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Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria

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A “remarkable chronicle” of a journey back to this West African nation after years of exile (The New York Times Book Review).

Noo Saro-Wiwa was brought up in England, but every summer she was dragged back to visit her father in Nigeria—a country she viewed as an annoying parallel universe where she had to relinquish all her creature comforts and sense of individuality. After her father, activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was killed there, she didn’t return for several years. Then she decided to come to terms with the country her father given his life for.

Traveling from the exuberant chaos of Lagos to the calm beauty of the eastern mountains; from the eccentricity of a Nigerian dog show to the decrepit kitsch of the Transwonderland Amusement Park, she explores Nigerian Christianity, delves into the country’s history of slavery, examines the corrupting effect of oil, and ponders the huge success of Nollywood.

She finds the country as exasperating as ever, and frequently despairs at the corruption and inefficiency she encounters. But she also discovers that it is far more beautiful and varied than she had ever imagined, with its captivating thick tropical rain forest and ancient palaces and monuments—and most engagingly and entertainingly, its unforgettable people.

“The author allows her love-hate relationship with Nigeria to flavor this thoughtful travel journal, lending it irony, wit and frankness.” —Kirkus Reviews

ISBN-13: 9781619020078

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Catapult

Publication Date: 08-21-2012

Pages: 320

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.84(h) x 0.89(d)

Noo Saro-Wiwa was born in Nigeria in 1976 and raised in England. She attended King’s College London and Columbia University in New York. She currently lives in London.

Read an Excerpt


Centre of Excellence


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.

When describing the character of our biggest city, Nigerians always like to tell a wry anecdote about the man who steps off a plane and is greeted with a sign that reads: THIS IS LAGOS. The message offers him nothing in the way of a cheerful welcome, nor can he even take it as a warning (since such a gesture would imply that the authorities actually care for his safety). What the sign provides is an indifferent announcement of his arrival in a city that he is visiting at his own risk; a blunt disclaimer. If he can't handle the squalid, uncompromising callousness then he should tuck his tail between his legs and go somewhere else, because This Is Lagos — take it or leave it.

Lagosians will be the first to tell you that their city is a disaster of urban non-planning characterised by overcrowding, aggressive driving, traffic 'go-slows', impatience, armed robberies and overflowing sewage, all of it existing alongside pockets of dubiously begotten wealth and splendour. 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.'

With this image in mind I rolled into town on paranoid alert, my Visa card stuffed down my bra and some emergency banknotes folded inside my shoe. I'd been warned several times to expect danger at any given moment and to treat everyone as a potential predator. But in reality, the roadside signage that confronted me was a sedate WELCOME TO LAGOS, a message of warmth and optimism which, when I first saw it, seemed almost chilling in its apparent sarcasm, like some kind of sick joke. The same went for the car number plates, which were all printed with the motto 'Centre of Excellence', a ridiculous conceit if ever there was one.

As my taxi driver made his way towards Satellite Town, I struggled to discern which part of the city we were driving through. In Lagos, place names exist largely in people's minds. There were barely any signs or distinguishing landmarks, just a monotonous sequence of characterless, blocky, oil-boom 1970s architecture, fruit sellers, corrugated iron rooftops, iconic yellow buses, beggars and motorcycles that repeated itself mile after mind-boggling mile under a carpet of litter scattered in all directions, like confetti.

Every square metre of the city was scribbled with informal advertising. The buildings and lamp posts, even the sloping undersides of the numerous pedestrian bridges, beseeched me to buy this product or call that number. Presiding over everything were a variety of uniformed authoritarians: black-clad traffic wardens orchestrating the symphony of horns, and police swaggering about in black shirts and green army trousers. A man wearing a deep red outfit ushered the vehicles along with sticks, whacking cars as if they were donkeys, before casually swiping the back of a boy's leg as he crossed the road. I watched one uniformed man try to prise open a car door, then sheepishly concede defeat when the driver hastily punched down the door lock. These officers were predators and guardians all at once, and everyone knew it.

