These are extremely interesting times for travel writing as a genre; a number of online- and print-based travel projects have been sprung up over recent years, all focusing on Africans travelling within Africa – some within their own countries, and some across the continent as a whole. There’s also, of course, a whole host of travel writing by Africans travelling outside the continent, and by Africans in diaspora returning to Africa (such as Teju Cole’s novella Every Day is For The Thief), but although these are perhaps arbitrary distinctions, that’s a post for another time…
Here are a few intra-African travel writers and projects that have caught my eye for various reasons over the last few years. They range from established literary names to bloggers just starting out for the first time. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and is pretty Nigeria- and South Africa-heavy, so if you have any recommendations for writers from other countries, especially non-Anglophone writers, I’d love to hear them.
1) Pelu Awofeso, whom Africa in Words interviewed earlier this year, is a Nigerian travel writer, journalist and publishing entrepreneur who has been travelling Nigeria for over ten years. His most recent book is Tour of Duty (2010), which tells the stories of people and places he encounters on travels across the nation, from the sand sellers of Yenagoa to hunters in Osogbo. He also publishes his travel magazine Waka-About, and is currently working on a series of mini-guidebooks to Nigeria and an anthology of international travel writing by Nigerians. You can follow Pelu on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates from the road.
2) Folarin Kolawole is another traveller within Nigeria, and he founded NaijaTreks in 2010. His travels focus particularly on the southwest and the southeast of the country, and to date, the NaijaTreks website – which has twice won the Nigerian Blog Awards’ ‘Best Travel Blog Award’ – features around 100 of Kolawole’s own travelogues, some in the form of poetry, all accompanied by photographs and some by videos, which all together are a testament to Kolawole’s own energy as much as to the varied landscapes of Nigeria. Kolawole has a background in geology and it shines through in his unusual focus on natural landscapes such as caves and waterfalls, in contrast to the more typical focus on towns and cities in Nigerian travel writing. Kolawole is also encouraging the next generation of travel writers through his Young Writers’ Competition.
3) Invisible Borders: the titan of the genre at the moment, Invisible Borders is a collective of photographers, writers and film-makers who have so far set out on four long journeys across the African continent, capturing what they see on the way in images and words. Although their core membership is Nigerian, they’re a pan-African group, with photographers from Angola, South Africa, Rwanda/The Netherlands, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique taking their place alongside the Nigerians on previous road trips. So far, their trips have taken them overland from Lagos to Bamako, Dakar, Addis Ababa and Libreville, all in the name of telling ‘Africa’s stories, by Africans, through photography and inspiring artistic interventions’. Next up is Lagos to Sarajevo in 2014. Their photographs are arresting and interesting, and have been exhibited across Africa, Europe and the US. They’re now working on an creating an image bank to make these visions of African life available more widely. Though photography is the main focus of the project, they also feature travel narratives by a number of writers including Emmanuel Iduma, founder of Saraba magazine.
4) Kofi Akpabli is a Ghanaian journalist and travel writer, and like Pelu Awofeso a CNN Multichoice African Journalist Award winner. As well as writing a regular ‘Going Places’ column for Ghana’s Mirror newspaper, Akpabli has published two travel books: Tickling the Ghanaian: Encounters with Contemporary Culture (2011) and A Sense of Savannah: Tales of a Friendly Walk Through Northern Ghana (2011). Like Pelu Awofeso, Akpabli was inspired to become a travel writer by his year of national service, in his case in northern Ghana, as well as by reading travel writing in the British press during a stay in Britain. He writes mainly although not exclusively about Ghana, and his travel writing is, like Awofeso’s, closely connected with encouraging domestic tourism and with documenting everyday cultural practices across Ghana.
5) Trekking on down to the southern end of the continent now, Mzansi Girl (a.k.a. Meruschka) is a self-styled ‘African Travel Activist’ who blogs about her travels all across South Africa and beyond (with a particular passion for Johannesburg). Earlier this year she called for bloggers and Tweeters to create an ‘African Travel movement’ using the hashtag #Afritravel – it seems to be slowly taking off, so it’ll be interesting to see what 2014 holds for it.
6) Regular readers of Africa in Words will know we’re fans of Ivan Vladislavić here, so no discussion of travel writing would be complete without mentioning his book Portrait With Keys (2006), variously categorised as travel writing, reportage, memoir, non-fiction, short stories, psychogeography and a portrait of Johannesburg, spread across 138 interwoven short passages. It’s not conventional travel writing, and it’s well worth reading if you’re interested in the ways writing about wandering can play with form.
