In the winter of 2019 when the world was still as normal as normal gets and a pandemic had not sentenced the human race to house arrest, I found myself in an abnormal situation thousands of miles away.
I was in a “no man’s land”. A week before, bombs had flown over this patch of land. Behind me was one of the most secure border posts in the world. Before me was a place very few outsiders have been into and fewer people inside have been out of.
Erez, Israel lay a few yards behind me. Gaza, Palestinian territories, was sprawled out a few yards in front of me. For much of the last two decades, these two neighbors have only communicated through bombs and rockets.
On my first night in Israel, the manager of the guesthouse in Kibbutz Nir ‘Am popped in to say hello then added in his halting English, “if you hear bomb in the night, don’t come out. This is safe room”. I would learn later that a safe room is a bomb shelter.
I have stayed in many hotels and guesthouses in dozens of countries. I’m used to, “enjoy your stay” from the managers. This was different. That night I got a welcome to the war zone event. Several rockets had been fired from Gaza and Israel had responded with bombs.
I ran to the window, parted the curtains and saw what looked like Christmas fireworks in the skies. Only these lights do not thrill. They kill. I had chosen this accommodation because it was a few hundred yards from Gaza. Now, I was seeing what we call “aksion” in Ibadan.
I am standing in no man’s land, waiting for my transport to the Gaza border post down the road. The ground under me rumbled like the aftereffects of earthquakes we sometimes feel in California. I wasn’t sure if it was the Israeli army performing a drill up the road or terrorists digging tunnels under me.
I was on my way to film in Gaza. Filming by outsiders is frowned upon by Hamas, the rulers of Gaza. But they had allowed me in with some reservations. The Israelis had allowed me to go with their own reservations. America had told me in plain language not to go. But I had to go. I may be a filmmaker now, but my DNA is soaked in journalism. I follow the story.
I was going to film the “other voices” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict that began the day Abraham (or Ibrahim) had to settle his family affairs. But there are pockets of friends on both sides fighting hard to bring peace to this land. You hear more of it in the West Bank but hardly ever in Gaza, a place hemmed in by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. I was going to film these people for a documentary film titled OTHER VOICES.
In those few minutes while I waited for my transport, I thought about two things – how I, a chap from the streets of Ibadan, came to be the filmmaker behind one of the most anticipated films in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It all began for me at the Ebenezer African Church Primary school in Oke-Ado, Ibadan. I didn’t know it then. But that was where this journey started.
I also thought of my first real assignment as an intern at the Weekend Concord more than two decades earlier. Oga Mike, as we call our editor Mike Awoyinfa, had been impressed with a story I’d written about the lookalike of the then first lady, Mariam Babangida. He gave me a new assignment.
He sent me to a no man’s land.
Some prostitutes had chosen the front of a church in Yaba, Lagos as their marketplace under the cover of darkness. Oga Mike wanted me to shine a light on it with my pen.
How do you interview a prostitute? You can’t just walk up to one and say, “madam, how market?” I thought for a moment if I should ask for some allowance to “rent” a prostitute. I thought of my mother. I could hear her screaming and crying of the shame I’d brought to her. I thought of my priest. I could hear him screaming “Hell! Hell!” I wasn’t doing great on earth back then, so I thought better not risk eternal damnation.
I decided to make friends with the prostitutes and their clients. I made friends with the traders and the church guards too. It took a few nights. But I came back to the newsroom with a story that would launch my journalism career.
Journalism and Nigeria followed me to Gaza. I love wearing Ankara shirts, native or Nigerian soccer jerseys when I’m not in Nigeria. While filming on the streets one day, someone saw me in a Nigerian jersey and asked if I was Nigerian. When I answered in affirmative, he gathered his friends and they regaled me with tales of the Super Eagles over a spread of sumptuous Arabian dishes. They fell in love with Nigerian football at the 1994 World Cup and have never let go. They know the names of the players and their clubs.
Even though I knew some of these players and covered the Eagles in their glory years, I let the Super Eagles fans of Gaza educate me. A few years before while filming in Port Au Prince, Haiti, I learnt sometimes you must let a man or woman hug a dear memory even if you know better.
In Haiti, I’d met a man who wanted to take me to a spot in the ocean where Ile-Ife is. I started to educate him because I have been to Ile-Ife and I know it’s not at the bottom of the ocean. Then I realized he was wearing a robe of memory, a tale that may have been passed for generations by slaves. Ile-Ife in Nigeria had become Ile-Ife at the bottom of the ocean where the slaves came from. I told him I knew another Ile-Ife, that it also was source of creation for some and, if God wills it, one day he will go there too.
As I listened to these fans educate me on Nigerian soccer stars, I thought of home and wondered how easy it is to tell other people’s stories than it is to tell mine.
*Ose Oyamendan’s new film “OTHER VOICES” is playing in theatres in America and Canada. It’s a documentary movie that tells the untold story of the Israeli-Palestine conflict from the eyes of an audacious Nigerian journalist and filmmaker.