Africa · Books · South Africa

Born a Crime- book review

By now, Trevor Noah has become a household name in the US. As the host of The Daily Show, having taken over from Jon Stewart in 2016, Noah has come a long way from growing up in a poor neighborhood in his native South Africa during apartheid. What makes his life story even more remarkable is that his birth was a result of a criminal act – his mother was a black South African while his father was a white Swiss, and miscegenation was illegal during apartheid. Hence, the name of his biography – Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood.

I got this book because a friend highly recommended it, but I have to admit I was a little apprehensive. As Noah is a well-known US celebrity, I thought his book would be tame and politically correct. Well, how wrong I was. From the start, he doesn’t pull any punches in talking about his life. He balances hard-hitting commentary with humour and bluntness as well as poignant recollections of painful memories. When he talks about how his devout Christian mother and him spent Sundays going to 3 different churches for the entire day, he says that “white church” was his favorite because of how comfortable it was and how brief the services were (just one hour). “Black church” was an ordeal, as services went on for 3 or 4 hours. “I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more,” he says, which struck me as both hilarious and sad. Then he complains about his mother’s old, beat-up car. Almost all bad experiences were a result of that old car, said Noah. Having to miss school, hitch-hiking, being late for work. And having to find a mechanic, who ended up marrying his mother, beating her, and eventually shooting her in the head. That escalated fast (Noah is not joking about that, it really happened). All this is just the first chapter.

South Africa is one of the world’s most fascinating countries because of its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. I have great memories of visiting there in 2010. But under apartheid, this diversity was twisted so that it was completed corrupted and abused – blacks were forced to live separately; coloreds and Indians were treated as being inferior to whites but better than blacks; child siblings of different skin complexions could be classified separately. As the biracial, light-skinned son of a black woman, Noah is caught up in this. The remarkable thing is Noah isn’t bitter or sad, but filled with optimism as well as a resolve which stayed with him his whole life. As he says, his mother told him not to forget pain, but to also not let pain rule him.

Not surprisingly, Noah’s mother is a key figure in his life and in the book. She is a woman of great resilience and spirit, who worked and brought up young Trevor without any shame, and instilled in him a strong attitude towards life. But she is the victim of the greatest tragedy in Noah’s life, when she is shot in the head by her abusive ex-husband (not Noah’s father). She recovers, which goes to show how tough she is, and Noah’s love for her and vice versa are very apparent.

Noah fills the book with hilarious and harsh anecdotes, as well as commentary on racial and social issues. Sometimes, it sounds brutal such as when he talks about the Coloured people in South Africa – people of mixed ethnic origin. Now, you might wonder – isn’t Noah himself Coloured since his parents were black and white? No, because Coloureds were mixed going back several generations, as their ancestors were the early Dutch and European settlers and locals over two centuries ago. Noah’s point is that this is the Coloured’s tragedy because they don’t have a solid heritage. That isn’t a problem in itself (obviously there are lots of mixed people worldwide) but in South Africa, Coloureds were caught up in the middle of the country’s racial hierarchies, during apartheid and even now.

This book is a great example of this – it’s not dominated by pain and terror, but by humor and fond memories of growing up, getting in trouble, and hustling in the hood, whilst learning some hard lessons. Noah’s autobiography is a fantastic read for learning about South Africa, race, the hood, and basically how a boy from a South African ghetto grew up to become an international comedian and personality. It is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Interestingly, the last biography I read was also about a South African, Elon Musk, which was also good. The country might have some serious problems, but it produces some special people.

Africa · Books

Behold the Dreamers- book review

The American Dream has long been held up as the ultimate goal for people from all over the world, who brave all means to reach what they believe is the fabled land of hope and opportunity and try to make a good life for themselves and their families. Behold the Dreamers is about a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who try to accomplish this dream amid the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis. Having overstayed his temporary visa to remain in the US for several years, Jende has gotten a lucrative opportunity to become the personal chauffeur of a Wall Street high flyer while applying for refugee asylum. His wife Neni is studying for a nursing degree while looking after their young son. Author Imbolo Mbue has crafted a compelling novel that goes beyond sentimentality and fanciful hopes to provide a raw and poignant take on the contemporary American Dream.