7) Staying with books for a moment, Sihle Khumalo is the author of three travel books: Dark Continent, My Black Arse (2007), Heart of Africa (2010) and Almost Sleeping My Way to Timbuktu (2013), all published by Umuzi. While a sense of wresting back the travel writing genre from its colonial past and neo-colonial present is implicit in many of these travel writers’ work, Khumalo tackled the colonial heritage of travel writing head-on, with Dark Continent tracing (by public transport) the classic Cape to Cairo route so beloved of colonial travellers. For Heart of Africa, he returned to this idea of tracing colonial footsteps and travelled through central Africa to the heart of the Nile, while Almost Sleeping takes on West Africa. Khumalo is cynical and irreverent, and doesn’t have much truck with the ‘beautiful Africa’ narrative espoused by some other travel writers. Carli Coetzee makes an interesting point when she suggests that despite its riffing on colonial travel routes, Khumalo’s Dark Continent engages only superficially with this travel writing heritage; it could be more productive instead, Coetzee suggests, to read Khumalo’s work in the light of its intertextuality with self-help books rather than earlier travel writing. And indeed, the idea of improving or ‘making’ oneself and one’s country is a constant theme of many of these travel writers.
8) Next up is the Pilgrimages project, a travel writing project centred on the 2010 World Cup hosted in South Africa. This was another big hitter, co-organised by the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists, Chimurenga, the Kwani Trust and Kachifo publishers, which brought together 14 African writers and sent them out across the continent to a country other than their own. The aim was that each writer would then produce a travel book based on their experiences, to go alongside the collaborative blog hosted on the Pilgrimages website. The writers were mostly big names, along with some up-and-coming writers: Kojo Laing, Doreen Baingana, Chris Abani, Binyavanga Wainana, Uzodinma Iweala, Yvonne Owuor, Nimco Mahamud Hassan, Billy Kahora, Nicole Turner, Akenji Ndumu, Funmi Iyanda, Victor LaValle, Alain Mabanckou and Abdourahman Waberi. Though the project received quite a lot of attention at the time I haven’t been able to find out if those travel books have emerged yet – if you know what’s happening with them I’d love to hear about it.
9) And finally, Tumblr is playing host to a crop of blogs curating photographs from all over African countries, a form of collaborative travel photography: check out SabiSierraLeone, TypicalUgandan and Dynamic Africa, which for the last two months has been highlighting ‘Travel & Exploration in Africa’.
My own reflections on the genre: on the surface it seems to be all about ‘telling our own stories’. In the West travel writing is often seen (by post-colonialists especially) as an irrevocably tainted genre, tied up with colonialism and neo-colonialism. A number of these writers are engaging or toying with the genre’s colonial heritage, seeking to re-write the genre and some of its classic routes. Many of these writers imagine themselves as pioneers, documenting their countries or the continent in this way for the first time. There’s a hefty dose of Afro-optimism amongst these writers, many of whom are keen to document beauty and the everyday in the places they travel to. Without particularly wishing to weigh in on the ongoing Afropolitanism debate, it’s interesting to think about the place of these writers who are often heavily invested in the idea of cosmopolitanism, but within the African continent or within their own countries.
However, if you scratch the surface beyond the ‘telling our own stories’ idea, I think these are often narratives about differences of class and social status, about being the kind of person with the time and inclination to travel and to chase after leisure, often someone quite different from the person one travels amongst.
There are also travel writers who are not particularly concerned about the colonial heritage of the genre, who are using travel writing in new forms or oriented towards domestic concerns, imagining themselves to be changing the way people feel about their own countries, and promoting cultural and heritage tourism. They’re also sometimes narratives about fun and pleasure, an enjoyment of the journey and (re)claiming travel in their countries or continent as almost an act of deliberate hedonism – Khumalo’s work is full of laughter, while Awofeso is intent on showing Nigerians that travelling across Nigeria can be fun. The Invisible Borders project in particular sees its writers and photographers thinking a lot about the nature of travel and crossing borders across the continent.
Many travel writers talk about patriotism or pan-Africanism as a motivation, and moreover about their sense of duty as a travel writer recording everyday life so that their readers can understand more about their countries or about the continent as a whole. Some of these travel writers receive rapturous comments on their Facebook pages or websites from readers within the countries they travel to, praising them for showing them new sides of their country.
The rise of these travel projects is also related to the rise of the online space – blogs, social media or writing websites – and to self-publishing/on-demand publishing, which has removed some of the financial and practical barriers that writers often faced before when trying to access conventional publishing, though the physical book also seems to be of continued importance to a number of travel writers. The growth of digital writing has also helped writers to develop collaborative and multi-media projects, combining text, photography and film.
So what do you think? What is the value of (African) travel writing? Can travel writing ever not ‘write back’, either to the West’s ideas about Africa or to the genre itself? Where do the differences lie – between the Nigerians and the South Africans, or between the bloggers, journalists and essay writers? What is the significance of Africans travelling within Africa? And what are the various meanings of travel and travel narrative across the continent, and can you see an aesthetic of travel developing across words and images?