Books · Colonisation

Finding: self, other and in-between

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in NigeriaLooking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I imagined this would bear some similarity to Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s Some Day I Will Write About This Place, but there is nothing parallel here to Wainaina’s sardonic critique of neo-colonial representations of his country and continent. There isn’t time for it! I fear that this, the white ‘liberal’ clamour to be educated by the ‘Other’, was what prevented me from connecting with Saro-Wiwa quickly; it took me about 200 pages to warm up to her, more or less as she started to write appreciatively about pre-colonial art and artefacts. The Africa of my barely half-decolonised imaginary is so fraught and exciting that the casual treatment of Nigeria as an actual place threatened to fall flat.

Saro-Wiwa’s journey, while highly personal and freighted with various loads of emotional baggage, is narrated in factual, linear, unembellished style. She avoids overloading the text with excessive incidental detail, seems not to be prone to digression, keeps the structure simple and rarely segues into extended reflections. For long stretches I wasn’t able to latch onto her emotionally. She tends to tell rather than show her own character, giving an impression of fearlessness, mild cynicism, and not much else! The occasional failure of her enthusiasm, her sense of a less-than-delightful job to be got through on the journey occasionally clouded my enjoyment of the transparency of the window she opens on incredible places, but I should have empathised rather than feeling impatient as I was oppressed by the same nihilistic Baudelairian boredom at times on my travels in Brazil. 

For most of the way she is a judgemental observer, constantly complaining about the havoc and inconvenience  wrought by ‘inefficiency’ and corruption, comparing places she visits unfavourably with London and the ‘developed’ world generally. What I read as an uncritical, wholehearted acceptance of capitalism and enthusiasm for what I see as (neo)colonial notions of ‘development’ kept pulling me up short. But I had to pull myself up – is it actually necessary to précis Decolonising the Mind as a preface to a politically acceptable demand for running water and electricity? What could be more characteristic of the coloniser mindset than my belief that I know better? I finally accepted that while Noo and I might not be on the same page at times, I would simply have to calm down and enjoy the ride, even if I couldn’t enjoy a barside discussion on such topics as community:

For all its benefits, the social fabric of extended family doesn’t wash well in a free-market economy; it hinders it badly, I think. Corruption and nepotism increase when pressure is placed on successful individuals to look after dozens of clinging family members. Many a Nigerian office is staffed with unqualified uncles and cousins who bring little innovation and creativity

Stuff ’em then, relations = (

The book succeeds in conveying just how diverse Nigeria is in every sense. Saro-Wiwa, born in Nigeria but mainly raised and resident in the UK, is constantly identified as a foreigner, but this seems extraordinarily perceptive of those she meets, considering the plethora of ethnic and linguistic identities cohabiting the clearly artificially bounded state. Even more striking to me is the contrast between the characters of the various cities she visits and attendant disparities in lifestyle. That Saro-Wiwa feels able to make a few generalisations about Nigerian national character at all is quite surprising, but it’s less so that she frequently admires the population’s ability to make Nigeria’s unlikely nation statehood work, at least on the interpersonal/intercultural level (if not the political) where easygoing, good humoured attitudes to cultural difference and religious tolerance generally set the tone, aided rather than hindered, it seems, by the national trait of frankness and love of argument.

Geographical diversity is beautifully rendered and I gained a richly layered sense of place in each of her calling points. Saro-Wiwa’s sketches of people she encounters, I feel, are sometimes shallow and unanimated, but occasionally humorous quotations made me wish for more, more people, more personality, more feeling. Perhaps it’s apt to find myself wishing for more passion from a text that opens with a lament over Nigerian people’s propensity for exaggerated public emoting; Saro-Wiwa as a writer seems to rather to err on the side of English reserve. Or perhaps I suffered a massive failure of empathy. As an intermediary between me and one of her homes, Saro-Wiwa was more negative and ambivalent than I wanted to be myself, and while this uncomfortable tension gave me a kind of fascinated traction, it made me irritable and impatient. I was a bad companion. Every traveller has her ghosts, and the reader should patiently accept her particular habit of carrying them.

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