Noo Saro-Wiwa’s exhilarating offering is travel book, social commentary, history and a projection into Nigeria’s future all rolled into one, writes Michael Nnaji.
Unlike most writers who spend a few weeks or days in a particular country of interest before embarking on an opinionated take in the form of a travel book, Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland – Travels in Nigeria is a well-researched, honest and carefully written book about her travels in Africa’s most populous country.
Although she spent only 4½ months criss-crossing the vast country, her background of growing up in a Nigerian family and history of spending intermittent periods during summer breaks in Nigeria more than make up for this.
Saro-Wiwa was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, in 1976. Her father, the writer and environment rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, relocated the family to England while Noo and her siblings were still young. Noo Saro-Wiwa attended King’s College London and Columbia University in New York.
Her father, along eight other “dissidents”, was executed in 1995 by the infamous military regime of General Sani Abacha for daring to question the environmental devastation wrought by foreign oil companies on his people abetted by government indifference.
The foregoing introduction is important if one is to understand this book, which is anything but free of prejudice and the younger Saro-Wiwa makes no bones about it. It is a sometimes riveting, no-holds-barred, witty and thoroughly enjoyable account of present-day Nigeria, depicting the good, the bad and the ugly of the country.
Following the murder of her father, Saro-Wiwa turned her back on the country of her birth, severing links in 1995. Time, however, would prove an effective healer of wounds. For having contributed articles to travel guides on several African countries, the author had a fascination with the rich heritage in these countries which prompted her to question her prejudice about Nigeria.
This had been fuelled by the ubiquitous negative international press the country received regularly in the years after her self-imposed exile. Her inquisitive, journalistic mind made her wonder if “those great alpine valleys that existed in Guinea, the marvellous Ashanti sculptures in Ghana, braised fish in the Ivory Coast” didn’t also exist in Nigeria.
Her intrepid voyage through Nigeria is a vivid and honest account of the country’s history, its present and an educated guess of its future under visionary or continued inept leadership. In the former scenario, Nigeria, as one of her myriad interlocutors in the book put it, would be “the best country”, while in the latter case the country would be, in the author’s own reckoning, “a place where nightmares come true”.
Saro-Wiwa is a gifted writer with an eye for detail and the funny side of life in the midst of adversity. Her journey takes her through the chaotic city life of Lagos and Port Harcourt to the rural dwellings of the Nupes and Fulanis in Northern
Nigeria, the famed Benin Empire in mid-western Nigeria and to the Game Reserve in Nguru in eastern Nigeria, among other areas.
Transwonderland is indeed a double-edged sword, on the one hand acknowledging the (potential) greatness of a country that suffered (and suffers) under supposed Western influences and lack of visionary leadership, and, on the other, bemoaning the apparent lack of will of Nigerians to take charge of their destiny, a condition worsened by widespread superstition, religious dogmatism and corruption.
It clearly irks the author that there is little effort being made to harness the manifest potential of the country. In a way, this must have represented some sort of strange homecoming for her; the fact that she belongs to a minority ethnic group in England and Nigeria (of the Ogoni stock of southern Nigeria) is also mooted as part of the reason for her being, in the words of the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, a nomad unready for home, wherever that may be.
Nevertheless, her insights into some contemporary Nigerian issues are spot-on and constructive. Corruption, for instance, she insists, is largely sustained by the African culture of patronage. For the average African is not responsible only for himself and his nuclear family, but for the extended one as well, having in most cases been a beneficiary of the “system” himself at one point or another. This leads, inevitably, to the hoarding of wealth – and the parochial redistribution of same to one’s own – once the opportunity presents itself (which is invariably by way of acquisition of influence in government, etc). A vicious cycle that can be broken by social justice and strengthening the rule of law (in that order). This book is worth a place in every serious library.
Looking for Transwonderland – Travels in Nigeria; By Noo Saro-Wiwa, Granta Books, pp 309