Through Jende and Neni’s challenging lives, Mbue shows that the American Dream is not always so fantastic nor attainable. Despite being set in the bright lights of New York City, which Jende and Neni both love, Mbue doesn’t hold back in portraying the grimness and sacrifice they put into trying to build a life in America, having to carefully balance their budget and diet while having to be obsequious at work (Jende not only has to drive Clark, but his wife and children, each of whom Jende treats as a master).

However, Behold the Dreamers is not just an immigrant story. Mbue seamlessly intertwines Jende and Neni’s story with that of Clarke’s well-off American family. Jende’s boss, Clarke, is an executive at Lehman Brothers, which became the most well-known victim of the crisis as it basically collapsed, so we know things won’t go too well for him. His wife is not as happy as she looks, and his elder son has a worldview very much at odds with him and much of society in general. Clarke balances work problems with maintaining a facade of a good family, which also doesn’t go too well and in a very sad way, he actually suffers more than Jende. I don’t know if it’s deliberate but Mbue makes Clarke a more empathetic character than one would have thought. Clarke’s lack of resolve with his home issues also drags in Jende and Neni and the result is tragic.

The novel was highly acclaimed and chosen by Oprah as one of her 2017 book selections, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had thought I would. For one, the main characters didn’t interest me that much and I wasn’t too sympathetic to their personal circumstances. In the middle of the novel, Neni commits a blatant act of extortion on a vulnerable employer that basically eliminated any sympathy I had for her. The ending provides some redemption as Jende makes a courageous decision, which I almost though he would go back on, and goes through with it. The ending will surprise a lot of readers and raise some issues to think about, such as rethinking what exactly is the American Dream worth.

Africa · Books

Homegoing- book review

One of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read, Homegoing follows the descendants of two West African half-sisters, separated by slavery and continents, over 200 years from the late 18th century to the modern era. A tragedy and painful family secret portend the fate of Effia and Essi, in their tribal homelands in what is now Ghana, during a time of growing interaction between Europeans and Africans, when slavery and Christianity came to the fore.

Slavery is what causes the stories of the two half-sisters, who never meet, to diverge, as Effia marries the European governor of the Cape Coast Castle, from where numerous African slaves were shipped to the US, while Essi is captured and transported as one such slave to America. One member of each ensuing generation of their respective descendants is featured in a chapter as their lives unfold in line with the historic development of the US and Ghana. While the Ghanaians cope with war against the British, colonialism and running their own country after independence, the Americans toil as slaves in the US South, then continue to cope with racism and discrimination.

Ghana is a fitting stage for a story focused on slavery, since it is where a lot of African slaves were bought, gathered and then shipped off to the New World, especially America. Cape Coast Castle is one of the more famous of numerous coastal forts built by Europeans to hold slaves, and was even visited by Barack Obama when he was US president in 2009. The author also makes clear the role of the local tribes, such as the powerful Asante and their Fante kin and rivals, in procuring and selling slaves to the Europeans, which illustrates the complexity of slavery in Africa. As such, this is not a one-sided polemic of whites neither a romanticized tale.

As its characters marched through history, there are heartbreaking chapters on captured slaves crammed into a filthy Cape Coast Castle dungeon, failed slave escapes from US plantations, and abductions. As someone who grew up in the Caribbean, I was familiar with slavery from school, given its key historic role in the region, but I still found the book to be stunning in its portrayal of the brutality of slavery in the US.

If Homegoing has one fault, it is that there are so many themes encompassing Africa-West relations, slavery, race relations, drug addiction, immigrants and diaspora which did not all get fully fleshed out. The conclusion also seemed a little too neat and contrived. Despite that, the author Yaa Gyasi does well to make most of the myriad characters people who you can care about and the novel remains compelling up until the end.

It is an epic tale that blends history and tragedy in both personal and societal forms. Homegoing is one of the best novels I’ve read recently and it is one book that I wished could have been longer.

Africa · Books

Say You’re One of Them and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – short stories reviews

Set across Africa, Say You’re One of Them is a striking collection of short stories and novellas about children. Each one of these stories takes place with children or teenagers at the center, amidst turbulent events and life situations. But instead of being a cheerful read, it is a touching and provocative book that eschews the stereotypical perceptions of Africa such as carefree village life, colorful culture, and exotic wildlife.

