- Title: Route 234
- Editor: Pelu Awofeso
- Publisher: Homestead Media
- Number of pages: 212
- Year of publication: 2016
- Category: Travel/Non-fiction
Travel writing is a curation of notes by a traveller whose sense of motion is animated. The travel writer is conscious of the trajectories of many feet, and his too, that make the world cosmopolitan. And he is enlivened by the many experiences and people whom he encounters.
Travellers the world over have brought the world much closer to readers’ recognition. In this respect, Africans are no exception, though it can be argued to some length that their contribution have been meagre in recent publications. In modern African literature, there are only few handful of published travel books by Africans. In fact, creative non-fiction as a sub-genre is a lean corpus compared to the ever evolving and widely acclaimed African fiction.
But there was a time African globe tottering gained currency in the example of the journalist Olabisi Ajala, An African Abroad which remains a classic, a travel model for many modern African travellers. ‘The legend of Ajala, the traveller, and his transnational backpacking movements is a canonical urban legend […] an embodiment of 20th-century Yoruba modernity whose legend represents a critical springboard to engage in any imagining of 20th-century Nigerian cosmopolitanism,’ Oluwaseun Abimbola writes in his dissertation paper, ‘The Legend of Ajala’s Travels and Transnational Backpacking in Africa’.
While Olabisi is a classic example, have there been modern African travellers? Of course, yes. But only a few. There seems to be a gap. By gap, I mean the volume of published book of travelogues by Africans, not that there no Africans writing about their travel experiences. Only that little have been published recently to enrich this genre in African literature. There are only handful of travel books by African travellers. And this has worked against how the African continent and its peoples have been perceived by outsiders because of the foreignness of the experiences reported in their diaries and travel accounts.
This is why postcolonial travelogue in Nigeria has invents a civilised dialogue made possible by the exchange of ideas and culture unhindered by borders. It pitches a reverse writing and response to the exotic colonial discourse as it compares its own cosmopolitan progress with the Western’s. And Route 234, compiled and edited, by the Nigerian traveller, Pelu Awofeso, is an example of such books. Awofeso is an experienced and versatile traveller who has published books, A Tour of Duty for example, about his travels in Nigeria and is also a recipient of the CNN-Multichoice African Journalist Awards (Tourism).
In Route 234, a group of writers, Nigerian arts and culture journalists under the association, Arts Writers of Nigeria, engages neighbouring spaces and beyond in reverse colonial writing. This goal of telling Africa’s stories and perceptions without an outline of Western hegemony can only be possible with the ample of freedom of a critical eye from within whose telling of our realities is free from exoticness, pandering and the banality that culture and history has been sectioned into by Western semiotic and its neo-colonial allies. Route 234 is a book that crosses spaces in an African term and imagination.
The book features twenty-three travel stories and commentaries by Nigerian journalists and culture activists such as like Molara Wood, Jahman Anikulapo, Eyitayo Aloh, Ayeni Adekunle, Funke Osae-Brown, et al.
Kola Odutola’s sort of introduction to the book, ‘American Wonder’ (p 1) is an appraisal of survival in the United States of America and engages travel as a philosophy, reflections and ideas in motion. The US, for the Nigerian migrant, is a miscellany of complexes which the writer glances through in a picturesque glance, giving life to the high and lowlands which dots casinos, cafes and work places. It is also about landscape and myriad of identities and enclaves of negotiations like the Gay Pride Parade and the Nigerian Parade which asserts We are here to stay.
‘Clubbing in Los Angeles’ (p 9) by Olumide Iyanda entertains with a simple but moving narration of events which is a brilliant quality of a journalist with years of feature writing and storytelling. His is a visit to the happening places in Los Angeles, like the bar, and migrant solidarity between the Blacks and Hispanics especially when it concerns matters of the heart and the desire for warmth. Iyanda who travelled for the Pan African Film Festival in 2007 realises, to his surprise, that he carries a British colonial baggage through his pronunciations noticed by a barman. Iyanda is further embarrassed that the Mexican bar owner knows nothing about his country than a country that plays good football and full of kings, the typical misrepresentation of Africa, perhaps, this is further enhanced by Nollywood, Africa’s fastest growing movie industry which creates jarring stereotypes even for the average Nigerian.
