AiW Guest: Jade Lee
For all of the genre’s diverse geographical settings, much travel writing has depended on a relatively consistent viewpoint. For the Western reader (especially the white, male variety) there are certain expectations of where the travelogue will ‘start.’ The author and reader are assumed to begin from a broad state of commonality with shared ways of seeing and knowing. The writer can then use these ways of understanding the world to create an intelligible bridge into the foreign, the unknown, the exotic. In terms of content, this can be anything from the relatively mundane (converting local currency into euros, dollars or pounds) to the more culturally complex, such as comparing local marriage customs to the Western model. Ultimately, while we may be gazing out on the vast, complex strangeness of other places we are, comfortingly, all basically doing it from the same armchair.
This way of talking about travel has produced and continues to produce much writing that is excellent both in its quality and in its ability to introduce Western audiences to a diversity of cultures and ways of life far outside their quotidian experiences. The problem arises when it becomes the only or the primary type of travel writing available both in the West itself and to broader, international audiences. The issue, it seems to me, is twofold: Firstly, travel has not been in the past and is certainly not now solely the preserve of Europeans and Americans; Secondly, when we set the West as the default viewing station, we ignore the extent to which we are (as societies and individuals) all a little strange to each other.
The cover of Route 234 (2016) immediately centres the travellers in Nigeria by featuring a world map with all arrows leading out of the country. The anthology includes accounts from places as diverse as Juffureh, Los Angeles and Nice but what struck me throughout the anthology was the sense of a shared, though undoubtedly diverse, Nigerian identity and experience. In ‘Lost in Atlanta,’ Olayinka Oyegbile notes that it can be difficult to ‘get lost in Europe or America if you are literate. The streets are well-paved and labelled’ whereas in ‘most cities in Africa, street name plates have…fallen down…turned to graffiti boards by residents or council officials do not think residents deserve to know the names of streets.’
This is not to say that the authors always or even mostly compare the places they visit favourably to Nigeria. In her piece ‘The Dutch, Cycling and Time,’ Funke Osae-Brown notes the relatively extreme nature of Dutch time management saying, ‘How possible is it to live in a country where you have to schedule weeks ahead to have a dinner date with a friend?’ and goes on to suggest that it ‘may not be the most exciting place to live in; not if you’re used to the boisterous life in Nigeria.’ Indeed, it is the consumption of European food that, disastrously, drives much of the action in Eyitayo Aloh’s account, ‘Literary Frankfurt.’ Aloh’s indulgence in a little ‘food tourism’ at the literary festival ends in a
dash through the streets of Frankfurt in search of a public toilet leading him through the red light district of Kaisertrasse, the ‘bowls of sparkling water’ in the public toilets at the Frankfurt Central Train Station and a wrong turn into the European Central Bank where the security guard is unamused by his predicament.
The anthology is varied enough to cater to a broad audience but, for me, the stand out pieces were those that incorporated broad social observations with meaningful personal interactions. Molara Wood’s ‘Ol Ari Nyiro’ is a nuanced account of the Kenyan nature conservancy set up by the Venetian, Kuki Gallmann. Wood notes the inherently problematic nature of presenting this unquestionably wild and beautiful place as the ‘real Africa.’ Not only does this deny the experience of Wood’s group who are mostly ‘city dwellers from several of the continent’s metropolitan centres’, it also leads to a certain fetishising of ‘traditional’ African culture as evidenced by the trip to the Pokot village: It ‘was clear that the older women…wore regular clothes most days, except on occasions like this when they were required to put on costumes and wait in the middle of nowhere to dance and simulate ethnic “originality”…for European tourists.’ Wood does not, however, dismiss the whole project or Gallman herself out of hand. Indeed, she notes that the anti-poaching drives in the park have lead to the ‘largest undisturbed indigenous black rhino population outside
the national’ and describes the ‘many community outreach projects and (that) school
children regularly come here on excursions.’ Whilst affirming that there is something ‘faintly condescending about a white woman purporting to introduce us to “the real Africa”’ she also says that it is ‘hard to dislike Gallman’ who, through the loss of both her husband and son, has paid a high price for her conservancy work and has done so with no apparent bitterness.
For me, the strength of Route 234 lies in its ability to re-centre the travel narrative in different places with different points of view whilst maintaining a nuanced and, ultimately, humane attitude to other peoples and cultures.
Jade Lee took her first degree in English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She then completed PGCE in Early Years Education and went on to teach in London for three years before moving to Paris, where she taught English for three years as well as spending some time volunteering for a primary school in Kenya.
In 2012, Jade returned to begin an MA in African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. As part of this course, Jade undertook archival research which led to the discovery of an unpublished book by a female Colonial Officer serving in what was then the British Cameroons. This formed the genesis of her PhD which is entitled ‘Women of the British Colonial Service: Contested Identities and Liminal Lives, 1936 – 1961.’
Pelu Awofeso is a winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Awards in the Tourism reporting category. He started out as a freelance columnist for the state-owned Standard newspaper in Jos (Plateau State), after which he moved to Africa Today as Arts & Travel Correspondent, Network Africa (as Editor) and National Daily (as Travel Editor).
In the past decade, he has written for both local and international publications, some of which include: World Policy Journal (US), Travel Intelligence (UK), A24 Media (Kenya) and NEXT (Nigeria). His most recent freelance engagements have been for thecable.ng, Naij.com and WINGS (inflight magazine for ARIK Air).
The subject of many media interviews, Awofeso’s work is also the subject of a Doctoral dissertation on travel writing at the University of Birmingham.
Categories: Reviews - Books