An incredible journey through Africa which taught us about life, the politics of borders and art that derives from a mind that is free.
Leaving borders behind on an incredible road trip through Africa.
Have you ever, in one of your sunny daydreams, idly thought of a world without man-made borders? A world where you could wander as you please, no visas, no passports, no paperwork, and endless queues. A world where you could just walk into another country, revel in its culture, indulge in sparkling conversations with the people there, share ideas and experiences, all without worrying about checkpoints and barbed fences.
This planet we live on is seamless – streams flow into rivers which join oceans; lush plains melt into craggy mountains which stand against the sun that dips into valleys and rises over misty treetops in the morning. When you look at the world through these lenses, a world without borders makes sense.
This is what 12 artists from all over the world joined hands to imagine and recreate. This idea germinated and grew into a full-blown art project across Africa! The project which came to be known as the Great African Caravan aimed to use art as a way to connect beyond borders. But let me take you back to the start when on a hot July afternoon in 2016, I was stepping out of an art gallery when I saw my phone ring and Akram’s name flashed across the screen.
Akram, a traveller with a theatre background, had met me two years ago when he was driving down from Hyderabad to Kashmir in a highly colourful truck to get warm clothes for the Kashmiri people. We hadn’t talked a lot since then.
I looked down at my phone curiously. I picked up the call to some big news. Akram and a group of artists from all over the world and across various fields of art, photography, dance and music were coming together to traverse East Africa and shatter stereotypes associated with the continent. They planned to collaborate with local artists there whilst on a road trip through Africa to better connect with the culture and the lives of people there.
My first reaction was to contemplate whether Akram had finally tipped over the fine line of sanity and when he asked me if I’d like to be a part of the project, I instantly said yes.
I was introduced to some of the team members of the Great African Caravan on a video call. After the first couple of hellos, I asked them the first question that had been making the rounds in my head. Why Africa?
Helene, a photographer from Germany, answered this. Africa, the cradle of humankind, with its many stereotypes and turbulent political history provided us with ample space to smash its many stereotypes via art. With its wealth of cultures, ethnicities, lives and stories of human struggle, Africa has a lot to show and offer but the world hasn’t been listening. This was our chance to submerge ourselves in all that the continent has to offer and surface with something life-changing. We wanted to recreate all that we learnt on the move via art, to showcase the possibility of a world without borders. After some more questions and explanations, the mist in my mind as to the project had cleared somewhat. I was more enthusiastic than ever to get started.
We got cracking on the planning process. We mapped out the route we would take, started connecting with local artists in Africa for collaborations but we needed funding to see us through on this road trip through Africa for transport, fuel, food, lodging while we went through stops creating art.
The project was Akram’s brainchild and the burden of garnering funds fell on his shoulders. I left my job and decided to shoulder some of that responsibility. We started knocking on doors, we mailed and wore out our shoes meeting up with countless organisations. We reached out to embassies both in India and those in Africa. We would talk to them about our aim, about going beyond borders. They listened to us and nodded but at the end of the day, we still had nothing to show in the way of funds. You see, not many are interested in a world without borders.
You’ll recall that the fateful day since Akram’s call in the summer of 2016, time passed, nay it flew. Summer changed from autumn into winter and our deadline of setting out for Africa had been set for July 2018. There were many video calls, some buoyant with optimism and some dull and dejected after several rejection mails. Time rolled ceaselessly and soon, it was 2018. Our heads were full of great ideas that we wanted to execute but our hands were still empty.
This challenging period had some artists leaving and some stubbornly holding on to the dream through thick and thin.There were to be 12 artists who would travel across 12 countries in Africa. While some of them were there from the onset of the project, many joined us along the way. Apart from Akram, there was Helene, a photographer from Germany; Sai Kumar, a filmmaker from India; Yllka, an actress from Kosovo; Ife, a poet from Uganda; Sathya, Charan, and Shivi from India; Gala, a musician and sax player from Salta, north of Argentina; Ida, a writer from Amsterdam, Gilbert, another musician from Uganda; Alley from UK and Acheing’ from Kenya, both musicians and Rolland, a writer, who made up the extensive team. As you can probably guess, the team itself represented a sort of melting pot of cultures. Not only would this encourage the intermingling of many cultures but also ignite conversations which would lead to a great variety of ideas.
The whole team had taken on whatever they could. Making sure we had places to stay, artists to connect with but the only glaring problem that remained was that of funds. We borrowed what we could and invested our own hard-earned money but it wasn’t enough. Disappointment had begun to set in and the future of our African dream looked bleak.
This difficult decision later, everything seemed to move faster and before I knew it, I was airborne on a flight to Cape Town in South Africa. I peered out of the window to watch fluffy clouds basking in the sunshine, my stomach oddly hollow to make space for the feelings of excitement and nervousness coursing through me.
Until one day Akram stood up with new determination and said that we’d go ahead with our decided date of July 2018. The plan was to raise funds along the way in Africa. I gawked at him with disbelief but his words had seemed to bring in a new ripple of inspiration in the team. It was a tough call to be in a foreign land with so much uncertainty around us. How would we create art, drive through the unfamiliar continent AND raise money along the way? However, we each mustered up our courage and screwed it firmly to the sticking point. Akram was like the hardy sea captain minus the eyepatch, to our swaying ship in choppy waters.
The adventure had begun as soon as we landed in Cape Town. We had gotten there but our three cars for the road trip through Africa hadn’t, owing to paperwork issues. Much panicking and running around ensued until we managed to get the situation under control. If you’re wondering how, take a peek at the comics!
