Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in
by Noo Saro-Wiwa
As a child, Noo Saro-Wiwa used to go to Nigeria for her school holidays. Her father, the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, had moved his family to the UK so the children could have the best education possible. But he also wanted them to maintain a connection to the country, so he insisted on regular family visits. Noo remembers hating these trips. The mosquitoes, the visits to endless uncles and aunts, the weeks spent in villages where you had to walk long distances to fetch water—these were not things she enjoyed. And when in 1995 her father was assassinated for his campaign against government corruption, she decided she was never going back.
It was a promise she kept for several years. As a writer of travel guides she went to almost every country in Africa except Nigeria. Then almost twenty years after her father’s death, she decided that she would give the country one more chance. She spent five months travelling through the country, and this is her account of that journey.
The book is a warts-and-all reflection of Nigeria in all its complexity. In Ibadan, she visits an abandoned amusement park—the Transwonderland of the title—a victim of corruption. In Jos, she sees beautiful terracotta Nok sculptures, made between 1000 BC and 500 AD. Noo also watches a lot of Nollywood films. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a film industry in Nigeria. Today, Nollywood is one of the country’s success stories. She talks to a Nollywood film director, Teco Benson, who aspires to make films that would become an agent for change in villages.
In the the Muslim north of the country, Noo got herself a black hijab so she would blend in, and then noticed most women were wearing colourful headscarves instead. One of the women she spoke to, Rabi, resisted the pressure to conform to sharia law: she worked, wore jeans and t-shirts, and tried to organize a debate (unsuccessfully) on the possibility of having a woman president. Around 2012, when Noo was there, the government would sometimes step in to rein in the Hisbah, the religious police. Obviously things had not deteriorated quite as much as they in the last year, with Boko Haram wreaking havoc in the country.
I loved her conversations with ordinary Nigerians and their humour and entrepreneurship. They are direct and completely unabashed about making personal remarks about perfect strangers, something that reminded me a little of India. As, unfortunately, did the rampant corruption. And that is what holds these countries back—pervasive corruption on the part of the state undermines any genuine efforts to develop so completely that people either give up or become corrupt themselves. Without that holding them back, there’s no telling how far these countries could go.
Throughout the book, Ken Sawo-Wiwa is a palpable, and very real, presence: a stern, often distant father who believed in giving his children the best he could. The reader is never too far from Noo’s memories of the past, which makes this an intensely personal account. At the end of her five months, she does manage to make a sort of peace with the country.
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The book starts unexpectedly with Annie Hawes, an adolescent, imprisoned in a high security prison in Salazar’s Portugal (she never found out why). She was eventually released and deported to the UK. On her trip back, she was shown great kindness by some young men from an Algerian oasis town. She never forgets this, and in the early 1990s—over 20 years later—travels to Morocco and Algeria to look up their family.
Hawes sets off with two friends and very little money, planning to live frugally and travel like a local. This was a period of unrest, with rebellion against the government and rising Islamist movements. Hawes and her companions meet and talk to a wide range of people, from truck drivers to vineyard owners. The resulting story provides a close look at Morocco and Algeria and most of all, it captures the people —their generosity, struggles and hopes. Hawes stays in a fuduq in Morocco, an ancient inn with a courtyard for donkeys. She is warned to be careful of djinns (and discovers that some stalls stay open late to allow the djinns to shop) and finds a hidden Algerian village in an area devastated by napalm used by the French during the country’s war of independence.
What I found particularly interesting were Hawes’s encounters with local women. They were forbidden many things, but they held their own (like the women of my home, India). The book is stuffed with unusual encounters and delves below the surface of the everyday life of women of the Maghreb.
The book also explores food, which, for a foodie like me, is wonderful! Much about couscous, some of it cooked by truck drivers on the roadside; pastila, a pie made with pigeon; mechoui; and olive oil, which one family still presses by hand. And when Hawes does find her family, they live in a paradise of green in the middle of the desert, filled with fruits, vegetables and the all-pervasive scent of henna: a mix of tobacco, chocolates and roses. It had me dreaming of couscous for days!
When I finished this book, I felt that I had been on this journey too. My only quibble is that there is no map.
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