In ‘Exploring Bahia’ (p 27), Eyitayo Aloh takes the reader to Bahia, Brazil where he discovers a splendid colouration of metaphors of the Yoruba culture and spirituality. He meets Carlos Moore, the official biographer of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, at his lecture on Fela where Fela becomes a conduit for contemporary discourse on African cultural preservation. He also finds a Candomble, a shrine that serves its purpose of holding onto the reins of an African identity, despite a displacement that surges towards forgetfulness.
Bahia is one of Africa’s diasporic outposts that maps the history of African transatlantic enslavement and spotlights the rich cultural traditions that gush through the values of ancestral worship and functional tourism. Africa must learn from Bahia as it reconstructs its cultural and spiritual identity, especially, when propagated external religions urges a distorted hybrid or a shaming in the guise of Abrahamic religions.
Many more well-articulated travel stories are read later in the collection. Molara Wood’s ‘Farewell Juffureh’ (p 35), the longest piece in the collection, is one of such. She brings to the page her storytelling wits and fills the reader with the tensions of losing her son’s life during a tour to James Island, a historical landmark of slavery on the Senegambia river. While she engages the history surrounding the Gambian outpost of James Island, the validation of the River Gambia by UNESCO, the infrastructural decay of the heritage site and the disappointment with exotic ‘beggars’ in Africa tourism, Alex Haley’s Roots and its controversy about Kunta Kinte, she recognises and contends with the distortion of the idea of homeland and comes to terms with nostalgia of temporary return that makes African-Americans visit this fort with their children. She is also blunt about the poverty porn in our stories for alms from African-Americans looking for their roots.
There are also minor plots within the story that will make a reader grin. A Black-American has to sacrifice her shoes to the Senegambia storm while Molara Wood can’t keep calm in the face of the dangerous storm. Of course, it may seem laughable but it also shows the precariousness of travel, even when it’s supposed to be a mere tourism or pleasure trip.
Pelu Awofeso in ‘Independence Day’ (p 71) visits Ghana for their golden jubilee independence celebration. Ayi Kwei Armah’s description of corruption rears its head but the zeal of Ghanaians to change Ghana stems from their outlook and celebration. Awofeso also avoids the impending ‘Nigeria must go’ angst that reverses the memory of 1980 but focuses on the festivities doting the landscape with hope, zeal and a promise of a better future.
Likewise, Jahman Anikulapo’s ‘Accra Mystic’ (p 79) takes the reader to Ghana. The author creates a travel alter ego for himself simply by the name of Dejo that is a sceptic, weary of geniality, quick witted Lagos man. Perhaps, the name is a last strand of the syllable of the author’s original name, OlaDEJO.
Dejo compares Ghana to Nigeria and travels from Pan-Africanism to shades of post-colonialism. He prepares himself for the possible flops in Ghana but finds a tranquil and clean Accra, a city at peace with itself. But the Lagos quick-witted suspects the hospitality and perfectionism of Ghana’s metropolis and his inner dialogue elicits laughter in this reader. When he visits a university in Ghana, he realises that Nigerian universities are no more than ruins waiting to collapse totally under the weight of politics. With the endless departures of human resources from Nigeria, in the case of his friend whom he called in the Netherlands from Ghana, Dejo reflects on the legitimisation of corruption in his home country that has pushed its people to wander away in search of that greener pasture.
With the one sided Ghana that have thrilled Jahman and Awofeso one would imagine Ghana is indeed that ‘Africa’s London’ where there are excellent infrastructural facilities. Thankfully, there is another traveller, Tunde Aremu, that shows us the concealed picture of Ghana in ‘Ghana’s Other Side’ (p 87) with a sharp-edged forthrightness. Almost everything that thrilled Jahman and Awofeso is rubbished by Ghana’s social critic, Kwesi Pratt, in this piece.
