Over the last few days I have travelled far and wide across the Netherlands. It was a cold morning that Saturday. I woke up early. This not being my best feat over the years especially when I am to travel – I am known to support idiotic narratives of South Sudan’s political-military-tribal elite demanding that an aircraft wait longer on the runway, as they completed more important engagements. Shisha. Unending conversations with a beny somewhere.
Unfortunately, I never had such connections and thus more times than not, missing my flights. My names gave way I suppose. The closest relation to a military mad man is a man who married my distant aunt, and has stubbornly refused to pay dowry. I dare not approach him for what is rightly mine as per our customs.
The chill was almost stronger than what I experienced on the climb of the Great Wall. I could feel my skin tighten. “Why did I forget my jacket in the first place,” musing to myself. Walking back was no option. I wouldn’t risk reaching late to the bus station. Only to steal a view of the bus sluggishly depart. I was late! I have missed yet another bus. When will I learn?
The next bus arrived after eight. I sat there in the cold for what seemed like eternity. You would think, under the bridge, it would be warmer. Not at all. It was anything but warm. Thoughts of Dutch winter came flooding in. Summer has been cold they have said. Even by Dutch standards, this year’s summer has been cold. It felt like winter itself for all I can say. I counted the cars that sped off in the haze. Thoughts of childhood memories as we played a wishful game: the first person to spot a speeding vehicle and correctly name it; that person would claim ownership. At the end of the day, the one with the highest score was proud as pride could permit.
The bus did arrive… 5.00 € and I made myself comfortable. Some music would not hurt. Mazing through the countryside, farms and smaller villages…like the surging of a meandering river that swallows everything in its path in the lowlands, Emmen was a sigh of relief. It was a city and a train ride awaited me. I needed coins to make payment for a train ticket to Maastricht. A lady that attended a shop next to the train station was God-sent. She did more than a rescue. She smiled. An honest smile.
As with all my journeys, I was seemingly aboard a different train. A train of thoughts. Sheepishly striking a smile. At one point offering my seat so a mother and her two sons would enjoy the closeness of the three seater corner of the train. She was more perplexed than she could hide. I understood her confusion. These things happen. How many Africans, or even Dutch, could offer such gesture of affection? Well, credit goes to my reflexes and the unique train I was enjoying.
However, as with all short-lived lulls of joy, the lady and her children disembarked after three stops. Trouble follows me as it does all journalists. It is part of a DNA I can blame on my mother. Mother, because her genes should have overpowered my father’s journalism. I could have become anything but a journalist. I could have made a wonderful defense attorney—defending criminal senior government officials and their associates. The Known Gunmen!
While moving from my seat, I had forgotten to remove my backpack. As the family of three begun to fade from our minds, it soon descended upon two ladies that the bag was becoming the more suspicious. Three seats empty, a tightly packed black bag!! Glances spread through our part of the train. One courageous woman approached me and asked: “Is it your bag?”. Being one of three black persons in this section of the train, I struggled to brush aside what other thoughts swirled in my head. Only that I was wrong!! These woman were justified in their suspicion. At least considering they had witnessed a group of three noisy African migrants board the train at one stop, only to get off at the next stop. “The bag belongs to me. I forgot it there when I vacated my seat for a family that got off at an earlier stop,” I told my soft interrogators. Terrorism and its fear thereof has made vigilance of us all.
Maastricht was as beautiful as I expected. Old city streets blending seamlessly with rising modest architecture. I was booked to spend the night Kaboom Hotel. A minute’s walk from the train station, I checked in, a hot shower, tea and I was ready for a “getting-lost” experience. So I moved from one street to the next to see the city for myself. Luckily, before I could get lost, my phone rang. It was Mr Richard Dols, co-director of Doc/Fest – a cross-border documentary film festival that I had been invited to attend. I would go on to speak after the screening of A Haunting History (a documentary that encapsulates the struggles of a returning South Sudanese refugee whose Masters of Law degree causes more trouble than the celebration of his academic prowess that he, like many of us, expected. His delusion is shattered within the documentary, allowing no time for his predictions of a return to violence to be discussed.
Maastricht offered more than the film festival. I made new friends, expanded my networks. Meeting an amazing film producer who has seen far more Africa than white can grant. She knew pockets of South Sudan such as “Small London” and was conversant with my countries history of brutes than many fellow countrymen can accept. Perhaps we shall do some work together. Like a moth is drawn to fire, my new friend has a particular attraction to the “dark continent”. Her father had worked in South Sudan during the war years. A sister was born in the Sudan, she would later tell me, over Belgian beers.
Returning to Tilburg was as emotional as I imagined. My close friend from the Human Rights Tattoo project was kind enough to offer me his first floor bedroom. Other than my bad geography haunting me (the lessons I missed), all was fine. The a trip to Breda, to the College of Arts was filled with casual getting to know one another. The drive was far shorter than I expected. The Arts students were far smarter than I expected.
I hope they benefitted from my frank exposition of the realities of asylum life. My summary of a long trip from Africa that was necessitated by a curriculum vitae of arrests and tortures at the hands of South Sudan’s police and security forces, left shock written all-over faces in the room. Perhaps I ought to fashion my descriptions far less vivid.
These Art students are participating in a project with COA and IND. I was clearly invited to corroborate PowerPoint presentations and excerpts from both organisations and arms of the ministry of Security and Justice. Who better to contradict society than a journalist. Well, I spoke, I hoped to have spoken as an asylum seeker and not as a journalist. There is always too much grey area with these thinly veiled differences.
In the end, there was good discussion. And fairly good questions. They did shatter my prejudices about Arts students in the end. If you asked me what I thought of painters and other art forms; I would soon paint illiterate masters of brush-strokes and water-oil colours. But these young boys and girls asked questions that made me rethink arts altogether.
This brings me to the title of this writing. It struck me that the media remains one of the many overrated projects that were envisioned to be foundation stones for world democracy. If artists can critically think of the world around them; why then should journalists ignore, albeit deliberately, re-examination of their profession’s place as a fourth estate?!
Is the media’s role still relevant in the recent rise of civil society activism? Are newspaper content still an integral part of designs to hold democratically elected governments to account? What right does the media and where does it derive such right, as a fourth estate and thereby a representative custodian of society’s crucial gatekeepers of “powerful” information? Are there enough avenues of checks and balances to ensure that the media perform the role assigned to them, if for example, the media are regulated by market forces of demand and supply? Should the self-over-importance of the media continue to be under-looked, and at what cost?
The students at the Art School in Breda have perhaps unknowingly caused me to stop and think about the role of the media. We are celebrated the world over as defenders of human rights. But what do we actually do? How much human rights do the media actually defend?
I will complete three other drafts of this blog post in the next few days. A colleague in my room was given a “positive” asylum interview result. And I had my first meeting with my lawyers at their offices in Amsterdam. My interview date has been set for 5th October (moved from 26th September).
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
(From the poem: Still I Rise by Maya Angelou)