Young gang members, known as Area Boys, also stake out their territory along the roads and collect cash from drivers. Employed by politicians to intimidate voters during the gubernatorial elections, they've been rewarded with uniforms and a licence to extort on the expressways. Now they clothe their scrawny bodies in green-and-white shirts and patrol the streets, waiting for bus conductors to lean out of the buses and slap money into their palms.

Once upon a time, Lagos was a placid cluster of islands and creeks separated from the Atlantic by lagoons, where local men caught fish, the cry of white ibis could be heard and snakes shimmied among the bushes. By the fifteenth century, the area had become a busy slave port. Under British colonial rule it became Nigeria's economic and political capital. The grasses, wild birds and trees were quickly devoured by urbanisation, its wild metastasis cluttering the cityscape so densely it seems to have made a crater that has sent the rest of the country tumbling into it. Nobody knows how many people live in Lagos; it could be 10 million, it could be 17 million — no one is counting the teams of street urchins and shanty dwellers, or the illegal buildings erected under the distracted eyes of previous governments.

Although peopled by every Nigerian ethnicity, Lagos is a city of the Yoruba, the dominant ethnic group in the south-west. Their melodic lingua franca sounded in the streets around me, as foreign to my ears as any language from Cameroon or Ghana. I had arrived in a country I had never lived in, and a city I'd visited only briefly twice before, among a thoroughly foreign-sounding people. It was the most alienating of homecomings. I might as well have arrived in the Congo.

* * *

My taxi driver turned off the Badagry Expressway and went through the narrow, sandy shop-lined streets of Satellite Town, a suburb several miles away from downtown Lagos. As our destination drew near, 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. I was scared of reaching her home and starting this trip in earnest, turning months of mental planning into live action.

We pulled up at the rusty gates of a small, one-storey house. It belonged to Aunty Janice, a friend of my mother's, with whom I was staying. The ravages of city life had made little impact on her beautiful face, still pixie-like and strong-jawed at sixty-three, with a steeliness, borne out of past disappointments, that could see her temperament quickly flip from gregariousness to anger. She smiled warmly and gave me a customarily loose hug before putting my bags in her daughter's small bedroom. My bed would be the living-room sofa. Aunty Janice paused to examine my face, which was momentarily infantilised under her warm gaze; we hadn't met since I was a small child. She had barely put on weight, nor lost any of her physical dexterity.

Her house, however, had aged far more quickly. We sat down and chatted in a living room with patchy linoleum floor tiles and unpainted walls. The wooden armchairs and a sofa had been spruced up with blue-and-white checked upholstery. In the absence of cupboard space, clutter lay exposed on the dining table and window sill; in the bathroom and kitchen, the taps and shower head were purely of ornamental value: there was no running water. And, while Aunty Janice's sons were saving up for a refurbishment and generator, she had to rely on NEPA, the feckless state electricity supplier.

Janice, embarrassed, had given me advance warning that her house was not what I was 'used to'. The house's decrepitude was certainly at odds with her glamorous past. Her husband had been a diplomat during the oil boom years of the 1970s and 1980s. His job took them to Geneva, Warsaw, Rome and London. While they were living in Lagos, Janice set up a fashion company selling clothes to Lagos's ascendant middle class. She showed me frail orange newspaper cuttings about her clothes shop, La Moda, which was inspired by her days in Italy. The newspaper's images were as faded as her ambitions, and accompanied by an unrecognisably coherent prose — a far cry from the ungrammatical gibberish that appears in some Nigerian newspapers today.

Janice and her husband were friends with my parents in Lagos during the Biafran civil war, when the glow of Nigerian independence had already faded. Pre-war Nigeria of those days was almost unrecognisable to me. My mother described a country filled with factories that produced cars, candles and other everyday necessities; hospitals were well- stocked with genuine medicines, and patients didn't have to supply their own bed linen. Bookshops and libraries abounded, and Latin was taught in schools; fewer cars roamed the roads, which the Public Works Department maintained with cohorts of labourers who constantly fixed the potholes and tamed the roadside grasses. It was when the military regimes began giving contracts to private contractors that the grasses began to encroach on the tarmac, and everything declined.

