Going places, seeing things, writing back

by Tolu Ogunlesi
Nigerians have been migrating to Britain for several decades. There was a wave of migration starting around the 1930s/1940s, which has continued more or less steadily since then, driven by a quest for education, and for a better life. The outflow to America followed that of Britain, but is today a significant one as well.
In light of this, the question pops up: Why would one be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of non-fiction narratives written by Nigerians – and Africans generally – about their travel experiences abroad (Europe and America)?
Notice I specifically mention “non-fiction”. The fiction of the immigrant experience is alive and well. Over the last decade or so it has burgeoned into a major subset of contemporary literature. Writing last month in Newsweek, Jennie Yabroff, in an article on Ethiopian novelist Dinaw Mengistu noted that this is “a time when some of [America’s] most powerful, and popular, stories are narrated by foreigners…”
Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale readily comes to mind; the tale of a transplanted Nigerian adrift in his new world (America). Chimamanda Adichie’s stories also; of Nigerians getting their things and leaving (to paraphrase Dambudzo Marechera) for America, to stake a claim to what often turns out to be no more than a stale slice of an overvalued Dream.
It‘s the same in England: countless stories of immigrants negotiating language and culture differences as they attempt to settle to British life. The space between Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956) and Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2009) is far from sparsely populated.
But non-fiction remains largely unexplored territory. Where are the books in which African travellers record their impressions and experiences, in the same manner in which European and American writers have built up a genre of non-fiction (travelogue/cultural observations) books about Africa?
The reason for this may be obvious: unlike the white man who came to Africa as Conqueror, the African often went in the other direction bound in what one might call a capsule of diminished privilege, which leaves little room for the sort of deliberate, painstaking accretion of material that underpins any serious non-fiction project.
It is easier, it seems, to turn to the Imagination – arguably the spine of the Fictional Narrative – and generously employ the permission it grants fiction writers to take maximum creative license with material from reality.
Non-fiction books, it appears, are hardly ever recorded on a whim. They are often Deliberate Projects, in which the writer sets forth specifically to absorb and accumulate stories and images and impressions and arguments and counter-arguments for the book. Africans travelling abroad rarely get that privilege it seems. The reasons for leaving home are more often than underpinned by Compulsion (the slave trade centuries ago, or exile today) or an aspiration for betterment – academic degrees, better jobs and more comfortable lives.
As things stand Compulsion leaves little room for any significant creative undertaking, and even when it does, Fiction greedily claims the space, perhaps because it provides the sort of escape hatch (from an uncomfortable Reality) that non-fiction could never hope to provide.
Two or so years ago Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, already in his late seventies, set out to visit half a dozen countries in Africa. His mission, to compile material for a new book on traditional religious beliefs on the continent. He must have spent no more than a few months in total – but has gone ahead to write a book that will, by virtue of its author and subject, automatically take a place of importance in any Serious Conversation concerning literature about Africa.
So Naipaul comes to Africa to write about Africa. Now let’s ask ourselves this question: what is the likelihood of an important African writer attempting that Naipaulian task, but with a Western setting/subject: setting forth on a journey to explore and write about, say blighted English towns (or, to put it in another way, the disturbing blighted-ness of significant swathes of England), or the unprepossessing underbelly of America’s creaking Capitalist Machine.
Not likely to happen, one imagines. I wonder why? Might it be partly because the English, or Americans would not be interested in having an outsider tell them about themselves in anything other than fiction? Would non-fiction cut too close to the bone for comfort?
Will non-fiction books about Africa sell more than the ones about the West (written by outsiders) because those who will buy the books in the numbers necessary to render the publishing venture profitable are far more eager to lap up tales of strange, distant places that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the lives they live; than they are to read about their own lands?
Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa, recently deceased Nigerian Professor of Education, who gained three degrees (Bachelors, Masters and a doctorate) in the United States in the late 1940s to early 1950s published, in 2003, an account of his years in America, ‘To America and Back Alive.’
In the early 1960s the Nigerian poet, dramatist and critic, JP Clark, then only in his early twenties, wrote ‘America, Their America’, an account of a disastrous sojourn to the United States. “Disastrous” because before the end of the Fellowship that took him to the US he was expelled from the programme, for not taking his Fellowship obligations very seriously. America, their America is an African’s self-assured critique of America; and a not-very-flattering one at that; not the kind of book one would expect those at the receiving end, the Americans, to welcome. (Might it have been more acceptable had Clark written a novel instead of a journal?)
Last year at an event in Nairobi I listened to a Kenyan writer tell the story of a (Kenyan) friend of his who spent six months living in, or perhaps merely wandering through, Asia. The writer says he asked the wanderer if he’d created any written record of his journey. The answer, as you’d expect, was no. He hadn’t. He simply went, saw and returned; nothing written, nothing recorded.
Nigerians are often like that Kenyan. We travel far and wide, but often do no more than seek out well-worn sightseers’ paths, where we pose for photos – we manage to get this done in between hopping from mall to mall; shopping and/or window-shopping. Few consider it important to document the journeys they have made, to assay and interpret their experiences for the wider world.
Even fewer would take a journey merely for the purposes of writing about it. And while there’s an entire library of non-fiction books written by participants on the US Peace Corps programme books, the same cannot be said of the ‘Technical Aid Corps’ which is roughly the Nigerian equivalent (sending Nigerian professionals to African and Caribbean countries on two-year tours of duty).
Why are we content to travel without giving much thought to that which we see and experience, other than superficial observations that lazily compare the places we visit with Nigeria? Why are we unconcerned about documenting – in an illuminating manner – our own ways of seeing these strange and foreign places.
Might it be that we see nothing worthy of writing about?
I’m hoping this article would start a conversation about the horribly skewed balance of non-fictional stories and narratives in the world today. And for all I know, I may be totally mistaken in my assumptions that Africans are not writing enough non-fiction about the foreign worlds they encounter.
Perhaps those books are being written, but there are no publishers. Or perhaps there are even a good number of those books in print, which I’m ignorant of. If you know one or two that have been written, kindly recommend them. And please share your thoughts on this.