The landscape of migration and urban policy is overflowing with words, with clever neologisms and buzzy terminology meant to inspire donors to empty their pockets. Often this kind of rhetoric lacks heart. We’re always on the look out for ways to reframe the key issues, to put them on their head or change the perspective, such that we do not lose sight of where we came from or where we’re going.
In this sense, Migrant Journeys—a web-documentary full of charm and nuance, insight and realism—is perfectly refreshing. Sampling the views of motor taxi drivers, urban anthropologists, and hair stylists alike, the series describes life on the Lagos-Abidjan corridor, bringing colour and complexity to an oft overlooked region.
Alice Hertzog and her team conducted the research under the supervision of Christian Schmid, Pius Krütli and Armelle Choplin at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, in partnership with the SDC Global Programme Migration.
From pitch to page, the project changed considerably. In large part, this was due to the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic which began early on in the filming stage. In retrospect, Alice Hertzog attributes some of the series’ nuance, the specificity and personability of the recordings, to this turn of events. The pandemic prevented some team members from travelling to West Africa, leaving filming in the hands of local production crew AfrikaFun who brought their own vision to the project.
The clips, which include talking heads and narration, find their way into spaces that are usually barred to the subjects of our research. They provide a means of communicating the materialities—the sights and sounds—of target communities. Lifting the issues off the page and giving them life, definition, clarity.
Migration Four Ways
- The visual
- The negative space
- The regional
- The short and specific
This is perhaps the most straightforward. Policy spaces are often painfully uniform; in terms of visuals, you’re lucky if you get an interesting font or well-designed graphic. Otherwise, overwhelmingly, policy makers and power brokers place the emphasis on the written word. Apart from disadvantaging non-literate communities and creating all kinds of arbitrary barriers to entry, this tendency fails everyone else too. Time and again, research shows humans latch onto stories that engage all their senses, that stimulate and speak to our experiences beyond our reason.
Alice Hertzog and her team introduce faces and places to the offices and boardrooms of international development. Giving decision-makers and stakeholders something to latch onto, concretising otherwise rather abstract conversations. It may not be the same as bringing the target groups into the room, or indeed bringing the decision-makers to the places their decisions are felt, but it represents an intermediary step that helps humanise the issues.
Illustrative of this point is Armelle Choplin’s entry in the web-documentary, in which she discusses the role of concrete in the built environment and social infrastructure of the Lagos-Abidjan corridor. Her research has found that “cement is at the nexus of a range of issues at stake in contemporary African cities”. With shots of concrete homes, roads, and storefronts; resource spaces on the edges of cities from which the concrete is distributed; bags and lorries of concrete in the process of being transported, the web-doc shows us this “cement city”.
Despite the differences between countries and cities, Choplin identified a continuity in the way concrete travelled around the region, its social function and prominence in the landscape across the entire corridor. It helps, we think, to see this continuity. Literally concretising the statistics in a landscape made not of hypotheticals or abstract figures but concrete.
The negative space
Going into this project, there was a desire to move away from the tendency within migration to reduce migrants to their “group”. Hertzog was interested in how mobility shapes life on the corridor, yes, but also in the effect of immobility and climate and cultural trends and technological changes and shifting materialities. Perhaps ironically, an emphasis on all the minutiae of life on the corridor whether or not they relate to migration brings migration into focus—via the negative space. This facilitates mainstreaming migration into other development sectors by making migrant stories relevant for those not strictly working on migration.
To that end, people take centre stage in their own stories in the webdoc; their lives and their priorities as told by them. Some of these revolve around the process of migration but more often than not, they take place against a backdrop in which migration is only one part. This evokes a more nuanced and individualised picture of the region and of how mobility and, indeed, immobility shapes people’s lives.
Fernand Kofi Glokpon, a motorcycle taxi driver in Come, talks about inner city journeys, transportation and mobility on a day-to-day basis. He reflects on how individuals from across the region and beyond negotiate the city in collaboration with each other, how local politics and representation affect him and his fellow Zemidjan’s. All the while, unbothered by the so-called “issue” of migration. Mobility, big and small, shapes his life and we see this in the way it entwines with everything else—from his politics to his livelihood.
The focus on regional mobility within the series redresses the European misconception that all African migration is headed for Europe. This image, perpetuated by European governments and media alike, of Africans striving for a life in Europe, bears no resemblance to reality. In actuality, most migrants in Africa stay in Africa. Migrant Journey’s exemplifies this reality, highlighting the complex movements built up over centuries along the Lagos-Abidjan corridor.
Across the web series we are introduced to individuals interested and engaged in mobility of all kinds. There emerges this space of immense creativity, of collaboration and interconnectivity, as ideas, knowledge, resources, and people mingle. The circular movements, the many ebbs and flows to and from locations along the corridor play a big role in this too. The mobility in question is never just one-way. Connections with places of origin are maintained via families and businesses, even as new connections are formed and new networks are built.
