Faithful as a servant, I left my house clutching a copy of Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome To Lagos as tightly as Moses probably did his staff. Perhaps for nostalgia’s sake and just wanting to exchange stories about my city of birth, Lagos, or in anticipation of the music promised by the author on her Instagram page. Indeed came rain and snow on my two hour commute, I arrived The SouthBank Centre - one of London’s most eminent spaces for arts, culture and literature - expectant, however, looking like a washed puppy.
Guests were hosted on the lower ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall with music by- and outfits of the band reminiscent of Lagos, and poetry that evoked a flutter of excitement. Chibundu, dressed in a yellow Ankara number, offered more than her bouncy ‘fro to envy, and thrilled the audience with her voice. Her personality? Stellar. From her musical performance to her reading and conversation with Ella Allfrey, the author maintained a rare authenticity and a very natural accent, which in my opinion, had the audience hooked.
Reading briefly from Welcome To Lagos, the audience was introduced to one of the seven main characters of the book - Ahmed Bakare. Ahmed, journalist and founder of the Nigerian Journal, arrives his parents’ house for his monthly visit, and is reminded with constant bickering from his mother and teasing from his father, of why he infrequently visits. In just a chapter, the author seemed to have succinctly and satirically encapsulated generational woes, (elitist) Nigerians’ obsession with weddings, materialism, a convoluted political system and tribalism.
Chasing Rats Or The American Dream?
Following the conversation, the floor was open for questions, and all but one bordered on three prominent themes in the book - journalism, education and religion. On journalism, Chibundu, who is also a contributor to the Guardian, likened her venture into it to “film trick” - a term used by Nigerians to describe a somewhat unreal action. Her pieces, here and here, are opinion-based and often a creative reaction to global issues. As for how she balances life as a writer, journalist, and a PhD (what? yes!) candidate? Exclusivity.
She sets aside time to write, and time to focus on her Doctorate programme. Her philosophy, which she shared, mirrors a Yoruba adage that says “if you chase two rats at the same time, you will catch none.” Thus, for her, developing a habit of devoting time to one thing at a time is more effective, and yields a better outcome. At this point, I however stood wondering “what if you thrive from chasing two rats at the same time?” On the brink of internalisation, the author, posing a relevant twist, interrupted my thoughts saying “or ask yourself, why am I chasing rats?”
Lagos, according to Chibundu, is “the best city in the world.” It is however not as dreamy as that sounds, nor is it anything like the American Dream. In Lagos, she says, the stakes of not making it are a lot higher than making it; “you have to take what you want from Lagos". It is a complex megacity of constant hustle. For a member of a diaspora or a foreigner, an initial visit to Lagos would undoubtedly evoke an impulse to compare and contrast it with other developed cities, and further, condemn. To get the best of of Lagos, she advises to make it what you want.
Exploring Faith In Writing And Being
In response to a question on her involvement in educational reform in Nigeria, Chibundu averred using her writing as a form of contribution. One may ask, as I initially and hypocritically did, should she not be doing more? Writing, however, as I wrote in a piece, here, must not be underestimated as a powerful tool for bringing issues to the forefront. Through another main character, Chief Remi Sandayo - the Minister of Education on-the-run for embezzling 10 Million US dollars of public funds - and the adventures of Chike, Isoken and Fineboy, Welcome To Lagos reveals the dire state of schools and the political economy of education in Nigeria.
As to how much of an influence her faith has on her writing, the author identifies herself a Christian, and states that “[her] faith is very important to [her].” Though she claimed not knowing how to navigate incorporating faith in fictional writing, I think she did a good job in Welcome To Lagos. Throughout the book, religion is a prevalent theme. We see Christianity as Chike’s guide and cushion for the ‘streets’ of Lagos and life previously encountered in the Niger Delta; in the daily routine of Bible reading; as Funke’s - Chief Sandayo’s late wife - mantle of self-righteousness.
As the event drew to a close, a member of the audience asked about what the author’s confidence can be ascribed to. Chibundu, in response, burst into a classic Nigerian gospel song:
“People dey ask me say”
And the audience followed, singing, harmonising and clapping:
“Na wetin dey make me shine
I con dey tell them say, na Jesus dey make me shine
I dey shine
I dey shine
I dey shine
I dey shine
I dey shine shine shine
I con dey tell them say, na Jesus dey make me shine.”
The song, sang in pidgin (creole language), attributes the writer’s confidence to her faith.
Ending with even more music, the choir took us to Church! “Inspired” was the word that fell off the lips of people I was surrounded with as we shuffled and filed into a line to get our books signed. For me, more than the book and a well-fed nostalgia, I left feeling renewed in purpose and being; I left, phone in hand, texting a friend “Christ is truly her cornerstone.” It was certainly an evening to remember, and the reason I would be reading Welcome To Lagos along with TBBNQ in February.