ktravula – a travelogue!

art. language. travel

The Herdsmen of Ostana

Two Thursdays ago, about fifteen hundred feet above sea level, I was beholding one of the most picturesque landscapes in Italy from a vantage point in Ostana, a town 60km Southwest of Turin where I’d gone for a week-long celebration of the diversity of language, among other things. It was an elective choice. The Monviso, the most famous rock head in the area, had obscured itself among the clouds for so long during the week that my patience had run out waiting to get a complete view. The problem was that this, like other days, was not going to work either. Rain had just begun to fall.

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But that wasn’t a deterrent for an intransigent guest insistent on a wholesome experience of this strange and charming place. Having spent the previous days in warm and stimulating company, in festival days with Italian and Occitan conversations and activities, the legs had begun to make other demands on one’s curious mind: what would it be like to walk down this hill on foot? Who would one meet on the road, and what kind of reaction would this African stranger elicit, especially for a native resident unaware of the international festival taking place way up the hill. All the trips up the hill where daily festival interactions took place (aside from feeding) from the Rifugio Galaberna (where we made lodging) always happened through rides in the vehicle of one of the festival participants.

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And walking down the hill wasn’t as bad as previously thought – if one removes slipping on the wet grass and almost splitting one’s limbs apart as a likely disadvantage. It was the price of short-cutting the winding road to walk instead through the grassy corners that ran through small chalets on the side of the hill. And with the drizzling cold rain dripping onto my back, the only other positive left in the air was the anticipation of a room warm enough to spend the rest of the afternoon in the company of a fellow traveller from Lagos, my wife, who had elected, since that morning, to spend the day alone resting from the previous day’s extroverted engagement. And then, the bells!

I’ve heard of “cow bells” and seen them in animated advertising for its eponymous brand of milk in Nigeria, Cowbell Milk, but I had never heard nor seen them before, so the clanging that called me from on top of the hill had an initial promise of a surprise carnival of which I, as a stranger, had just not been made aware. Maybe there was a masquerade too, and a dance. It could have been a nice relief from the now boring walk down a lonely road down a pretty hill. I was joined, a few minutes later, by Valentina, my host and sponsor, who had begun to look for me to come for a photo shoot for prizewinners which had been slated for that afternoon. As a researcher, she had once followed a herd of shepherd up the hill for months in order to document their habits. So she, too, enarmoured by the clanging below, abandoned her vehicle and walked with me towards the charming sound. And there they were: herdsmen and their cattles!

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This migration, we learn, starts at this time of the year, when the leaves are green and summer is ripening, and lasts for four months during which the cattle and their herders trudge up the hill on foot until they reach its summit, in early fall, for access to all the greenery as far as eyes can see. And when winter begins, then return home, perhaps more rapidly this time, in time for milking and selling the cows as the case may be. But this slow, deliberate, march is a celebrated fact of life for the mountain shepherd and his family. From observation, the roles seem well marked: the woman/women take care of the feeding and well-being of the men, keeping a steady flow of hot coffee on a gas stove, and charming every passer-by with a taste of that and other snacks, and conversation. The men watch the animals, with the help of herding sticks and hunting dogs.

There are small cars too, following the herd like guardians. They will be used as places of rest during the day or during the night if nightfall ever finds them in uncomfortable locations. In this case, they were able to leave the cows at this choice pasture in order to return in the morning and continue the journey. It didn’t hurt either that there is some place where the herders can hide whenever the elements got too harsh. In short, it was a sophisticated set-up, befitting of such a lifestyle in such a region. But can’t help wondering what it was like before the tools of technology made it easier to be a shepherd with a vehicle.

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The men and women, like most residents of this area, speak Italian and French, two languages capable of all relevant needs, until the party encounters a stranger who only speaks English and Yorùbá with a smattering of French. Yet communication takes place, in the most ribald of ways as one would expect of a team of mostly male shepherds. Two young teenage children of the patriarch seemed more enchanted by what they’d assumed to be an interracial couple of Valentina and me, and would not let go. “Amante!” they screamed in mischief as we found our way back, out of their grip, back up the mountain. “No! Amigo!” I replied, in whatever language that translated.

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Later that evening, we heard the next day, some of the cows found their way down the hill, perhaps through sleepwalking, and had to be rescued with a truck that the shepherds always had nearby. The next morning, the clearing around the path where the cows grazed the previous day – and their dung deposits all around, including on the road – had shown how much damage a bunch of hungry cattle could do. “Thankfully,” I volunteered, they don’t trespass onto private properties. Someone told me not to be so confident. The only saving grace is that trespassers are dealt with appropriately enough to deter erring herdsmen from taking laws into their hands. Herdsmen also pay a form of tax for being able to graze on public lands, even if not in cash, at least in warmth and respect for the host communities. Shepherd culture might be the same everywhere, I thought. At the crux of their existence is a travelling gene and a desire to bridge boundaries while supporting the ecosystem through a dialogue with the land and animal relationship with it. But I also immediately conceded that the friendliness and warmth of this variant is a welcome departure from what is currently familiar.