The texture of this kind of fluid urban space is hard to grasp but Ange De Gogo’s entry is a perfect example. She talks about her work at a beauty salon in Cotonou and the differences between hairstyles in Benin versus her home in Cote d’Ivoire. De Gogo does not raise these differences as sources of conflict or disagreement but rather as points of interest, avenues for growth and development.
In the context of urbanisation and migration policy, it is rare to witness aspirations and goals that are firmly rooted within and oriented toward the African continent. It behoves us to read, write, and build with this spirit in mind. It might open us up to new, sustainable and context-specific solutions.
The short and specific
Designed to be used in policy-making spaces, to fill the gap where migrant lives should be, each episode is short and concise. They illustrate specific aspects of the subject’s lives or work, which necessarily have a bearing on policy discussions because as Glokpon says in his video: “Everyone is destined to be affected by politics. As long as you live in a country, you must always conform to the law of the land. For this reason, we are also part of the political power in Benin today.”
The issues may not be those that usually get air time—from concrete and motorcycle taxis to braiding styles in Cote d’Ivoire and Benin—but they form the minutiae of the lives in question. Forget about sweeping assumptions about nameless, faceless masses. The most nuanced conversations belong to the details, the specificity of a location, a group, a time period. Migrant Journeys, expressed in the voices of migrants themselves, illustrates the context of the Lagos-Abidjan corridor with a specificity that demands nuance.
The project cuts through the noise by going to the source. We get Naomi Fagla Medegan talking about waste management, the Beninese diaspora in France, and skill building for development. She negotiates questions of urban space, that is life lived in proximity and on the move, without all the obscure language and jargon typical of policy. Informed by her own work with Gbobeto, she brings a clarity of purpose and directness that can be hard to find in international orgs without their feet on the ground.
A Multitude of Stories
When social change is reduced to statistics and anonymous anecdotes in rooms hundreds of miles from the target community, it’s easy to lose sight of the point. With Migrant Journeys, the point is front and centre being told to us by those it concerns most. The series shows us Cotonou and Accra and Abidjan in all their complexity, and gives migrants a platform to talk about their day-to-day movements across the region as well as larger patterns over continents and decades in five minutes or less.
There is something vital about these stories, which animate a conversation that has become lofty and unspecific. They put heart at the centre, connecting us across myriad seemingly insurmountable differences. It’s exciting to see the ways migration tangles with issues of all kinds, how and when mobility fits into an individual’s schema. The series equips us with a multitude of stories, fit for any occasion.
“Migrant Journeys” draws on the research undertaken by Alice Hertzog in the context of her doctoral thesis “The Lagos-Abidjan Corridor – Migration Driven Urbanisation in West Africa” defended in 2020. The research was conducted under the supervision of Christian Schmid, Pius Krütli and Armelle Choplin at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, in partnership with the SDC Global Programme for Migration and Development.
Lead Researcher: Alice Hertzog
Coordinator & Media Editor: Daniel Schwartz
Design: Offshore Studio (Isabel Seiffert & Christoph Miler)
Graphic Design Assistance: Filip Despotović
Typefaces: Schneidler BT (F.H. Ernst Schneidler), Subtype (Filip Despotović)
Website Programmer: Immanuel Bauer, Bubblebird
Video Production and Photography: Stephane Brabant, AfrikaFun
Translation: Rebecca Adler
Subtitles: Chauncey Hertzog
Research Assistants: Saliou Abdou, Sam Agbadonou, Marie-Ange Agbayahoun, Prudence Dohou, Joseph Kalu
Additional Photography: Alice Hertzog, Bernard Kalu, Sarah Morissens, Leonce Raphael – Courtesy Jack Bell Gallery, London
Featuring: Sam Agbadonou, Sidney Akotegnon, Michel Bright, Armelle Choplin, Lamine Cisse, Maimouna Couliably, Anicette Djokpe, Aymar Esse, Naomi Fagla Medegan, Fernand Glokpan, Ange de Gogo, Simon Gnonlonfou, Philipp Heinrigs, Alice Hertzog, Abbas Jeradi, Joseph Kalu, Angel Kotiko, Babalola Gérard Laleye, AbdouMaliq Simone, Martin Rosenfeld, Romeo Sextus
With thanks to: Emilie Ballestraz, Anicette Djokpe, Simone Giger, Pius Krütli, Khadim Mboup Cheikhal, Maria Rey, Anne Savary Tchoursine, Laurence von Schulthess RechbergProduced with the support of: Global Programme of Migration and Development, SDC; Transdisciplinarity Lab, ETH Zürich
All images taken from Migrant Journeys Webdoc.