The Dancer

Maryam Kazeem


Still from The Broom (2019), Maryam Kazeem

I’m holding on to a burly broom made of kanekalon hair. Brown braids, blue braids, orange dreads, classic black braids, and red twists are woven together in what can only be described as a strange monstrosity. I’m waiting in the parking lot of Freedom Park for Ema who has agreed to shoot footage of me sweeping this broom around Lagos Island. 

The air conditioning in my car is blowing at full power, but it doesn’t stop my dress from clinging to my lower back. I step out of the car to pass the time by walking up and down the block, without the broom, to settle my nerves. I was hoping for an empty street, which isn’t quite the case. I take in the sundry faces of my soon-to-be audience, wondering if they’ll look up when they see me pass by –whether I prefer that to them looking the other way. What am I doing here? The broom is still in the car, and no one has seen it yet. I attract the attention of a few men on the street, but for now I’m just a woman in a black dress and flip flops, sidestepping the refuse strewed by the perimeter of the road. I bleed in with the other passersby walking around on an early Sunday afternoon. 

When Ema arrives I’m nervous, but I try not to show it. I am both director and performer today. 

As she sets up her camera, I look around at the people who have decided to spend a few hours with me. The eager young men who have agreed to deter anyone from asking us if we have permission to shoot. My cousin holding my cash and wallet to pay them once we finish, and Ema equipped, with the camera hoisted on her shoulder. I throw the black T-shirt with white graphic print I planned to wear as part of my costume back inside the car.

Okay, all set, she says. You ready?

I collect the hefty broom from my cousin, and pull down the bunched fabric of my dress, while cracking my neck from side to side. 

I want to joke and say, let’s make history, but instead I take a deep breath and say, let’s dance. 

* * *

It begins with a headline: twenty-six Nigerian teenage girls have just drowned in the Mediterranean and no one knows their names. 

Sitting in my apartment in Lagos, I think about the ocean. It occurs to me that I often avoid swimming in the Atlantic Ocean from this side of the equator. I think about the girls and how the water held both promise and demise for them. I think about the brutality of their deaths. 

The conversation about the twenty-six girls lingers for a few weeks. 

Sex trafficking is such a tragedy, people say. You have to wonder what could make them leave home knowing it would be such a risky journey to their final destination, the journalists ponder. After a few months the conversation settles. The memory of their tragedy is drowned out by a different one.

I watch a few documentaries on YouTube sitting on the couch in my apartment in Lagos about sex trafficking and migration. The journalist on the screen asks a young girl who managed to return safely to her home state of Edo after spending a year in Italy with a wicked Madam, “What do you think would have happened if you tried to escape?” The young woman on the screen responds, but the journalist isn’t satisfied with her answer. I’m not satisfied with the question.

I create a Google alert to track new revelations about the twenty-six girls. I want to know if they will be able to recover their names. Nothing is found. I’m left with the question that riddles most of my curiosities about the lost narratives of Nigerian women: How do you recover the impossible? 

* * *

In Venus in Two Acts, penned in 2008, Saidiya Hartman wrestles with the archive of transatlantic slavery and the impossibility of discovery. She details the case of John Kimber, a ship captain on trial for the murder of two enslaved girls in 1792, in which the trial’s notes reveal a name, Venus, one of the girls Kimber allegedly murdered. But that’s all that Venus is within the archive – a trace, brought up twice in the trial. “Was there not a girl of the name Venus?” The trial notes also state, “There was another girl on board the Recovery . . . whom they named Venus, and she too had the pox.” But this isn’t the first time Hartman encountered Venus. In Lose Your Mother (2006), an autobiographical memoir about Hartman’s time in Ghana and attempt to trace the history of the transatlantic slave trade, she wrote just two sentences about Venus, abstaining from lengthy narration about Venus for “fear of inventing a romance.” Two years later, in Venus in Two Acts, Hartman revisits the possibilities for pushing against the limits of the archive. By detailing what we cannot know about Venus, Hartman seeks to widen the depths of our unknowing. She does not have enough from the archive to depict Venus speaking in her own voice, or her possible friendship with Kimber’s other victim, but she can devote narrational time and space to expound that impossibility. Hartman terms this approach critical fabulation, “playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story” and using speculative arguments, to both tell “an impossible story and amplify the impossibility of its telling.” 

