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.