- Title: Route 234
- Editor: Pelu Awofeso
- Publisher: Homestead Media
- Number of pages: 212
- Year of publication: 2016
- Category: Travel
Travel writing is an exciting sub-genre of prose that allows readers view the beauty or ugliness of different places through the subjective lenses of the writer. Though it is not as popular as fiction, various writers have explored it across time. While in earlier times, it was the narratives of white explorers about the continent as seen in works like the narratives of Mungo Park, there are now more works by African travellers about Africa. A ready example of a current work is Sihle Khumalo’s Dark Continent, My Black Arse, an often humorous account of Khumalo’s journey from the Cape to Cairo using different means of public transport. There are also blogs these days, such as Black Girl Wanderlust and Zuru Kenya where people explore their views of new lands and places of interest. It is into this ever widening body of writing that the anthology, Route 234, falls.
Route 234 is an anthology of global travel writing by Nigerian Arts and Culture journalists. There are twenty-three essays written by fifteen popular and award-winning journalists, including Molara Wood, Steve Ayorinde, Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Jahman Anikulapo and the editor, Pelu Awofeso.
The title and cover give an idea of the thrust of the book. The reader can easily deduce that the title is derived from the Nigerian international dialling code, +234. The cover has a map with symbols for the places on which the various essays are written. What is significant is that there is an arrow issuing from Nigeria to these other places, showing that the writing is from Nigeria to those places. As the reader goes through the book, they discover that the essays are arranged by the countries and continents they discuss, such that all the essays on the United States of America follow each other, next to essays on Latin America, and so on. The reader can therefore vicariously navigate contiguous terrains before moving to a different region of the globe. The essays cover America, Brazil, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, India, England, France, Germany and Denmark. From workshops to literary festivals and plain tourist adventures, the writers give various descriptions, some entertaining, others informative, some adventurous and others bland.
Kole Ade-Odutola opens the collection with his ‘American Wonder’ (p 1), which is written in the style of an elder brother giving advice to a younger sibling on what to expect in Uncle Sam’s land. After the generally summarised view of the dos and don’ts of America, he concludes by leaving the reader ‘in the company of Arts Writers of Nigeria for a fest of words and thoughts’ (p 6) thus ushering readers on to the rest of the book and the travel accounts therein.
Spicing up the American narrative is Olumide Iyanda with the essay, ‘Clubbing in Los Angeles’, which ranks as one of the more entertaining pieces in the anthology. Iyanda’s narrative is based on a trip to Los Angeles in February 2007 but hinges on a barman, Rafael, whom the narrator befriends on the journey. Rafael is a jolly fellow who entertains Iyanda while also showing good nature. Through their friendship, Iyanda sees the beauty of a nation in ways that go beyond its geography or famous people. Or how else to account for someone who travels for the Pan African Film Festival not mentioning a single film (except in passing, when he talks of Kunle Afolayan)? Not surprisingly, at the end he notes that ‘Countries are great not because of great politicians or policy makers but ordinary people who touch you in extraordinary ways’ (p 15).
Olayinka Oyegbile’s ‘Lost in Atlanta’ is one of the minor essays in the collection. It talks about a day on which the author goes out to get lost in the city of Atlanta, during a three-month journalism workshop. He notes that in Europe or America, it is hard to lose one’s way since roads are well-paved and labelled and there are always people to help you find your way. This he contrasts with most cities in Africa, where street name signs have either fallen or been turned to graffiti boards by residents or council officials. The narrative seems to have a lot of repetition, particularly in the introduction where the author struggles to build a background to how he finally found a way to explore Atlanta. At many points, the narrator compares Atlanta to Nigeria and Africa, where a lot of things do not work, with no public parks, either for relaxation or for cars. Everything works in Atlanta and the reader can almost see the adoring gaze of the narrator whose descriptions indicate a near slavish adoration of the city. The essay ends with the author seeing a big dog that scares him. It turns out the dog is friendly and lovely, like everything in America, unlike the dogs at home that are unfriendly security guards.
In the next essay, Steve Ayorinde writes of a film festival in Gambia, focusing on a film, Ezra, and its maker, Newton Aduaka. Ayorinde notes that although the film wins an award, there are few government officials or representatives to celebrate it. There are comparisons between the film festivals in Burkina Faso, Gambia and the ‘meetings of filmmakers that are being touted as film festivals in Nigeria’ (p 65).
The reader will note a common thread through several essays in the book, which is the tendency of some of the authors to compare Nigeria and Africa unfavourably with more developed countries, mainly propagating the view that nothing works in Africa. This calls for a reconsideration of what the reader might have thought was the preserve of Western and colonial writers, who praised their lands while looking down on other lands and their ‘natives’. There is hardly any balance in such narratives.
