Erika Degortes – TRANSCEND Media Service
Looking for Transwonderland (travels in Nigeria)[i] is the title of a fabulous book by Noo Saro-Wiwa, a British/Nigerian writer and journalist.
Those who know her story[ii] could expect a book of complaint or where the prevailing attitude is to points out the rot. Actually, the book shows that through knowledge, empathy grows, and traumas of the past can be overcome. The book offers much more than just a report of a five-month journey around her homeland (for long time seen as the repository of all her resentment); it brings a new perspective of Nigeria itself, offering the portrait of a Country whose beauty and variety become evident. What is the recipe? Talking about the past, mentioning unsolved conflict, honestly showing the reader the present challenges and imagining a future for Africa’s most populous Country.
Invited to the Dromos Festival in Baratili San Pietro (Italy), as a panelist, I had the privilege to meet her and this is the outcome of our intense dialogue about Nigeria yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Erika: What is the future you would like to see for Nigeria?
Noo: I would like to see a Nigeria where ethnicity takes a back seat, and it is not the most important thing. I want Nigeria to be a meritocracy where people get to the top because of their hard work, their talents and their skills. I want those attributes to be respected; because we have a political class who is just not interested enough in those. I would also like a Nigeria where everybody has a stake in society because right now we have an oil based economy which is not adequate for the population. The political class just takes money from the oil and because no one has a stake in society, in other words, democracy doesn’t work, politicians have no reason to listen to the general population.
Look at societies like England for example: you find a lot of little businesses, people have property rights, and the Government collects taxes and relies on the people for revenues, getting those revenues from a variety of sources. England has been lucky enough to evolve politically and economically, so everybody has a stake and that is what we need in Nigeria. Politicians need to think ‘I need to gain respect or the approval of this ordinary person that lives in a house in an ordinary street’.
Erika: given you had the power to change the situation, what would you do?
Noo: I think that something our politicians lack is national pride. They don’t care if Nigeria is an underperforming Country who people around the world don’t respect, so you have to change that, we have to make people more empathetic. For example: you hear a lot of people who have children, they always say: “having children makes you a much better person” and I never understand what that means because I see people everywhere who have children but do not care about other people’s children. In a really civilized society you would have people who can not bear the sight of a child who is starving or is under educated or has a visible talent but would never blossom and I never understand why those people lack that kind of empathy. I find it really strange. I think what we need is that kind of empathy and a real sense of much more pride that can make a nation flourish.
Erika: do you think your view is compatible with the aspirations of the Nigerians for themselves?
Noo: Yes. I think Nigeria it’s a divided Country. The majority people are sensible and empathetic and do good things to the Country but we also need education as well. You have people with very good intentions in Nigeria but because they are not educated they don’t understand what it takes to build a nation, they cling onto own beliefs. They complain about the corruption in Government, at the same time if someone from their local community goes into Government, they expect that person to bring them money! So there is some contradiction. On one hand the majority of Nigerians feel like me, have the same aspiration but there are still too many Nigerians who dislike those aspirations, who do things and have expectations that actually undermine the Country.
Erika: You used the word contradiction and for us the word contradiction is definition of conflict (contradiction as incompatibility of goals). What would you think is currently the most intense challenge for Nigerian society?
Noo: You look at the terrorism problem in the North, the Boko Haram: I think most people would tell you that poverty it’s been a real contributor. There are lots of boys and men picking up guns because that’s the only way they can get their stake in society, that’s the only way they can earn money to buy food and obtain girlfriends and wives. Poverty is what led them to that position, but now we are in a situation where you can not attract investments into the area because of this conflict. So, solve the poverty issue!
Erika: What do you think could be done to improve the situation?
Noo: That’s the million dollar question! The politicians first have to have the will to change the situation. I don’t know why they seem not to be interested. There is obviously something going on behind the scenes. Usually when the government refuses to act on something there is always some reason you don’t know about. Either somebody is profiting out of a situation or people use it as a way of undermining the general situation like for example when Jonathan Goodluck was President of the Country, you would hear rumors because there was a southerner as a President and there was a resentment. Northerner politicians deliberately fomented terrorism in the north to undermine the president. I don’t know if that’s true it can very well not be true but still..
You have to have politicians who care but many don’t.
For me having such a low standing in the world and being in such big economic difficulties would be enough to say “let’s do something” but I don’t know what can make these people take actions.
I think part of the problem in Africa as a whole is that we have started to develop and we got independence at a time when the world has been globalized. Politician can destroy a Country. Because we live in this globalized connected world where he or she can put money in a foreign bank account, they can get on a plane and go somewhere else, they can get medical treatment, they can go shopping in Milan or London, they don’t have to deal with the problems, they are not confronted with the big problems we mentioned. You can see this in big cities like Lagos where people are driving cars worth 400 thousand dollars. This kind of globalization is a real problem. You can’t undo it, but I really feel that if politicians were forced to deal with the consequences of their actions and their actions were affecting them, they might be incentivized to change their lives.
Erika: In your book Looking for Transwoderland you mention Lagos as a positive example in terms of coexistence. To look for positive examples is what a culture of peace in general, and of peaceful conflict transformation in particular, needs the most as opposed to the current culture of killing and violence. We are so used to intellectuals in general, and journalists in particular, who underlines negative aspects, nurturing a culture of mistrust. What would you think should it be the mission of a journalist?