In reference to the lost narratives of the enslaved, I contemplate the twenty-six girls. Girls that were alive in this century and died without a trace of their names in turbulent waters. How do we grapple with these archival gaps within our present moment? Is it possible to stop them from slipping away? 

* * *

In 1924, women in southeastern Nigerian staged a dancing protest. With brooms in their hands, singing and dancing, making egwu, they swept compounds that belonged to chiefs and pathways that connected different markets and towns throughout the region.

The women had demands. They wanted to restore things to order. A message came from Ala/Ani, the earth deity, and they swept and danced throughout the region to warn their communities of the abomination that was sure to come. They feared for their bodies and their fertility. They believed the land—their land—was at stake. In a 2001 essay published in Wicked Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa, West African anthropologist Misty Bastian notes, “the bands [of women] would appear suddenly in a town not their own, usually in and around the marketplace, and announce their presence by a prolonged and ritualized sweeping of the public spaces…sweeping was (and remains) a quintessential female task among Igbo-speaking peoples – often the first chore assigned to a young girl. During the 1920s, it constituted an integral part of Igbo women’s daily routine…” The trash was symbolic for the dancers. They wanted away with English money, English roads, English clothes, new customs — the women wanted away with the dirt.

The British colonial officers didn’t know what to make of the dancing women. Their movement was archived as, “The Women’s Purity Campaign.” The record of the egwu, the dance, is almost imperceptible. The British did not consider that the pollution might have been about might have been about the making of an inhospitable home. They couldn’t see that the women danced and swept to unmake it. 

* * *

I come across Italian photographer Paolo Patrizi’s series of photographs of Nigerian women sex workers, “Italos,” in makeshift sex camps in the middle of the forest, A Disquieting Intimacy. Patrizi refers to these women as “headstrong and ambitious [escaping] conflict, persecution…and other situations that affect their habitat and livelihood…that have chosen a variety of ways to exploit their personal assets.” Patrizi suggests that many of these women have experienced success in Italy for over twenty years—able to return home to Nigeria and build grand houses that convince even more girls that prostitution in Italy is an entirely acceptable trade. That success is waiting to be seized by them on the other side of the sea.

If they can just get there. 

I am struck by one of Patrizi’s photographs. The only photo in the series that captures a girl facing the camera. I stare at the photo for hours and get lost in a fantasy. 

It begins with this girl resting on a mattress deep inside the forest, still. Her skin glows from the moist air. There are fresh beads of sweat on the crown of her forehead, congested from the auburn synthetic wig hanging below her bare shoulders. The verdurous bush surrounding her appears beautiful because it is the South of Italy, but it is rotten. 

The man with the camera has come to her once before. She is flattered by the attention. 

“Is it okay if we see your face?” he asks. Both surrounded by trash and refuse in the makeshift sex camp in the forest, the man says he is taking pictures to show what her home looks like to the rest of the world—but this is not home. He tells her some of the other girls have asked to face the camera from behind or use a prop to obscure their visage from the lens. 

“Why not,” she says, shrugging her shoulders with a slight smile, affirming it is okay if he snaps her face. She poses for the camera with one hand not quite resting on her thigh just below her black miniskirt, the other hoisted on her hip. At this moment she is unafraid to be present, standing in the heap of trash, while the Italian photographer takes her picture. She chooses to look at the camera. She asks him to see some of the other pictures in his camera before he leaves. He is reluctant but eventually agrees. She sees an unfamiliar girl holding an umbrella in front of her face, and others sitting further inside the bush. When he shows her the image of herself, she asks him for a copy. This is the perfect picture to send home. 

I imagine the L-shaped gallery where these images hung on spotless freshly painted white walls and people crowded around revelling at the images of the sepia toned bush. The refuse, the trash, the waste, the litter, the debris. I can hear the onlookers discuss how interesting it is that the photographer was able to capture the delicate stillness and the scum that surrounds these Nigerian girls, how that stillness almost seems to swallow them and spit them back out. How these images are such a great visual representation of the mundane moments of sex trafficking.

I consider my own viewing. My desire to fill a faraway gap. My projection of this moment. 

