Pelu Awofeso: Nigeria’s foremost travel writer
Pelu Awofeso seems like a man you’d like to have round for dinner, if like me you believe wisdom is wealth. That wisdom, as the African saying goes “is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it.” Not even Pelu Awofeso can, but this rare gem is on a mission to embrace as much of it as possible and more importantly to pass it on to others. This son of Africa and a former Winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Award (Tourism) is Nigeria’s foremost travel writer and curator of all that should be celebrated about Nigerian culture. His travelogues on Nigeria will fill you with awe. Pelu Awofeso may have started out in journalism, but he is more of a gift, perhaps not even to you and I, but to posterity – the beautiful ones not yet born. They are the ones who will one day boldly stand on his shoulders to chart their own way in the world armed with a better appreciation of their heritage. It was an absolute pleasure to find out a bit more about Pelu, the awareness he creates on his blog Waka-about and the brilliant work he does with his company, TravelNextDoor which specialises in travel, holidays and adventure trips. He is also the author of Tour of Duty: Journeys around Nigeria.
What triggered your passion for travel?
As I have said a number of times previously: it was the breathtaking landscape of Jos, capital of Plateau State in Nigeria’s North-Central region. After graduating from the university, I was posted there by the government to spend the mandatory one year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Having lived most of my life in Lagos and the southwest, seeing those awesome outcrops and experiencing the accompanying temperate climate made an impression on me; my immediate instinct was to share all of these sights—in writing and in photographs—with Nigerians who perhaps had never been to the city before or who didn’t know a place that calm and striking existed in the country.
Tell us about Nigeria as a travel destination.
Nigeria is possibly the most maligned country and destination on the globe. It is often painted in news reports and commentaries in the most unflattering perspectives; it may not necessarily be so, but sometimes it feels like a gang-up by The West and the rest of the world to continue to underplay all that is inspiring about Nigeria. The bashing and one-sided view is so unrelenting to the point that even Nigerians believe the narrative and have lost all appreciation of the good in their own country.
A proverb in Yoruba land advise that it is wrong to describe the dwelling of one’s father with the left hand—that is practically what Nigerians do, and I have spent all of my years as a travel writer to try to counter all of the nay-saying.
You only need to dig into the archives to see that Nigeria has always been an attraction for travellers and adventurers; during the colonial years, British officers in various locations around the country recorded how pleasant and hospitable the indigenes they met and lived with were. Post-independence, these qualities remain and travellers to Nigeria nowadays are shocked that what they see on the ground—the people, the culture, the lifestyle—is the complete opposite of what the media had led them to believe.
What can I expect as a foreign traveller to Nigeria?
A lot, really; whatever your interests, you will find them here. Nigeria is predominantly a cultural destination, so culture vultures will love it here; we have some of the most fascinating festivals (Durbar, Igue, Eyo and Ofala to name only a few) anywhere in Africa. Nigeria also happens to be the entertainment capital of Africa: think of Nollywood, African hip-hop and nightlife—we have them locked down. If nature is what you seek, Nigeria has a long stretch of unspoiled natural environments. The list is endless, really.
You are undoubtedly one of Africa’s foremost travel journalists. What challenges and joys do you experience as you travel and write about this vast country?
One of my challenges is wishing to document so many stories around the country but not having sufficient resources to do so; a second challenge is trying to convince Nigerians, without succeeding much, that some of the best tourist attractions anywhere in the world are in their backyard. When you realize that domestic tourism is still largely non-existent, you will appreciate my frustration sometimes.
My joys have come from taking tourists on excursions and tours around areas of their interests and seeing them realize just how fun and fulfilling their trip to Nigeria has been. At the end of the tours, you could see the satisfaction in their eyes, a complete about-turn from the uncertainty and anxiety they started out with. Most recently, an African-American tourist I guided around Lagos—from Badagry all the way to Epe—told me point blank: “I’m going to miss Nigeria when I leave.” I can’t find the right words to describe how good that makes me feel. But it is nothing short of elation.
What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had on your travels?
I would say it happened sometime in 2004 during the bi-centenary celebration of the Sokoto Caliphate in North-Western Nigeria. I was then the Arts and Travel Correspondent of a Pan-African magazine (Africa Today), so I was asked to go over and cover the celebrations. I went beyond the normal call of duty and set out to follow in the footsteps of the founder of the Caliphate, Uthman Dan Fodio; that quest took me across the border to neighbouring Kebbi State and into a couple of interior towns, where no other journalist bothered to go. At some point, I tracked a subject down to his house at night and we conducted the interview barely seeing each other’s faces. To date, I still don’t know what kept me going to such lengths. The story I wrote from that assignment, and the supporting research, remains one of the most demanding of my career.
Lagos is probably the most well-known Nigerian city. How would you, as a Nigerian, describe the temperament of this mega city?
Lagos is tough and rough, but in that toughness and roughness lie some of its magic, its license to thrill. If you find yourself the right locals, or guides, the city will show you why it is Nigeria’s preeminent fun factory.
Most successful travel writers these days tend to be egotistical and self-indulgent in their coverage of a place. I call it the “look at me do a travel jump for Instagram” crowd. I actually believe it works as the herd mentality kicks in and readers flock to do the same jump in the same place! Is this phenomenon in Nigeria yet?
None that I am aware of—we are slow in picking up with trends in the global travel landscape. Remember, Nigeria’s tourism is in its infancy—it will take a while and a lot to cultivate such a herd at this point.
If I were to ask the average Nigerian teenager if they’d like to be a news reporter, an entertainment blogger or follow in your footsteps into travel journalism, especially the sort that curates Nigeria’s heritage, what direction are they likely to go into and why?
From observing the trend in recent times, I would say without a doubt that most would rather pursue entertainment, fashion and/ or style blogging: as you will know yourself, those are the sort of engagements that offer the quickest route to fame and influence. And that’s pretty much what teenagers and young adults crave nowadays. They would leave the thankless task of curating Nigeria’s heritage to endangered species like me.
Lastly, there is such a romance with food when people travel. Which part of Nigeria will you recommend I visit just so I could sample its local food?
Every locality in Nigeria has got finger-licking, great cuisine. I would say for soups, go to the south-east and south-south; for street snacks, the south-west. And if you are a die-hard foodie, there is a galaxy of options to sample in Northern Nigeria.
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