Noo: You are going to a Country or you enter a situation, so you have to tell the whole story as much as you possibly can. Modern media does not always allow that, especially TV news, where most people perception of Africa comes from. You have one or two minutes if you are lucky to report on a Country or a situation so the tendency, quite understandably is to focus on what is going wrong, what the problems are. For me is important to talk about the good and to also talk about the bad. I am not afraid to talk about the negative things because there is a reason for that. There is a reason for everything and is never because “this people are inherently inferior” or stupid or anything like that. It is a combination between economics, historical factors, environmental factors , cultural factors that create the situation, and you can’t solve a conflict unless you understand that society from all angles. It is important to discuss those angles, because if journalists constantly emphasize like ethnic divisions for example, people start to believe that “that” is the “only” problem and the real issue is covered under the ethnic division. There might be all other factors that have been left out.
You just need to have a holistic approach and examine society from all angles. It is also important that we remember all the good stuff that happen in the world. You know, people can be very cynical and we can end up in a world where everyone hates each other. Politicians have that perception as well that gives them license to exploit other people because they believe that everyone is terrible. It is really important to highlights the positive because, I think, 90% of the human race is good. The world would be a truly chaotic place if even 50 % of the people were bad. You have to highlight the truth which involves the positive.
Erika: In Nigeria there are forms of economic exploitation and political manipulation as everywhere else in the world and your father, Ken Saro- Wiwa[iii], tried to address these problems nonviolently. What do you think was his vision, what did he do to involve other people, as far as you remember, what do you think has been achieved and what still remains to be done?
Noo: My father was a real polymath. He was good at so many things he had so many ambitions! He wanted a Nigeria where everyone is able to fulfill their ambition and apply their talent whether it is in manufacturing or literature or sports. That was what he wanted.
He also wanted an Ogoniland, where we are from, that was free of pollution. He wanted it with fishermen and farmers. We rely on the soil and the rivers so they have to be clean! Without that we wouldn’t survive. That’s why my father called it a genocide because on one hand we have the Government who is not allowing us to develop economically, so we have to remain fishermen and farmers but that same Government is destroying the same environment that allows us to live just even that simple life. If people can not even live that simple life you are basically killing them.
My father envisioned an Ogoniland that was clean, where all the children are educated, that was a really big thing for him, girls and boys; he encouraged everyone to get an education including education in geology because earth is where oil is coming from. He wanted people to understand how oil is extracted and how the extraction can affect the environment. That was a big vision for him.
In Nigeria oil is the only source of income and if your population expand from a hundred million in the sixties to hundred and sixty five millions now, and not everybody has access to the oil wealth, then people get desperate and start fighting.
My father wanted a stakeholder’s society where people have small businesses; everyone is educated, where no one has to rely on the big man to help him. That’s what he wanted.
It was around the eighties when he felt he had to do something about the problems in Ogoniland, about the pollution and the environmental devastation, and because he was planted in an international community, being a writer, he was able to solicit help from Organizations like The Body Shop, run by Anita Roddick[iv] , who was very passionate about the Ogoni issue. She was a famous business woman particularly in England and she was able to spread my father’s message. My father also knew writers such as William Boyd[v] one of the British writers who passionately wrote about Nigeria. William Boyd championed my father’s case and wrote an article about it in the Times. So the Times newspaper took my father cause and spread the word.
And then you had organization such as Amnesty International, Green Peace so yes, he was very lucky having contacts all around the world which a lot of Ogoni people don’t have, because they are badly educated, they are poor and they meet no people.
Reaching out other people, people who had the power to spread the message was really important.
Erika: You mentioned Anita Roddick, the British businesswoman. I place lots of expectations on British people, particularly on British women, because in the past they were able to contribute to the abolition of slavery. What do you think can be the contribution of England nowadays?
Noo: Going back to the globalization issue, England is the place where lots of corrupted Nigerians keep their money invested. The best thing England can do and the English Government can do is to prevent these people from doing that.
England is a very free market economy; they like to take money from anyone, anywhere. On a multilateral level, I don’t know how much power it has, the UN has it effectively. Whatever the UK says, one of the four Countries of the Security Council might think differently.
England can keep up the pressure and be critical. Of course there are lots of Nigerians who do not like when westerns criticize Nigerian/ Africans government and again that’s a contradiction because Nigerians may not like the Government either, but they do not like when the white man criticizes it either, because it is the colonial old attempt but I think we should ignore that. Just maintain the pressure, and not give politicians the kind of respect and freedom they like to enjoy from their position
[i] Two interesting reviews of the book https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/29/looking-transwonderland-saro-wiwa-review; http://africanarguments.org/2012/01/09/rediscovering-transwonderland-noo-saro-wiwa-goes-home-a-review-by-magnus-taylor/;
[ii] Obviously, there is plenty of literature about Noo Saro-Wiwa, her family and her father’s campaign on the internet. What is not written is that she is a wonderful human being, full of energy, intelligent, acute and very pleasant to talk to about any topic, from the most serious to the most frivolous. I like this gentle portrait of her: http://www.africultures.com/php/?nav=article&no=11340;
[iii] Ken Saro-Wiwa jr. Finally it seems as if Ken Saro-Wiwa,,my father, may not have died in vain https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/10/ken-saro-wiwa-father-nigeria-ogoniland-oil-pollution
[iv] [iv] To know more about Anita Roddick and The Body Shop http://www.thebodyshop-usa.com/about-us/aboutus_anita-roddick.aspx; and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/sep/12/adieudameanita;
[v] William Boyd remembered his friend and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in this beautiful article Fight to death: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2005/mar/23/environment.environment
Erika Degortes is a member of TRANSCEND International, co-founder of the Galtung-Institut, and former director of Transcend Peace University.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 September 2016.