I thoroughly enjoyed this, somewhat to my surprise, since I am often impatient with travelogue segments in fiction. But then, a nonfiction travel book succeeds if it informs and entertains the reader with information about a place, while fictional travels all too often serve as cover for lack of plot.
And this book both informs and entertains. Saro-Wiwa is Nigerian by birth, but was raised and currently lives in England. After years of avoiding her home country, following uncomfortable childhood experiences and her activist father’s murder at the hands of one of several dictatorships, she took several months to travel around Nigeria and reacquaint herself with the country. This insider/outsider perspective is a valuable one, as Saro-Wiwa has both an eye for interesting detail and contrast with the Western world, and a familiarity with the culture and a network of friends and relatives throughout the country.
The writing is engaging, and the author provides historical information where it’s helpful, along with going the extra mile herself for interesting stories, whether it’s a death-defying bus ride in Lagos or pretending to be a prospective sugar mama long enough to call and interview men advertising themselves as gigolos. She also talks her way into the inside scoop on many of Nigeria’s most interesting (but neglected) tourist sites. The book occasionally shades into memoir, and I would have been interested to read more about the author than is included here; but I get the sense she is a bit neurotic and was perhaps wise not to let her own preoccupations consume the book. She does have strong opinions on various aspects of Nigerian life, particularly government corruption, and by discussing these issues with people she meets along the way, provides a deeper understanding of the challenges the country faces.
At any rate, Nigeria is a large and diverse country – from the Muslim north to the evangelical Christian south, from tropical forests to the mountains where a few ancient tribes still maintain their traditional way of life, from teeming cities to remote villages – and I enjoyed vicariously sharing the author’s trip (likely much more than I would have enjoyed it in person, what with the constant power cuts, delays, everything breaking down, etc.). If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that it is already becoming dated: Saro-Wiwa’s trip apparently took place in 2007, but the book was not published until 2012, and by the time of my reading in 2015, Nigeria has changed quite a bit. There is nothing here about Boko Haram, for instance. That said, it is a personal story and covers a great deal of ground, so I still consider it absolutely worth reading. I always looked forward to sitting down with it for a chapter or two, and would recommend it to anyone interested in travel writing or contemporary Africa.