Noo Saro-Wiwa: Peering into Nigeria ever so darkly

January 13, 2024
9 mins read

By Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Thursday, June 28, 2010.

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.Ikhide R. Ikheloa is a literary critic, writer and columnist, and can be reached at xokigbo@yahoo.com. He blogs at http://xokigbo.wordpress.com/ . You can follow him on Twitter at @Ikhide .

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