Nseobong Okong-Ekong’s ‘Trekking the Mambilla’ (p 93) is the only travel story about Nigeria. Okong-Ekong goes to the Mambilla plateau in Taraba state for a pleasure trip but soon turns to a nerve wracking walking experience for him as he is stranded there with his tour guide. His travel experience informs us that visiting some tourist sites is like risking your life in order to enjoy it.
Kole Ade-Odutola ‘Tongues of Flame’ (p 129) revisits Durban and xenophobic tension in the city. The bad names some Nigerians have given their kinsmen haunts them coupled with Nigerian Pentecostalism in Durban. Maybe Sizwe Bansi is a Nigerian and he is not dead yet — and not all is looking bright for him as he travels in Durban.
All travellers carry backpacks of nostalgia and engage spaces by comparing ‘here and there’, ‘home and elsewhere’. For them, home is not slippery of intangible; it is always within them that they constantly carry around. Most of the travellers in this collection frequently make contrast of their home, Nigeria, with their travel destinations. And the results of this travellers’ conceit is a mixed feeling of awe and disappointment.
Also, the temporariness of the travellers eases him of the straddling nightmare of the illegal migrant and the urgency of assimilation that colours the narratives of the diaspora. Which is why their tale being not always a harrowing experience of a migrant seeking greener pasture. The traveller’s narrative is valid because his foothold as respected professional, researcher, journalist or tourist is welcomed and he or she is simply on a holiday of some sorts.
Ideally, travel writings are reflective of landscapes, people, and cultures. These, some of the travel stories in the book show. But there are some outright oddities in the collection that one wonders the editor’s criteria for selecting the stories for the collection. For example, Steve Ayorinde’s entries, ‘Film, FESPACO, Ezra’ (p 61) and ‘Bollywood World’ (p 147) are not anywhere close to what can be regarded as travel story or essay. They are just film reviews which seem out of place in the collection. The works do not articulate a sense of place and motion, and thus fall short of the tag ‘travel story’.
Some of the stories also drag. Majority of the writers in the book employ remarkable storytelling techniques that invents a cinematic and picturesque short story form, while others are deeply involved in the language and techniques of journalism, that it verges into a cerebral reportage without the literariness of storytelling. The implicit structuralism without recourse to the need to create an entertaining piece of work worthy of nostalgic sentiments. Though these few stories did not spoil the broth for the reader.
Also, there is an unbalanced equation in the selection as there are only a few female representation in the book. With the exceptions of Molara Wood, Funke Osae-Brown, the rest of the contributors are male which makes one wonder, are there not many female travel writers around?
But, in all, the book is a remarkable read. For many things, parts of which I have stated earlier above. It does characterise places and people. Route 234 is surely a travel companion without leaving your bed.
Femi Morgan is a writer, media entrepreneur and enterprise investor. He is the creative director of Fairchild Media, an avant-garde public relation, publishing and content management firm. Femi received his MA in Diaspora and Transnational Studies from the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan and was a participant at the Arts Management and Marketing Class at the Leuphana Digital School. He is currently a copyright student at the Harvard Law School distant learning programme.
Femi is also the curator of Artmosphere Nigeria, one of the leading arts and culture communities in the country. He is the author of chapbooks Silent Drummings (2008), Phases: Poetry of People (eds. 2015), Songs of Travel (2015), Love Wrapped in a Bundled Past (2016), and poetry collection Renegade (2016).
His writings have been published in several publications some which include The Guardian (Nigeria), The Nation Newspaper, AfricanWriter.com, Sarabamag, Brittle Paper, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Ktravula.com and have been consulted by DSTV Nigeria, Lagos Arts and Book Festival. He lives in Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria. He tweets at @fairchild09.