In Looking for Transwonderland, Noo Saro-Wiwa returns to Nigeria as a tourist, determined to explore her unpopular and little visited country to discover its charms. Saro-Wiwa is a British-Nigerian national, raised and educated in UK but subjected to annual unwelcome and unhappy trips to Nigeria during school summer holidays as a child. Her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa was a journalist, writer and activist, a member of the Ogoni people who campaigned against the actions of Shell oil in the Niger delta, the pollution of the land and corruption of the Nigerian government in supporting this activity. Saro-Wiwa was arrested and executed on a murder charge along with 8 other Ogoni leaders; his execution was widely condemned and the charges laid against him implausible. After her father’s death Noo Saro-Wiwa stopped visiting Nigeria and the country became fixed in her mind as a corrupt and brutal place which murdered her father. That she was willing to return at all took some bravery.
In re-visiting Nigeria Saro-Wiwa aimed to reshape the country in her mind. Her impressions from childhood were overwhelmingly negative. She struggled with the language, the heat. Her father insisted on his children receiving no creature comforts, making everything a learning experience and challenging them not to be typically spoilt British kids which, compared to their Nigerian relatives they probably still were just the same. She hated the boredom, the lack of what we would consider basic comforts: lighting, electricity, temperature control, entertainment. She had little positive experience to report. At the start of her trip the situation doesn’t seem like it will alter. She finds the country in a frustrating state. Her aunty, who she’d visited as a child, seemed to be living in much poorer conditions than she remember. There was no running water. Electricity supplies were patchy and unreliable. Transportation was equally unreliable and she was warned never to be out after dark on account of thieves and bandits raiding buses and vulnerable tourists. Kidnap and ransom was not unusual. Saro-Wiwa finds herself feeling isolated and afraid, confused by the culture and unhappy with her living conditions. It’s not an auspicious start.
Things start to look up when she decides to take an okada rather than the bus. Okada’s are motorcycle taxis that can cut through Nigeria’s heavy and slow traffic, moving at crazy-breakneck speeds often using risky manoeuvres. At first she is terrified, then she starts having fun. From there she starts to relax into Nigeria. She tours around the country, from messy and heavily populated Lagos to the austere capital Abuja, to the Muslim North and the ancient state of Benin. In each step she learns more about Nigeria, about its diversity and complexity. She learns about its history in the slave trade and the corruption of its politicians. She finds the country frustrating and intriguing in equal measure. The corruption is endless, and the way it has impacted Nigeria’s progress is palpable. Money flows up and up, and the people don’t benefit from it. Everyone aspires to be rich, but not productive. The environment is disregarded and squandered. Developments go to waste. Transwonderland, of the title, is an amusement park which has degraded into shoddy disrepair. Everywhere she looks she sees potential, but not much progress. It’s a disheartening experience.
Yet it’s not all disheartening. She discovers a love of Nollywood movies and pride in the way these movies are produced on a low budget, cobbled together kind of approach. The Nollywood industry is extremely successful in Nigeria, and is growing in capability and quality all the time. She loves the food, especially fried plantain. She comes to understand the complexity of the country, a country that was itself cobbled together by the British, from a disparate band of cultures and tribes which makes the country extremely diverse. Lagos itself, in this manner, is something of a miracle. Despite the conflicting desires, the different cultural practices and expectations, they are a testament to how people can live largely tolerably together in conditions that are not always tolerable. She loves the people, when they’re not squeezing scraps of money out of her.
Looking for Transwonderland is a fascinating and complex book about a fascinating and complex country. Saro-Wiwa presents her experiences with honesty and candour without becoming depressing or overly critical. She sees her country through Westernised eyes, and I think she is quite conscious of that, but through her trip she begins to see it through Ogoni eyes. She discovers things to be proud of as well as things which could be better. She sees its flaws and its merits and she grows to grudgingly love it. She discusses her father’s death along with other key historic moments in Nigeria history – their many presidents and military coups and the corruption which flows as abundantly as the oil which fuels the economy. Nigeria is exposed as a strange tapestry of a country, rotten parts here and glorious parts there. Saro-Wiwa writes in a personable and intelligent way, making this an easy and enlightening read as well as a lot of fun. I very much enjoyed Looking for Transwonderland. I’m not sure I’m ready yet to go on holiday to Nigeria, but what I do have is a better appreciation of this loud and joyous and brittle and flawed country, as well as its enduring people of which Saro-Wiwa now counts herself as one.
Looking for Transwonderland is published by Granta Books.