PELU AWOFESO: ON CLEANING UP OUR BEACHES
Pelu Awofeso is an author, travel journalist, publishing entrepreneur and environmental activist. In 2010, he placed first in the tourism category of the CNN Multichoice African Journalists Award. He Awofeso started out as a freelance columnist for the state-owned The Standard newspaper in Jos (Plateau State), after which he moved to Africa Today as an arts and travel correspondent, Network Africa (as Editor) and National Daily (as Travel Editor). In the past decade, he has written for both local and international publications, some of which include; World Policy Journal (US), Travel Intelligence (UK), 24A Media (Kenya) and NEXT (Nigeria). His most recent freelance engagements have been for thecable.ng, naij.com and WINGS (the inflight magazine for ARIK Air). Pelu Awofeso is also the founder and CEO at @TravelNextDoor (a broad-based leisure and activities company) and co-founder of Beach Samaritans (NGO set up to clean Nigerian beaches and create a cleaner, more habitable environment).
The subject of many media interviews, In 2009, he launched a solo travel project tagged The Beautiful Underbelly Tour, which saw him criss-cross 18 states in all of Nigeria’s six geographical regions. His stories and photographs from that 10-month journey are collected in his third travel book Tour of Duty. He previously published A Place Called Peace (a guidebook to Jos) and Nigerian Festivals. He has also edited an anthology of global travel writing by Nigerian writers, Route 234 and is currently working on his fourth travel book. Besides his books, Awofeso has also produced a documentary on the historic slave town of Badagry titled Badagry: A Journey Back in Time, and blogs regularly at wakaabout.online. In a career spanning nearly 15 years, he has travelled widely across 32 states in Nigeria, documenting several indigenous festivals and carnivals; his other travel interests include museums, monuments, nature, crafts and the daily pursuits of everyday Nigerians. Today, his work is the subject of a Doctoral dissertation on travel writing at the University of Birmingham.
Why did you choose to focus on travel journalism?
I would say that travel journalism chose me. I tie it to the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time—the physically stunning city of Jos, which many Nigerians have sadly not visited. I was in Plateau State for my national service and I stayed back afterwards to explore the capital and surrounding LGAs; so the only way I could share my unforgettable and immersive experiences of covering festivals and touring historical buildings, waterfalls and more, was to write about them. I was fortunate to have had a mentor, Mr Godwin Goyang, who arranged for me to write a weekly column for the state-owned newspaper, The Standard. That was my break into travel reporting. Nearly a decade and a half later, I still remember those days of little beginnings in the “Home of Peace and Tourism” and honestly long to return to the city where I honed my skills as a travel writer, to do more exploring and writing.
CNN MultiChoice 2010 Journalists awards in Kampala, Uganda
Pelu Awofeso winner in the Tourism category at the CNN/MultiChoice 2010 African Journalist Award for his stories: City of God and The Biafra of Bunkers
You attended the coronation of the new Oba of Benin. Please tell us a little about your experience.
It was a ceremony I knew I had to witness; I’m almost certain I would have fallen into depression if I missed it for any reason. Many people described it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the coronation of Oba Ewuare II. The last known coronation in the city took place in 1979. The actual coronation activities of the new king took place over a period of time, some of them away from public view, so what I saw with several thousands of Nigerians was the presentation of his staff of office. Even that was preceded by many of activities celebrating time-honoured traditions of the Binis. Standing in the midst of the crowd outside the centuries-old palace, I was happy to see a people proud of their heritage and share same with the rest of the world.
Did you also attend the coronation of the Ooni of Ife last year?
I missed that, sadly. It was the reason I planned not to miss the Benin coronation.
You started Travel Next Door to encourage people to undertake affordable journeys within Nigeria. What have your successes and challenges been?
You’re right. I started TravelNextDoor in January 2014 during the centenary celebrations. My aim was to get Nigerians, young people especially, to use that year as an excuse to explore their country, starting with villages and towns near where they live or work. Having travelled widely in Nigeria over the years in my early 20’s with a back space, I knew that many communities have all sorts of tourist attractions, which most don’t know about. So I was inspired to target the initiative at youths. I sensed that the average Nigerian youth was not adventurous, and that’s sad; they would rather ping and party. But I am seeing changes in that regard—young people are floating tour initiatives and encouraging their peers to travel to fascinating attractions.
In 2012, you unsuccessfully tried to partner with a local government area in Badagry to clean up beaches. What were the challenges?
The local government was receptive to the idea of cleaning the Gberefu Beach, which we always found dirty when we took tourists there. In 2012, we sent in a proposal, however, it stalled because some of the staff who deliberated on the document didn’t see any avenues to make money for themselves. There we were wanting to mobilise our friends, families and colleagues to clean up the dirty beach, which ought to be their responsibility in the first place, but some people thought it was a way to make easy money. We abandoned the idea altogether.
Why did you set up the NGO, Beach Samaritan and what have been the benefits so far?
