Review: Looking For Transwonderland

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January 24, 2012 by markstani

Reading Noo Saro-Wiwa’s account of her travels in Nigeria, Looking For Transwonderland (pub. Granta), it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the current wave of Islamist terror gripping the country’s north was inevitable, if not overdue.
That a hopelessly corrupt and wholly uncontrollable nation of upwards of one hundred and sixty million people, swinging from strict Sharia law in cities like Kano to evangelical christianity in Lagos, has survived so long as a single entity seems remarkable enough.
On visiting Kano, Saro-Wiwa writes:

Our sporadic flashes of violence don’t reflect complete failure.. but instead the occasional spewings of an active volcano that Nigerian society has done remarkably well to contain.

Saro-Wiwa is in a better position than most to pass judgement on the state of Nigeria today. She is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the author and environmental activist who was hanged by the military government of Sani Abacha in 1995 – to international fury – following his campaign against the oil industry.
In ‘Lost In Transwonderland’, Saro-Wiwa returns to the country of her birth for her first sustained visit since her father’s death. Despite having just cause to rail against almost everything modern Nigeria appears to represent, not least the endemic corruption which has wriggled its way into every aspect of its society, she is by turns patriotic and proud, becoming frustrated when her accent or attire marks her out for preferential treatment as a foreigner.
Saro-Wiwa hurls herself back into her country’s culture and lifestyle with an admirable lack of caution. She braves the madness of Lagos head-on by using the death-defying okadas, or motorcyle taxis. Later she heads, via the clinical official capital of Abuja, to the fascinating, simmering muslim north.
The nation’s many paradoxes are plain to see, not least in a religious fervour which seems so cruelly at odds with the everyday predicament of those who seem keenest to preach it.

If there’s a country more religious than Nigeria then I haven’t been there. According to the Bible, God made the earth in six days and took a rest on the seventh. But by creating Nigerians, he ensured that that was the last day off he’s enjoyed ever since. Twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week we call on his services, connecting with him, singing his praise, establishing dialogue with him (and extremely loud dialogue at that). In my time in Lagos I had heard hairdressers singing their hallelujahs at salons; evangelical radio stations resounding in internet cafes; bus passengers collectively breaking out into ovine choruses of ‘Jeezos is my father… he never, never fail me.’

In the gleaming show-city of Abuja, Saro-Wiwa finally comes to despair of the corruption which leads to so little being done. Government contracts are dished out for the sake of back-handers rather than any sense of civic improvement. Seemingly little has changed since the days when her father’s nemesis Abacha stashed six billion US dollars in overseas bank accounts: government limousines crash down pot-holed roads; sumptuous palaces are powered by noisy generators. Saro-Wiwa writes:

I couldn’t understand why these kleptomaniacs preferred to be kings of a slum rather than live amongst equals in paradise.

Indeed, the assumption of corruption has become so ingrained that no-one is spared.
‘Everyone is corrupt,’ she is told by a local in Kano. ‘Even that Ken Saro-Wiwa. I’ve heard he wasn’t honest either.’
‘Ken Saro-Wiwa was my father.’
Ravi’s face fell. ‘I’m sorry – ‘.

In Saro-Wiwa’s vividly portrayed Nigeria, the hotel rooms seldom have running water, and the hazy TV sets flick out WWE wrestling in between powercuts. But perhaps nothing sums up its parlous state better than the eponymous Transwonderland, a half-abandoned theme park outside Abuja. There, a rusting rollercoaster lurches and creaks yet defies seemingly insurmountable odds to stay on track. Finally, it deposits its shaken traveller back where they started, having failed to get anywhere fast.
That said, by the end of her brave, tireless voyage, Saro-Wiwa’s patriotism remains largely intact. She has painted a revealing portrait of a nation which, for all its faults, can point to its continued existence as perhaps its greatest success story. Never mind its squandered oil billions. It is the energy and evident lust for life of its inhabitants that it will need to harness in order to see off its latest threat, and secure its future.

This book has been reviewed as part of the Africa Reading Challenge. More details here.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Looking For Transwonderland

  1. kinnareads says:

    I had heard about the upcoming release of this book and it piqued my interest not least because she is Ken Saro-Wiwa daughter. Now I really want to read it. Sitting here in Ghana, I think it's safe to say that she has captured the greater part of Nigeria. However, I'm wondering if she recounts or is able to discern any subtle positive changes that is taking place? However small, these changes do give us hope. As for the religious fervor and activity, well that's all over the continent now. The majority of Africans will simply not God rest! But of course, it is the total and complete betrayal by our leadership and also by us the middle class that sends our people to churches and mosques hoping for a miracle. When in fact the miracle has already occurred with so much that Africa has been given. Also, we need more travel memoirs in African literature. Thanks for the wonderful review and for participating in the challenge.

  2. Amy says:

    This sounds like a really interesting and new book! Thanks for the great review. It's certainly going on my to read list – I've read a lot of books from Nigeria but no travel memoir yet!

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