Nigerians Travel: Travel Beyond National Geographic

Richard Ali

Nigeria

The fondest memories of my childhood were preceded by the phrase “Let’s go on a drive,” an open sesame always spoken by my father. It was all we needed to pile into his trusty old maroon red Volvo 244 DL; three barely spaced kids in the back, one mother, who always had food ready for the trip, beside him. Jos in those days was a resort town perched 4300 feet above sea level, a cosmopolis created between the tin mines and a railway terminus. Those drives never had a set destination. We would leave our house and just drive, my eyes on the window, watching the rocks and the grass, writing the names of towns we passed on a sheet of paper. The possibility of us losing our way was always present, a menu option best ignored. Each time though, we would find a spot perfect for a picnic and sit under the shade of a tree, or by running water, or in the farm of a new friend my father had made, and eat our meal before heading back home. This, of course, was the travel. I locate my love for travel, the core of the onion of my nomad tendencies, in those years and that magic phrase of my childhood.

In secondary school, still atop the Jos Plateau in Nigeria, the diplomat mother of a schoolmate donated several years of National Geographic magazines she had accumulated during her tours. A small ceremony was held at the Assembly one morning and the school library immediately possessed perhaps a hundred colourful magazines about travel, that self-same thing I had done all through the previous fourteen years with my family. The school library became my haven. I spent the rest of that term and the next reading one issue after another. I was a socially awkward teen and the fact of entering into such interesting lives and places so far away was intriguing.  I remember, to this day, a piece about Borneo in the Pacific and its flying snakes because of the incongruity of it to my mind and how the name Borneo sounded like Borno, a state in north-eastern Nigeria.

Inevitably, the question of where Nigeria was in all those magazines posed itself. Precisely, how come there was no article on the Jos Wildlife Park and the majestic Shere Hills mountain range outside the city, standing nearly 2000 metres above sea level? Where was my own Ahmadu Bello Way, and its intimate little streets with colonial names and sudden, surprising architecture? And the people, who could be counted on for a smile and a glass of water, where were they? In those hundred odd editions, there was not a single piece on Nigeria, and my native Jos might as well not have existed. There were a number of stories on “Africa”, which meant Kenya and Tanzania often than not, which I was grateful to read in the way one identifies with a bracket, even if those countries are twice the length of the United States away from me. Much later on, when I arrived university and had a broader conception of world history and where, I, African, fit into it, I would frame the question more brutally: If my experience counts, why has it not been written about?

Still in secondary school, it took a while for me to realize that travel was a style of writing and that anyone who dared could, that anywhere at all could be the legitimate subject of travel writing. My exposure to the National Geographic in that period created a problem I call the hegemony of what-is-known. To my mind, the National Geographic was the only travel magazine in the world and I was certain I had no chance to make a case for the inclusion of Jos and southern Kaduna and the places of wonder I had seen on a drive with my family.  For one thing, the magazine was published in America, an impossible place where my father’s TIME and Newsweek, and all the films not Bollywood, came from. I decided to do something about the lack of my familiar in the magazines. By my senior year, I had already started writing poems and essays, had the draft of a novel in several exercise books, fancied myself a ‘man of letters’, a description Lenin gave of himself which thoroughly fascinated me. I had also read Chinua Achebe’s famous quote: “If you do not like someone’s stories, write your own”.

When the opportunity of a school trip to the Yankari Game Reserve came up in my sixth year, I decided to write a travelogue. I armed myself with a note pad and writing materials, and made sure to get a window seat. At the last minute, the school allowed the students a year behind mine join in the trip. We got along just as well as first and seconds sons get along, barely. This made for a crowded school bus in which the two classes largely kept to themselves.

Emmanuel College was located in Rayfield, a part of Jos then being opened up to the city’s elite, so cold at night that when the rattling of the windows woke you up you saw the cold itself as a malevolence in the distance coming for you. Closing my eyes now is the remapping of lost places. On reaching the main road, at a tee junction leading to the Governor’s house, we turn right and soon pass the staff quarters of the moribund steel rolling mills where my friend K., whose uncle was shot after an abortive military coup, lived. Then over a narrow bridge that routinely saw accidents. Sibancho junction followed, named for a hospital that closed over a decade ago. Beside it used to be a bar called Gold & Base, just by the Nigerian Air Force Station. We take the bypass instead of heading to Old Airport junction. The Tauheed Islamic school some of my friends attended squats to the right; the Abattoir police station where my cousin spent the night once for borrowing his mother’s car without having let her know on the left; the abattoir itself with its sad cattle and old buildings. I keep my eyes straight as the bus passes right by the compound I lived for a time, with its broken redbrick fence of which I always felt ashamed. All these places are gone now and if I had not lived there, walked there, made my escapades there, they might not even have existed. Just like, today, I cannot carry across the immensity of the Jos Terminus market, with its huge yellow spangles, to young people, how it was a market of 23 “streets” that I knew like the back of my hand. In the lore of Jos, the market was bombed during one of the ethno-religious crisis. What we do know is that it burned down overnight and has not been rebuilt, a reminder that Jos is a wounded cosmopolis, the haunted shell of that market its prominent scar.

