In my room, just beside the shelf that houses my treasure drove—my books—there is a plain wall recently decorated with a newspaper clipping. A picture of a woman walking on a deserted road, facing north, backing the camera. A baby on her back and what appears to be a few of her belongings neatly stacked together on her head. There are skeletons of Okada and burnt vehicles lining the single carriageway, the lined scrap metals stand straight like sacks of sands which the military usually use for their road blocks but this one is hardly a military roadblock for one reason, there is not a single soldier in sight. Instead, very far away, there are men and women fizzling here and there, blending into the rusting green trees in the environment.
At first sighting, one is tempted to assume who she is—this woman—she looks like a hawker but the sack on her head dissuades. Also when one looks further, she seems like a random person who was caught on the off by a person handy with a camera. But on a second look and this is what makes this photograph special for me and this is why I keep returning to it despite all these years of owning a copy of this journal of a Lagos Workshop on displacement, migration and refugeeism, one can see that she is either leaving or returning.
On a more serious examination of the newspaper clipping, I see that this woman is returning to a life she had once known. Returning to claim belongings she may have once upon a time assumed gone. And at this kind of moment, I can’t help but ponder upon why I insist on returning to this photograph. The photograph was taken by Tom Saater and is titled A woman with her baby returning back to Michika after the Nigerian Army re-claimed the town from Boko Haram occupation for more than five months.
I return because I know that it is stories like hers that elude us when we think about our places on this planet. Stories which when told with words, get categorized as clichés and redundancies. But with a camera, they become different, they happen again and again every time we look upon them and they stay frozen in the moment, in the centre point of time and engrave themselves unto our consciousness. For moments like this when pictures like this, pick up the speakers and speak more words than a thousand essays would—could—is why I love photography. I sometimes have dreams which places me in the midst of places like this. Dreams like nightmares, with questions nibbling at my memory as I burst awake into reality from such dreams sweating and clutching my notepads for a quick scribble.
I wonder what these people whose livelihood shifts on the basis of war or natural disaster do when they are faced with the prospects of return. I ask myself this question all the time, especially at moments when I consider the banality of my own blessings. Or the simple wish to leave, the recurring trial to find a better reality and my dissolution with my current one. I see how useless it is for the likes of me to complain or judge and I wish to understand more how these people do it.
How they settle into their new realities when everything which were once familiar becomes ghosts of the past, reminding them of the people and things they have lost. I wonder how they react to sudden movements or alarming cries and the likes. How if they have decided to return, what home means to them. But one may never know, not even when one reads of their stories in newspapers or magazines.
I also know of some of us, whose lives are yet to be displaced by the physical forces of simple and illogical wars. But are constantly on the run from the present, constantly in a search for a future they have no idea of. Like the judeo-christianic Abraham, who left his household in search of a place God was to show him. I know of people disillusioned with their current locations who sometimes when they get the chance to leave, realize at the midpoint of their journeys that they are not ready. Then, another dilemma hits them, to return home or continue in the search of the intangible. So when I think of displaced people, victims of war and the likes, I like to think along this lines and ponder at the mental fatigue these things cause upon the people.
But the lingering question of where home is, may yet remain unanswered for a few more years except perhaps someone decides to answer the other question about why we are always searching for home in other places or other people.