There is a story about a family forced to confront its mixed ethnic identity in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, a poor street family with a preteen prostitute daughter in urban Kenya, and a novella about children being sold off by their uncle to traffickers who plan to smuggle them to a neighbouring country. But the most heartbreaking and riveting story is about a Nigerian teenager of mixed religious and ethnic background trying to flee the conflict-riven North to his father’s village in the South. Jubril was born in the Christian South but grew up in the Muslim North after his parents split up, but after his friends turn on him during a campaign against Christian Southerners, he decides to flee south. Hiding his amputated arm, cut off under sharia law due to stealing, he boards a bus carrying Southerners away, but endures a terribly long delay as the driver searches for gas. The characters on board the bus are a mix of ages and personalities who argue and debate over the country’s madness, but it is when they set off that danger really sets in.
I can’t say I enjoyed most of these stories, and I don’t think that is what the author would want readers to experience, but they really left a strong impression. The author Uwem Akpan is an ordained priest from Nigeria who won various prizes for this book, published in 2008.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author. It is a mix of the supernatural, the mysterious, tragedy as well as banality. While I can’t say I’m a fan of Murakami yet, some of the stories were interesting in terms of how they blended ordinary occurrences like past romantic affairs or recounting childhoods with an air of poignancy and mystery. The most memorable were about a mother who loses her son to a shark attack in Hawaii and returns every year to the scene of the tragedy, a gay piano tuner whose serendipitous friendship with a woman leads him to contact his estranged sister, and another about a woman who suddenly loses her ability to remember her own name, the origin of which stems from a tragic incident during high school involving a classmate. The stories are not necessarily happy ones, but their somber and restrained sadness often leads to a kind of calm acceptance. I suppose that is a kind of essential for real life as well.

Books · Travel

Tony Wheeler’s Dark Lands- book review

Written by the guy who founded Lonely Planet, this is a travel book but with a big twist. Instead of sun-kissed, idyllic holiday spots and cities, Tony Wheeler travels to 8 of the most wretched countries in the world. Zimbabwe, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papua New Guinea and Pakistan are there, though more attractive nations like Israel and Palestine (counted as one) and Colombia also make the cut.

Basically, the premise is that each of these countries has serious security, economic, or environmental problems that render them either dangerous or near impossible to travel in. Obviously, things have changed for a few such as Colombia, which is high on a lot of travel lists, but many people wouldn’t really want to go to most of these places. Tiny, isolated Nauru also makes the cut though more for its status as little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has squandered its financial wealth from its only natural resource guano or bird crap (seriously). Its story is a bit sad, as it was at one time several decades ago wealthy, but slowly wasted its money on expensive real estate in Australia, most of which it has had seized due to being unable to complete the payments.

Pakistan is a country that is often associated with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and for that, it hardly features in popular media for anything else (its cricket team did win the Champions Trophy tournament on Sunday). In reality, Pakistan is a complex nation with interesting history and politics and beautiful scenery, according to Wheeler, who actually spent four years of his childhood there due to his father’s work at an airline. Wheeler and his wife go there to travel to Xinjiang, China overland via the mountainous Karakorum highway, during which security problems and logistical issues often obstruct their journey. They do make it though.

The chapter on Israel and Palestine sees Wheeler visit both states, which is not easy to do. He goes to various religious sites, such as trekking the Nativity Trail which traces the route Joseph and Mary took to Bethlehem, while also highlighting the absurdity and tragedy of the political situation, in which Israelis and Palestinians live next to each other but are completely divided and segregated, which doesn’t bode well for any improvement in the near future. In Palestine, he goes to Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank. While the situation seems bleak sometimes, he expresses hope it cannot continue forever.

Papua New Guinea is a unique country with its hundreds of tribes, some of which still live as they did hundreds of years, and diverse birds and animals. But Wheeler goes there not to admire wildlife, but to visit the lawless island of Bougainville, east of PNG, which fought a decades-long war for independence in the 1990s and where people can kill with impunity over witchcraft or other petty reasons.

Haiti, sadly, is as bleak as one would expect from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As if poverty and political instability weren’t enough, the country was rocked by a terrible earthquake in 2010 which killed over 100,000 and destroyed much of the urban centres. In the DRC, Wheeler visits a volcano and goes on a gorilla expedition in a country which is still racked by violent conflict and poverty.

While the book title may sound fatalistic, the book gives a nice insight into these lesser-known countries combining travel with cultural, political and historical commentary, and the outcome is more fascinating than bleak.


