Nigeria is not exactly a tourist destination. A colleague chortles over the memory of trying to wangle his way in — without a journalist’s visa — during Sani Abacha’s military regime. ‘Purpose of visit?’ barked the immigration man. ‘Tourism,’ he lied. ‘No one comes to Nigeria for tourism,’ said the official. He was promptly expelled.
The official was voicing a truism. Even seasoned Western adventurers avoid Nigeria — ‘is Lagos airport as terrifying as they say?’ you are often asked — while the country’s oil-fattened elite, oscillating between the national superiority complex and hardened self-loathing, regard an international flight as the obligatory start to any holiday.
Writing a travel book for this Baedeker black spot might seem slightly counter-intuitive, then, but Noo Saro Wiwa pulls off something remarkable. Making no claims to intellectual gravitas, wearing her research remarkably lightly, she nonetheless manages to tell us more about Africa’s modern-day giant in this deftly woven account than most academics do in a lifetime.
Her trip starts in pullulating Lagos, where the car registration plates bear the laughingly ironic message ‘Centre of Excellence’, heads to the drawing-board capital Abuja, continues north to dusty Kano, where Sharia law is nominally practised — a scenario she finds nothing like as alarming as human rights groups would have you believe thanks to the corrupt pragmatism of the local authorities — before turning east to Rivers State.
She attends a dog competition in Ibadan, comes to understand why few people go on Abuja’s rollercoaster (it just might kill you), explores the personal ads placed by cash-strapped men looking for ‘sugar mummies’, learns to love the okada, the motorbike taxi which cuts a swathe through the traffic ‘go-slows’ and develops a strange addiction to the Nollywood dramas on TV, more effective narcotics than any sleeping pill.
Everywhere she goes she encounters terrible neglect, a depressing indifference to local culture and an exasperating acceptance of the romantic myths projected onto Nigeria by others. Tourist Nigeria is a land of glittering malls that have yet to be built, illegally grazed national parks and bird sanctuaries, mislabelled museums, rubbish-clogged ancient moats and monoliths which cannot be visited because, oh, the boy ran off with the keys.
Saro Wiwa has won the right to her unflinching gaze. She is hardly West Africa’s version of Bill Bryson, an overly-indulgent outsider smitten by a new discovery. As the daughter of the playwright and Ogoniland activisit Ken Saro Wiwa, hanged by Abacha in 1995, she too has history, and this road- trip marks her attempt to come to terms with that painful past and end years of self-imposed exile.
I particularly savoured her deadpan account of an attempt to order dinner at her Calabar hotel, via an eager-to-please receptionist.
‘Do you have goat?’ he asked the cook. ‘No’, she replied. ‘Do you have chicken?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you have rice and stew?’ ‘No, we have no rice.’ ‘Then get some then.’ ‘No, I will not go out this night.’
But she also knows and relishes her country’s strengths: humour, mutual tolerance, a vast energy, and the staggering resilience required to cope with all the power-cuts and water shortages, the nepotism and the government scams, yet somehow emerge with one’s humanity intact. ‘That’s Nigeria for you: it can be stylish, sublime, beautiful, yet no matter how much it amazes or bedazzles you, it’s always that little bit jagga jagga,’ she concludes.