Disorder, dereliction…and decency

Published in The Observer (January 29th, 2012)

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wira (Granta)

Nigeria does not top many people’s lists of the ideal holiday destination. And for all its amazing vitality and astonishing natural resources, this seems unlikely to change given the unrest over fuel prices and worsening terrorism in the Islamic north, highlighted by the Christmas Day bombings of churches and deadly recent attacks in Kano. So all the more praise to travel writer Noo Saro-Wiwa for producing such an affectionate and irreverent guide to a place so far from the beaten tourist track.

Looking for Transwonderland is unlikely to persuade many people to brave the infamous scrums at Lagos airport, filled as it is with anecdotes of hotel chefs who refuse to cook, terrifying traffic ordeals and casual indifference to cultural heirlooms. Upon arrival, the author shares such concerns. She finds the sign “Welcome to Lagos” almost chilling – “like some kind of sick joke” – while the motto “Centre of Excellence” printed on the city’s car number plates is dismissed as a ridiculous conceit.

Yet as she gets to grips with the pace of this unruly giant of a country, jumping onto lethal motorbike taxis, squeezing into overcrowded buses and traipsing round shabby hotels with their drunken managers, outdated furnishings and intermittent water supplies, she ends up performing a valuable service. For in her gentle style, she peels away many of the cliches that envelop Nigeria and reveals both the beauty and brutality of this slumbering superpower, which as any visitor rapidly discovers is one of the world’s most exasperating yet exhilarating nations.

So while venal leaders rip off billions from state coffers, museum chiefs flog off ancient artefacts and endless hustling fills the streets, people can leave front doors unlocked and bags unattended on minibuses. “Nobody stole our things, not even the street kids who swarm around vehicles in northern towns to beg for food and money,” she writes. Throughout Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa encounters decency, humour, resilience and vast reserves of that famed energy.

She drops in on a dog show, tours a wildlife sanctuary, checks out the men looking for “sugar mummies” in the small ads and visits the amusement park of the title. Billed as the closest thing Nigeria has to Disneyland, it turns out to be a forlorn landscape of motionless machinery. Although Saro-Wiwa is occasionally ground down by the disorder and the dereliction, the chaos and the corruption – and is clearly less comfortable in the north – her tone throughout is one of wry amusement.

But what makes this so much more than just a quirky travelogue is that her voyage is taken in the shadow of her father, the environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged in 1995 under the dreadful military dictatorship of Sani Abacha. He was clearly a strict parent, who would summon his children to his desk on their birthdays to watch their card being signed and leave them in hotel rooms to write essays while he was at work. Every summer he would drag them back to their noisy, frenetic motherland, jilting them out of their comfortable English existence. After his execution, his daughter decided she wanted nothing more to do with Nigeria. So her return to tour the country marked the exorcism of dark memories, with echoes of her father constantly around her.

By the time she ends with a visit to the family home in the oil-blighted city of Port Harcourt, she has a new understanding of the anger that drove her father. “My ethnic minority status in Nigeria had grown almost as strong as my identity as a racial minority in England,” she says. “Mocked as simpletons and cannibals, Ogonis were barely known outside the Delta region until my father made our presence felt.”

Without forsaking her jaunty style, the author shows she is her father’s daughter with sharp observations about Nigeria. She points out how traditions of extended family increase nepotism and corruption by placing pressures on successful people to provide for dozens of clinging relatives. And she sees the religious fervour she encounters throughout the country for what it is: an anaesthetic that dulls the pain of rampant poverty, ramshackle public services and ceaseless power cuts. She concludes that the Nigerians’ reliance on God to change their circumstances holds the country back even more than the grotesque corruption.

In many ways, however, her most telling encounter is not with a Nigerian but with a Zimbabwean dairy hand, amazed at his adopted nation’s failure to exploit its natural abundance. “Because of your oil you don’t think about the small things,” he says. “This is the best country. It is richer than South Africa in natural resources, but you have nothing to show for it.” Words that would find sympathy with many of those on the streets demanding change.

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