Narrating Lagos: Beyond the Chronicler’s Paltry View

Teju Cole
Teju Cole

Everyday Is For the Thief
By Teju Cole
Random House, New York
Illustrated, 162 pp.
$23

This is a small book that packs a big punch. “Every day is for the thief, and one day is for the owner” is a Yoruba proverb for the inevitability of right over wrong, justice over injustice, harmony over disorder, humanity over inhumanity. It is an optimism that this highly readable book does not bear out. Teju Cole, whose given names are Obayemi Babajide Adetokunbo Onafuwa, is the author of Everyday Is For The Thief. He is American-born and Nigeria-bred. An art historian, essayist and photographer, he is also the author of Open City, a widely-acclaimed novel. Everyday Is For The Thief is a work of fiction first published in Nigeria in 2007 and later by Random House, New York, in 2014. Cole’s narrator is an unnamed young psychiatrist of Nigerian origins who lives in New York City. After fifteen years away from home, which for him is Lagos, he returns on a visit.

His detailed account of this visit, which reads more like a travel diary than anything else, leaves nothing to imagination. It is a gut-wrenching portrayal of Lagos as a city suffering from physical and moral collapse. His journey starts at the Nigerian consulate in New York City, where he and the other people applying for passports and visas suffer callous indifference and extortion in the hands of consulate officials, even with a posted sign that reads, “Help us fight corruption. If any employee of the Consulate asks you for a bribe or tip, please let us know.” The narrator notes that there is no phone number on the notice, so a customer would have to report to the extortionist.

The consulate’s atmosphere foregrounds the narrator’s entire journey. On arrival in Lagos, he witnesses airport officials, toll gate collectors, and police officers openly engaging in bribery and stealing, while a billboard proclaims, “Corruption is Illegal: Do not Give or Accept Bribes.”

The narrator makes an intentional and intimate exploration of the city, taking rickety Danfo buses to experience the daily life of the average Lagosian. Even though he never experienced the assault of the area boys during these explorations, he reared back to tell the comical but frightening story of how his street-wise uncle out-blusters a tout menacing him on Oshodi bypass by shouting: “Waste me? Waste me? Are your eyes functioning? Look at me very well before you say another word. You don’t recognise me? I will injure you, I will kill you. You understand? I will kill you! Do you know who you are talking to? Ehn? Do you know me? I will make your wife a widow!” This scenario could not possibly be new to our narrator who left Lagos at seventeen. This is what Lagosians call shakara, a part of the Lagos character, which is also the title of a famous song by Fela on this phenomenon. The best performer in this urban drama wins.

Cole’s narrator seems determined to see Lagos at its worst, telling extreme stories at every turn to drive home his point. The same book could be written about New York, Bombay or most cosmopolitan cities in the world, if put under the same harsh and unforgiving glare. His account is also dated. There have been significant improvements in Lagos since the book’s publication…

It is a pattern in this book that when the narrator can not find anything tragic or unfortunate in his perambulations, he resorts to telling tabloid-like old stories of the misfortunes of family and friends. Like the typical Western journalist, who comes with a preconceived notion of Africa, his account is loaded with undiluted Afro-pessimism. Everyone and everything is in a crisis. He attends a family wedding, an event full of joy and hope, a cultural event in which Nigerians are heavily invested. His report of this happy occasion is laced with tragedy. Must Mrs. Adelaja, a prominent guest at the high table lose her husband to armed robbers who murdered him under the most gruesome and humiliating circumstances years earlier?

The narrator’s childhood friend, Rotimi, now a doctor, pays him a visit, which should be a joyful reunion. No, our narrator must make him suffer some tragedy. His younger brother had to die in a terrible car accident. Must the narrator’s old love, Amina, now married with a baby, lose some of her fingers in a food processor? It goes on and on, the need to not only dredge sorrow and tragedy from the lives of the people around him but also cast them as having little or no agency over their lives. Not even Tejuoso market is spared. The story of the lynching of a young thief some time ago is told in exquisite detail even, although he himself did not see it. He finally finds solace at the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) because it fulfills his imagination of a good music school with its potential to become a Julliard.

