Noo (pronounced “gnaw”) Saro-Wiwa, as you may have guessed is the daughter of martyred environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. She is a travel writer, and the author of Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.
Can I start by saying that this book made me ANGRY to no end! It was astonishingly infuriating.
Before I go any further, I think it helps to mention that she was commissioned by her editor and publishers to write this book about Nigeria because of her Nigerian heritage. And, as one reviewer says, she is writing to provide a view of Africa by an African. This was all false advertising, because as this infuriating book would prove to me, Noo Saro-Wiwa is much more of a Briton than she was given credit for. #WesternIdealismFTW
The book, which I was excited to read, because 1) it is of a genre I am not very familiar with, as I don’t read a lot of non-fiction travelogues 2) It was written by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s daughter and that piqued my interest, as I’m sure her publishers anticipated 3) It is actually relevant to a research project I am working on right now as it deals with individual cities in the country. So, I was sold, sold, and sold. I ordered it before I even got approved for my research this summer.
Actually reading the book was a painful experience. I rolled my eyes so hard they hurt. The unending disdain, the condescension, the generalizations, it was too much abeg! If I was just reading it for fun, I would have flung it aside forever. But alas, that was not the case.
I have to say the book does have some merit. For one, I had the urge to travel to the places she had gone, to see the Drill monkeys and the ancient monoliths in Cross River state, to visit the slave museum in Badagry, to travel to Obudu Cattle Ranch and ride the cable car (like I’ve been wanting to do ever since it was installed! #humph). I wanted to travel to these places not only to get the experience, but also to weigh in on the value of her observations and conclusions. It is a travel guide/travelogue afterall, and I give her full credit for the book’s success in that respect: there were many exciting adventures that I would love to replicate for myself.
Another good thing about the book is that she is very honest from the start about her relationship to Nigeria and how she feels about the country. The prologue was in many ways a disclaimer. She outlines her history with Nigeria while describing an episode at Gatwick airport, where a few Nigerians get rowdy after their flight is delayed indefinitely (more on this episode later). She writes about moving to England as a toddler and being forced by her parents to spend two summer months at “home” in Nigeria every year. She writes, “Having to spend those two months in my unglamorous, godforsaken motherland with its penchant for noise and disorder felt like punishment” (3). But this is not merely the feelings of an angst-y teenager who has no appreciation for her motherland. Noo may have put on her big girl panties, and is travelling to Nigeria again on her own terms this time, but the same disdainful borderline hostility towards the country still underlies her overall encounter.
I keep going on and on about her condescension and disdain, so I will just pull a few quotes to illustrate, make e no be like say I just dey vex for Noo. Here, she is writing about her experience on a Danfo bus, where a salesman gets in to peddle his cure-all tea to the passengers:
“For thirty minutes he itemised the tea’s magic powers with a surprisingly seductive eloquence and sincerity. In fact, all Lagos salesmen have an earthy and genuine sales pitch that is devoid of all that shady infomercial patter I’m accustomed to. Perhaps it’s easier for them to relax when they know they can rely on their audience’s gullibility and patience” (p. 22).
First of all there is this assumption that “In fact, all Lagos salesmen” share something other than being Lagos salesmen. Really? Have you met them all? No room for different methods here, abi? But, even that’s besides the point. My main gripe with this tiny section of the book is something she does throughout, which is to pitch Nigeria against an innately superior Europe/America. To say that it is “easier” for Lagos salesmen to “relax” because they can rely on the gullibility of their prospective customers is to 1) deny the salesmen of their marketing skills – which in her own words are seductive, eloquent, and sincere – by attributing their success to a gullible audience, and 2) to say that Nigerians, in general are inherently less intelligent (more stupid or more gullible) than Westerners who must need more work on the part of the salesmen to be convinced.
I had to put the book down and breathe at this point. What the actual hell? Somehow, even in this false dichotomy she has created between The West and Nigeria the people who supposedly buy into genuine, sincere, eloquence are more gullible than the people who fall for “shady patter”? Why? Because they are Nigerian and must prove to be inferior no matter the intellectual maneuvers one has to make to get there?
The sad thing is, the details of her observations rarely add up to the summations she makes of them. So, she often contradicts herself in an effort to sustain, perhaps inadvertently, her underlying disdain for the country and its people. For instance, on the next page she writes:
“Belief, especially self-belief, seems a vital ingredient in helping people get through life in Lagos. There is no room for equivocation or weakness” (23). Since she writes that there is no room equivocation or weakness you would think that it is impossible for salesmen to count on gullibility in such an environment. When you live in an environment where everyone is potentially out to dupe you, gullibility has to be one of the greatest liabilities. But, this is not something Noo takes into account in her summation of this episode.
In the Gatwick Airport episode I mentioned earlier, she also seems to arrive at conclusions that are not really supported by the details of her observations. She is caught between her embarrassment at the Nigerian passengers who are making a scene and her need to defend them and their Nigerianness (their loudness) against the snickering Europeans all around them. But although she notes that she is sitting among the “silent majority of Lagos-bound” and I imagine mostly Nigerian passengers, she still goes on to reinforce polarizing stereotypes at the continental level no less: “I am forced to watch the European and African mindsets collide in a way that equally splits my loyalty and disdain towards both” (3). In this false diametric opposition between such large categories, Europe on one side and Africa on the other, she fails to account for “the silent majority” of Africans. The Nigerians who do not fulfill the stereotypes do not matter in her summations, and this trend throughout her book is what really gets to me, especially since she is really invested in making these summations and presenting a certain idea of the country and its people to her audience. Who might her audience be, you ask? Guess.
Overall, her other main problem with the country (besides the injustices that led to the murder of her father), is the unfavorable perception of Nigeria in the Western imagination and how that rubs off on her as an individual. As a diaspora Nigerian who, in spite of her spectacular history with the nation, is actually a Briton, Nigeria’s reputation in Western eyes is unavoidable. And this reputation, to her chagrin trails behind her no matter where she is or how assimilated she becomes. This, might very well be the reason, conscious or unconscious, for her unrelenting disdain.
She writes, “Being Nigerian can be the most embarrassing of burdens. We’re constantly wincing at the sight of some of our compatriots, who have committed themselves to presenting us as a nation of ruffians.” “For it doesn’t matter what I might achieve in life, these streets represent me; in England, cheerful telephone queries about the provenance of my name are occasionally met with silence when I tell them I am Nigerian. The world judges me according to this mess, and looking at it made me feel rather worthless” (2, 24).
Hey, Noo, maybe the problem is not that every single Nigerian on the planet isn’t a well-behaved upright citizen. Please name a nation with no negative stereotypes about them. Please. None? Maybe, the problem is that people are so willing to buy into harmful and unfavorable stereotypes about us…and about every one who isn’t them. Maybe, you should try not to base your self worth on a singular and contorted view of a whole nation – a nation of endless variety, which you yourself have observed. Of what use is your disdain in the fight for progress in Nigeria? Perhaps, you should focus on bringing to light that “silent majority” you spoke of, rather than aiding the loud actions of the minority who are committed to bringing shame on your head.