Joel Lukhovi and Sarah Waiswa are African citizens, based in Nairobi, Kenya to be more specific. They are also African Cityzens, a photography duo attempting to travel the entire continent – in stages – over a a number of years. Their intentions are multiple: to capture Africa through an African lens, to promote local travel between African Union nations, and to investigate the story of ‘the African city’ and what this means to the people who live in them. As photographers foremost, they believe that the power¬†of images is one of the key points to emerge from these conversations.
African Cityzens is largely interested in¬†creating a narrative, visual and otherwise, about African cities. They say, “It‚Äôs interesting to see Africa through its cities. It is these cities that breathe life. They¬†spark a sense of belonging and identity just from the sound of their names: Khartoum, Bamako, Lilongwe, Dar es Salaam.” They hope to “translate our own tongue” by asking questions like, How do we (Africans) perceive cities? and Is the concept of cities new in¬†Africa and to its people?. They say, “It is easy to describe Africa through its political or national¬†boundaries. African Cityzens believes it is essential¬†to look at our cities as cultural and social zones that play a key role in the social,¬†political and economic construct of a given country.¬†Unfortunately, many of us don‚Äôt know or understand our¬†cities inside out.”
It is also the space between these major metropolises that holds answers for the pair, “We are most interested in the in between zones, or rather the transitions from one¬†system to another, from one city to another, from one material to another. From the¬†visible to the invisible.”
So far, their journeys have taken them¬†across Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia,¬†Egypt, Rwanda, Somalia, Somaliland, Malawi, Zanzibar, Zimbabwe, Zambia and¬†Mozambique, most often by bus. Their next trip, which they are currently planning, will take them into West Africa.
The art scene is strong and kicking in Harare.
What have you gained personally travelling the continent?
Africa has a lot of lessons to learn from, both good and bad. We have learnt its value systems and moral lessons, a continent of ratings and instant gratifications.¬†We are learning that Africa is a step away from completely dissolving into an image¬†and yet at the same time the very tools that have been used to construct this fictional reality are also available to subvert the process.
Have you had your perceptions of a place changed on your trips?¬†
African Cityzens took to the road with a very open mind. We prepared ourselves to¬†experience whatever comes along the way. To tell the truth the least we could do¬†was to research the next city we would be visiting. We talked to some friends¬†on the other side, then booked a bus and hit the road. We basically wanted to¬†experience life as it is and it has been an amazing venture this far.
We thought Harare would be bad, but we were extremely surprised by this¬†city. It has a resemblance to Nairobi: the planning, the architecture, the streets¬†and its people. The art scene is strong and kicking. Harare has a thriving sober heart¬†beat.
Unfortunately, foreigners¬†have told our stories.
Do you find there are problems with mainstream travel writing about Africa?¬†
It‚Äôs true. There are challenges with mainstream travel writing. In fact, there are lots¬†of difficulties. Most of these writings have been done based on a foreigner‚Äôs point of¬†view. This then makes certain situations or conditions appear different. For¬†instance, white men travelled to Africa with the idea to discover new lands. Looking at¬†this narrative makes one wonder whether no one lived in these lands before. Of¬†course people have lived, are living and will be living here. Unfortunately, foreigners¬†have told our stories. Foreigners have written even most of our history we learn in¬†schools. Stories shape cultures. Cultures shape people. It is then important to get the stories right for our people. It‚Äôs also up to us to decide these stories.
Travel writing in Africa is not for the benefit of the locals. It only ‚Äúfavours‚Äù a certain¬†group of humans. Moreover, this writing shows a narrative that has probably been¬†passed by time as well. Africa has unique and unexploited places to die for. Just¬†move around and see.
As African Cityzens, our main objective is to push the discussion on the AU passport¬†that will allow African citizens of good will to travel easily across the continent¬†without constant hindrance from bureaucratic immigration¬†regulations.
During your travels have you come across many other African tourists¬†travelling the continent?
Yes we have come across a number of tourists from Africa in certain cities during¬†our journeys. However, many of them are not receptive to the idea of travelling by¬†themselves over land in Africa. Many were surprised whenever we got the chance to¬†share our story. Africans themselves fear travelling¬†because of security reasons and the financial implications involved. It is expensive¬†to travel in Africa because there is no proper transport infrastructure, unless you fly.
Imagine AU buses or trains criss-crossing the continent¬†from city to city?
In terms of visas or other travel logistics, have you found the system geared¬†towards making movement between African countries difficult or easy?
It‚Äôs a 50/50 thing. No¬†one is completely guaranteed it will be an easy flow. Something can easily come up¬†and completely change travel plans. You just have to be prepared for anything.¬†You also need to have a strong head and positive mind at all times.¬†African Cityzens has encountered certain setbacks with a couple of embassies¬†refusing to issue us with visas or delaying the process. For instance, we had to cancel¬†our round trip journey to central Africa early this year because it just could not¬†happen. The logistics were extremely crazy and beyond our control. You¬†have to think about transport, accommodation, border control and security plus¬†many more surprises that come up.
As African Cityzens, our main objective is to push the discussion on the AU passport¬†that will allow African citizens of good will to travel easily across the continent¬†without constant hindrance from bureaucratic immigration¬†regulations.¬†Secondly, African Cityzens is making images meant to influence the role of AU to its¬†people. It is essential for the AU to work hand in hand with African governments or the¬†private sector to map a proper transport network that will favour cross-border¬†movement via road and rail. Imagine AU buses or trains criss-crossing the continent¬†from city to city? That is the idea. A system which works for its people.