The Colonizer’s Archive is a Crooked Finger: A Photo Essay
“Colonial photography perpetually assaulted what became the Nigerian body.”
As strangers, we are bound to a collective fate. The world is a storehouse for all the names and gestures we share. Occasionally it stretches beyond its bounds. My future replaced your past; my present is backdated until yours arrives. Time is shuffled.
you have cut short your lifeI received an assignment from God!
What I know about the dead, I imagine.
All those to whom I entrust the meaning of my life, its promise, its secret ambitions and unnamable longings: They are contraband. I smuggle them into my heart, my hands folded in prayer: “Stay with me.”
in spite of
Lovers know this, but often need to be reminded: No desire is misplaced. As a river knows itself a tributary, so desire travels, surrendering, undulating.
A hushed contemplation succeeding survival: figures beside trees, trees towering sempiternally, a clearing in the foreground. Before the calm, so the caption suggests, there was a fight involving those photographed. It is possible to see how, in the manner the picture is framed, the canopying trees are well-suited for a camp, a hideout, especially if the enemy is expected to approach from the front. And if indeed these are people hibernating after a tragic fight, in the muted outline of their backs, and in the adagio of their demeanor, the trees become threnodial, rooted in lament.
Trees bear witness. A recollection of horror, a century after, even if compressed in a sentence, or in a short paragraph with only numbers of victims, may not miss the detail of what tree provided shelter for the displaced. Who wept with his back against a trunk; who stood enfolded in a shade wondering where he might have lost his dagger; who plucked a leaf and, lost in thought, ran her fingers toward its acuminate tip? Certain truths, henceforth, will be known as estimations, not fact.
Supposing I take the caption at face value, I have no information on the location, or the scale of the fight, how many dead or injured. Whether in the northeast or northwest of then colonial Nigeria. Whether the fight was one in opposition to a British expedition, in which, without doubt, the locals lost. Whether two communities, their languages and origin stories similar, continue an irreconcilable boundary dispute—this time stoked by a feeling of betrayal after their neighbor entered into alliance with British tax collectors.
I sense in the photograph, as can be said of all such stories, the conterminous nature of violence. Taken universally, what is termed violent, at least in legal jargon, involves the intention to act as well as the action itself. But what makes all violence arguably conterminous is their aftermath. How the survivor remembers, grieves, curses, regrets, or takes vengeance. In the photograph, I tend to see the survivors taking stock of a fight invariably leading to another. I see how, under the universal tree in which people take refuge after a fight, the foretaste of another horror is dreamed.
Consider me a reckless pessimist. Yet one afternoon, while writing this, I spent considerable time browsing a database of recent recorded deaths, owing to clashes between farmers and herdsmen in Nigeria. No recent nationwide conflict is as widespread or far-reaching: The central grouse seem to be herdsmen who take offense at farmers for inhibiting their grazing cattle, or farmers who take offense at herdsmen for destroying their crops. Deaths are reported in Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Cross River, Rivers, Enugu, Anambra, Nassarawa, Niger, Edo, Abia, Zamfara, Oyo, Ogun. Some attacks are reprises, others are initiated after careful planning. Most are reportedly led by herdsmen. Victims are often unarmed.
What interests me in the reports of the killings, especially those facilitated by the herdsmen, is the circuit of their itinerancy. It is trite to generalize the herdsmen, as is often done, as “Fulani.” Or, to generalize those who kill for the sake of cattle as herdsmen. To understand the phenomenon, one might attempt to draw an errant map. How is it possible that herdsmen move unhampered throughout the country? What unconventional routes, across land and along riverbank, do they know by heart, passed down from ancestor to progeny?
Those routes, mapped, delineate violence. A horde of villains travels toward an unsuspecting village. The victim moves in the opposite direction, no known destination in mind.
On the day he died, a video was found on his mobile phone. His name—who he was, what he looked like—is unreported. We know him in the news as the man who made a video of boatfuls of men heading to attack an unsuspecting village in northwestern Enugu state. He outlived that initial attack, but died two weeks later in another clash, when the mobile phone was found on his body. His anonymity joins the namelessness of his cohort, villains without prominence—but who, at the moment they looked at a victim with vengeful bloodlust, as they touched a trigger or thrust a machete, could have recognized in themselves, for the first or final time, a feeling of worth, a kind of purpose.
In the six-minute video, on each boat, men are either sitting or standing. They wait to be rowed away. It is a chilly morning, getting warmer. Some men take off their sweaters, some keep on their caps. When the video begins, a man raises a rifle toward the sky and cocks it. Throughout the time we watch them, their voices are raised, deliberating or pointing out a fact, in Fulfulde, Hausa, Gurma or Zarma. Some beckon toward the sea, eager to move. Others are hunched in pensive silence. On a few occasions there is a man who says, “Amin, Amin.” Another calls out “Kai, Kai!” One holds up a cell phone, looking up a number. Once, there is a clicking sound of a camera; perhaps the sound is of a gun being readied. The voices subside as the first boat pulls away. Again a voice rises above the rest. “Amin.”
Why did he make the video? For whom? Such questions lead to an equally fruitless activity of speculating on why those who lynch others make a record of the horror. What we might want to know, if this is possible to know, is how the video records men contemplating the severity of the task ahead. On whose face does doubt appear, even for a second? How might we see a man wondering about the easiest way to kill an unsuspecting victim? Was there a young man, cheered by the pressure of his peers, who entered the boat trembling at the thought of killing a human for the first time? These questions, aggregated, make the video a sliver of consolation. Men seen before they kill: a permanent record of possible repentance.
There is a moment when one of the men becomes aware of being filmed. He turns away quickly.
If colonialism breached the progressive time of the colonized, it also confirmed the suspicion that no time is unilinear. Imagine, then, a time bordered by a vicious colonial experience on one hand, and the uncertain future of an independent nation on another. I direct the affront of this essay at those whose lives unfold within those borders.
When a beggar solicits for a gift, the request is not merely pressing and immediate, as it is recurrent. The contract between beggars and their audience is perpetual. In the same way, those who solicit identities from the past do not do so to understand how their lives might have unfolded differently. They do so with the persistence of looking for the faintest reflection of what they are, or might become.
The archive is a crooked finger thrust forward.
However you classify memory, it does not belong to the past. I do not declare this with authority, not even figuratively. I declare it as an investigation.
What I know of the dead, I imagine.
For the sake of this essay, I have cropped away their faces and left yours. I look at you. I remain with you.
One needs a theory of time that doesn’t measure life in terms of bodily age, physical presence, or fate. One needs a theory of duration that puts in consideration the limitless nature of human consciousness. When I was a boy, and thought of you often, sometimes faking tears to elicit pity from my schoolmates, I would close my eyes to remember your face.
Emmanuel Iduma is the author of A Stranger’s Pose, a book of travel stories, and The Sound of Things to Come, a novel. Born and raised in Nigeria, his stories and essays on art appear frequently in journals, magazines, artists’ books, and exhibition catalogues. He received a 2017 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation grant in arts writing, and is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts, New York.