Aunty Janice's economic fortunes also declined after a dramatic divorce. She became homeless and stayed at women's hostels, friends' houses and various types of Church accommodation before eventually reclaiming her marital home in Satellite Town. Her old sewing machine now lay idle in the storage room, a relic, like everything else in the house, of an irretrievable era.

Staying with Aunty Janice was to be a lesson in dignified living under basic conditions. There were rules. We were banned from combing our hair outside the bedroom in case the odd strand floated into the kitchen water drum. There was also a fastidious system for washing up the dishes and soaking them, using minimal amounts of water and soap. As far as Janice was concerned, nobody could do it as well as she could.

'You're not doing it correctly,' her reedy voice called out from behind me. Shaking her head at my efforts, she dismissed me from the task and finished it herself, as with all the other household chores. Watching her sprightly frame moving around the house, I found it strange to see her, once an employer of domestic help, doing such tasks herself.

'I cannot live outside Lagos,' she said. 'It's crazy, but I like it. There's always lots of events. If I had the funds I would be attending weddings every Saturday!' Janice told me this at one in the morning while ironing the dress she would wear for a friend's daughter's marriage ceremony later that day. The lights, still switched on from the last blackout, had lit up the house in a blaze of restored power. Janice rushed out of bed to finish the task as it was the only time the electricity had worked that day. 'If I don't iron tonight I will not be able to attend,' she explained.

Such inconveniences always threw me into an existentialist sulk, but Aunty Janice said she would rather 'die' than leave Lagos. 'This is where I belong,' she smiled. 'It's not beautiful, but there are things that happen here that don't happen anywhere else. This is where the action is.'

Aunty Janice was also one of the most devout Christians I had ever met. At two o'clock that morning, I was roused by footsteps and vituperative hisses. Shadows floated across the candlelit walls. 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. Twenty minutes passed before she ended her trance and retired to her bedroom.

Praying at that time of day was a strategic decision, Janice told me the next morning; it was designed to coincide with witches' scheduled activities.

'They are everywhere,' she warned. 'On this street, everywhere. You won't know who they are ... this is reality, not fiction.'

Janice's daughter Mabel was a quiet, laid-back twenty-seven-year-old journalist with supermodel proportions. Like many Nigerians her age, she was too poor to get an apartment of her own.

'I just need my own space,' she sighed, after Janice ordered her to sweep the floor mid-way through our conversation the next morning. Some days, before going to work, Mabel would spend a good half-hour collecting back-breakingly heavy buckets of water from the well behind the house, and pouring them into big water drums in the kitchen and bathrooms. Life inside the home seemed as arduous as life on the streets, a seamless transition from one exertion to the next.

Yet Mabel rode the tumult of Lagos life calmly and imperviously, returning home each night from the rough commute looking as stylish and fresh in her heels and skirt as she did in the morning. She worked for a local lifestyle publication, yet she felt no urgency to show up for work before midday most of the time.

'Isn't your boss annoyed if you come into work late?' I asked.

'No, they don't care,' she said with a shrug of her lips. 'There won't be a spare computer, anyway. I have to wait until the others have finished using it. And I'm never paid on time. They haven't given me a pay cheque in five months. They don't pay you, so why should you go to the office in the morning?'

'How do you survive?'

'You have to look for money from other people. I asked a friend to lend me 5,000 until I get paid.'

'No wonder people don't do their jobs properly!'

