Review: Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa

I’m planning to move to Lagos in Nigeria sometime in the next year, and while I’ve read several works of fiction which have Lagos as a setting or partial-setting, I thought I would try to find some travelogues (the sort of travel lit written by the likes of Paul Theroux and Colin Thubron) about Nigeria/Lagos.

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much out there in terms of modern (preferably 21st century) non-academic non-fiction. This list from The Guardian features five works of fiction (one of them set largely in New York city); a disdainful essay by Chinua Achebe; an account of the Biafran war, written by a British journalist; a personal memoir-cum-history of the country by another British journalist; Nigerian author and playwright, and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s memoir; and only one travel book, by  the daughter of the late Nigerian author and eco-activist (executed for his activism) Ken Saro-Wiwa.

trans3I’ve since found another list, from the Africa in Words blog, and it offers more options, in particular of travel writing about Africa by Africans. I intend to track down one of the books on this list, Tour of Duty: Journeys Around Africa and Sketches of Everyday Life by Pelu Awofeso. There is also this site, Naijatreks, although I notice the blog hasn’t been updated since December 2015.

Back to Noo Saro-Wiwa’s book Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria: Well, I wanted to read about experiences traveling and living in Nigeria because I believe it’s best to be prepared. I want to know what to expect and although I know that travel writers aren’t to be 100% believed, I was prepared to take Noo Saro-Wiwa a lot more seriously than if she were, say, Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson. Besides, I really like her father’s Soza Boy: A Novel in Rotten English and always bring it up in discussions about writing in non-standard English. Finding a travel book about Nigeria written by his daughter seemed like fate.

However, I thought that Noo was a Nigerian resident. In fact, although she was born there, she has lived most of her life in the UK. So, Nigeria isn’t totally alien to her, but it’s not what she’s used to. Noo reacts badly to a lot of what goes on in Nigeria and the fact that her roots lie in the country may have something to do with it. She is more emotionally invested than if she were a total outsider, especially as she does consider the possibility of returning to contribute to the country. I think her ambivalence towards Nigeria makes her assessment of the country the most balanced I’m going to get at present. I shall have to experience life there firsthand to really know what it’s like.

For now, I admit that the book made me feel quite apprehensive. Reading it, I kept thinking, ‘OMG, what is this? How will I live in this country/city?’ I mean, I know I won’t curl up and die if I’m not living in the lap of luxury. And although I’m contemplating erratic power supply and open sewers with horror, my home does not have to be a penthouse apartment or a mansion. I don’t need five generators that ensure I have air conditioning 24-7 (I remember the time we always had a stash of candles because of frequent power failures and, yes, that was many, many years ago, but I’m not a spoiled rich girl by any means), and I worry about the stress Don will suffer trying to provide the best for me.

The book also made me feel the same sort of frustration I feel when I’m confronted by poorly maintained public spaces and poorly run tourist attractions, in Malaysia. Well, nothing new there, at least, but what a waste of resources and potential! Noo paints a bleak picture of a country run into the ground by its greedy and corrupt politicians, and she doesn’t seem to think that things will change for the better. How very depressing, especially as I can imagine Malaysia going the same way, eventually.

Objectively, though, Transwonderland offers a comprehensive account of the history and culture of Nigeria, its different regions and ethnic groups, history and politics. Noo also offers insights on the way the country is run, and the way its people think and operate. And, as she is a visitor to, as well as a native of the country, Noo does not neglect Nigeria’s tourist attractions either. These sections of the book were both the best and worst parts of Transwonderland. The best because they showed what riches Nigeria has, and the worst because they revealed how sinfully indifferent the powers that be are to the country’s potential, making next to no effort to preserve its natural wonders and cultural treasures; allowing these assets to stand idle, or fall into rack and ruin.

However, although reading Looking for Transwonderland makes me feel nervous about living in Nigeria, it also makes me look forward to experiencing the country, especially certain aspects of it – the food, most certainly, although it’s Don who is most responsible for this; the beauty of Calabar; the sterility of Abuja; the manic energy of Lagos; what’s left of the Benin Bronzes; the Esie soapstone sculptures; the Osun Sacred Grove; Igbo weddings (especially my own); masquerades; musical performances; markets, and so on.

Noo Saro-Wiwa

Don said to me just this evening that there will be scary stories about every country, but the reality is that each place is also the home of people living perfectly happy, ordinary, unremarkable lives. It’s true that there are aspects of Malaysian life that might sound terrifying to an outsider. If you focus on the snatch thieves, the highway robbers, the government corruption, police brutality and human rights violations, you might not be encouraged to put Malaysia on your list of places to visit. The worst is always hyped up, assuming terrifying proportions to the uninitiated who have nothing but urban legends and gossip to go by.

Still, I don’t think Noo exaggerates. I have read worse – in blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, and news sites. However, I also tell myself, good news does not sells papers (or books) or get clicks. Nigeria is going to be a challenge, but I can’t just dwell on the negatives. Noo, to be fair, doesn’t, and for all the dread her book has caused, it’s also made me intensely curious about the country that is going to be my second home.

3 thoughts on “Review: Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa

  1. Your planned move has taken me by surprise, Daphne — is this a temporary move, or more longterm? What a culture shock it could be! Still, I salute your pragmatic attitude, and look forward to your posts approaching and following your move.

    And thanks for drawing attention to this book, I have vague memories of reading a review soon after it was published.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’ll be longterm. I am getting married there, and as my partner is from Lagos, I’ve decided to move there with my daughter. Nigeria will be the fourth country I’ve lived in (the other three are Malaysia, Singapore and England). Let me just say that England was a culture shock because I expected everyone to know who I meant when I mentioned John Keats (how wrong I was!) and also, the banks were strange 😛


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