AiW Guest Steve Haines
Working in the world of ‘international development’ I’m easily tempted to measure a country by metrics and indices. What interests me is the percentage of the population with access to safe drinking water, the primary school enrolment rate – with particular reference to the proportion of girls in education – and the under 5 mortality rate as a proportion of 1,000 live births.
Crucial though these measurements are to assessing the scale of the issues, they shed little light on the causes. Research reports lump together the nuance and understanding of individuals, their identity, values and their motivations, with reference to ‘cultural factors’ or ‘context’, in an unexplained classification similar to ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘other’. And this is how mistakes are made.
So when a colleague asked for a guidebook to Nigeria, I recommended Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland. It wasn’t going to be very helpful for details of affordable places to stay (though Noo does offer warnings of her hotel in Bauchi State: “a lizard dropping rested beneath my blanket … the glass louvered windows – those tired vestiges of 1970s architecture – wouldn’t open or close fully … All this for a relatively ritzy N6,250 per night”), but the insight Noo gives does challenge our collective world view of the country.
The narrative in Looking for Transwonderland is a physical journey of place – Noo travels through the country to uncover mountain top ancient kingdoms, anodyne administrative capitals, and the vibrant jagga jagga of Lagos. It is set against a history of peoples who would not recognise the borders of Nigeria, and whose artefacts rival the statues of Ancient Greece and the monoliths of Stonehenge – even if they don’t benefit from the same care and attention. The book also embeds Nigeria’s history in an emotional landscape, “Slavery is seemingly another of those traumas that falls within our nations high pain threshold. We still don’t fully understand its effects on our society and psyche”. Noo’s Nigerian companions perversely envy the lives of African Americans.
She journeys in her perception of a country shaped by the hopes of her father Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was murdered by the then government for his campaigning against corruption and the environmental degradation caused by oil drilling, and is disappointed at how little has changed: “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 cause he died for”. She finds her brother Ken Junior has taken on their father’s identity, just as he had taken on the family business, returning to Nigeria “after circumstances elbowed him off his chosen life path”. To Noo, “my brother was now an oga, complete with minions and authority and responsibilities; a more laid back incarnation of our father”.
Throughout, Noo’s punctuates the journey with vignettes that for me speak to how the ‘literary’ can bring alive the idiosyncrasies of people and place: phone calls with persistent young men seeking Sugar Mummies, a dog show of savage looking mutts at a university, and sleepwalking relatives haunted by spirits – all of which somehow makes sense in the circumstances. Nollywood films become an analogy for the country – rambling, exaggerated and easily criticised for their poor production values, but genuine and reflective of a national narrative seeking to share its own values and identity rather than measure itself against a Western yardstick.
Transwonderland itself is an amusement park built in the late eighties to attract tourists, but is now a “forlorn landscape of motionless machinery”. The theme park speaks to me about the good intentions of ‘development’, but highlights the failings of applying Western concept of values of fun, to Nigeria where “downtime usually involves sitting sedately on white plastic chairs, eating food and dancing a little” (sure enough, she meets a group of people sitting on plastic chairs, eating jollof rice, outside of the park).
Looking for Transwonderland is a journey of identity and memory seen through the eyes of a person not trying to only understand, but to identify with, Nigeria. Growing up in the UK, Nigeria was for Noo the opposite of the world she knew and wanted: “having to spend those two months in my unglamorous, godforsaken motherland with its penchant for noise and disorder felt like a punishment”. Travelling on the main form of public transport: the ‘matatu’ minibus, Noo’s clothes and her accent mark her out from her fellow travellers, shifting her identity between Nigerian and Diaspora and Western. Narrating this, she raises questions around both self-perception and the perceptions of others of ‘identity’, causing the reader to question their own frames of thinking. I was reminded here of an equally brilliant book: Gary Younge’s No Place Like Home. As a Briton by birth with Barbadian parents, he travels through the deep south of the United States, where his identity is absorbed into racial history, by both black and white, until he opens his mouth and begins to speak.
Noo is conscious that the nuance and understanding of Nigeria is lost to the outside world. “From a foreigners point of view,” Noo explains, “the Bini, Yoroboa, Ogoni, Igbo and Hausa are all the same; we’re all Nigerians, demoted by modern-day corruption – that great equaliser – to bit-players wading in a sea of rubbish and dereliction”. Perhaps the strongest message I take away from this book is that the confused categories of ‘culture’ and ‘context’ can become a way of brushing under the carpet a failure of understanding. I think in ‘international development’ we need to reflect on this, and do more to understand nuance and perceptions of self-identity, neither promoting a rosy or a bleak view, but unearthing and questioning our own assumptions. In any ‘development’ discourse, we should dig deeper. Alongside the world view of the ‘CIA Factbook’, BBC and ‘The Economist’, we need to pay a bit more attention to what these statistics don’t tell us and consider how we might draw reflections from a broader range of literature into our work.
Steve is Mobilisation Director at Save the Children International for EVERY ONE www.everyone.org – Save the Children’s campaign to save children’s lives. He is also the husband of AiW co-founder Kate Haines.