Nigeria Now, with Noo SaroWiwa and Chika Unigwe.

Southbank Centre, London (Wednesday 4th July 2012).

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s most compelling work of travel writing is arguably Imperium, which begins with a childhood recollection. The chapter ‘First Encounters: 1939-1967’ opens in his hometown, Pinsk, Poland, at the beginning of WWII, as refugees take shelter from air raids in ditches and in forests: ‘Shouting, crying, rifles and bayonets, the enraged faces of the sweaty and angry sailors, some sort of fury, something dreadful and incomprehensible, it is all there by the bridge over the river Pina, in this world that I enter at seven years of age.’

British Nigerian travel writer, Noo Saro-Wiwa, who has written her own part travel book, part memoir, cites Kapuscinski as a ‘real inspiration’ even if, when reading him, she ‘didn’t agree with all his observations’. His most celebrated work is The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, but Saro-Wiwa notes that ‘there wasn’t really the laughter, jokes, intimate conversations’ that she encountered travelling in Africa. Referring also to Paul Theroux, the author of Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown, she faults these men for ‘not connecting with Africans’ and failing to address false assumptions, such as those about African women’s sexual promiscuity.

The conceit of travel writing from its earliest origins, which can be traced to Pausanias, has always been that the readers should be interested in and yet unfamiliar with the topos of the work. The minute the audience is aware of the place, the work of writing becomes subordinate to the accuracy of description – it becomes journalism rather than travel writing. As the author of a number of books for Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, Saro-Wiwa is also clear that an intimate knowledge of the country is not a prerequisite for writing a good guide: ‘If I want to write about Peru, I will.’ Indeed, she admits that Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria is not her first book. When she approached her publishers with a book on South Africa they told her that with a surname like hers she would have to begin in her father’s country. However, as Noo Saro-Wiwa writes in her prologue, ‘re-engaging with Nigeria meant disassociating it from the painful memories lurking in my mind’s dark matter. I needed to travel freely around the country, as part returnee and part tourist, with the innocence of the outsider, untarnished by personal associations’.

It is difficult to get a good moderator for a cultural event, and this evening’s, journalist Onyekachi Wambu, began by asking Noo Sar-Wiwa whether it was hard to have her father’s legacy ‘hanging over’ her. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian environmental and political activist, was hanged in 1995 by the military government of General Sani Abacha. Wambu also asked why she didn’t choose fiction. In fact, he seemed intent on questioning his two guests on what they didn’t do, rather than what they were doing.

Saro-Wiwa admitted she preferred non-fiction. Having attended journalism school she said she was attracted to the mix of reportage and creative writing involved, and added that if she wrote a work of fiction it would have to be based in England where she has lived most of her life. Her fellow speaker, Chika Unigwe, the author of several books of fiction, was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and now lives in Belgium. The backdrop to her latest novel, Night Dancer, is the religiously-motivated riots of Kaduna – a city in the mainly Muslim state of Zamfara which has a large Christian minority. They were sparked by the publication in a Nigerian daily, ThisDay, of an article in November 2002 written by a young journalist who suggested the Prophet Mohammed might have married one of the contestants of the Miss World competition, due to take place in Nigeria that year.

Noo Saro Wiwa
Chika Unigwe

Nigeria Now was part of Africa Utopia – a month-long festival of music, theatre, film, literature, dance, fashion, talks and debates, and the focus was more on the country of Nigeria than its literary legacy. The two authors discussed what was behind rising religiosity in the country. Noo Saro-Wiwa proffered that because of government corruption people ‘don’t have much control over their lives, but in art and religion, they are free to do what they want’. Chika Unigwe suggested that traditional Nigerian culture encourages a lot of spirituality, and the appeal of many churches is that they preach a ‘prosperity gospel’. She shared with the festival audience a memorable portrait of ‘Pastor Fireman’, who has paid for billboards across Nigeria in which he appears surrounded by beautiful women, addressing the public with the words, ‘All the cool chicks in Lagos come to Pastor Fireman. Where are you?’ He also claims he can ‘raise the dead’. Humour aside, such examples of machismo raised the issue of attitudes towards women: ‘A society run by men is not healthy,’ Saro-Wiwa asserted in her response to a question about the authors’ treatment of Nigeria’s patriarchal society. The excerpt Saro-Wiwa read from her book, Transwonderland, was blackly comic. From the ‘Lonely Hearts’ section of a Sunday newspaper: ‘Prince, 45, handsome, married, kind, needs a romantic lady with a fear of God.’

Noo Saro-Wiwa writes in her native language, English, and Chika Unigwe in Dutch and English. The latter explained that the colonisation of her country meant that when she was sent to ‘a good school’ in the 1980s the use of the local language was not encouraged. The pupils were taught English and French but no Ibo at all. Unigwe is now working on creating a new Ibo dictionary to include contemporary words, ‘for barbecue and computer, and so on’.

Perhaps the thread that ran though the evening’s conversation was the burden of making a difference as a writer. Unigwe observed that writers who come out of Nigeria ‘find it difficult to separate from activism; writing also comes from a place of anger. It would be difficult for them to write On Chesil Beach – perhaps they don’t have the luxury’. Nonetheless, she admitted that, when writing, she ‘just thinks of writing good stories’. As much as she hopes her work can resonate at a grassroots level, ‘you can’t be an NGO, flying from one village to another’. Noo Saro-Wiwa believed that her father tried to set things in motion: ‘He has probably done more for corporate good governance than saving Ogoniland though. I can’t think big like my father did. If I can make a difference to twenty people, I will feel it’s an achievement.’

Southbank Centre’s sixth annual London Literature Festival runs from 3 to 12 July 2012. For more information on events and tickets please visit the Southbank Centre’s website:  http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/festivals-series/london-literature-festival-2012

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