Kissing Teeth

by Daniel Asa Rose
Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria
By Noo Saro-Wiwa
Soft Skull Press, 272 pages, $15.95
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Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in NigeriaTranswonderland is an amusement park constructed, after much public anticipation, in Noo Saro-Wiwa’s native Nigeria. The park, a collection of gloriously westernized kitsch (“the closest thing Nigeria has to Disney World”), represents everything Saro-Wiwa ’01JRN felt Nigeria lacked when she was growing up in England and forced to traipse home to troublesome old Africa every summer vacation. But in Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, the park turns out to be the least of it. When she travels back to her ancestral homeland as an adult, it’s really transcendence she’s tracking. Ready or not.

Part guided tour, part family history, the journey seems to represent an important moment for the thirty-six-year-old author, an ambitious reconciliation of her past and future. Even if the parts didn’t flow together as well as they do, Saro-Wiwa’s first book would be a fresh, invigorating look at a culture not often documented in Western books — and certainly not like this.

Nigeria, it turns out, is considered by other Africans to be the rowdy child of the continent, a naughty “nation of ruffians” with a penchant for disorder that is only sometimes amusing. According to Saro-Wiwa, Nigerians “like to shout at the tops of our voices, whether we’re telling a joke, praying in church or rocking a baby to sleep.” At the theater, it seems, the only people in the audience not chatting on cell phones at an “unapologetic volume” are those yelling out unsolicited suggestions to the actors onstage. The “jagga jagga” nature of Nigerian life (the slang term, meaning “messed up,” is from a local hip-hop song a few years back) is attributable to “decades of political corruption” that have left the populace “deeply suspicious of authority.” During its forty-seven years of independence, she writes, “Nigeria has lurched from one kleptocracy to the next,” so that the photographs of national leaders on a museum wall resemble “a series of criminal mugshots, a line-up of chief suspects in the ruination of Nigeria.”

Whatever its origins, this boisterousness also speaks to a certain zest in the national character that the reader can’t help but find, at times, endearing. Best intentions in every sphere of society may be doomed to fizzle before the avalanche of “misallocated funds, apathy and ... fecklessness,” but there’s no gainsaying the fact that Nigeria was the world’s biggest importer of champagne during the oil boom of the early ’80s, and that “Nollywood” is the third-largest film industry in the world, churning out three “shoddy” and “interminable” movies per day. “It’s a money-making business,” says the author with a tone of exasperated fondness, “run largely by fast-buck entrepreneurs without a creative bone in their collective bodies.”

No wonder she uses the phrase “kissing teeth” at least a dozen times (to the sorry exclusion of other sounds/gestures) — in one instance, three on a single page. It’s a hard-to-describe sound (used in Jamaica as well as in parts of Africa) meant to express mild disapproval. The closest equivalent Westerners have is a tsk-tsk or tut-tut, but this is a hiss that can be deployed without losing one’s cool or appearing starchy.

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