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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Noo Saro-Wiwa is the daughter of slain Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and her travels are in part a journey to better understand his legacy. Her father was an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government. He needled officials for failing to enforce environmental regulations against widespread abuse by foreign oil interests. His arrest and execution in 1995 caused an international uproar that resulted in Nigeria’s being suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations for three and a half years. Nineteen years old at the time, Noo was forced to set aside her youthful rebelliousness and begin a long process of grasping that her father was more than just the embarrassing guy who had the bad taste to install a sea-green carpet in his home to match the stripes in the national flag. Reappraisal of her father and homeland took years, culminating in this book, which is deeply felt and also charmingly blithe.

Our guide is intrepid as she goes about balancing the dark and light of her birthplace. There seems no place she will not go and no conveyance she will not try. Weary of overcrowded buses, as well as the car driven by her father’s former chauffeur, she discovers she loves hitching rides on “okadas,” or motorcycles for hire. “Though fraught with danger and often ridden by reckless drunks in a hurry, okadas were exciting, liberating and cheap, and they appealed to a downwardly mobile side to my character I hadn’t known existed. I would use this form of transport even if I were a billionaire.”

She may be scarred by aspects of her past, but Saro-Wiwa makes sure we are well entertained as she squires us through dog shows (“The first dog, a boar bull called Razor, casually urinated during her inspection. Thoroughly amused, the crowd cheered”) and Nollywood film sets, where she is offered a role (“Once upon a time, I might have laughed at the offer. Now, I swelled with hubris ... imagining myself with a copper-coloured hair weave, preparing my Oscar acceptance speech”). Inevitably, she pays her respects to Transwonderland, a suitably “forlorn landscape of motionless machinery ... rusting amid the tall grass,” where she samples the neglected Ferris wheel. “Sitting alone on the empty ride made me feel self-conscious. Should I smile or look serious? I couldn’t decide. Smiling made me look a little foolish and deranged but keeping a straight face would make me look inappropriately solemn, if not more foolish and deranged.” A few stray onlookers look bored enough to kiss their teeth.

Saro-Wiwa is so committed to giving us a complete field dispatch, she even turns to the classified ads. Lucky thing, because her labors yield her the following, from a Sunday newspaper section where wannabe gigolos troll for sugar mamas. “Tony, 27, undergraduate, needs a caring, independent, neat and comfortable sugar mummy who needs sexual satisfaction.” “Victor from Port Harcourt needs a fat sugar mummy with big boobs. He promises to satisfy her needs.”

And here is where wheat is separated from chaff. Noo Saro-Wiwa, late of King’s College London and Columbia University, does not merely pore over these ads. Leaving no stone unturned in her quest for journalistic completeness, she phones the men that placed them.

“But can you satisfy me if you don’t find me attractive?” she sensibly asks one of her potential blind dates.

“‘Blood flows in my veins,’ he said impatiently. ‘I’m not a statue. You’re going to have feeling ... I promise.’”

Feeling is what the reader gets, too, from this daring, alert, affectionate, spunky book. You won’t need to kiss your teeth ... I promise.


Daniel Asa Rose is the author of Larry’s Kidney, named a best book of 2009 by Publishers Weekly.

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