NOT TO BE MISSED
"Transwonderland. Retour au Nigeria", a travelogue by Noo SARO-WIWA
Paris: Hoëbeke, 2013. (288p.).
Translated into French by Françoise Pertat. Original title: "Looking for Transwonderland. Travels in Nigeria" .
Ce compte rendu en français
When Noo Saro-Wiwa arrived in Lagos early in the 21st century, she was no longer the young girl sojourning in Nigeria with her parents during her school holidays. She was now a well-travelled Londoner in her thirties, keen to renew her acquaintance with her native land but somewhat afraid of doing so. Many bad memories had been associated with the place during her youth, not least the hanging of her father imprisoned by the ruthless dictator Sani Abacha. Thus, she says: "I needed to travel freely around the country, as part returnee and part tourist with the innocence of the outsider, untarnished by personal associations" (p.12).
Noo Saro-Wiwa's travelogue exploits to good effect the narrator's fears and anticipation, her desire to fit in but also to remain critical. It pits a free spirited traveller determined to discover anew Nigeria's people, history, cultures and natural environment against the bewildered memories, still fresh in her mind, of the young girl she once was. Cathartic, her journey eventually frees her from both her fear of the country and the long shadow of her father looming over her childhood. This result, however, only comes at the end of a journey full of surprises and revelations.
Being a Nigerian, for example, she assumes that she should be able to shed her British upbringing effortless, but she soon realises that everything in her persona is setting her apart, from her sneakers to her accent, her values and her agnosticism. Thus her annoyance when she is viewed as a tourist, "especially when speaking in my best Nigerian accent" (p.26) and her exasperation at her family and old friends set on converting her to their fundamental beliefs. Furthermore, her lack of Ogoni prevents her from participating in her folk's discussions. Her British accent, she says, "marked me out and robbed my words of their venom and authority, especially when arguing with okada men and fellow bus passengers" (p.117). Her secret dream of being welcomed back in the bosom of the old country is not easy to fulfil. Many adjustments would be required, not only in terms of language but also values, beliefs and attitudes towards Nigerian chaos and lack of basic amenities. That would not happened, and readers soon understand that Nora loves too much her freedom to forfeit all the privileges granted to an inquisitive and well resourced overseas' visitors.
One of the advantages of her position is to have the necessary resources to reach any destination she wants, using all means of transport available from hazardous okadas (motorbikes) to over-crowded danfos (minivans), taxis, trains and aeroplanes. She is thus able to explore at will all the landmarks of a country stretching from the tropical rain forest in the South to the Sahel savannah in the north. Also advantageous is the possibility to indulge in a comfortable hotel when taxing days on the road, squizzed in an overloaded danfo and overnighting in seedy hotel rooms, are taking their toll. Travelling in style and comfort is not what she wants, but enjoying occasionally a nice shower, cable television and a good meal is a morale booster. She does not shun quiet comfort but what she likes best is the trill of adventure, rubbing elbows with all kind of people and participating in the noisy arguments that provided free entertainment during her little jaunts around the cities she stays in and the long legs of her journey across the country.
The linear structure of her travelogue follows her travels from place to place. Each city she goes to gives her an opportunity to make interesting comments, not only about the region's history and peculiarities but also on many themes and issues going far beyond the confines of a specific location. In Lagos, for example, it is people religious fervour that strikes her, the thousand of Churches jostling for parishioners. She also investigates the Nollywood's film industry that has taken the country by storm. Comments about slavery and African involvement in the trade arise from her visit to the near-by Badagary, a port from which many hundreds of thousands of slaves were sent to America. It is also in Lagos that she discovers first hand what it means to be an "ordinary" person deprived of the conveniences available in England: Tata Janice's dilapidated house were she boards is minuscule, it has no running water and only a few hours of electricity during the day, thus she says, "staying with Aunty Janice was to be a lesson in dignified living under basic conditions" (p.15).
Ibadan becomes part of her itinerary because her father graduated there in the 1960s. But beside the university, it is the amusement park constructed at the outskirts of the city that attracts her attention. As a kid, she loved funfairs yet, at present, she was more interested to see how Nigeria was developing new tourist ventures fit to attract local and overseas' visitors. Alas, the much anticipated "Transwonderland Amusement Park" was more like a deserted junk-yard than a flashy entertainment centre. Like so many developments, natural reserves, museums and public spaces she will visit, Ibadan's Amusement Park had been starved of money by the string of politicians and civil servants who were misappropriating maintenance allocations and operating funds. All cultural spaces and undertakings were suffering of the same plight. Buildings were not maintained, and many invaluable artefacts were sold out or left to decay.
Education had been following the same path. It had not always been like that, though. The Ibadan that Ken Saro-Wiva's knew during his youth, the one he went to university was the progressive city. It was a place where "Academic books were read as fervently as the Bible" (p.84) the narrator says. To the Yoruba Ibadan's main ethnic group school education had always been very important. "By the late 1950s, a million of their children were enrolled in primary schools in the south-west" (p.84) and the university had become the "intellectual heart of the country" (p.81). It was attracting the best minds of Nigeria, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J. F. Ade Ajayi and hundreds of others. But as the narrator soon discovers, academic excellence has been pushed aside by gang-like "confraternities" (p.87) more interested in extortion than the pursuit of knowledge. Thus her comment: "Were my father still alive I'm not sure he would recognise life on campus today" (p.87).