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Photo from the blogger and Valentina Musmeci

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“There’s a lot of ignorance amongst ourselves.” Interview with Uche Okonkwo

Uche Okonkwo is one of the participants in the ongoing Invisible Borders road trip. Born in September 1988, she has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester, UK. Her short stories have been published in print anthologies and online. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria where she works as a Managing Editor at Farafina. In 2014 she won the first ever Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction for her story, ‘Neverland’. Her work is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Per Contra and ellipsis. I caught up with her for a brief chat about her work and her experience on the road.

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Uche-Okonkwo2Do you hear this question “Is ‘Uche’ a female name?” very often?

I think Uche is a fairly common female name. I know more female Uches than male actually. But, strangely enough, I get this question often.

You currently work as a managing editor in Lagos. What does a managing editor do?

A managing editor manages an editorial department. So, along with actual editing, a managing editor manages other editors, graphics designers, authors, illustrators and freelancers. A managing editor also decides (or plays a key role in deciding) what gets published by the publication or publisher.  

Your interest in this trip, you mentioned, is to explore this same issue of identity with the people you meet, trying to understand how their language competence affects the way they look at the country. I’m very interested in this. What have you found so far?

Well, I’ve shifted the core focus of my work on this trip from language. Now my focus is on questioning the idea of ‘unity in diversity’. Language will become secondary to my work, one of the ways through which I will look at the idea of diversity in the various locations where we visit.

I’ve chosen to shift focus in this way because I realize that this (the subject of Nigeria’s diversity and how we are able or unable to be unified because of or in spite of it) is actually the big question behind my thoughts, and it then leads into language, identity and so on.

What informs your artistic and creative interests, besides the multiethnic nature of your upbringing – which many Nigerians share? And how long have you had these curiosities?

Simple answer: anything can and does inform my artistic and creative interests. I cannot name one thing. Books, movies, other writers, places, my faith, romance and heartbreak, human behaviour, it could be anything. But more specifically, I tend more toward exploring human relationships in my writing.

As far as “the multi-ethnic nature of my upbringing” goes, it’s not something that I can say has been of particular or special interest to me with my writing. It’s just the thing that sparked my interest in looking at identity and diversity, for this particular Invisible Borders road trip.

But relationship with Asaba must also play a role. It was moving to read your account of your father’s recounting of growing up in Asaba during the Nigerian Civil War.

I wasn’t brought up in Asaba. My family moved to Lagos when I was about three years old, and we’ve been there since. Which is why, even though I have visited Asaba over the years (though not very often), the story of the place and its history are not very familiar to me. Uche3

Who are your biggest artistic/creative influences?

The writers that I read (of which there are many). And the people in my life: friends, family, relatives.

Your story “Neverland” which won the first Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction is a beautiful tale of love, heartbreak, vengeance, mischief, and redemption, in under 500 words. You said it was inspired by nostalgia, and that was evident. How many more like that have you written, and when should we expect a book?

I’ve written many pieces of flash fiction, a lot of which appear on my blog. I’ve also written many short stories, some of which have been published or are forthcoming in magazines and journals. I’m currently working on putting together a collection of short stories, but it’s not something I’m in a big hurry about.  

What do you remember most fondly about the Etisalat Prize experience?

I think my fondest memory of the experience was the awards ceremony itself, when Ama Ata Aidoo announced my name. She went, ‘oh, it’s a girl!’ and there was such happiness in her face and tone. I liked how pleased she’d seemed.

How did you get into the Invisible Borders project?

I heard through a friend that Invisible Borders was looking for a writer for this road trip. I had heard about Invisible Borders before and had always been intrigued by the idea. And so when I heard this I told my friend I was interested, and I sent a sample of my writing, which she passed on to Emmanuel Iduma, and that was how it began. It’s been a great experience so far, working with these wonderful artists and learning so much. And the people from the Diamond Bank team (who are travelling with us) have been amazing as well.

Uche2I got on this road trip because I recognized it as something important and timely. I think that as much as we say that Nigeria is one country, there’s a lot of ignorance amongst ourselves; about our past, about the country’s different ethnicities. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about our future as a nation. Projects like this road trip help us to explore and ask questions and start necessary conversations about our identity, as individuals and as a people.

On a more personal note, I enjoy travelling, and road trips more so. No way was I going to pass up on this opportunity, in spite of my fears about visiting a place like Maiduguri.

Considering your experience for the last couple of weeks on the road, what would you describe as your most memorable experience?

I think that so far my most memorable experience has been in Asaba. Hearing my dad talk about his experience of the civil war was particularly powerful for me. Besides that, there have been many other precious moments during the trip: from visiting with Pa Ayomike in Warri to meeting the Iyase of Asaba, and the many serendipitous encounters with strangers that ended up having such a profound impact. Even just sitting and talking with the other participants of the road trip is often enriching and insightful.

What are your plans for the nearest future?

My plans are to keep writing and finding ways to do (or keep doing) the things that I enjoy, and to take life one day at a time.

Thank you for talking to me.

Thank you for your time as well. It’s been a pleasure.

