BOOKS AUGUST 22, 2012
by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Soft Skull Press, 272 pp., $15.95
NIGERIA HAS AN unsavory, and largely undeserved, reputation in the United States: the home of scammers trying to bilk Grandma out of her life savings. Yet across Africa, Nigerians are also loathed and feared by their neighbors from smaller, more unassuming countries—states without Nigeria’s surplus of bravado. These passionate responses are no doubt partly because Nigeria is itself a place of strong passions. Nigerians—so the conventional wisdom goes—tend to be brash, confident, loud, and warm (the Italians of Africa, you might say), and they have fanned out to every corner of the globe. Surely these overstatements regarding Nigeria’s national character have to do with something fundamental: very little has been written about the country in a straightforward, nonfictional but personal way—which is why the publication of Noo Saro-Wiwa’s new book (the first book of travel writing about Nigeria in a hundred years) is welcome and overdue.
There are few people in the world with reason to have stronger feelings about Nigeria than Saro-Wiwa, the daughter of the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 by the dictator Sani Abacha for agitating against pollution and injustice in the Niger Delta. It was there that Noo Saro-Wiwa was born, and from there that her family moved to England when she was a small child. Her father wanted her and her siblings to get an education in Britain, but every summer they came home for a kind of “brutal acculturation,” Saro-Wiwa writes, to a place “where the only ‘development’ I witnessed was the advance of new wall cracks and cobwebs, and where ‘growth’ simply meant larger damp stains on the ceiling.”
After her father’s death, Saro-Wiwa lost interest in the place that had become “the repository for all my fears and disappointments; a place where nightmares did come true.” But as she got older and started traveling on her own, even writing some guidebooks about other West African countries such as Ghana and Ivory Coast, she started to wonder about her country. Finally she decided she would go there on her own terms, “as part-returnee and part-tourist, with the innocence of the outsider, untarnished by personal associations.”
This perspective—both insider and outsider—has been missing from much travel writing about Africa, but thankfully a generation of internationally minded, culturally flexible writers such as Binyavanga Wainaina, Doreen Baingana, Helon Habila, and others are rising to fill that void. The result, as with Transwonderland, is an Africa that, from a literary point of view, is taking on a richer and more realistic narrative shape. Transwonderland is a significant addition to this new branch of travel writing-cum-memoir, which also includes Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, Teju Cole’s first book Every Day is For the Thief, Helon Habila’s forthcoming book about Lagos. The Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists’ “Pilgrimages” project, which sent fourteen African writers to different parts of the continent, has also contributed to the expansion for the genre in Africa.
The question that lurks in many of these books is an old one, asked with a new kind of urgency: where do I belong? This is not entirely surprising, given that migration from poorer parts of the world has been one of the biggest stories of the past hundred years, and the post-migration narrative has not really been settled. Much African writing has dealt with the jump from village to urban center, but the path from village to global village is murkier, and that is where these stories begin.
As a writer, Saro-Wiwa does not probe these issues quite as deeply as others. Her tale is more straightforward, perhaps more British. But the threads of dislocation nevertheless run through her book, and her life, as she travels around Nigeria—from the heady chaos of Lagos to the quiet of the Sacred Grove in Osogbo to the run-down, near derelict amusement park outside Ibadan called “Transwonderland,” which was the kind of Nigeria she fantasized about as a child: a glorious, artificial world dedicated to fun, to escape, to prosperity. Transwonderland had aspired to that, but now it stood as “a forlorn landscape of motionless machinery.”
Some of the best parts of the book are Saro-Wiwa’s descriptions of the pieces of Nigeria’s past that hint at all the untold stories the country still has hidden away, like the ancient Durbar horse pageant she witnesses in Kano, and the mysterious soapstone sculptures of Esie, and the 4,000 year-old Ikom monoliths in Calabar carved with lost hieroglyphics that no one understands. “Nigeria seems a poorly researched country,” she writes, “a half-empty page readily soiled by anyone with a racial, religious or economic agenda, be they evangelicals looking for links to Israel, or foreign racists wanting to deny African history altogether. I left Ikom feeling teased by its secrets, and all the more ravenous for knowledge about the past.”
The tone of Transwonderland changes somewhat when Saro-Wiwa arrives at Bane, the village where her family once lived, where many members of the extended family still live, and where she finally got to bury her father in 2005—ten years after he was killed. Mixed in with her memories of him, she writes about getting his body back, unwrapping the pieces—a femur, a rib, his skull (missing two teeth), and putting them together for his interment in a field outside of town.
But these memories weigh lightly on Transwonderland, and overall it remains a breezy and easy book to read. While Saro-Wiwa’s account may not be quite as self-consciously “written” as others, it nonetheless gives an honest and vivid picture of one of the most difficult and exciting countries in the world. Saro-Wiwa comes to a sort of peace with being from Nigeria, but not of it. Throughout her travels, she warms to the country that haunted her, but cools at other times, like when her evangelical relatives try to convert her. This incident leaves her nostalgic for a time when her father, whose real religion was education and who “sought to fix problems, not pray for them to go away,” told her religion was the opiate of the masses. Of her relatives, she says, “In the years since I last saw them, they seemed possessed, literally, floating away from me on a path of Righteousness. What happened to the irreverent bouncy of the old days?”
In the end, however, while visiting Bane she realizes how good it feels to be in a place where everyone can pronounce her name, and takes some comfort in the fact that that it will always be, “the one place on earth that feels like mine, whether I want to stay here or not.”
Frank Bures is a writer whose work on Africa has appeared in the Best American Travel Writing series and other places. He is a contributing editor at WorldHum.com.