Ghosts of Empire- book review

I’ve been hanging onto this review for well over a week now but I assure you I’m not publishing it now to pile on the British given the big shock last Friday with Brexit. I may put out some thoughts about that on another post but for now, enjoy a book review about a nonfiction book about the British Empire.

The British Empire may be a thing of the past but the effects of its legacy are not, still lingering across a lot of its past domains. The Empire was an impressive structure, stretching across the whole world and encompassing ancient nations like India and Egypt to creating new ones like Canada and Malaysia, and has been credited with bringing vital elements of modern civilization to its colonies like railways, civil services and rule of law. But on the other hand, British rule also played a huge factor in facilitating and exacerbating serious tensions that still exist in the present day.

From Nigeria to Kashmir to Hong Kong, Ghosts of Empire looks at six troubled countries and places that suffer problems stretching back to their colonial era. In doing so, author Kwasi Kwarteng, a British MP, tries to argue that the Empire, far from trying to promote democracy or uphold Western liberal values, was run according to the values and attitudes of its administrators on the ground. In this way, British rule often led to exploitative, myopic and ineffective policies, some of which were carried out with supposedly good intentions, that exacerbated or cultivated local ethnic and religious tensions and curbed local egalitarian development. Cultivating local elites that aped British behaviors whilst becoming alienated from and often exploiting their own people was a common tactic. Of course, I feel one cannot discount the fact that many of these places had their own problems and tensions that were already in existence. However, Kwarteng’s main point is to illustrate that the British Empire was not benevolent and had many flaws, some of which the former colonial countries are still paying for.

Kashmir, the landlocked Indian state that is under harsh military rule and contested by Pakistan, is one such example. When the British defeated the Sikh Empire in the mid-19th century, they took control of then-Sikh ruled Kashmir and then sold the heavily-Muslim region to a dubious Hindu nobleman, whose rule consequently continued until independence when his heir made the fateful decision to join India. The Sudan, scene of one of the Empire’s most famous defeats and subsequent victories, was an artificial construct that welded together a Muslim north and black, animist south. It is not surprising that civil war broke out after independence and lasted for decades before the south was allowed to secede in 2011. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with over 150 million people, is an even more brittle construction. While still in one piece, the country underwent a savage civil war in 1967, which even now is a sensitive topic, and suffers from tensions and mistrust between the Muslim north and rest of the country. Myanmar and Iraq are two Asian countries which experienced the dubious effects of British rule. While never a colony, Iraq was a British protectorate after the first World War I following the defeat of Ottoman Turkey by the Allies.

Hong Kong at first glance surprisingly makes up the list of trouble spots, but when one looks at its current tensions with its parent China, it becomes understandable. While some Hong Kongers may be nostalgic for British rule and equate democracy with that, especially the reign of the last British governor Chris Patten, Kwarteng argues that the democracy in Hong Kong was never a priority for the British and somewhat scathing of Patten, who he sees as naive about local realities and the previous record of British rule.

The book makes some solid claims that the British Empire was never as glorious or as some of its supporters may claim, but that its rule was often erratic and privy to personal whims and was very much responsible for serious problems that exist today in some of the former colonies. I think that is credible, but again, one cannot exempt the locals from being responsible for their own problems.

Books · Travel

Around the World in 50 Years- book review

When it comes to traveling, there are a ton of folks doing round-the-world trips or multi-year journeys and who have been to tons of countries. But Albert Podell blows all these people out of the water, since he has been to every country in the world which he proudly proclaims in his book Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth. The title is a little misleading since the book is about his trips to a few dozen countries rather to all 196 countries, but this can be forgiven since it turns out to be a very amusing, fun and informativeread, part-travelogue, part-biography.

Podell earned fame for traveling around the whole world in a vehicle in the 1965, which helped him earn the record for the longest automobile journey around the world. In the ensuing decades, he became the editor of Playboy and other magazine and dated models and actresses, but approaching retirement, Podell decided to visit every single country. By 2000, he had visited merely 83 so from then on, he visited multiple countries every year until he achieved his goal in 2012.

The book is not just some breezy travelogue but a collection of the craziest, most dangerous and difficult trips Podell undertakes. As a result, the majority of the book is taken up by countries like Haiti, Chad, North Korea and Liberia, hardly backpacker favorites.
The book starts off with several chapters about Podell’s 1965 car journey when he and his partners struggle through the Sahara from Algeria to Egypt, and later, are almost stranded in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, as war with India begins. For his troubles, Podell even almost gets lynched for being suspected of being a spy. The rest of the book is about his ensuing trips in the 2000s when he visits such destinations as Haiti, Sierra Leone, Sudan and tiny Pacific nations like Nauru and Kiribati.

