Africa Utopia is a month long festival of events at the Southbank Centre, celebrating Africa today in film, music, dance, literature, spoken word, theatre, fashion, talks and debates. The festival running throughout July is a cultural summit lead by Baaba Maal to show what Africa has to offer the world, and this week, we’ve joined them on the Southbank for a week of themed posts.
Early this month, I was in the audience for an Africa Utopia event called ‘Nigeria Now’, a discussion about the complexities on Nigeria. The standout voice on the stage belonged to Noo Saro-Wiwa, author of Transwonderland. Noo is an incredible writer. She brought up in England, she was dragged back to Nigeria every Summer – a country she viewed as ‘an annoying parallel universe where she had to relinquish all her creature comforts and sense of individuality.’ Her father, Ken Saro Wiwa, a celebrated writer and activist, was executed for speaking out for environmental change. After his death, Noo didn’t return to Nigeria for several years, until recently. The result is a magnificent travel memoir ‘Looking for Transwonderland’. For this week’s Beyond the Headlines, we talked to Noo about the book, her experiences of travel, and her honest feelings about her homeland.
Why did you decide to write your first book about Nigeria?
My long-term plan has been to write travel books, particularly about African countries. Transwonderland wasn’t actually my first book – seven years ago I wrote about my experiences in South Africa. But my literary agent told me that with a surname like mine, readers might find it odd that I wasn’t concentrating on my homeland. Writing about Nigeria was always in the pipeline, so I decided to make it the subject of my first published book.
I had avoided going back to Nigeria after my father’s death. I was busy travelling everywhere else. Having written travel guides for Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, other African countries were more familiar to me than my country of birth, which was a ridiculous situation, really. But as time passed I became more curious about Nigeria. I started to see it as a potential travel destination, not just that awful place where my father died and where I was forced to spend my childhood summers. The thought of travelling around suddenly seemed intriguing.
In your Nigeria Now talk at the Southbank you said the thing you love about travelling was that is ‘confounds your idea of a place’ – what were some of the biggest shocks and surprises going back?
The most surprising thing I encountered was a dog show, held at Ibadan University by veterinary students. I didn’t think Nigerians were dog lovers. It was very entertaining.
Another eye-opener was the Lonely Hearts section in the newspapers. Young men, often students, were looking for middle-aged sugar mummies who could give them financial help with their studies in exchange for sex. The adverts were hilariously frank, and it was a refreshing antidote to the piety and religiosity that dominates Nigerian life.
What did the culture teach you?
People are very tough and enterprising. They get on with life, no matter how hard it is. They find original ways to make ends meet. It’s good to observe that and try to emulate it. Life in the UK can soften you up a bit too much.
You don’t apologise for being honest. Do you feel a pressure to be positive about your homeland?
Yes, there’s pressure. Nigeria has a bad reputation, and Nigerians feel negatively judged by a world that often wants its prejudices about Africa confirmed. When I was out there I saw a billboard that said, “Don’t badmouth Nigeria, things are changing”. However, it would be impossible to write a decent book if I bowed to that pressure and only wrote positive things. You have to be honest in your observations if your writing is to have integrity, otherwise you’re simply producing a propaganda piece.
The key thing is to contextualise and rationalise your observations. Human beings are fundamentally the same all over the world, so if things go wrong in one country, there’s always a rational reason for it. Part of your job as a writer is to try and understand those reasons and explain them. Nigeria has a bad reputation because of bad government, so it’s up to our politicians to improve the country and its standing in the world. The burden shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of writers; we don’t have the power to hide all the bad stuff anyway – it would be like sticking a Lilliputian fig leaf on Gulliver’s testicles.
How would you say Nigeria differs from the stereotypes commonly portrayed in the media?
People are much more honest and co-operative than the media might have you believe. We also have lakes where you can go bird-watching; we have rainforests with chimpanzees and gorillas; mist-shrouded mountains, art galleries, fun weddings, ancient artefacts. Pretty much everything you would find in a functioning country. It’s all overlain by political strife and economic underachievement, unfortunately.
As a traveller, how do you go about really getting a grip of a place?
Look around constantly. Observe as much as you can. The biggest revelations can be found in the smallest, most mundane places. Pester people with questions and spend more time listening rather than talking. Never make assumptions, no matter how true you might think they may be. Even if you’re sure the sky is blue, check that someone else doesn’t think it’s green!
When covering your home country is it difficult to remain objective?
Yes. You love aspects of the country more than foreigners would, and you’re upset by things that foreigners might be more chilled out about. I try to be objective in certain areas of my writing, but I also consider travel writing to be a partly subjective genre. You write in the first-person, and you dwell on your personal feelings and thoughts. So travel writers have licence to be subjective from time to time. But I’m always honest about that. I lay my biases, fears and preferences on the table. And it’s important to remember that I didn’t write a book about Nigeria; I wrote a book about my journey in Nigeria. Sensible readers will recognise the difference.
You mentioned in your talk that travel writing is historically dominated by older white male voices, why do you think that is?
Commercial publishing took off in the West, so it’s understandable that travel writing would be dominated by Westerners, especially men. In the last 500 years the emergence of exploration, cartography, photography, colonialism and the ‘civilising mission’ all fed into a hunger among Westerners for information about the rest of the world. The market was, and to some extent still is, dominated by white readers. For them, these books are a vicarious form of travel, therefore they (consciously or subconsciously) want to see something of themselves in the writer. Men like Paul Theroux re-invigorated the modern form of travel writing, so their dominance can only be expected.
Travel writing is often about outsiders visiting somewhere that’s unfamiliar. The establishment of an African diaspora means that people like me are the new outsiders looking in. We’re now getting more involved in the genre. I’m not at all against old, white men writing about the continent – anyone has the right to write about it. But we need a broad range of voices and perspectives.
Who are your travel writing inspirations?
The first travel book I ever read was Almost Heaven by Martin Fletcher, a British journalist who travelled around the backwoods of the US, exploring the parts of America that aren’t represented in the media. It opened my eyes to the idea of non-fiction. I also adore Miranda France’s Bad Times in Buenos Aires, in which she describes her experiences of living in Argentina in the late 1980s. Her humour and unapologetic criticism of the country annoyed Argentines, but she was prescient in her negativity – the economy collapsed within a decade. Michaela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz was brilliant, informative and a huge inspiration. Viva Mexico by Charles Flandrau was another joy to read, very funny and surprisingly modern for a book written nearly 100 years ago. Ryszard Kapuscinski and Paul Theroux were inspirations too, even though I don’t agree with some of their writing.
Finally, if Boat Magazine were to devote one issue to an African city, where would you suggest?
I like big, crazy cities with wealth disparities and heaving populations and lots of culture. Lagos, Kinshasa, Nairobi and Johannesburg would be the prime candidates.
Noo Saro-Wiwa‘s Looking For Transwonderland is published by Granta and is quite frankly brilliant.