African Nomads Part I: Lola Akinmade-Åkerström and The Art of Travel Photography
Travelling by any means necessary, from bike, plane, bus, motorcycle, donkey and on foot may not be your ideal adventure. But for a new generation of African nomads, it’s the only way to make the dream of discovering the continent for themselves, a reality. In his bestselling book, charting an epic journey from the Cape to Cairo, South African author Sihle Khumalo writes: “I discovered that… these so-called discoveries by early explorers were nothing but first sightings by non-Africans; local people knew about the rivers and lakes and waterfalls long before exploring Africa became such a thing to Europeans.” Khumalo’s views are shared by Chioma and Oluchi Ogwuegbu, two Nigerian sisters, who set out in 2008 on an adventure to uncover Africa in all its undiscovered glory, with the aim of taking people deep into the heart of the continent. The trend has grown to include movements like Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Photography Project, an art-led initiative established to encourage cross-continental artistic relationships. At the core of its mission, participants travel and engage in photography projects that tells Africa’s stories by Africans. Emeke Okereke, the project’s artistic director, believes that in the next 10 to 20 years, more young Africans travelling between countries will become the norm: “I see it vividly. I have no doubt about this cross-border movement,” he says. “I think that’s really where the innovation will be.” Here, six travellers already living the dream tell Wings about their experiences. Meet Lola Akinmade-Åkerström, 34, is a Swedish-based writer, photographer and globetrotter. Originally from Nigeria, she combines photography with travelling, and says her goal is to capture the contentment in the lives of those whom she encounters.
How would you describe yourself when it comes to your travels, a backpack traveller, heritage traveller, adventure seeker, what comes to mind where describing the kind of travels you embark on?
For me, travel is all about connecting with people locally, more than just seeing the landmarks and what I’m supposed to be seeing. So I really don’t have a label for myself. I just love to soak up culture, food, local traditions, meet locals, and travel slowly.
Where does your passion for travelling come from?
I come from a family of travellers. My grandfather was in the shipping business so he travelled a lot. My father is a geologist and this meant he was always travelling so I’d say subconsciously; my curiosity regarding the world around me was fed by their wanderlust.
You have been travelling to different parts of the world for years but where your travels to Africa is concerned, what takes you back there and why are you always hungry to go?
Africa is so rich on many levels – diversity, culture, language, lifestyles, traditions, ethnic nuances – and honestly, having lived in both the US and Europe for extended periods of time, there’s no place I feel completely at home like Nigeria. There’s a certain down-to-earth, call-you-out-on-your-bullshit vibe that I enjoy whenever I’m in Lagos. While every culture on some level is generous and inviting, I always ascertain that we Africans are unbelievably warm and inviting. We rarely turn each other away when it comes to sharing meals and invitations are usually “just show up” deals.
I understand you have been to Egypt, when was this?
When you compare your travels in other countries/continents to countries/places in Africa, what stands out and why?
Being African myself, whenever I return to the continent, it feels like I just slide right back into step and into the daily flow. In other continents and countries, sometimes I stick out; sometimes I’m treated poorly or as novelty. Though the same can hold true in some parts of Africa, overall, the continent’s complexity and richness in terms of culture and tradition always pull me right in.
Which country one has stood out the most in your memory and why?
Of the 40+ countries I’ve visited, I’ve only been to a handful of African countries which pains me. Mostly because every time I plan some grand trip, some higher priority often comes up. Case in point – I was planning travels around Kenya and Tanzania and was just about to buy my tickets when my intuition said, “Wait one day”. Well, I did and found out I was pregnant so those plans had to be put on hold. I’m longing for Botswana and Namibia. I’d love to soak up Gambia and Senegal. Lots of places to visit. Above all, Nigeria always stands out for me. Regardless of the fact that I’m Nigerian, it’s the vibe. The organised chaos that just works. The amazing creativity and ingenuity of our people. The parties. The markets. The lifestyle. The down-to-earth humour. Nigeria always does it for me.
In what ways has your travels within Africa had a transformative impact on your life?
Growing up in Africa and travelling around parts of the continent, I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for those nuances within each culture that makes it unique but at the same time, makes it very similar to mine. On the surface, Africa is extremely vibrant and bursts with colour. Vivid colours I grew up with – reds, greens, oranges and now as a photographer, I see my preference for vibrant colours communicated through my photography. Even photos I bring with me from stark Swedish Lapland with its muted hues are always vibrant in some way.
What have been some of the most interesting experiences that you have had travelling around and within Africa?
When travellers think of Egypt, biking around its steaming deserts isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but I and a small group of test riders hit the road on two wheels, starting in Hurghada and finally making our way to Luxor with key stops along the way such as sailing the Red Sea as well as a cruise down the Nile and some local Bedouin culture. I was in South Africa on assignment for the National Geographic Channel, where I got to travel around Durban and KwaZulu-Natal, photographing the amazing people and lifestyles I encountered while being filmed for a one-minute vignette called “Through the Lens” that aired on the National Geographic Channel.
Africa is evolving, for some that is good for others there are questions. But for you, when you look at Africa now, especially the countries you have been to and the changes they have been through or are going through and compare that to the image of old that the world still has of them, what gives you hope about those countries and the continent?
I’ll take Egypt as an example because I was there months before the revolution started. When I was travelling around the country, I could feel the frustration. The locals I was working with definitely voiced their concerns at the time, yet always remained hospitable and generous. My image of Egypt extends way beyond the demonstrations we’re often shown on TV. I’ve experienced that country on the ground level, and can vouch for the warmth of its people. I love what’s going on in Nigeria right now. Society has finally (and fully) embraced creativity and the arts without constantly relegating them to “hobbies”. This means many Nigerians are free to be themselves; to live their true callings; and to be the best they can be. That’s how a society succeeds, grows, and prospers. When people are realizing their talents, working within those talents, and contributing their best to the society. Why be a substandard doctor when you can be an exceptional painter contributing murals to some of the city’s landmark buildings?
