New Humanist, 12 January 2012

Noo Saro-Wiwa didn’t enjoy visiting Nigeria as a child. She and her siblings grew up in Surrey, and she much preferred it there. Nigeria was too uncomfortable: she didn’t like the erratic electricity supply, she didn’t like the lack of running water, and most of all, she missed watching television. If someone had told her in 1990 that it would be her last summer holiday there, ‘I would have performed cartwheels down the street’.

She wasn’t to know at the age of 14, of course, the reason she wouldn’t be returning to Nigeria for a long time. Then on November 10, 1995, her mother called to tell her that her father, the anti-corruption activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, had been murdered. Noo (pronounced Gnaw) went back only twice more: once for her father’s funeral in 2000, and again for his burial in 2005.

She spent her twenties travelling round the rest of Africa, writing travel guides. Eventually, she realised that avoiding Nigeria no longer seemed reasonable. So, occupying a middle-ground between tourist and local, for both business and pleasure, she decided to travel around her parents’ home country and write a book.

She’s an engagingly smart travel companion: retaining an outsider’s perspective even while staying with family and friends dotted around the country. Her surname makes her famous in parts of the country she has never visited. She is rather huffy when people realise – either from her clothes or her accent – that she isn’t from round these parts, and she isn’t afraid to pass judgement on Nigeria’s many administrative failings: ‘Politicians steal $140 billion a year from Africa – a quarter of the continent’s GDP. No facet of the economy goes unaffected: every road, school, oil drum, hospital or vaccine shipment is milked for cash. It diminishes the quality and quantity of everything in the country, including our self-esteem.’

She sees a strong connection between the corruption in Nigeria and its relatively recent religious fervour. ‘Years of economic struggle and political corruption seem to have focused Nigerians’ attention on God more strongly than before. I noticed these changes in some members of my extended family. Religion anaesthetises the pain of bad transport, low wages, stuffed ballot boxes and candlelit nights’.

Nigeria is split between a Christian south and a Muslim north. Although Noo considers herself a Christian, she has limited patience with the evangelical zeal she finds in the south: ‘According to the Bible God made the Earth in six days and took a rest on the seventh. But by creating Nigerians, he ensured that that was the last day off he’s enjoyed ever since.’

Nonetheless, her judgement doesn’t lack compassion. In praise of the usefulness of the camel in Northern Nigeria, she includes its apparent medical properties – its dung is used to treat ear infections, its urine to treat coughs. ‘Traditional remedies are still popular here because modern medicine fails people so often; Nigeria is awash with placebos and chemically dubious medication. There was a logic behind our traditionalism, I realised – cultural stubbornness wasn’t always the reason.’

The book is packed with historical, political and geographical information, and although her fondness for adjectives does occasionally leave you wishing for a noun without one (‘She was a quiet, slim girl whose graceful neck held up a pretty face etched with permanent anxiety’), the complex world of Nigeria comes alive in her company, from the stone-age settlement of Sukur to a failed safari trip in Yankari(‘Where are the lions and elephants’, demands a fellow tourist. ‘Are they at a meeting?’). And where else would you discover that in the oil-boom of the eighties, Nigeria was the world’s biggest importer of champagne?