Saro-Wiwa has written more than a travel book—with Transwonderland, she’s given Nigerians a mirror to assess themselves by and to the rest of the world a manual on how to fit into and navigate the fearsome setting that is Africa’s second largest economy.
By Pelu Awofeso
The day Noo Saro-Wiwa arrived in Nigeria, she was panicky. Like most foreign tourists, she’d taken all the ‘travel alert’ handed down to her very seriously: fearing the worst encounters at the international wing of the Murtala Mohammed airport, she tuck her ATM cards away in her bra, slipped what was left of her money under her feet and went ahead to brace “the intimidating Lagos atmosphere”.
Even with the airport many kilometers behind her, the apprehension lingered; as Saro-Wiwa got nearer to the austere apartment she’ll be staying in a suburb of Lagos, she clung for dear life. “I shrank into my seat, wishing I could stay in the car forever, suspended in this comfortable no-man’s-land between the airport and my aunt’s house,” she writes in her first travel book on Nigeria, Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.
A few days and some solo trips later, the author willfully weans herself of the fear of the unknown, “happy to let the tide carry me wherever it pleased”. And the tide, complemented by occasional promptings of a guidebook, led Saro-Wiwa to the places (Takwa Bay, Prayer City, Osun-Oshogbo grove, Zuma Rock, to mention a few) and to the people that gives Transwonderland its shine and makes it one of the most exact books on Nigeria in recent times.
What makes this book even more enjoyable is that Saro-Wiwa makes the most ordinary of settings come alive and likeable. A guidebook writer, she writes with cultured curiosity about the places she visits, whether it’s the unappealing Ibadan amusement park (where the book gets its title) or the ‘pristine and fetching’ confines of Aso Rock, where, at the time of her visit, her older brother worked as an appointee of the federal government.
That said, Saro-Wiwa has written more than a travel book—with Transwonderland, she’s given Nigerians a mirror to assess themselves by and to the rest of the world a manual on how to fit into and navigate the fearsome setting that is Africa’s second largest economy. As Nigerians, if we care to reflect on her insights, we’ll see ourselves in all our stark impropriety and decide whether we wish to continue to carry on like we’ve always done in the last five decades or make a decisive change, once and for all.
As she herself later found out, Nigeria may be one hell of a country; but “the system’s fluidity can be liberating if one is able to ride it rather than being steamrollered by it”. With that understanding, Saro-Wiwa launched further afield into the core northern regions, gaining more knowledge of the country she was privileged to visit only a few times as a child many years back. The Nigeria the reader sees in Transwonderland is a profound country, amazing in all its ways yet being exceptionally clueless about how to shed its noisome baggage and leap into the 21st century.
I have visited nearly everywhere that the author writes about, so I enjoyed the mental trip the book made possible for me. I own up to enjoying the ‘guided tour’ immensely, laughing through portions of it, especially when the author chooses to suppress her European self and express her Naija persona.
But at different points in the narrative, I couldn’t help but think that pieces of the puzzle appear to fall too smoothly in place; it’s as if the author is keying to a pre-defined outline. In a bus headed to Osogbo, Saro-Wiwa is joined by a Nigerian polyglot, who’s been denied re-entry into Italy, and that automatically opens up a window to flog the do-or-die African migration issue; a visit to a cinema to watch a local movie leads her to the office of a diehard movie producer, and that encounter invariably gives a much needed room for a wholesale treatise on the good, bad and ugly of Nollywood, currently Nigeria’s ever-expanding cultural export. And Nigerians’ deep seated religious fervor does not escape the author’s fine insights.
Now that she’s fed her curiosity and longings for an extended homecoming, would Saro-Wiwa consider relocating to Nigeria and live here happily ever after? “It’s good here,” one of her cousins assures her. She mulls the thought for a moment, almost convincing herself that it would be an even more thrilling adventure. Then the fear, kept at bay all the while she toured the country, creeps in once more. “I didn’t think I could ever grasp the complex mechanics of the economy, the networking rules, the corruption that makes the UK system comparatively meritocratic and straightforward.”
Truth is, if I were in her shoes I would come to the same conclusion.