Noo Saro-Wiwa: Peering into Nigeria ever so darkly

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

I enjoyed reading Noo Saro-Wiwa’s book Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, a slim travelogue (272 pages) published by Granta books. I also hated reading it. Be warned, O gentle reader, it starts and ends with an attitude. Right from the airport. Saro-Wiwa on a few months visit to Nigeria seems determined to be miserable:

 “The plane broke through the clouds and swung low over a sea of palm trees that abruptly became endless tracts of metal rooftops. That vista still choked my heart with dread. I made my way through the airport’s mustiness and out through the exit, where I was ambushed by the clammy aroma of gasoline, so familiar and potent.”

Saro-Wiwa lives in England but has ancestral roots in Nigeria She was born in Nigeria in the mid 70’s and raised in England. Her father is the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and activist who was executed by the brutal military regime of General Sani Abacha.

Saro-Wiwa is a good travel writer with a questioning, inquisitive eye for detail. Her prose is accessible and fresh and even though you may not agree with her, it is hard to put down this entertaining and engaging account of her travels all over Nigeria, North South, East and West. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be entertained by biting prose and interesting observations about the drama that is Nigeria, albeit from a Western point of view. Yes, I view Saro-Wiwa as a Westerner despite her strong roots in Nigeria, certainly, I see her as someone looking into Nigeria from the Diaspora. Saro-Wiwa’s book may yet be the last straw, that marker that separates Diaspora writing from what I call truly indigenous on-the ground writing. Nonetheless when she deploys her razor-blade mouth to taunt the prayer-warrior zombies, willing victims of the carcinogenic plague that is Nigeria’s new Christianity, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry:

“Janice was pacing around the living room and praying for the ‘evil spirits’ and ‘witches’ to ‘Die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die!’ A verbal machine-gun attack. I watched from the sofa, groggy but compelled, as she squeezed shut her eyes and pummelled the air with an imploring fist.”

Despite Saro-Wiwa’s muscular literary skills, this book hardly improves upon the silence. Instead several chapters are devoted to narrating what the alert reader already knows about Nigeria, very little of which is good. The analysis is rushed and the condescension is cutting, with little compassion and reflection on why things are the way they are. Those who write from the vantage point of the West tend to look at Africa using Western civilization as an asymptote. Black Africa compares very unfavorably with the West for many reasons, including the rank ineptitude and thievery of many of the leaders that sent many of us, their children, abroad away from the unnecessary roughness that they have turned Black Africa into. Who speaks for Black Africa, the children of the privileged separated from Nigeria’s pitiful educational and social infrastructure returning to taunt the victims of their parents (in)actions? Sadly, these are the supercilious voices of literature that the West recognizes and uses to view Nigeria. The victim is doubly victimized. That analysis is usually absent once you are through enjoying the chapters and chapters of self-righteous indignation directed at the nation states within that geographic space called Sub-Saharan Africa. There is this neediness, a certain desperation to link us to a preferred civilization, to assert our humanity, in a way that pleases the preferred civilization. It is an asymptote.

So, without reading the book, you can imagine what Saro-Wiwa has to say about Nigeria: The dysfunction, the incompetence, the comedy of errors, the corruption, the violence, the patriarchy, the misogyny, the pathetic mimicry of everything Western, the new Christianity, the spiritual and physical decay, she records all in painstaking detail. At some point, the unrelenting despair overwhelms you and you want to beg her to stop the torture. She unwittingly sums up the largely banal burden of the book in her tired recital of Nigeria’s woes as she describes the portraits of Nigeria’s rulers in a decrepit museum thus:

“A novice would have no idea that during its forty-seven years of independence Nigeria has lurched from one kleptocracy to the next. The leaders’ photographs resembled a series of criminal mugshots, a line-up of chief suspects in the ruination of Nigeria. The sight of them soured my tourist’s jaunt. For all their talk and intentions, most of these men pocketed billions of the country’s wealth, ruined the infrastructure, devalued the education system and obliterated Nigerians’ trust in one another, cultivating a dog-eat-dog attitude in all corners of life.”

Still, the frustrated reader cannot stop reading, this unctuous book is a page turner, Saro-Wiwa can write, I won’t lie. She is funny, even when she is laughing at her own insecurities:

“Sam gallantly lifted me up in his arms and carried me onto the beach. I felt his knees buckle briefly. ‘Ai, I didn’t think you were so heavy,’ he said as he tipped me onto my feet. ‘I weigh nine and a quarter stone. How heavy should I be?’ ‘You’ve been eating too much yam,’ he informed me, examining my frame at arm’s length.”

Like many Diaspora writers, Saro-Wiwa’s energies are devoted almost solely to whining about Africa’s numerous failings and offering very little in terms of substantive analysis and solutions. When she does, her solutions are alarmingly simplistic. As an aside, Nigerian writers have to decide whether they want to be writers or armchair social activists.  They have been saying the same things for too long, it gets old and exhausting.

I honestly admire Saro-Wiwa’s writing skills. Her sense of pacing is exquisite. When she writes about her experience in a speeding danfo bus, it is as if you are in the bus with her, your black knuckles whitened by fear. Saro-Wiwa can write. She’s got attitude and she flaunts it. The prose catches you unawares, like pissed off spouse lobbing accurate missiles. You are entertained by delicious reams of snarky prose even when she’s complaining about men issues:

“By now, Sam’s eyes were caressing my face, and his voice had lowered to a pre-coital purr.”

Her street interventions and escapades in danfo buses and perched on okada motorcycles are hilarious and priceless, worth the price of the book many times over.

