Granta, £14.99, 314pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, By Noo Saro-Wiwa
Friday 17 February 2012
"My father's murder severed my personal links with Nigeria," writes Noo Saro-Wiwa in the prologue of her travelogue. Looking for Transwonderland is set in Nigeria, a country that venerated her father, Ken, for his 1980s TV comedy series, Basi & Company, and then executed him less than a decade later for his politics: a campaign against Shell's despoliation of the oil-rich delta. "In the ten years after my father's death, I returned only twice for very brief visits to attend his official funeral in 2000, and his actual burial in 2005."
In addition to being a travel book, this is an attempt at "re-engaging" with a lost homeland. It is two travels in one: Saro-Wiwa makes her way across a vividly coloured Nigeria of potholes, rocks and rivers, peopled with fascinating characters; and across a grey, nameless landscape littered with painful memories and with constant reminders of her father's fascinating life and legacy.
Her gifts lie in her keen eye for the sights, sounds, souls and insanities of contemporary Nigeria, and in her ability to recreate these. The book is a breathless chronicle of diversity: from Lagos ("a disaster of urban non-planning") to Ibadan ("set in gentle hills") to Abuja ("Islamic, calm, rich, tidy") to Kano ("I hadn't seen quite this many mosques in one metropolis before") to Jos ("mosquito-free, high-altitude freshness") to Maiduguri ("a hot Islamic city slowly being buried alive by Saharan sands") to Benin ("a reputation for armed robberies and modern-day people trafficking") and Port Harcourt ("an uninviting metropolis").
Every city appears to have dropped out of a different mould, the only unifying character the invisible mechanism that replaces one moment of dysfunction with another. And, of course, the "okadas" – the suicidal motorcycle taxis that function as the most convenient "public transport" across much of Nigeria.
Always felt, and keenly sketched, is a sense of loss; of time and chance and people vanishing. Two years before her father's death, her brother Tedum dies suddenly, aged 14, at boarding school in England. The saddest part comes towards the end: Noo and other family members assemble her father's bones – retrieved from the government – in a coffin, in preparation for a final burial.
Her encounters are at once full of pathos and brightness. Strewn all over are capsules of trademark Nigerian hope and expectation, straining passionately against the seams of squalor. Complications abound. After paying for a group of boys to go on rides at the ruins of the Transwonderland Amusement Park in Ibadan, Saro-Wiwa finds herself out of cash and unable to help when they beg for food. She can't explain; she speaks no Yoruba, they speak no English. She rues the moment: "As the bike sped off, the boys watched me, confused about why they deserved a ride on the dodgem cars but not a plate of rice." There is no end, it seems, to the constant testing of the tenuous links between pilgrim and country.
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