Lagos charms me. Between its residents and different works of art, this commercial city throbs with so many stories. My first encounter with Lagos in African fiction, however, was through Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come. The Lagos here is grand, and unlike the grimy Lagos of Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief. Its every nook and cranny - from its opulent and gated communities on ‘the island’, to its “riotous warrens of streets” on the mainland and secrets tucked away in alleyways - is best captured by Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City. The Lagos he presents is a city that caresses and consumes - one almost similar to that which Chibundu Onuzo crafts in Welcome to Lagos.
I was first attracted to the novel by its front cover. It is colourfully graced by a Molue, Danfo, Keke Napep (tricycle) and BRT buses; bystanders, passers-by, informal markets and hawkers. The back cover likewise bursts with culture, colour and chaos with an okada (motorcycle), a jeep, and people dressed in native attires and English wear. The covers set the tone for the Lagos to expect - hustle central, out-of-order, unequal and full of surprises.
Between Bayelsa And Lagos
Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos starts with five major characters - or, dreamers caught in the web of reality - who run to Lagos for refuge. Chike Ameobi, a military officer and Yemi Oke, his subaltern, are on the run from their “barren army base” as they are uncomfortable with the constant brutality of the Niger Deltan people. On their escape mission, they meet Fineboy, a Niger Deltan militant, with the dream of becoming a radio presenter, and subsequently, Isoken - whose parents might have been killed during a clash between soldiers and an invaded village.
The four unintentionally embark on a journey to Lagos, meeting Oma - a woman fleeing from her well-to-do but abusive husband. All five arrive Lagos with hardly any thing but a mutual motive: to start a different life in a different place. What they, however, soon find as they embrace Lagos is: its potential to leave one “en-poored”, enriched, exterminated, or all three! The first “E” finds Chike, Yemi, Fineboy, Isoken and Oma living under a bridge.
The second “E” finds them living in an exquisite underground apartment, later discovered as a hideout for the Minister of Education, Chief Sandayo. Unannounced, Sandayo, on embezzling 10 million US Dollars from the state’s coffers, soon joins the party. Fineboy thereafter adds a plus one, Ahmed Bakare - founder of Nigerian Journal - who soon finds himself wanted for a politically-indicting news article. The apartment - essentially a refuge of runaways - becomes a melting pot for the seven characters of different tribes, religion and class.
Duty Versus Devotion
Before Lagos is Bayelsa. For some reason, I have always imagined living in the Niger Delta as living in a zombie zone or a den of death. Perhaps this imagination emerges from Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, May Ifeoma Nwoye’s Oil Cemetery and Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds Faraway; or, films like Black November and Blood and Oil previously watched. The Niger Delta Onuzo depicts is, however, not far off from that represented in fiction or film, nor that imagined. It is introduced in the book as an area that reeks of death; the death of flora and fauna.
Here, in the Niger Deltan area of Bayelsa, even the sky is “bruised to black”. You will see “the spills, black poison running over the waters, fish gone, fishermen displaced, flora destroyed.” You will meet its people carrying vengeance as their breastplate; you will meet the Fineboys who attest to the suffering of his people, who “can’t breathe properly because of the gas flaring” and are inflicted by “the water [in] most places[, that is] totally undrink[able].” This is the Niger Delta - the zombie-d zone that makes Chike and Yemi choose humanity and their sanity.
Through the story, there appears to be a preference for devotion over duty. The characters shared a strong devotion to their different - and some mutual - beliefs. Chike and Yemi abandon their military duty just as Oma abandons her marital ‘duty’. Fineboy is more devoted to his love for radio than his duty to rebellion and the militant base. Chike seems more interested in his devotion to the Word of God, which he reads “often now, flicking to a new passage each day…”
Choosing One's Bearing
Onuzo deeply weaves in Christianity into fiction through Welcome To Lagos. The author, a Christian herself, makes Christianity a place of refuge. In the book, the reader will find Christ in the cot of corruption. The Nigeria she portrays is a damaged “dashboard riddled with stickers preaching platitudes.” Despite its baggage and overwhelming level of corruption, her motley crew are seemingly uncorrupted and altruistic. They are left with a variety of options on what to do with the 10 Million Dollars Sandayo brings "home." Rather than take a cut and build new lives, they choose instead to refurbish and equip public schools.
This “uncorrupted” and “altruistic” nature could perhaps be as a result of their regular reading of the Bible. Alternatively, it could be the repercussions that would befall them should they choose to hand Sandayo to the police. The latter, I find, is particularly interesting as this, despite the 10 Million Naira reward offered by the Economic and financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), carves their path. Oma's vote to not report to the police highlights a major impediment to fighting corruption - that is, the possibility for the reporter (whistleblower) to be attacked due to a lack of confidentiality and legal protection, and a pending Whistleblower (Protection) Act in Nigeria.
Lagos Na Water
The most worthwhile thing about this book, to me, however, is not the city of Lagos captured, but the characters - the remarkability of which reminds me greatly of Barbara Kingslover’s The Poisonwood Bible. Chike, Yemi, Fineboy, Isoken and Oma are so beautifully painted; though I argue that they are excessively optimistic and moralistic, and borderline unrealistic. This however does not diminish the value of the author’s imagery, which adds salt to this sweet soup of a story, and proves her to be a true storyteller.
Though the book is centred around Lagos, it is however more about the country (Nigeria) than the city (Lagos). Lagos just serves as a backdrop for the country. Onuzo uses the journalistic juxtaposition of excerpts from Ahmed's Nigerian Journal to wittily showcase multi-facets of Nigeria. These excerpts add to the prosaic pulchritude of the novel. They also make you wonder how "free" the media is and how "indepent" journalism is, if Ahmed is on the chase for covering the defunct political system.
Onuzo, like Kan, show Lagos as “a carnivore of a city that swallowed even bones.” There is just something about it that attracts and accepts everyone. It could be the “illusion of progress” which is not totally illusionary. It could be the desire to be enriched, despite the stakes of being “en-poored” and exterminated are higher. Whatever it is, Lagos, like water, you find through Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome To Lagos and in the voice of the legendary Fela, no get enemy.
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