The moment when the girl in the pink tank top and black skirt let the photographer capture an image—a dancing image. Ripe for choreography, projection, narratives, and fantasies. Fantasies that she is aware of, but don’t belong to her. 

* * *

I’m trying to archive an event without enough evidence. At times this feels like grasping for straws. 

I am no longer sure of the question. What exactly it is that I’m searching for. The gaps. Whether I should attempt to measure them or whether it’s best to leave them alone. 

I can’t stop thinking about Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. How it’s dancing—clicking her heels three times—that brings her home.

* * *

The first time I try to choreograph this performance I get stuck on Josephine Baker dancing as Fatou, a native girl up a tree dreamt by a white explorer sleeping under a mosquito net in Paris in 1925, just a year after the women in southeast Nigeria staged their dancing protest.  

Josephine Baker begins her dancing career in the American south, till she goes to Harlem and finally moves to Paris in 1925, still a teenager. She’s tired of a lower-caste existence in America as a Black woman. France gives her the opportunity to be something else. Each time she leaps on the stage, she feels herself touching the sky. Each time she wears the rubber banana skirt, she becomes the something else—Dancing around and between:

the civilized and uncivilized
the primitive and modern
the native,
the oriental,
the other,
the African. 

The reviewers call Baker exotic, savage and primitive. They don’t know how to place her, or the rubber banana skirt resting on her hips, only that they cannot stop watching her eyes cross and her legs shake. She is not native like the others in the colonies. She gives them a native dance to be consumed. A native dance revered. A dance worth remembering. 

I think about the girl dancing in Patrizi’s photograph, also in Europe, and how she, too, exists as a dream in the frame. Both young women are objectified by their audience; yet and still, they dance around and between. Existing only in the liminal. 

A Disquieting Intimacy (2012), Paolo Patrizi

There is an archive of Black women making home and within this, the archive of dance. Within the archive of silence and the archive of displacement, the vision of the dancer becomes clear. The dancer’s movement, her choices and her intentions, are hard to place, but in motion, nonetheless. 

* * *

Most of what’s left of the twenty-six Nigerian women found dead in the Mediterranean is a slogan on a shirt. I have a replica made and almost wear it for the dance, but I decide to leave it in the car. 

I can see her a few days before her trip, as she buys the shirt from the market in Edo.

The agent who arranged her travel has assured her parents that she is going to Italy to get an education. The week before that she is standing outside the Babalawo’s shrine surrounded by empty glass bottles, bush, the scent of stale blood and a chicken cock-a-doodling louder than usual because it knows what’s coming. She has given the Babalawo some pubic hair and fingernails, and he has pricked her index finger for blood. 

She makes the oath: she will never give birth, if she breaks her promise to her Madam—the woman standing next to her. They are bound together. 

After that, she is in Libya. The middle of the passage. A different Africa from home in Nigeria and cruel in different ways. Maybe that’s why she lets the juju hold her. It is another bit of home she can take with her. 

But that day in the market, the journey is unknown, and the promise of smelling the Italian air makes her nose wet in anticipation. She sees the shirt hanging on the stall door and it reads, “I am super happy,” in white ink on black cotton. 

* * *

I sweep up and down Lagos Island for three hours, and once or twice, I use so much momentum that the broom slips out of my grasp and lands a few feet ahead of me. My broom doesn’t sweep the refuse away. Rather, it carries the filth and sand and rubble from street to street. When the filth starts to stick to my toes, ankles, legs, and arms, creeping up to the base of my neck, I contemplate whether the women in 1924 were sweeping to rid the land of the dirt, or to become reacquainted with land that was slipping away from them. 

In A Map to the Door of No Return, Canadian poet and writer Dionne Brand notes, “there is a sense of return in migrations…migrations suggest intentions or purposes. Some choice, and if not choice, decisions. And if not decisions, options, all be they difficult.” Without their names, I dance and sweep to remember the twenty-six girls who made difficult decisions when they migrated. Girls for whom return is impossible. How do you make home? As a process, a performance, as a ritual? I acquaint myself with the soot to ask these questions rather than answer them.  

When both the broom and I are completely filthy, I pour kerosene on it and set it on fire. It takes hours before it finally burns.