Misrepresentation and misinterpretation have been the cause of numerous wars and crises in history. Guillaume, the youngest of them appears to be the only one who arrives at understanding this. “Qudus you see i do understand your plight, but please see it from our angle as well, your coming here has been a real headache for us all, it has been badly planned from the unset, from three days, to eight days, lack of information from France, and the absence of the director, all these are important clause that you need to see.”
After a long period of argument with Jacqueline and Mr Noel last night, it was this same Guillaume that was called, and he managed to be diplomatic in his approach, he it was who eventually found the solution of giving us a better hotel for the night, while we find other solutions for the next day, because the only hotel we could get at that time of the day was as expensive as an appointment with a psychoanalyst.
“you see Guillaume, if you were the one who came to the airport last night, i am very certain that we wouldn’t have gotten to this point, because you are more diplomatic. See, we are artists, and art still falls under the humanities, and that “humanity” is what is gradually being denied. We don’t joke with that. We understand all these issues of bad organisation that Culturesfrance has placed us all, in which you are also a prey to, but don’t try to make our kids suffer the sins of your fathers. We aren’t asking for much, just do the right thing.”
Little i wonder if i myself knew what the right thing was apart from a “normal hotel.” I was however, most times ready to go into explanation and analyses, for my rational mind tells me that my argument has substance, but their refusal to accept that fact, makes me worry about their stance, and their reactions kept coming in such an aggressive manner, that only a similar pride could harmonize.
The King came back into the room unreformed; clearly his ego seemed exhausted for there was no space left for the power excitement of his triumph and fulfilment over me. Perhaps his next tactic will be to frizzle me in the rising embers of his righteous anger, with speed at which he yanked the door open and barely taking a step before the next, perhaps he intend to soften me with a disorientating tactics of sudden hurricane violence. Or at worst, to prove his superiority, he could just hand us keys to some five star hotels in Cotonou. All these possibilities were there present in his abrupt entrance. The apparition was fear-provoking in its suddenness; he was indeed like a creature that escaped from a nearby zoo. Certainly some forces whirled him towards my direction and it was difficult to imagine that his speed was unaided.
“This boy is so arrogant and there is certain way i treat your type...”
My involuntary response could not be brought under control, i had no chance but to speak right back at him, no need to antagonise this wild king, since i have continually encountered only venom from him, with an abrupt change to some moods which i presume registered acceptance of whatever challenge he came back to pose. With an equal abruptness i replied him.
“Do you want to know who is arrogant? People like you and the entire French politics in Africa. That is what i define as arrogance.”
“You are in my home here and i define things”
“Just like i said you are becoming too comfortable here, go out a bit to see reality, we are in Africa, your home is miles away...” from now on i began to talk with a very clear withdrawal from the conversation; i became very nonchalant to his venom.
“No, this territory is a French territory and if you don’t behave yourself i will call the Interpol to repatriate you from this country.”
This was when i realised that this king must be unofficially high on some mushrooms, i couldn’t fake this one, and the laughter came just as sincere as I was with him.
“You are still stuck with your political science classes, a French want to deport a Nigerian from Benin republic, did i here you right?”
“If you think i can’t do that, you just wait and see”
“No you can’t be serious, for your information, i am a Nigerian, i don’t need a visa in this country, if i take a bike now i will be home in one hour or two, but do you know how far you are from home, and you permit yourself to exercise such arrogance on me here”
“I brought you to my home and i am capable of sending you out...”
It was then i stood up and walked to the back of the auditorium, the talk was getting nowhere, and i began to get fed up. Florent took the relay baton
“All these will not get us anywhere, i...”
The King cuts in “I just want to prove to him that i know what i am doing, what is this in my hand?” he showed them a piece of paper “i thought he said i have made up my mind before coming here, here are the hotel reservations that we just got now”
“so you finally have some hotels for us” said Florent. I thought to myself – finally we are getting somewhere – before Jacqueline cuts in again.
“But Florent said they can pay the hotel with their own money if we pay them in cash...”
It was as if i didn’t hear clearly, and The King was also interested in that solution
“If you want to do that that is also possible” i came back with my intervention
“No, you guys can’t be for real; you want us to pay our hotel? And you are not ashamed about that? amazing. Well we will agree to pay for the hotel, but you can be sure that no one is performing here.”
Eventually after two hours of talks and energy wasted, they arrived with two or three options,
“The driver will take the three representatives to visit these hotels and see which of them is OK for you.” The options A, B and C that we had were all of the same, a relatively two star hotel, mostly used for “short time” as we call it in Lagos, those sort of hotels where they hardly have people lodged there, but for young boys who need a place to dis-virgin their girl friends, or even worse a ready room where prostitutes takes their customers regularly.
We have been travelling since yesterday early morning, from Dakar, to eventually check-in in a Hotel room at 7pm today, and we have a show tomorrow. This treatment is not an exclusive one. During the entire tour we were constantly literally teaching the personnel of the French Institutes their jobs. Cotonou just happened to be the most shocking. By the time we got to the hotel, our body fluid was beginning to dry off, talking all day to get a two star hotel, if we need anything better perhaps we will have to talk for another few weeks for the hotel to add one more star. We all agreed that it’s not really important to defeat the giant, but to hit him always that he doesn’t feel too comfortable.
(c) DIARY OF A MODERN TUAREG.