Noo Sara-Wiwa's brother lives in Abuja, the capitale of the country since 1991, thus her detour to that city that is calm, clean and well organised, a near "urban paradise" (p.111). But as she wallows in her brother's sofa in front of the television, next to a well-stocked fridge, she realises that even the best things have their dark side. Much of the cushy life enjoyed by Abuja's rich and famous has been built on the strength of embezzlement, money laundering and shady deals. Thus the narrator's comment: "It's ironic that this city a place that confounds Nogeria's reputation as a hotbed of chaos and dysfunction was partly funded by the very corruption that created that reputation" (p.112). Thinking through this paradox, she is left with no obvious explanation except that "Nigeria's chaos wasn't an embarrassment to our politicians. For some of them the disorder was vital to their operations, the ideal instrument for power and enrichment" (p.115).
As she heads north she enters the Muslim half of the country, and after many hours on the road, she arrives in Kano, a city that witnessed violent religious riots and applied Sharia since the year 2000. Not a place the narrator feels really comfortable "walking down the street in an ankle-length djellaba, sweating beneath her headscarf" (p.143). But Keno's lack of attraction to an agnostic British tourist is well compensated by its long and fascinating history spanning more than a millennium. It is the oldest town of West Africa and remained for a long time a rich and powerful center that established trade links with all its neighbours and even Europe. "By the nineteenth century, Kano was receiving cloth from Manchester in England, silk and sugar from France, clothing from Tunisia and Egypt, and reading glasses from Venise. [...] Kano enjoyed high levels of literacy and architectural sophistication. [...] Even the British, who captured Kano in 1903, eschewed their customary destructiveness and instead converted one of Kano's palace into their central administration office" (p.142).
Further north, she pays a visit to a bird sanctuary at the frontier of the Sahara, but there, as in all the natural reserves she goes to, across the country, corruption has starved the place from the funds necessary to maintain and police the area effectively. And it is a repeat story at Jos, a town where the Nok people developed a complex society about three thousand years ago. A few statues found in the region bear witness to the skill and sophistication of its artisans. But in tune with the priorities of cultural vandals more interested in money than the preservation of national heritage, many of these treasures had left Nigeria surreptitiously. A similar fate awaited many of the statues found near Benin-City, going back many hundreds of years. And for the same reason, the monoliths found north of Cabar, going back two millennia, have still received little expert attention. Cultural preoccupations are not the order of the day.
Wherever she goes, Noo Saro-Wiwa sees evidence of the rich history of the country, its many resources, its potential and its resilience. But, by the same token, she cannot understand people's attitude towards laissez-faire, religious fervour, nepotism, corruption, and support to industries that led the country to ruin. That strikes her when she arrives in her native town of Port Harcourt where she finds it hard to comprehend why people did not reject outright the tyranny of industrial development that made a few people very rich and the rest poverty-stricken? why a clergyman would christen his church "Fresh oil cathedral and Christian restoration and repairs ministries" (p.271)? Crude oil generated some 300 billions dollars from the beginning of extraction in the late 1950's, the narrator says, but very little, if anything of this colossal sum of money, has reached the lower classes who have borne the brunt of massive pollution, environment degradation, waste dumping, dictatorship and a slow decline of people standards of living, not forgetting the Biafra war and the passing of one million people, killed or starved.
The degradation of the author's ancestral land at the hands Oil and mining companies had been an issue from the day large scale drilling operations began. Ken Saro Wiwa's strong and vocal opposition to both the destruction of the fertile Ogoni's land and the collusion between the oil companies and the then country's dictator, landed him in prison were he was hanged in 1995 on trump charges. Noo Saro-Wiwa speaks little of her father's environmental and political activism, though. To the young girl she then was, it is rather the strict education he gave his children that sticks to her mind. He was keen to see his offspring succeed, education was his first priority and religion a ploy that lead people towards a "religious coma". His approach to learning, agnosticism and character building did not always meet juvenile interests and longings. Yet, in opening the doors of education and knowledge to his daughter, he put her on the path to freedom. Thus the great testimony to the memory of her father made by the author as she reaches the end of her journey:
"Over time, I had come to love many things about Nigeria: our indigenous heritage, the dances, the masks, the music, the baobab trees and the drill monkeys. I, the progressive urbanite, had become a lover of nature and pre-colonial, animist ceremony; the mirage of a Transwonderland-style holiday wasn't worth chasing. Yes Nigeria, for all its sapphire rivers and weddings and apes, couldn't seduce me fully when all roads snaked back to corruption, the rottenness my father fought against and the cause he died for. At least my journey had cured my emotional fear of the country. It was a far scarier place for those who had to live there, from whom flight was not an option. They had too fight their way through life in a way that I didn't have to, and for that I wanted to hug my father's knees in thanks for raising me abroad and expanding my life choices" (p.304).
A very good read.
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but quotes and page numbers are from the English original published by Granta Books, London, in 2012.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities