I've been invited to Nigeria for an artist residency and to teach photography at University of Kwara, one of the thirty-six forming the Federation of Nigeria. During six weeks I've been exploring it's capital, and found all sorts of interesting things.
Forty-five years ago, the Emir of Ilorin, the capital of Kwara, gave the blind folks of his city their own neighborhood, called Koro Afoju, which means ?the refuge of the blind?. It is under the authority o the Makafi Serkin, or the King of the Blinds, who's traditionally elected by his blind people and represents the Emir of Ilorin and is mandated by the Emir to settle social matters among his blind constituency.
In Nigeria, people with disability or physical impairment are not addressed in the politically correct manner we are used to in the West; a cripple is not ?differently abled? but a cripple, a blind is a blind and that?s it. Everything is accepted and starkly exposed. Wounds and impairments are visible to all, often exhibited to pity or scare, and sometimes in order to get some small change from passers-by.
These are strange things in the eyes of Europeans, of whom I knew asking why at a particular intersection on the road that I ride every day on my way to the university, is filled with only blind beggars. Sunday Johnson, the assistant the School of Visual and Performing Arts has assigned to me, brought me to the King of the Blind. He gave us audience in a modest house in the blind neighborhood.
I explained in length the reasons for my curiosity, the fact that I work for a cultural project which focuses on authority and power, I presented my credentials, and then offered a small sum with an agreement that I would come back with more. (Everything has a value, as well as economic and symbolic, and the gift of money, always exhibited, confirms and celebrates). After protracted negotiations in English-Yoruba-Hausa and vice versa, conducted by my assistant and the Prince of the Blinds (a young man, who?s eyes are perfect) then the King granted us an appointment to photograph his court.
A few days later, in the company of my students, I walked through the maze of alleys leading to the center of the neighborhood of the blind. We hovered around a multitude of children, happy as birds of the novelty of seeing a very pale man, anOyibo, as they call white people, coming to visit their king. At a point when we were in an open space between houses the Prince, wielding a slipper, cleared the teeming crowd of children from the regal space, but nothing he did subdued the curiosity of the children, who reappear a second later by a window or another alley.
In the devastating heat of that day, drenching in sweat and so humid that you could not see through glasses and objectives, first appeared in the court were the dignitaries, accompanied by the Yerima Makafi, the Waziri Makafi, the Turaki Makafi, and finally the Makafi Serkin, the King of the Blind, who took his place at the center of the group.
For a few minutes silence fell across the royal court, then cameras started glowing, the children also resumed their chirping, and my students began to interview the King and his court, carefully noting their every word in their notebooks.Finally, when the time came to wrap up the event and take leave, I put the promised gift in the regal hands which, after feeling it?s consistency, delivered the tribute to the Treasurer of the Blind, another blind man. To this day I wonder how the Treasurer carries his normal duties, given his handicap in telling one Naira note from another. But this topic in itself deserves an entire story devoted to it.
Full of wonder and amazement, we hit the road again, surrounded by crowds of children who screamed excitedly at me, imploring me to take a photograph of their favorite blind. And only the threat of the sticks being wielded by the elderly blind women sitting on the side of the street plucking poultry, caused the children to disperse.
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