In my previous visits to Nigeria, I had noticed a contrast between the sluggishness and ineptitude of city workers and the work ethic of traditional village society. City workers operated with a lethargy I often mistook for attitude or laziness. My father made the same mistake. He chided restaurant waiters for their sloppiness. He would glare at them, pipe snatched from his mouth, as they belatedly laid down the cutlery on his orders. People were underpaid, I knew, but the extent of their arrears was a revelation. I promised myself I wouldn't get annoyed if ever I received poor service. This culture of late payments — rarely pursued through the slow legal system — bred financial mistrust too. Landlords often demand hefty two-year deposits when renting out property.

'In England, they sometimes pay people before they do their job,' I told Mabel. 'My publishers gave me money for this trip in advance.'

'Are you serious?' Mabel gasped.


'You see ... that's why you work hard.'

Her job wasn't well paid. Journalism and its pitiful remuneration carries no prestige in Nigeria — telecoms and banking are where the money is. But Mabel loved her job too much ever to do anything else; she was too laid-back to adopt the entrepreneurial spirit.

I myself couldn't get into the travelling spirit. The following day, I sat anchored to that same sofa, scared of facing Lagos, which, in my anxiety, seemed ever more dangerous, a volatile booby trap. I flicked through my guidebook for an attraction that might lure me out of the house.

'My car is not working, so you will have to take the buses,' Aunty Janice said when I told her I'd be venturing out. Her words came as a shock. I hadn't given serious thought to how I would get around town, and somewhere in the evasive fog of my mind I had envisaged someone driving me around; I'd never experienced Nigeria in any other way. The idea of hiring a car, especially in a city like Lagos, didn't appeal. My sense of direction is laughably bad, and I lacked that curious mix of patience and bloody-mindedness required to negotiate Nigerian traffic successfully. Anyone wanting to drive through the city's ungoverned crowds has to aggressively assume right of way at all times. Politeness and compromise will get you nowhere. Lagos drivers, governed not by the Highway Code but the 'My Way' Code, will routinely pull out of T-junctions without checking for oncoming traffic for fear of showing weakness to other drivers.

I refused to participate in that.

Anyway, even if Aunty Janice had owned a functioning car, she had better things to do than act as my chauffeur. She assured me that using public transport would be no problem so long as I was 'educated' about it. For forty-five minutes, she gave me a stern tutorial on how to identify rogue buses, pay for tickets and avoid thieves, before dispatching me onto the street in a baptism of fire.

A bullet shower of traffic whizzed by me on the expressway. I timidly flagged down a minibus taxi, known as a danfo. Danfos are condemned hand-me-downs from Europe, so decrepit that one can watch the tarmac moving beneath one's feet. The conductor, dressed in torn shorts and floppy slippers, clung casually to the side as he solicited more passengers from the roadside, hurriedly waving people into the vehicle without thought for their age or physical condition.

'Wale, wale!' he barked at me. 'Enter, enter!' I could see that transport men work faster and more furiously because they receive their salaries up front — a rare example in Nigeria of time equalling money. I scrambled on board and searched for somewhere to sit. The danfo's original seats had been replaced with metallic benches designed to cram five people into rows originally meant for three. It was a tight squeeze in any nation, but the Nigerian love affair with starchy foods made it even tougher for me to squash myself in among so much 'rice booty'.


Excerpted from "Looking for Transwonderland"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Noo Saro-Wiwa.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

Prologue 1


1 Centre of Excellence 11

2 Oil and People on Water 37

3 Total Formula for Victory Over the Hardships of Life 58


4 Under the Light of Fading Stars 84

5 Transwonderland 98


6 In the Chop House 110

7 Spiderman, Rock Stars and Gigolos 126


8 Straddling Modernity's Kofar 140

Nguru and Yankari

9 Where are those Stupid Animals? 163


10 Hidden Legacies 182

Maiduguri and Sukur

11 Kingdom of Heaven 193


12 Masquerade Mischief 206

Cross River State

13 Spiling Nature's Spoils 232


14 Behind the Mask 246

Port Harcourt

15 Tending the Backyard 270


16 Truth and Reconciliation 297

Epilogue 306

Acknowledgements 310

Sources 311