What followed was 8 months of an astounding journey during which we starved, pitched tents in the open, slept in places we’d never thought we’d sleep in, lived in super cramped quarters with zero privacy, rode around in cars as spectacular landscapes rolled past with the fuel gauge dangerously and most importantly, created art. Local artists, people and organisations came to our aid as we struggled, to make the journey a little easier for us.
I started with some graffiti work in a local school in South Africa. Apartheid was still very much evident in the way Cape Town had been planned out. There were beautiful roads and impressive structures in the economically well-off areas while the downtown areas where the coloured lived were congested and crime-prone. Despite several ominous warnings, we ventured downtown to connect with the people there.
Sometimes we succeeded in what we’d come here to do but sometimes we tasted failure. At such times, I felt disgruntled but kept going, both for myself and for the others while cracking poor jokes to exaggerated eye-rolls and some chuckles.
Zambia beckoned to us with its raw, rugged beauty. We stayed with a group called Circus Zambia, a lively group, who taught children the captivating art of the circus. We had started pushing our personal boundaries. Artists as most of our human kin is prone to bouts of selfishness. Every person wants to make their art or creation the most dazzling but here, we were taking a new approach. We were supporting each other in whichever way we could to bring out their best and make them shine. Akram would bring me paint in exchange for my wide, toothy smiles. Charan would be busy making calls and would make sure to have a gig for each day. Rolland got us a place to crash at when we’d come back home tired but happy with the day’s work.
Ife, one of our oldest and most experienced team members would often say serenely, “The wisdom is in the group”. I would often catch myself wondering exactly what she meant but her sage advice seemed sound. With so many talented people around from various fields of theatre, dance, art and music, Ife planned to pool in our abilities and put up a performance. I was told that I’ll be acting instead of wielding a brush this time. My acting skills were put to test and I can’t say that I dazzled everyone with hitherto unseen skills but the process of swapping ideas to make it happen was invigorating.
Upon reaching Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, I went inwards into the villages where I came in contact with many happy locals. Teaming up with the artists there, I put up a comic workshop to highlight the wealth of local stories and culture there. I learned their local art form of Tinga Tinga to make comics while the people there narrated their intriguing personal stories via comics. The comics they drew told of female genital mutilation, folklore and stories of traditional tribes caught in the process of modernisation. As we drove away, I hoped that in some small way I had succeeded in opening a door which had motivated them to express themselves.
I was amazed and excited in equal amounts to observe subtle Indian influences around me. Some words were similar in Swahili and Hindi, as was the food.
Bunny chow was a delectable product of Indian and African cuisines. A loaf of bread was scooped out to fill the hollow with Indian curry and in Zanzibar, we ate hearty meals of what resembled kadhi rice.
The food in itself was a variety of flavours I had never tasted. As we made our way through sub-Saharan Africa, we survived mostly on what is known as the maize meals, the staple in households there. The maize meal was simply, porridge with vegetables or grilled meat. Uganda had crispy fried grasshoppers by way of street food, which I sampled. It is safe to say that this snack is for those with a taste for the exotic. It was only missing some dipping sauce.
However, the lack of spices was taking its toll on the group of Indians with our Indian palates which craved for something spicy to titillate our taste buds. We got our wish as we drove above the equator towards the coastal areas which welcomed us with its salty sea breeze and sizzling plates of fresh seafood. By the time we reached Ethiopia and Egypt, we were in food heaven. Street markets bustled with activity and the aromas of sizzling food being cooked wafted towards us. We’d lost quite a few kilos eating the maize meals but once we crossed the equator, we piled on the lost kilos and more.
Throughout all this, however, our looming problem of the lack of funds threatened to eclipse our end destination- Cairo. There were plenty of hurdles on this journey of 12 strangers, meeting for the first time and coexisting in the same place. We had all brought with us our variety of cultures and their accompanying differences. There were boiling points and tiffs. Our lack of funding had pressures running high along with a bunch of hair-raising incidents that proved near fatal. However, clearly, I lived to tell the tale.
I learned a lot about myself on this journey. I learned to hear and watch what I’m saying because I was far away from home, coexisting with so many different people. I had to take care not to offend but to cooperate and be helpful in any way I could. It is emotionally exhausting to always be cautious with your words. I felt I was being watched and dissected and every night I would pack up my experiences and get ready for the next day. There were days when we didn’t have money for food or fuel or a place to stay. There were nights when we’d camp out in the wilderness and sleep in whichever nook or cranny we could find.
You could ask why we didn’t just give up on the coldness of tents and hunger, for warm beds and full bellies, back home. We were artists who were used to the comfort of our homes to create but here we were in this strange and delightful place, cooking our own food, doing our own laundry, creating art in our minds and out in the open and constantly driving, raising the dust on foreign roads. We kept going because our team was driven, arrived as they had, each with their own motivations lodged firmly in their minds. My own mad burning desire to watch the completion of this journey kept me going.
The road trip through Africa was equal parts rewarding; we watched green, rolling hills give way gradually to the vast, glistening golden expanse of the Sahara desert. We came across so many people who taught us all kinds of lessons that stayed with us, including the cool and somewhat complicated handshakes each region seemed to have.
Epiphanies are few and far in-between in our lives but on that journey, every day felt like an epiphany. Looking at the Sahara desert and the pyramids in Egypt was a glorious epiphany. Being hungry and still working to create was an epiphany.
I have poured all that I saw and felt into my comics, on this great adventure known as the Great African Caravan. An adventure where 12 whimsical, highly passionate and slightly crazy individuals packed up their tools and hit the road to face the unknown. We didn’t have money, support, fuel or available showers, but we made do with our thirst to prove that our goal was real.
Take a look at my African Caravan comics, where characters come to life with the many shades of their personalities, art that speaks volumes, culture that enriches and tales of thrilling adventures. There’s never a dull moment in the Great African Caravan!