The most interesting chapters are when he visits several countries in West Africa with the help of “God.” No, not the almighty in heaven, but a jovial Togolese tour guide in Ghana called Godfried Agbezudor who takes Podell through Benin, Togo and Ghana. Podell then “reciprocates” by taking God with him on a next trip to Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea. The chapters about Mongolia, Cuba and Bhutan are rather interesting while the North Korea chapter serves to highlight how repressed and tragic the country is. Podell completes his quest with a hard-earned trip to Angola, a country that actually does not allow tourists.

With an eye for detail, a keen awareness of news, and an awesome attitude towards mishaps, Podell provides jaunty commentary of his trips despite enduring all manners of obstacles and frustrations. Bribery, inefficiency and the lack of infrastructure feature a lot which is not surprising since Podell travels through some of the poorest and most underdeveloped and war-ravaged nations.
If there is one problem, it is that Podell’s main reason for visiting these countries is to check off a list so as a result, some of the less prosperous countries are described in mere paragraphs which basically outline how wretched they are. There is an almost dismissive air to how Podell describes those countries, but not the people, so much that one wonders if there is any point to mention the countries in the book.

Few travelers go to those countries so Podell deserves credit for doing so himself. Readers might possibly come away with a strong sense of pessimism but a lot of the world is not at peace or prosperous, as current events in the Middle East and parts of Africa prove, and it is not detrimental to realize this.

It is an arduous and at times costly task but Podell doggedly sticks to his guns and knocks off countries until he triumphs in 2012.
He doesn’t make it easy for himself as he decides to revisit countries he had visited before that changed their names and split or merged, like Vietnam which existed as North and South Vietnam back when he was a Vietnam War soldier, and the individual states which made up Yugoslavia.

This book is more than about travel, but about accomplishing personal goals and knowing more about the world. In this, it does a brilliant job.

Africa · Books · South Africa

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.

Africa · Books

The Lower River- book review

Paul Theroux is one of the biggest names in the travel writing world, but his books are not for those looking for fun and uplifting writing. His most recent novel The Lower River illustrates this perfectly.

The Lower River, published in 2012, is partially based on Theroux’s real-life experience, being set in a remote village in Malawi. After Ellis Hock, a retired American businessman, is divorced by his wife of three decades, he then decides to close his store and return to the one place he was ever truly happy – the village of Malabo in deep southern Malawi where he served four idyllic years as a Peace Corps member fresh out of college. You can sense where this is going.

Hock flies to Malawi, reaches Malabo, meets the village “head” whose grandfather knew him, and then decides to stay for a while to do good work like rebuild the village school where he taught at decades ago. Soon, he realizes that his magnanimous venture will not work out and that the village is no longer the same as it was the last time Hock was there. Things soon take a dark turn and Hock, who comes down with malaria, becomes trapped in the village. He is isolated, weak, desperate and comes close to breaking down several times. There are late-night tribal secret society rites, orphan villages full of feral kids and a mysterious compound hidden in a border zone, that amplify the sense of dread and despair.

The novel is a compelling read, with each twist pushing Hock into deeper and darker trouble. Hock’s naivete, fueled by his mid-life crisis, combines with third-world poverty and culture clashes to create a chilling outcome. No doubt, there is a trace of Heart of Darkness in this.
However, what Theroux really wants to do is present a few themes common to Africa such as the prevalence of Western development aid and its effect on locals, with the messianic complex of some whites in wanting to “save” poor Africans, also known as the white man’s burden, and conversely, the question of how much progress African communities have made.

He partially succeeds though some parts in the book like the village of wild orphans seem too outlandish (I don’t think these actually exist but Malawi really does have about a million AIDS orphans due to a high AIDS rate killing off many adults). The Lower River paints bleak pictures about Africa and the foolishness of Westerners like Hock who want to save the third world, however sincere they may feel, without really understanding the realities on the ground. Despite the cynical nature of the book, Theroux gives a sound description of Malawi, when Hock arrives and spends a few days in the city of Blantyre, and Malabo that does well enough to present a stark image of the places.