You are a traveller, writer and photographer, all the elements of a storyteller and I have seen some of your images and the ones from Lagos have me thinking. In particular, The Tailors of Iponri, Jankara Market and Shopping for Ankara – I know Iponri well, well I used to when I lived in Lagos, why did you want to tell these stories using images and what did you want to achieve. And what was it like to discover you had more male tailors in Iponri than women, seems like a reversal of gender roles?
The privilege of being both a writer and photographer is knowing which medium best communicates what I want to communicate, and then using that medium. Nigeria is vibrant and there are elements of the culture that even the best storytellers can’t do justice to through words. Describing the rich patterns of an Ankara fabric is one such example. I’ll rather show a vivid photo of the fabric in question. With regards to the male tailors of Iponri, Nigeria and many countries in Africa are often portrayed as overtly male dominated societies where women do everything. But one of the dichotomies I love about Nigeria is just how much power women wield in certain domains. Markets being one example. The “madams” are usually the ones in charge with a workforce comprised of men running their ground businesses. I wanted to share this valid story of Nigeria as well.
When you take images/portraits of people while travelling the continent, what is the story that you want to tell about the individual, the people and the place?
People are beautiful enough in their simplicity, and I often want to catch that moment of contentment in a person’s life through my portraits. The “life dream” is very different for different people and it isn’t often material wealth. I don’t want to tell a story, but rather, I want the people and places I photograph to tell their stories themselves. I pull myself out of the equation and just show them as they are.
Africa’s story has always been negative when covered by western media…a trend that we are beginning to see change. As a storyteller, in what ways do you use photography through your travelling/journeys to add a different angle to the narrative of Africa?
I started a mini uproar on Facebook when I chastised a non-profit aid organisation on my profile for not only sending goats to Africa to help people but allow people who are contributing these goats to give them cute names. While their intentions were no doubt good, it also felt patronising. Coming from Ondo State myself, we’re known as the goat eaters among Yoruba culture in general. We don’t give our goats cute names. The point of this rant is that cultures on some level are inherently logical to those whose culture it is, and trying to assess someone else’s culture through Western-coloured glasses just doesn’t work. Living in Sweden, I’m still shocked by just how many negative images of Africa are being shown, compared to say the UK and USA which have a significant influx of Africans doing amazing things. The fact is, the average Swede who encounters an African in Sweden often thinks “refugee” first before other options bothers me. There’s still a lot of work to do but major thumbs up to global media outlets like Al Jazeera, BBC, and to some extent, CNN, for their Africa-focused programs that really highlight African changemakers and the continent’s depth.
The times you have been to African nations, have you in any way observed young Africans also travelling around the continent or is that something you would like to see more of and why?
I’ve often found more foreigners than young Africans travelling around Africa. This doesn’t surprise me at all as I still stand by the fact that it’s easier for non-Africans to go backpacking around the continent than for me as an African to go backpacking. If they go missing, their government will be sending out military fighter jets to go find them. I wish it wasn’t this way but that’s just how it is right now.
Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco – what was it like to experience Egypt and what stood out for you?
I loved Egypt. Mostly because of the people. Just the genuine warmth they emitted was so contagious. It made you want to be warmer and nicer to the very next person you meet. Of course you can say this about most cultures, but I really enjoyed my time in Egypt, especially in Aswan and cruising down the Nile.
When it comes to the culture of the African nations you have been to, what has been an eye-opener for you and what have you enjoyed about discovering these different African cultures that reveal the diverse nature of the countries and continent?
To be honest, Nigerians are a lot more aggressive than a lot of other African cultures and I thought I was going to be met with reservation whenever I introduced myself as Nigerian in other African countries. My reception couldn’t be farther from cold. Mostly because Nollywood has done a fantastic job in warming other cultures up to us Nigerians. And it’s then I truly begun to appreciate how we Africans treat each other as “Africans first”, country second. Hence, that is why the Egyptians I met kept referring to me as their sister.
Is it ever daunting going out there and travelling on your own as a woman and what other challenges/hurdles have you faced?
Travelling solo as a woman is not easy but I recommend every female traveller try it at least once. To be pulled out of your comfort zone into a world where you’re mostly relying on instincts (and frankly, God’s grace) is an important exercise for female travellers. I’ve faced the gamut of emotions from being almost spat on, harassed, and treated like a prostitute to being welcomed with open hands and people doting on my words, so solo travel builds confidence in yourself especially when dropped in situations where you have to rely on your gut. As for travel around Africa, it’s my dream to travel all 50+ countries in Africa and create portraits of everyday contentment. However that person or individual defines contentment. Not everyone wants hand outs. Many people are perfectly content as long as they have their basic needs met. Whatever those basic needs are. That is a side of Africa I want to show. Not the overachievers. Not those trying to build material wealth at all cost. Not the one dimensional stories of poverty and war we always see through award-winning photojournalists. I want to show images of basic contentment. Not complacency or lack of ambition. Just pure contentment.
What are your hopes for the future when it comes to travelling around Africa?
My hope is simple. I want to feel comfortable enough that when I go backpacking around the continent, my country and government would have my back covered if anything were to happen. Plain and simple. Right now, that isn’t the case unfortunately.
You have also been to Egypt, South Africa, Morocco and Nigeria, which country is next on your list?
Maybe East Africa (Kenya & Tanzania) but no firm plans yet. Would absolutely love to go to Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana, and Madagascar.
All images are courtesy of Lola Akinmade-Åkerström. Please do not use without her permission.