“Okadas are the scourge of Nigeria’s roads. These Chinese-made, 100cc motorcycles buzz around the streets in their thousands, like a plague of giant flies. They’re popular because they’re cheap and fast and can weave through the traffic go-slows that consume such a huge proportion of people’s days.”

Saro-Wiwa is Teju Cole prowling Lagos in pumps and a wicked wit. Her visit to the “museums” is hilarious and sad. Hear her about Nigerians’ penchant to hustle anything and anyone for a buck:

“If Nigeria conducted a space exploration programme… women would be offering bananas to the astronauts as they climbed aboard the shuttle.”

The first half of the book reads like a Karaoke redux of Teju Cole’s Every day is for the Thief. I wonder if she read Cole’s book; reading her book reminded me of Cole’s book. There is the same consistent approach and attitude to the hapless subject – Nigeria.  Don’t get me wrong, it is hard to blame Saro-Wiwa entirely for the seeming self-loathing and the condescension in her travelogue. Nigeria presents as a caricature nation, many thanks to her thieving incompetent rulers.

Saro-Wiwa’s narrative style is breezy, employing imprecise mostly superficial historical analysis. It makes for easy, engaging reading though. However, one comes away with the feeling that she relied heavily on Wikipedia for her research. From the first page of Noo Saro-Wiwa’s book, self-loathing dashes out of the gates of spiritual neglect neighing like a diseased stallion. The cynicism is relentless and unrelenting, she has very little to say about Nigeria that is positive. Lagos is goat shit and mud puddles, sweat and man-eat-man savagery always prowling around the corner looking for a victim to maul:

“If Lagos were a person, she would wear a Gucci jacket and a cheap hair weave, with a mobile phone in one hand, a second set in her back pocket, and the mother of all scowls on her face. She would usher you impatiently through her front door at an extortionate price before smacking you to the floor for taking too long about it. ‘This,’ she would growl while searching your pockets for more cash, ‘is Lagos.”

I kept reading and hoping that her mood would improve as I read. Alas it only got worse, nothing Nigeria offered her would console her. Saro-Wiwa was miserable. She has harsh words for her father’s tormentors and killers. Sample: “Abacha’s “face… emanated ruthlessness: tribal marks stretched vertically between reptilian eyes and a sour pout; a brooding assassin.”  She is not enamored of former president Olusegun Obasanjo either: “There was a photo of Olusegun Obasanjo… with his characteristically small eyes and flared nostrils.” The more I think about it, she is decidedly hostile to Nigerian men, virtually everyone seems to be a caricature of the real thing:

“I paid for two seats at the back of the car to give my thighs breathing space. The gangly man sitting next to me used the extra space to spread his legs as widely as possible, leaving me squeezed once again against the window. I was livid. Months of travelling cheek-by-jowl in cars had instilled in me a new-found loathing of men’s legs, which, like air, seem constantly to expand to fill the space available. I’m amazed they’re not all buried in Y-shaped coffins.”

Saro-Wiwa has a complicated personal view of her father Kenule  but lionizes his role in Nigeria’s fortunes in what is largely a hagiography. Kenule Saro-Wiwa was not without his share of responsibilities in the Nigeria project:

“My father never bought into the Nigerian system of corruption. I was blind to the virtue behind our modest home and few holidays, and I resented his frugality and non-materialism. I craved a luxurious lifestyle. But he held an intense disdain for such things.”

Saro-Wiwa’s tender side is more evident when she visits parts of the North. Her compassion shows and even though some of her observations and view come across as patronizing, it is clear that she spent considerable time researching the places and thinking about their uniqueness compared to the South of her parents upbringing. I imagine that familiarity breeds contempt. As an aside, Granta could have used a more careful editor; the book is dotted with a few grammatical and editorial issues.

The mango does not fall from the tree: Noo Saro-Wiwa has the opinionated streak of her dad Ken Saro-Wiwa. Not many Igbo will care for her opinions about Biafra. Many Nigerians will take offense at her views:

“My people, the Ogonis, had been bit-players in the drama of Nigerian history in which the Binis, Yorubas, Hausas and Igbos played a leading role. Mocked as simpletons and cannibals, Ogonis were barely known outside the Delta region until my father made our presence felt… The economic and numerical dominance of the Igbo people engulfed us, their commercially savvy tentacles spreading as far as Bori, the tiny Ogoni town where my father was born. By the start of the Biafran civil war, Igbos owned about 80 per cent of Bori’s businesses, my mother told me. Only when the Biafran Republic was declared did most of them vacate the town to join their new republic. These ethnic disparities were significant at national level.”

All in all however, like her father’s generation, the rejection of her ancestral land for the West is complete and final, no looking back:

“Yet Nigeria, for all its sapphire rivers and weddings and apes, couldn’t seduce me fully when all roads snaked back to corruption, the rottenness my father fought against and the cause he died for.”

“Now I understood why my father never once spent the night here during our childhood stays. He luxuriated in the air-conditioned solitude of his Port Harcourt study while dispatching us to the village. As much as he loved Bane, his attachment to the place was an emotional one that didn’t require his physical presence.”

All the reviews of Saro-Wiwa’s books that I have read have been positive and deservedly so. They include reviews in The Economist, The Guardian and The Telegraph. However, these mostly Western reviews seem focused on the book’s entertainment value and can barely hide their glee at another objectification of Black Africa as (the other) exotica. If it is any comfort, Adewale Maja-Pearce has a very good review of the book in The Guardian here that makes the compelling case that the reader must not always rely on Western reviewers for decent opinions about books on Nigeria and Black Africa. Read it. Memo to the Nigerian Diaspora writer: We should probably all leave Nigeria alone, we no longer live there. I should go write my own travelogue – about America’s seamy side. America’s got issues too.