Pelu Awofeso - for Nigeria is my Playground article

Nigeria is my Playground

Rebecca Jones, ‘Nigeria is my Playground: Pẹlu Awofẹsọ’s Nigerian Travel Writing’, African Research and Documentation, 125, 2015.

Since the turn of the millennium, a crop of travel books by Africans and Africans in diaspora describing their travels within Africa – such as Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland (2012) and Sihle Khumalo’s Dark Continent, My Black Arse (2007) –  have asserted fresh possibilities for African self-representation in travel writing.

But to what extent does – or should – African travel writing about Africa re-write long-held imperial and Western discourses about Africa, maintained through travel writing? Can African travel writers invite us to the see the continent in new ways? How else might we read their work, rather than simply as a counter-narrative to Western travel writing?

In an article on South African Sihle Khumalo’s travel books Dark Continent, My Black Arse (2007) and Heart of Africa (2009), Carli Coetzee (2013) self-reflexively examines how Khumalo’s books were enthusiastically embraced by critics for their potential to “change the face of writing about Africa” by resisting colonial and post-colonial travel writing discourse. However, readers looking for this kind of critique were disappointed, since the books are in this regard superficial, “resistant to introspection and critical reflection”. This is not “the redefining account of Africa from Africa” (63).

This article critically explores this sense that the “redefining account of Africa from Africa” is overdue by examining contemporary Nigerian travel writing about travel within Nigeria. My focus is the work of Pẹlu Awofẹsọ, a Nigerian travel writer who has a small international audience and whose online work is also increasingly generating a home-grown Nigerian readership. Since 2002, Awofẹsọ has been travelling Nigeria, resulting in three travel books: a guidebook to Jos called A Place Called Peace (2003), followed by Nigerian Festivals (2005), and Tour of Duty (2010). Tour of Duty is an anthology of short first-person travel narratives describing journeys to “all four corners” of Nigeria. The book covers 19 of Nigeria’s 36 states, to the north, south, east and west.

Awofẹsọ sees travel writing as a method of promoting national unity-in-diversity. He proclaims that “Nigeria is my playground,” and he writes, he says, ‘with the hope that Nigerians would see the value of the multiplicity of our different cultures and fight for its continued unity’ (Awofẹsọ 2010b, int.). He assumes that Nigerians’ purported lack of ‘unity’ or ‘pride’ are a problem of lack of knowledge: that there is something Nigerians presently don’t know about one another but which they can learn through reading about one another. Awofẹsọ’s optimistic proclamation of national unity is tempered by his awareness of difference and his sense of an uneasy heterogeneity, whether on the grounds of religion – before going to Jos, he was worried that “I would be an easy target being a solo Christian travelling in a largely Muslim territory” (Awofẹsọ 2010b, int.) – or language. But in a rhetorical move that pervades his work, Awofẹsọ raises these concerns to be able to dismiss them later: in another piece about Kano, he finds himself communicating in Pidgin English with Hausa locals, and finds his way to the Durbar.

Awofẹsọ sees himself counteracting “lopsided information,” in the sense that “[w]e don’t have thoughts by Africans about places, but we have more than enough thoughts by foreigners about Africa” (Awofẹsọ 2011, int.). But Awofẹsọ is equally interested in a pervasive, one-sided domestic narrative about Nigeria. Awofẹsọ wanted to tell his readers that “Look, you can have fun in Nigeria. Forget everything else you hear.” (Awofẹsọ 2011, int.). If Nigeria is Awofẹsọ’s “playground”, it is partly because Awofẹsọ envisages his travel writing to represent a “good, different view” of Nigeria as a playground to itself so that Nigerians are willing to play in it. Reading travel writing is seen by readers of Awofẹsọ’s work as a way of changing the reader, both inside and outside Nigeria, to reach a new understanding of Nigeria.

Awofẹsọ presents his work as exceptional, opening up new spaces for future travel writers to emerge. He believes himself to be alone as a Nigerian travel writer: “I am all by myself. No other Nigerian journalist of my generation has written any travel book I know of” (Awofẹsọ 2010b, int.). To this end, he considers himself to be writing “within an already established heritage of travel writing as popularised by Western writers,” rather than within a Nigerian travel writing tradition (ibid.). Certainly, earlier Nigerian travel narratives are not widely available and, moreover, claims to being a pioneer of course offer marketing advantages. But it is nonetheless striking that, for a genre that sees itself as being about documenting Nigeria, Nigerian travel writers’ sense of writing against a Western travel writing tradition has not so far resulted in even a desire to place themselves within a local archive of travel writing.

However if we read Awofẹsọ’s work not only with an eye to colonial and Western travel writing traditions, another exciting field of reference opens up. Many of the Lagos newspaper travel writers of the 1920s and ‘30s were much more concerned with local debates, with translocal and regional connections springing up across Nigeria, than with the colonial travel writing tradition. Like Awofẹsọ, they experimented with genre, audience, and publishing media, and sought to improve their readers’ knowledge of Nigeria. By reading Awofẹsọ’s work in light of this earlier travel writing, we can also locate him within this local print culture and its concerns, while not denying his works’ simultaneous intertextuality with the Western travel writing tradition.

References

Awofẹsọ, P. (2003) A Place Called Peace: A Visitor’s Guide to Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria. Lagos: Homestead Publications.

Awofẹsọ, P. (2010) Tour of Duty, Lagos: Homestead Publications.

Awofẹsọ, P. (2013b [2005]) Nigerian Festivals: The Famous and Not So Famous. 2nd edition. Lagos: Homestead Publications. Kindle e-book.

Awofẹsọ, P. (22 April 2011) Interview with author. Ibadan, Nigeria.

Awofẹsọ, P. (16 December 2010). Interview with author. Via email.

Coetzee, C. (2013) Sihle Khumalo, Cape to Cairo, and Questions of Intertextuality: How to Write About Africa, How to Read About Africa. Research in African Literatures, 44(2): 62-75.

Khumalo, S. (2007) Dark Continent, My Black Arse. Cape Town: Umuzi.

Khumalo, S. (2009) Heart of Africa: Centre of My Gravity. Cape Town: Umuzi.

Saro-Wiwa, N. (2012) Looking for Transwonderland. London: Granta Books.

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