Chuku's Chats with Travel Writer Noo Saro-Wiwa

Noo Saro-Wiwa is "a pioneer in contemporary travel writing" says The Guardian. She is the daughter of writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and like him is talented with the pen, this time writing non-fiction. Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria follows Noo as she voyages from the bustle of Lagos to the beauty of the eastern mountains. Nominated for several writing awards, it's a beautiful exploration of Nigeria and after reading it we knew we had to sat down with the brilliant mind behind it. 

Reading about how you "dreaded [your] name being called out in school assembly" and seeing it "botched in every conceivable way", we can truly empathise. School roll call was a minefield for us too! So, for our readers, how do you say you’re full name correctly and what does it mean?

Noo Saro-Wiwa

Noo Saro-Wiwa

My full name is Nooyaayo (pronounced ‘Nawyahyo’), which loosely translates as ‘honey’ or ‘oil’. When crude oil was discovered in the 50s, the Ogonis referred to it as ‘noo’, i.e. honey from the ground. So my name, ironically, means crude oil too. It’s a burden I have to bear!

The Nigerian people are hugely diverse but most people only know of the Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa tribes. Can you tell us about where you’re from in Nigeria and your people?

The Ogoni are Christians who live in the Niger Delta, traditionally farming and fishing. There are fewer than 1 million of us, so we’re a tiny minority. Nobody had heard of us until my father began campaigning against environmental pollution in our region, so he truly put us on the map.

Ogoniland (photo: Noo Saro-Wiwa)

Ogoniland (photo: Noo Saro-Wiwa)

We were raised in a Nigerian household in Essex, but our hometown is now considered East London, and we’re slowly getting used to be called Londoners. What was growing up with Nigerian parents in the Home Counties like for you? And do you now consider yourself a Londoner?

We weren’t the only non-white kids but we were the only black kids. People were nice for the most part, though we got stared at a lot. I can remember a few racially-tinged jibes, but nobody messed with us in the playground as we all had big personalities. Being in Surrey wasn’t as isolating as you might imagine — our town was on the outskirts of London, so it was easy to visit Nigerian friends on weekends. My mother would drive us to Balham (south London) to buy Nigerian food and get our Jheri curls done.

Yes, I consider myself a Londoner. I went to university here and have lived in the Greater London area for most of my adult life. Most of my friends are here, and it’s the only place on earth where I can be Me. I don’t feel like living anywhere else.

"An affectionate portrait of a loud and lively nation" - Metro

"An affectionate portrait of a loud and lively nation" - Metro

How did you get into travel writing?

I have always loved travel and writing. When I was a student I wanted to combine those passions by becoming a news reporter. However, a year at Columbia Journalism School made me realise I didn’t want to report on hard news stories. Literary non-fiction was the perfect outlet for me, I realised.

I had read a journalistic travelogue by Martin Fletcher called Almost Heaven, as well as Joan Didion’s book on Miami, and was totally inspired. So I saved up some money after grad school and travelled to South Africa where I wrote my first book (I eventually chose not to publish it).

What’s the most interesting place you’ve travelled to?

That’s a tough one as I have visited between 55 and 60 countries. Uzbekistan was one of the most recent – its mix of Islam, Oriental and Soviet cultures is fascinating. China, Nigeria and South Africa are incredible too. But to be honest, nearly all places are interesting once you start talking to people and getting the lowdown on their society.  

At Chuku's Nigerian food is at the heart of what we do. What role does Nigerian food play in your life? And what are your favourite dishes?

It’s my mother’s food, so it is comfort food. As far as I’m concerned, jollof rice, fried plantain and goat are the Holy Trinity. I ate that pretty much every day during my four month trip for Transwonderland. If I can’t have the Holy Trinity then I’ll take rice or boiled yam with stew.

Two of Noo's faves: jollof rice & fried plantain (photo: Aroma 9ja)

Two of Noo's faves: jollof rice & fried plantain (photo: Aroma 9ja)

In your book you mention, if you had your way you would have “declared pounded yam to be the food of the devil”. What happened to make you dislike this popular Nigerian dish so much?

I simply don’t get pounded yam. It has an odd taste and texture – the soup slides off it and it feels weird when you roll it between you fingers. My father loved it, though. It was his favourite dish.

Pounded yam (photo: Radiant Health Magazine)

Pounded yam (photo: Radiant Health Magazine)

You describe Nigeria, as “the best country”. Why do you say this?

We have so much potential. Nigerians are tough, charismatic and have a great sense of humour (and can be annoying as hell, let’s face it). But if we got our act together we could be a force. Anyone who goes to private school in England will tell you that Nigerians, despite being in the minority, always stand out one way or another, be it in academia, arts or sports, or as prefects and head pupils. If the whole country received an equally good education Nigeria would be magnificent. Currently, the sum of our parts don’t add up, and that’s frustrating.

Last year on our trip to Nigeria we explored Lagos in a way many even Lagosians haven’t seen. How much did you enjoy your grand tour of Nigeria? And can you share one of your favourite moments?

I really enjoyed travelling around Nigeria and would recommend it to anyone who is in a position to do so. Even when it is frustrating and tiring, travel is still always an edifying and educational experience.

One of my favourite moments was sitting on the back of a motorcycle driven by an ornithologist who had taken me bird-watching by the lakes in the extreme north.

A snap from our sibling co-founders' trip to Lagos

A snap from our sibling co-founders' trip to Lagos

We were an hour outside the town of Nguru, in the semi-desert. The sun was setting, the sky was purple, and to our right were two turbaned nomads guiding a caravan of camels across the pale sand. It was absolutely magical.

Your book offers a potted history of Nigeria from ancient kingdoms, post-colonial politics and the modern day. How did you study for the book? Or was this drawn from your own knowledge?

Yes, I drew on knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years (I tend to read non-fiction rather than novels). For historical background on certain places, such as the Esie soapstone statues, I had to dig deep and source out-of-print books at the British Library.

Esie soapstone statues

Esie soapstone statues

We love travelling and typically travel solo or with friends. But last year, we went back to Nigeria with family. Can you give us your top tips for surviving a family trip?

Eat lots of good food: it shuts everyone up, cheers everyone up, and helps you sleep a lot afterwards.

Where are you off to next?

China, again.

Want to take a mini-trip around Nigeria without leaving London? Grab a copy of Looking for Transwonderland here and go exploring with Noo!