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Photos from Invisible-Borders.com and KonnectAfrica.net.

You can read interviews of other current participants on the trip here and here and here.

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For Ọlákìítán (April 30, 1984 – May 31, 2016)

Laitanxxby Yemi Adésànyà

“I will see you when I return”, I said

But the reply came as an empty sound

Followed by a reverberating crash

And simultaneous burst of love-laden eyes

Caked over a closed retina of time and reminiscences,

Congealed bonds that neither bleed nor budge

Baked over thirty-two fleeting years in a familial furnace.

Six green bottles on the village wall

One fell to the horror of a purblind audience

Sending shreds of tears through transatlantic waves

Mouths ripped by ripples of shock

As phones ululated in mournful ring back tunes

Disbelief became the punctuation for grieving souls

But the rainbow was already sealed in an obdurate cask.

Raw hearts flickered and shivered

In muted sopranos and suppressed throes

Rising to a crescendo of idiomatic anguish

As the creator chose to wield his pleasure wand

On the eve of an otherwise joyful birth.

Life began before we saw it emerge

A fair maiden in head-turning pageant strides

when we met her with a full possessive embrace.

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Nobody warned us that our hold was too snug

We wouldn’t have heeded anyway

And together, we journeyed through laughter and storms

There is no earthly cure for this riling wound

Tears are too slippery for any tangible grip.

No support holds true for our flailing souls

Words fall flat, too dry and blunt,

Drained to ashes of their ephemeral meanings.

Prayers have become snails, crawling to heaven.

Will they return to us in time with a consoling riposte?

This loss is fine sand on the clean Gambian beach

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No matter how boxy your shoes are

It permeates

Deep inside the craters between your soul’s toes.

Far away on a smothering homeland bed

A bright star had dropped from an impossible height

Piercing the earth with its sharp, stringent, edges

Sending particles flying into the eyes of all

Who watched its illumination.

We could only look on in helplessness

The ship already sailed with our prized possession.

Larceny! We cried on top of our frail lungs

Then we were told she wasn’t ours to keep

We can only hold on to memories now;

Those are safely stashed away

Where no bandit can snatch them.

Poetry will not heal us of this loss

Tomorrow will surely be celebrated in a wan frock

Till we meet again on the blue skies of dreams

One-sixth of me died with Mayowa in May.

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Ọláìtán Máyọ̀wá Adéníran (nee Ọlátúbọ̀sún) is my only younger sister.

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Two Plays in Ibadan

Ibadan PlayhouseI was at the University of Ibadan’s Arts Theatre last weekend to see the staging of two children-oriented plays by two of Nigeria’s best playwrights Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan. The plays were Soyinka’s Childe Internationale and Osofisan’s Making Children is Fun. The selection was in honour of the International Children’s Day, and was performed by the Ibadan Playhouse, a theatre company based in Ibadan, and directed by Yinka Smart and Soji Cole.

Both plays are unique in that they show their writers in their most accessible (and playful) format. This applies more to Soyinka than to Osofisan, but the duration of each play (less than forty minutes each) marked both works as more of skits/sketches and short interventions than heavy and serious work. But that notwithstanding, the works addressed serious social, political, and cultural issues of today and of the time when they were written.

IMG_5393 IMG_5398 IMG_5403 IMG_5405IMG_5395 IMG_5396Speaking in-between the plays, as well as when the show was over, the director of the company, Mr. Ropo Ewenla, expressed appreciation for the presence of the audience, while speaking about the mission of the theatre company. Not only was it created to recreate a culture of theatre-going in Ibadan and around the country, the company is also on a mission to bring plays of significance to the audience at affordable gate fees. But more than that, he spoke about a mission to use the vehicle of drama to reach the less advantaged in the society.

Children from orphanages around Ibadan are invited regularly to attend command performances and martinées for free. Secondary school children are also invited to watch performances at reduced rates, and the theatre company hopes in the future to go out regularly to perform in Nigerian prisons as a way to humanise the inmates and workers. Definitely something to laud and to support.

My experience at the University Arts Theatre both as a student and as a regular visitor to the university has always been a fun and stimulating experience, and this was no different. I strongly commend what the Ibadan Playhouse is doing. They can do with even more (corporate, moral, financial) support.

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Interview with Yagazie Emezi

I caught up with Yagazie Emezi a while ago for a short conversation on her work and on the current Invisible Borders road trip. Here’s an excerpt:

You have spoken before about your interest in documenting physical scars on stranger’s bodies. What informs this interest? And what have you found?

For a while now, I have had a passion for body positivity and awareness, some of my videos address just that. Over the years, I have received numerous messages from people struggling to accept their bodies in various forms. I decided to embark on this project to find individuals who have come to terms with their bodies after going through extreme life changes and understanding their process so as to hopefully aid others still struggling to do so. I have found out so far, body acceptance is a continuous process. Just like we never stop learning in life, do we ever stop learning to accept ourselves through all our changes? Most of the people I have met yes, have accepted their bodies but it appears to be more of a resignation to their bodies.

Read the full interview on Brittle Paper.

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