• Title: What the Road Offers
  • Author: Uche Okonkwo
  • Publisher: Invisible Borders Trans-African Project
  • Number of pages: 36
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Travel/Nonfiction

That they did not die in vain’ (p.2). This potent adage, so often employed as a way of marking and memorialising the end of wars and conflicts, also embodies ideas of opening and enlivening at the beginning of Uche Okonkwo’s 2016 travel narrative What the Road Offers. Emblazoned upon the entrance to Nigeria’s National War Museum in Umuahia, Abia State, these words refer specifically to the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war in January 1970, a brutal conflict which led to countless deaths and inexpressible losses. While the prominent position of this axiom suggests that processes of collective remembrance and reflection in relation to the war’s historical legacies are well developed within Nigeria, What the Road Offers repudiates any such interpretation. Indeed, as Okonkwo describes entering the museum, it soon becomes clear that her journey into Nigeria’s past will be marked by encounters with obscurity as well as revelation:

We meet a front desk attendant who tells us that there are no guides available; the museum will be closing soon for the day. With a warning against making photographs or video recordings – as in every other museum we will visit on this road trip – we are pointed in the right direction and left to make our own way. (p.2)

While a long line of Nigerian writers and commentators have noted the troubling lack of critical engagement with history in the country’s political and public spheres, Okonkwo’s What the Road Offers does not simply reinforce this interpretation of Nigeria’s historical myopia. Rather, her travel narrative seeks to complicate these expressions of foreclosure, opening portals to troubled histories that help reveal the nuances so often lost in discussions of the war’s legacies and Nigeria’s development more broadly. As Okonkwo subsequently asks, ‘What stories have fallen through the cracks of our fixed narratives?’ (p.3)

What the Road Offers was published as part of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project, and specifically the Borders Within 2016 road trip, during which seven artists spent six-weeks travelling across Nigeria in order to create works in response to their experiences. Okonkwo’s narrative contributes to this Nigeria-based project of artistic journeying and envisioning by penning a series of vignettes recalling interactions the group had with people during different stages of the road trip. While these fragments offer assorted perspectives on the state and struggles of Nigeria in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Okonkwo teases out deeper connections between these seemingly disparate voices in her writing, transforming them into a sophisticated symposium on Nigeria’s thorny historical inheritances.

Crucial to the narrative’s negotiation of these complex legacies is the travelling form that it takes. Indeed, as Okonkwo portrays her experiences and interactions in locations across Nigeria – from places such as Asaba and Calabar in the south to Yola and Maiduguri in the north – the potential of travel writing as a way of navigating troubled histories begins to emerge. Describing a visit to another war memorial – dedicated to the Asaba Massacre, one of the deadliest episodes of the Nigeria-Biafra war – Okonkwo reflects on ‘The numbers carted away to an untold fate, torn from the people who knew them, never found’, and subsequently asks, ‘Who will tell their stories?’ (p.6) Although Okonkwo is complexly aware that her story cannot do justice to the lives of every victim of the massacre, moving through Asaba and reflecting on these tragic events does help to clarify the purpose of her journeying through Nigeria:

I imagine Asaba as a living being, with a pulse, a soul a memory. I imagine that the untold stories that a place carries remain, eternal, intangible. And that, every so often, wayfarers might stumble upon a portal that makes them unwitting outlets for a story whose owner they do not know. (p.7)

It is as a wayfarer in lands both familiar and strange that the traveller – and also the artist – is able to feel as well as represent the vibrancy of places in all their historical specificity.

Over the course of the narrative, Okonkwo’s position as both traveller and writer lends her a deeper perspective on Nigeria’s development since its creation as a unified colony by the British colonial regime in 1914. While visiting Lokoja in Kogi State, Okonkwo and her companions ascend Mount Patti, a geographical feature known for its connection to Frederick Lugard, Nigeria’s first governor-general. Atop the mountain sits a reproduction of the rest stop used by Lugard and his wife Flora Shaw, who is credited with coining the term ‘Nigeria’. Okonkwo’s visit to Mount Patti leads her to reflect critically on this peculiar and problematic aspect of the country’s genesis:

As we stand at the top of this mountain and the vast expanses below, […] I wonder if [Shaw] and Lugard and all the other Western actors in the colonial history of Nigeria and Africa for a second doubted their audacity, what authority they had in deciding for us what we should be called. (p.32)

As this moment reveals, What the Road Offers sheds light on histories that risk being emptied of their political potency and contemporary resonance if present-day Nigeria does not engage meaningfully with its past. By underscoring the tangibility of these places and stories as she encounters them, Okonkwo models a form of historical interrogation that exposes the vitality and urgency of bygone events, which can be used to complicate understanding of present states.

Such an approach is highlighted in another passage, when the writer describes a conversation that she and her fellow travellers had with a government official in Yola, Adamawa State. Okonkwo recalls the official arguing that ‘one of Nigeria’s big problems is that we have built powerful individuals and weak institutions’ (p.24). While the writer finds this formulation to be a ‘brilliant summation of Nigeria’s greatest challenges’ (p.24), I would argue that her narrative – and the Invisible Borders initiative from which it sprang – show the creative arts pushing back against this damaging tendency. Fostering dynamic collaborations and collectives between practitioners, Okonkwo and her fellow artists institute urgent and humane engagements with Nigeria’s contemporary condition that open vital portals to its implacable past.

^This is the first part in a series of reviews that will be published in the coming weeks.

Matthew Lecznar is an independent researcher based in London. He recently completed his PhD in English Literature at the University of Sussex, where he explored artistic legacies of the Nigeria-Biafra war in a range of textual, visual and performance media. He has held research fellowships at the National Museum of African Art in Washington DC and Iwalewahaus in Bayreuth, and has published articles on contemporary Nigerian art and literature in journals including Research in African Literatures, Tate Papers and Wasafiri.

Cover photo credit: Maud Gauquelin