The Yankari Game Reserve is located in the neighbouring Bauchi State and to get there, we had to pass by the University of Jos, which I had expected to attend until, on a whim, I chose instead the oldest university in northern Nigeria, located at Zaria. The one-hour drive to the Bauchi state capital was uneventful once we cleared the Jos city limits, nor was the city of Bauchi itself impressive in any way. The road went bad quick after Bauchi, the ruts making a jiggy dance of the journey. The SS2 students had a radio playing in the front of the bus. Central Nigeria is the range of the great guinea savannah, dry grass interspersed by lean, tall trees that had to sway with the wind if they wanted to grow.  It took two hours of hard driving along the Bauchi—Gombe road, crossing the river Gongola which is a tributary of the mighty Benue, before we were met by the imposing gate of the reserve, a looping arch with the massive, carved head of a water buck looking down at us. On both sides of which was denser vegetation leading up to the Camp.

The reserve is known for its Wikki Warm Springs—a natural wonder caused by water getting in contact with hot subterranean rocks. The Wikki spring itself is clear green and always at the optimum bathing temperature. We “discovered” the pool the next morning and we spent a few hours splashing about. I learned to float on that trip, and much to the shame of my riverine ancestors, I was content to flatten my torso on the surface and let the water bear me for a few feet. I watched the others with some envy, the boys impressing the girls, the girls yelling and, I, self-appointed chronicler, trying to enter everything at the same time.

We piled unto a sturdy Bedford tour truck, open at the back. It had wooden seats cased in some black plastic and handrails the better to maintain balance as the guide told us the story of the park: Its size, the material remains of an Iron Age culture and later, I was to discover in other reading, an artificial water system built by the predecessors of today’s Nigerians. There are five warm springs in the Yankari Game Reserve and we stopped at a second one, named Delimi, to stretch a bit. We had been driving for nearly an hour and apart from several majestic waterbuck, who showed not the least interest in us, we had seen no animals. The guide apologized; it was not the best time of day, he said, as most animals were asleep. I stood by the embankment of a small concrete bridge and felt immense freedom to stand there looking at a warm spring that pre-Nigerians, perhaps from the Nok civilization that had thrived in the area from 1000 BC to 500AD, had looked upon. I was fourteen then and might not have known it but that feeling of heady lightness came from rootedness, a sense of stillness amidst the chaos of a life and the tumble of years and generations that says: I am here, I have always been here.

There were no lions, so the sense of adolescent disappointment was prevalent in my tour truck. We did however spot a herd of elephants far in the distance, said to be on their way to the Congo as a part of their yearly migrations. Not a few of us that day wondered if we should not have stayed back at Wikki Camp. That last evening though, baboons, which we called Wikki Monkeys, came down from the trees and stole our meal off the fire, which more than made up for the morning safari from which I alone took something important.

Every single detail of that excursion went into my notebook and eventually, into the piece I wrote on return to school. After going through several drafts, I, pleased with myself, handed it over to the Librarian who read it and was very, very kind. I asked him if it was as good as the essays in the National Geographic and he said, yes, most definitely. I remember him fondly, a light-skinned, quiet man who hated any noise in his library. In hindsight, of course, the travelogue was probably no good. But the lesson of Yankari would return to me a decade later, the necessity to bear witness to things seen, felt, perceived, to mediate in the human story of places and experiences because you too are here and have always been here.

***

Secondary school was nearly twenty years ago, and those early travels “on a drive” that opened my eyes to the world around me are nearly three decades old. But, the issue of Nigeria being quite lost in contemporary global travel writing remains. Nigeria simply is not on the list of destinations for the stars of travel writing. This is not from a want of natural beauty and sights unseen, the material for a travel writer. Nor is it a paucity of writers or a failing in texture of indigenous cultures or the lack of potential for adventure. Instead, it is, rather, the issue of access.

Recently, the National Geographic apologized for racist framing of its stories over decades, in some of those editions I read second-hand as a teenager. In the aftermath of that mea culpa, several instances of this othering and exoticization have been highlighted. The “victims” have thus far been places not in the West. There are, of course, bigger issues at stake. Beneath the apology lies, to my mind, an entire submerged iceberg of self-reinforcing perceptions that have gone nowhere. This, for example, still assigns to Africa an identification with the ‘safari experience’ and generally ignores everything else, even in the East Africa where the safari is set. What about the lives of people, the ways they build their houses and how their languages create the world? This is also the stuff of travel writing when it comes from the mind to explore, meditate, and mediate with respect for the local, in a bid to distil and communicate universal experience. The National Geographic Society is of course a creature of the times in which it was birthed, when anthropology was weaponized to civilize parts of the world by destroying their fabric.

