Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 21, 2017

Welcome to Lagos, by Chibundu Onuzo

welcome-to-lagosI’ve read nine novels from Nigeria since starting this blog, and it’s safe to say that most of them feature the corruption and incompetence of Nigerian government, the slums of the city contrasted with a simpler rural life and the conflict between imported faiths and the residual belief in the spirit world.   Welcome to Lagos explores the same themes but is a bit more nuanced in its portrayal of corruption.

Nigerian born Chibundu Onuzo (b.1991) burst into the literary scene with her first novel The Spider King’s Daughter which was nominated for a swag of awards including the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Etisalat Prize for Literature.  She is currently completing her PhD at King’s College London.  Welcome to Lagos is her second novel.

The story begins with five misfits who journey together to Lagos.  Chike and Yemi are deserters from the army who can’t stomach the massacres of women and children in the name of ‘order’ i.e. suppressing any protest against the destruction of village life or the pollution of waterways and farmland by oil companies.  Fineboy is a militant from the other side, also weary of the bloodshed and with (highly unrealistic) ambitions to break into radio broadcasting. Isoken is traumatised by her near-rape by militants who might or might not have included Fineboy, and Oma is a wife on the run from her violent husband.  As is revealed when Chike has to break the news of a death to these people who’ve become his family, their ethnic origins would normally have been cause for suspicion, if not outright conflict:

It would fall to Chike to tell the others.  These were his first thoughts.  That the Yoruba did not announce death directly.  That he did not know what the custom was in Ebo and that he would break the news to Oma in Igbo.

Fineboy, the most dubious of these characters, turns out to have unexpected talents, and it is he who finds them a place to squat.  (None of them have any money, identity papers or work qualifications,  and as deserters, Chike and Yemi have reason to lie low).  The flat is spacious and congenial, but alas it turns out not to be empty when Chief Sandayo, Minister for Education and usually absentee owner of the flat, also has reason to lie low.  He has sequestered a very large sum of money intended for school improvement, and this puts the five squatters in a quandary.  Fineboy makes the dilemma explicit:

Yeah.  He basically stole ten million dollars.  His pictures were all over the papers a few weeks ago and the government is looking for him.  We could be rich if we turned him in.  Even if we didn’t turn him in, we could be rich.

Sandayo responds with scorn.  He knows how power works in Lagos:

…who is going to give a bunch of squatters credit for finding me?  They’ll say I was captured on the border, dressed as a woman, or some other likely story.  And please warn that boy not to make allegations he cannot back up.’

And Oma thinks it’s dangerous to have a politician in the flatShe knows the difference between an appointed thief and an elected one and that they should all be in gaol.  But she recognises the all-too-likely danger:

But if we take him to the police, there’s a high chance the money will disappear.  Maybe they will even arrest us too so nobody will know about it.  (p.46)

Well, they come up with a morally acceptable solution – but it turns out not to be as safe as they thought because of the well-meaning intervention of the media.  Ahmed, an Oxford graduate, has returned home to appease his conscience for having benefited from his own father’s corruption. He runs an unprofitable journal that has up to now been too insignificant to be a thorn in the government’s side but when he reveals the Sandoyo scoop, things get quite nasty.

Cynics might not be convinced by the redemption for those that make a fresh start, and there is rather too much quoting from the Bible for my taste, but the author’s light touch and capacity to make humour out of incongruous situations make this novel enjoyable reading.

BTW there is an interesting (but not too long) article about Lagos the city at Words without Borders.

PS If I could give an award for cover art, it would go to Bill Bragg for this brilliant illustration!

Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Title: Welcome to Lagos
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2017
ISBN: 9780571268948
Source: review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin.

Available from Fishpond: Welcome to Lagos and good bookshops everywhere.

 

 


Responses

  1. I enjoyed this too – I thought Onuzo was very skilled at writing a political plot that was actually in some ways secondary to the development of personal relationships between characters (like Chike and Oma). And yes, that cover! Swoon.

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    • Yes, good point about the primacy of politics in the plot.
      I must admit, I wouldn’t mind a sequel to this, I’d like to know how they all get on!

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      • Oh, that would be great! I’d so hope that Chike and Oma were happy…

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        • And maybe Isoken graduates from university and does something amaaaazing….

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          • And maybe Fineboy becomes a famous DJ!

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  2. Many Nigerian writers are writing with and against injustice in remarkable ways. Welcome to Lagos seems like an interesting novel.

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    • It’s interesting to rethink this in the light of my current reading about German literature. I am struggling through German Lit, A Very Short Introduction as it wrestles with questions of German identity (territorial and historical) and then with the problem of writing post Holocaust literature.
      In the small amount of Nigerian literature that I’ve read, I can see what seems to have been missing: a concern for justice (economic and political) while finding a place in a global economy without losing a sense of identity. These Nigerian writers may come to be seen as emblematic of a continent in transition.

      Like


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