It happened after the Badagry incident. In 2014, my partner on the project Ms. Adesola Alamutu, an environmental advocate of 16 years, decided to pick up from where we left off. We resolved to try out another beach location to clean, and so we visited some communities, in search. We ended up at Okun Alfa (Alpha Beach) community, where the Baale gave his blessings to the initiative. Consequently, we mobilized 100-plus volunteers in October 2014 to clean a section of the beach. I would say the benefits we have derived are in drawing government’s attention to the sad state of our beaches and educating the communities on how to better maximize the commercial opportunities they represent. We are also pleased that many volunteers learn about environmental preservation from our efforts. We have cleaned about nine beaches to date and look forward to getting more corporate buy-in so that we can do more for our dirty beaches.
In 2015 at the I-REP documentary film festival, your documentary Badagry: Journey Back in Time screened. What inspired it and have many people had access to it?
I have been a tour guide and operator for a couple of years, a spin off from my life as a travel journalist. Badagry happens to be our most frequent destination, and I have always thought I should do a documentary about the historic town. So I did just that, paying for a crew to follow one of our tours and conduct the necessary interviews. Many people are yet to see it but we are working on having it on the right online platforms, so many more interested persons can watch it.
You mentioned in one of your sessions that many of our national treasures, monuments and museums are in a state of disrepair. What solutions do you proffer?
We need to build more expertise in the preservation and restoration of artifacts, channel more resources to these facilities, and encourage the private sector to be involved in the funding. We need to encourage more Nigerians to visit them and contribute financially (via token donations) to their upkeep. So many awesome treasures are in museums nationwide, objects the West would plunder over again a la 1897 invasion of Benin Kingdom, if they had the slightest opportunities. It also doesn’t help that we still hold on to long abandoned models of museums and monuments management – banning photographs and so on.
National Museum Oron
Many times, trite statements that Nigerians have no sense of history sadly ring through. What do you think can be done to salvage the situation so we don’t lose everything?
It’s quite simple and it is what many commentators have suggested – ensure that history is a compulsory feature of the curriculum, from primary to tertiary. Make it more fun to learn. It’s a shame that many Nigerians grow up not knowing the most basic things about their motherland.
What is the potential of the Nigerian hospitality and tourism industry, are people just playing Lip service?
Nigeria has several hundreds of tourist attractions—festivals, landscapes, monuments, handcrafts, wildlife and so on. It is unbelievable that local, state and federal governments have ignored them for decades. While I lived in Jos, I was amazed by how many tourist attractions the state had documented in brochures, pamphlets and other materials; sadly, all that publicity was circulating mostly in the state and not outside, where it would have generated more interest. I reckoned that with all its tourist assets, Plateau State could earn a large chunk of revenue from tourist receipts. These attractions are there and the world would pay good money to experience them.
There are security concerns these days and people say it’s even safer and cheaper to travel out of Nigeria as tourists than to visit our own sites. Are you and others working to pressure the federal government to fix things or just carrying on with private ventures?
Nigeria is not as insecure as she is made to appear, and because of the current recession, Nigerians are now seeking opportunities to travel and vacation in places within Nigeria, which is a good development. I have always argued that every country of the world has security issues; you only need to look at the current situations in the United States, Turkey, France and perhaps Germany to appreciate that. But you know what? It has affected tourist visits to those countries, but many would still do anything to visit because there are several attractions to see. The issue with Nigeria is that we have not been able to manage our national image as well as those Western countries. Our embassies abroad should be one of our most active promotional outlets but that is not happening; we do not have Nigeria cultural centres anywhere in the world to promote our heritage and more—like there is Goethe-Institut, the French Cultural Centre and the British Council. Many of us have sold ideas to the government but they are never acknowledged or acted on.
In this economic recession, how do you suggest we boost our internal tourism?
By showcasing the local attractions more to Nigerians as perfect alternatives to attractions abroad. We need more tour operators and travel agencies to plug into that campaign. We also need hotels with more affordable room tariffs, as well as owners of leisure facilities or tourist sites to ensure their places are in excellent shape. Nigerians have high tastes because they are widely travelled.
How many states of the federation have you visited and what were your most memorable moments?
I have been to 32 at the last count and cannot wait to cover what is left. I recall visiting Sokoto State during the bi-centenary celebrations of the Caliphate and tracing the footsteps of Uthman Dan Fodio. My other memorable moments include covering the Ofala Festival, spending time in a village in Uyo, hunting in a forest in Osogbo and visiting the War Museum in Umuahia.
You have written books on your travel and tourism experience. How helpful have these books been in raising/creating awareness about the beautiful Nigeria?
I have written three books to date—A Place Called Peace (A guidebook to Jos), Nigerian Festivals and Tour of Duty. They have all been well received and become reference materials for tourists and researchers within and outside Nigeria. It feels good when people contact me after buying or reading one of my books.
As an intrepid traveller, have you only embarked on trips within Nigeria?
I have travelled more within Nigeria, but also to Cairo, Nairobi, Accra, Lusaka, Kampala and the United Kingdom.
What memorable trip to another African country have you had?
Visiting the River Nile while in Kampala, Uganda and being ‘chauffeured’ on it in a canoe. The Nile has an interesting history and the fact that three countries surround it also makes its story a complex one.
What is the next project you are working on?
I am always working on multiple projects at the same time. At the moment, we are designing a travel magazine and putting finishing touches to my new travel book. We are also trying to see how we can get funding for a train adventure around Nigeria; we would love to document the sights and sounds en route and showcase them in an exhibition.
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