Beyond the safari, the rest of the African continent barely exists. This “Africa” is, of course, a destination at the furthest macro level. In just one corner, nestled amidst over fifty other countries, is Nigeria—a million square kilometres straddling five ranges of vegetation, 250 ethnic groups, principal drainage basin of the Niger, one of the world’s mightiest rivers. Art from 1000 BC was left by the Nok civilization; monoliths that no one knows by who built and for what purpose stand in Ikom to the far south. Empires, kingdoms and city-states have risen and fallen, facing the desert, facing the sea, and left a rich corpus of experiences in plain sight to be entered into.  Multiply that by fifty other countries to see what the great injustice of institutional ignoring of these narratives is. Now, acknowledgment and apologies are important, but I do not think it does anything to un-submerge that iceberg. It might be thawing a little bit, but it’s still there. My SS3 school travelogue on the Yankari Game Reserve was thus a pot-shot with a pea shooter at an infantry drill, and decades before its time. It remains to be seen whether the National Geographic will follow its apology by commissioning and publishing more pieces by Africans and “people of colour” moving forward. Not as tokenist, conciliatory efforts but as authentic and legitimate travel writing, to apologize to its readers for denying them access for so long.

In this edition of Panorama: the Journal of Intelligent Travel, the city of Ibadan in south-western Nigeria is featured in the Triptych series. Three writers travel the Ibadan urbanscape in a lived, matter-of-fact way. This is important.  Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke invokes the way the familiar can suddenly become overwhelming when we try to share it with others, showing how while not everything is new, everywhere can be written in refreshing new ways, so they can be seen by new eyes. Olubunmi Familoni contrasts the very essence of Ibadan, which he describes as sleepy, with the never-sleeping megalopolis that is Lagos. Yet he is able to touch the texture of the place in the drivers of 1980’s Nisan Micra taxis drinking their breakfast along with chewing sticks in the morning, in the liveliness of a local bar. David Ishaya Osu’s piece is contrarian but, like Tope’s, it references the most famous Nigerian poem—J. P. Clark’s Ibadan—while he critiques the lack of his idea of modernity. Between these three short narratives emerges nuanced and unsentimental portraiture of a city founded as a war camp during the Yoruba Civil Wars in the mid-19th century.

In the last few years, long preceding the National Geographic’s change of heart, a number of travel writing platforms have emerged within and outside the continent. These have harnessed the potential of the internet as well as more traditional formats. This writing has been housed in Rwandair in-flight magazines and Lagos-based blogs, it has been written by hijab-wearing Tanzanian women in Dar es Salaam who hike up the Kilmanjaro, a Kenyan girl living in Dakar, a Nairobi taxi driver. Unlike the bewilderment I felt when looking for my familiar narratives twenty years ago, todays writing of Africa is not lost in emphasis. It is inescapable to the seeker, resilient and thriving What has changed is the gradual democratization of access. With this, writers from African countries are taking their agency back from the ideological complex that made the framing of the National Geographic possible and that still important and definitive platform’s consequent apology necessary. In writing about our stories, as the Nigerian and other stories gathered in this issue do, I make known what is familiar by pluralizing myself and sharing it.

My Nigeria, which the world does not see, straddles near aridity, three types of savannah and rain forest and mangrove swamps. It is fifteen ways to make a saddle, a hundred ways to dress a bride, a thousand gods attended by elaborate festivals. travel writer is a crucial passport, mirror and window. Travel within Nigeria has increased dramatically in the last decade, including everything from weeklong group trips to daylong hikes outside city limits to solo excursions into nature. No longer are London, Paris or New York the centres of imaginaries as these have been displaced by the Ikogosi Warm Springs, the Yankari Game Reserves, the Obudu Mountain Resort and other locales.  That said, a contributory reason might be the sheer difficulty in getting visas to the more exotic places, the cost of such trips and the potential for humiliation for being both Black and carrying a Nigerian travel document. So we write about what we most have access to, and have grown confident in doing this.

My essay in response to the seclusion of my familiar places from the National Geographic was defiance to what is framed to stay lost in the international intercourse of culture. In the sense of my locality, teeming with narratives of travel, which the world could not see because it was structurally occluded. Today, what I see from my peers is statement, saying in piece after piece that we are here and can, indeed, speak. In writing, about Jos and Yankari, Garoowe, Nakuru and Ngongare, taking voyages to the Igala and the Yacouba cultures, a staking out, a statement is being made. These new makers of statement thus explode the hegemony that creates subaltern positions and has a necessity for it. Then, ignoring the rubble entirely, they present themselves.




Richard Ali is a Nonfiction Editor of Panorama.