Granted I’ve only read a couple of Theroux’s books, but reading through Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled from Cape Town to Cairo, you might even think he hated traveling and didn’t give a damn about the third world, especially Africa. But his complaints seem to stem from genuine care about the places he writes about and not mere arrogance, and he is often right in a lot of his observations (I enjoyed Dark Star Safari a lot actually), as pessimistic or cynical as they seem. And with his years spent living and working in Africa (Malawi, Uganda), he has substantial experience of sub-Saharan Africa and the issue of development.

Africa · Books · Travel

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria – book review

Nigeria probably isn’t on any list of top countries to travel to, but for the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, it was a special journey. Noo Saro-Wiwa grew up in England and was 19 when her activist father was arrested and executed by Nigeria’s ruling military junta in 1995, shocking the world and bringing significant outrage and disgrace onto the country’s leadership. As a result, she decided not to have anything to do with her country, only returning twice briefly for her father’s funeral and his actual burial. Eventually in the late 2000s after a successful career as a travel writer, she decided to return to Nigeria, not for good, but to try to reconcile and rediscover her nation. Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria is the result.

It starts off in Lagos, Nigeria’s giant and sprawling metropolis, continues to the former intellectual center Ibadan, then the nation’s capital Abuja, the clean but sterile antithesis to Lagos, and moves on to the northern Muslim states and then the central regions. Saro-Wiwa then returns to her hometown Port Harcourt, in the oil-rich Delta region, and even her father’s village in Ogoniland. Finally, she goes back to Lagos.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation, which would seemingly make it Africa’s powerhouse, though South Africa might beg to differ. In reality, Nigeria is filled with problems that weigh it down and its oil wealth is contradicted by its gross corruption and poverty. As if that was not enough, whereas before it had unrest in its Delta region, it is now under threat from Boko Haram, a fundamentalist Islamic group that has committed terrorist attacks and mass killings and kidnappings in the Muslim northeast part.

Saro-Wiwa is unflinching in depicting all the problems she encounters, from the chaos to corruption to lackadaisical customer service. She is filled with frustration at times, struggling to reconcile her English middle-class upbringing with the completely different nature of Nigerian society. There are a few good aspects – the well-run Calabar, the lively culture, and the hustle and bustle of general Nigerian life. Even these still seem like mere consolations compared to the corruption and neglect that is seemingly prevalent across the nation.

There are striking examples of Nigeria’s potential in many areas like tourism and agriculture and how it is being wasted. For instance, Benin (not to be confused with the neighboring country of the same name) used to be where one of West Africa’s greatest kingdoms existed, which lasted until it was defeated by the British in 1897. In the present times, the state has preserved little of its past heritage and splendor. Another example is when Saro-Wiwa visits a farm run by Zimbabweans, who lauds the richness of Nigerian soil and its impressive natural resources (“richer than South Africa in natural resources, but you have nothing to show for it”) but lambast Nigerians for not doing much with it.

This is not to say it is a depressing book though. There are numerous amusing anecdotes and colorful episodes of cultural events and diverse places. Saro-Wiwa covers many places, but the most entrancing is when she visits Sukur, a mountain kingdom that is still “Stone Age” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The settlement’s remoteness means people may live as their ancestors did centuries ago, smelting their own tools with stone furnaces and so on, but they are free from the disorderliness of modern Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa also views the Durbar, a military parade involving horse-mounted warriors overseen by the Emir of the ancient Islamic city of Kano, a tradition that harks back to Kano’s horse-riding culture. Nigeria also boasts some ancient heritage, but sadly some of these artifacts such as Nok sculptues, which date back to BC times, and Benin’s bronze castings and masks were mostly taken by Europeans and held in museums across Europe.

The book’s main problem is not the tone, but that at times there is not enough content. Saro-Wiwa describes history and politics and the ethnic diversity, but certain chapters seem like they would have been better with more background information. Especially perhaps a narrative that could have linked Nigeria’s places better together, though the country is a young one that was an artificial creation of the British. In the end, after the author returns to Lagos, she accepts she may not have the patience to fully handle living in Nigeria and coping with all the problems, but she has seen the good and bad of her country and is at peace with this.

While Nigeria still does not seem like a place most people would like to actually travel to, Looking for Transwonderland shows how diverse, interesting, and problematic it is. It is definitely one of the best, if not the only, books about the country and traveling it.