While he laments that he could not find creative refuge in the city, he forgets that Fela, the father of Afro-beat found it, and made his music a world-wide phenomenon, and that Lagos is the birthplace of Nollywood, the third largest film industry in the world, and it continues to be the creative hub for music, fashion and art. He suffers willful forgetting about the city. In spite of the hardship from power cuts and noise pollution, the narrator himself finds enough creative refuge to pen a book-length account of his trip.

His observation that Nigeria ignores its art from antiquity is true, given his experience at the National Museum. It is a Museum in name only with a sparse and dusty collection and an indifferent staff. Nigeria obviously lacks a museum culture. Our narrator could have gone a step further to tell us why. The best of Nigerian antiquities are in Western museums and galleries for a reason. The museum’s presentation on contemporary history leads the narrator to conclude that Nigerians do not contest history. Could it be that Nigerians contest history in other avenues, and museums are not just a part of it?

While Lagos is a hard city, just like New York, the narrator’s depiction of it as a Hobbesian society is more of a product of his imagination than reality. It is Afro-pessimism at its worst. Cole’s narrator makes everyday available for the thief in this book, the owner never had his day. It is a farce.

He reminds us of Nigeria’s amnesia about the devastating Atlantic Slave Trade. All that was displayed on that tragic history that continues to affect all black people around the world is a card that reads, “In the early part of the nineteenth century, the efforts of various abolitionists gradually brought the obnoxious practice of slavery to an end.” The narrator sees the connection between Lagos and the West African coast where slave ships docked to cart away men, women, and children to New Orleans, which had the largest slave market in 1850. Our ancestors were bought and sold like commodities. He rightly notes that this history is inexplicably missing in the Nigerian public consciousness. There is no commemoration of this holocaust in any space in Lagos.

He came to a conclusion about the Nigerian character, the idea that things don’t have to work perfectly to be acceptable to people leads to tragedies like air plane crashes. Of course, this incompetence and cutting of corners occurs because corrupt state officials employed to ensure public safety lower the standards after stuffing their pockets. However, Cole’s narrator thinks air planes crash because Nigerians lack “the philosophical equipment to deal with the material goods they are eager to consume”, an arrogant and untrue assertion. First, its ahistorical. Nigeria Airways worked fine for a long time until it was hobbled completely by corrupt officials and some powerful Nigerians, who used it as their personal planes, flying themselves, friends and families for free. There is even a rumour that fake airline tickets were regularly printed by this group of elites. Nigerian pilots were judged to be some of the best in the world. Secondly, as for how things work, our narrator could take any kind of technology to Lagos streets, and he would find shops or lean-tos, where men would readily dismantle and repair it. This snootiness permeates the book, a condescension peculiar to certain uninformed returnees.

He visits an internet café and sees the 419 operators, yahoo boys, who perpetrate fraud on unsuspecting but greedy foreigners, at work. They succeed because corruption allows them to. The police officers employed to curb their activities get their own hefty share and release them to continue. Again, there is the sign in Tomsed Cyber Café threatening to hand over yahoo boys to the police. No one takes it seriously. The rules that really govern the society are different. The narrator aptly notes that “precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works, and for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another short cut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidders, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.”

Cole’s narrator seems determined to see Lagos at its worst, telling extreme stories at every turn to drive home his point. The same book could be written about New York, Bombay or most cosmopolitan cities in the world, if put under the same harsh and unforgiving glare. His account is also dated. There have been significant improvements in Lagos since the book’s publication, including its transportation system. The dreaded Oshodi area has been cleared up, a Herculean and impressive task by any standard in urban renewal. This happens because of good political leadership in the state, not because Lagosians suddenly acquired the “philosophical equipment” to deal with the problems. Nollywood, Lagos-born-and-bred, has become a mega industry, projecting Nigeria’s image far and wide. While Lagos is a hard city, just like New York, the narrator’s depiction of it as a Hobbesian society is more of a product of his imagination than reality. It is Afro-pessimism at its worst. Cole’s narrator makes everyday available for the thief in this book, the owner never had his day. It is a farce.

Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: bunmimatory@yahoo.com

Picture credit: CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York Times.


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