Jahman Anikulapo’s ‘The Accra Mystic’ (p 79) centres on the journey of a certain ‘Dejo’ to Accra, Ghana. Through a third person narrative propelled by Dejo’s visit, readers are treated to a Ghana where everything works and even a taxi driver is honest, as opposed to the normal ‘Lagos’ person. Dejo discovers a telephone booth in the lobby of a school hostel and is shocked, noting that this would have been impossible to find in his country. Kafui, Dejo’s colleague, says that soon every household in Ghana would have a telephone, which Dejo finds incredible. The story ends with Dejo calling Emeka, an old classmate who is in the Netherlands, whom he has not been able to call from Nigeria due to the poor telephone network coverage. They talk about how bad things are in Nigeria and the beauty of Ghana. There are more lamentations on the Nigerian situation as seen through the misfortunes of Emeka and his parents. The reader will get a feeling after reading the essay that only a select part has been told and that there is far more that could have been said, which the author, for whatever reason, decides to withhold. Interestingly, Tunde Aremu in the next essay, ‘Ghana’s Other Side’, shows a different picture of Ghana that would help a reader who might think that Ghana is a land of milk and honey find balance.
African pride glows in Eyitayo Aloh’s ‘Exploring Bahia’, where the writer travels to Brazil and finds an African flavour ‘that cannot be found anywhere else outside the coast of Africa’ (p 27). The city of Bahia is also famous for the spots where Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Really Care about Us’ video was shot, as we are told in the narrative. The narrator finds Yoruba culture on Brazilian soil, where he goes to give a lecture on Fela. What is more, he makes friends with Carlos Moore, Fela’s official biographer. In Aloh’s writing, the reader gets a feel of this land where Yoruba culture, religion and mythology are an everyday reality. However, there is still that air of a strange difference that keeps the writer from fully becoming a part of the place.
One easily notes, from the foregoing, that the essays are written about foreign places as seen through Nigerian eyes, with the exception of Nseobong Okon-Ekong’s ‘Trekking the Mambilla Plateau’ (p 93), an hinterland journey to one of the coldest places in Nigeria, located in Sardauna Local Government Area of Taraba State. The author uses the greater part of a fairly long essay to describe the terrain that is Sardauna Local Government, its administrative heads, people, traditions and general feel of the area. When the reader is suitably conditioned to the imagery built by the author, the narrative changes into a first person rendition of the author’s visit.
While describing his experiences though, Okon-Ekong wears the toga of a tourist/historian spicing his narrative with local knowledge that would open the mental eyes of any reader to the beauty of the place. Indeed, the reader will find out the truth behind the very first lines of the essay, that the ‘Mambilla Plateau is not one of those quick-fix destinations you get to and then decide to leave in [sic] a whim’ (p 94). Okon-Ekong’s essay imparts a sense of wonder in the beauty of that part of Nigeria and breeds a desire for more writing that explores more of the country. There is the air one notes in the awestruck tone of the essay, written by someone from Nigeria about another place in Nigeria that he is new to. In essence, though geographically he is a member of the same entity as the people of the Mambilla Plateau, it is foreign in many ways and he can enjoy the beauty of the place as a Nigerian visitor.
Molara Wood’s two contributions to the anthology stand out, painting a picture of the places she talks about while building history into her narratives. She also does not leave her prejudices out as she imposes her views as someone who is conscious of the beauty and dignity of black people as well as the pride of being a woman. In ‘Farewell to Juffureh’ (p 35), the reader takes a journey with Wood to The Gambia, seeking the home place of Kunta Kinte, as made popular by Alex Haley in Roots. ‘Ol Ari Nyiro’ (p 115), her second offering, is an exploration of the Ol Ari Nyiro Nature Conservancy in West Laikipia, Northern Kenya. Wood writes with the eye of the natural tourist about these lands in Africa. What is notable in both essays is that the places in question are places whose institutions and peoples are more used to white tourists. There is this sense of ‘what would a black person want to look at in this black populated area’? We get to see what in the tone of excitement in the description of these places as well as the institutions behind them and the black tourist view that Wood emphasises in these essays.
In Wood’s essays, as in Okon-Ekong’s, history, geography and beauty come to life. The reader will learn a lot from the narratives, enjoy the experiences of the author, which are largely adventurous, fun-filled and deliberate in the sense that the writer set out to travel to certain places for the sake of tourism. In these essays, one also gets to see that there is a big gap between the African in the beautiful scenery of nature and the modern, cosmopolitan jungles that most African cities have become. This cosmopolitan characteristic is also hinted at in the views of most of the other writers, in essays that show writers who could have been from any part of the world enjoying or partaking of the wonder of new cities that they have found themselves in. That said, some of the essays lack opening fluidity or proper closure. There are essays that start abruptly and end in the same way.
On the whole, these essays by Nigerians about the places they have visited, the thrill and the beauty of those destinations, would do wonders for any black reader. The reader will feel a kinship with these writers and can almost claim these narratives from a near native point of view. The wonder of these writers about other places that they have not been to before opens the reader’s eyes to the diversity of the globe. The essays on Africa show how different we are and how far apart our cultures are, despite our shared geographical boundaries and pigmentation.
The example of the essays in this volume should encourage the novice writer – travel writing is not so technical a genre and ought to become more common as a mode of self-expression, whether in blogs or other formats, as long as the tales of places are recorded to show beauty in every way possible.
As a serious work of travel writing, Route 234 scores high, showing other lands and climes from the perspectives of various seasoned journalists. Those who are strictly looking for a book of adventures or action would have to content themselves with the few flashes of it found in only a few essays in Route 234 or they should just look for another book.
Photograph: ‘SANY0042’ by jonathan.mahady
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