Review of Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
Welcome to Lagos
by Chibundu Onuzo
I want to start with the author bio at the end of this book: “Chibundu Onuzo was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1991.” When I read this, I did a doubletake, because that makes Onuzo only 25 years old and 2 years younger than me. I had just assumed she was much older, because her voice sounds so much older, so much richer in terms of experience and worldliness. I am in awe, and in no small part envious, of this 25-year-old’s talent.
I first encountered Onuzo and her writing quite recently, when I read an article of hers in The Guardian and used it for a summarizing exercise in one of my classes. I had no idea she was also a novelist, but then I stumbled across Welcome to Lagos on NetGalley! I appreciate Faber and Faber making it available for me to read.
Last year National Geographic published a feature on Lagos (NB: National Geographic is fantastic and remains so despite its purchase by Rupert Murdoch; my grandparents continue to give me a subscription every year and I love it). Robert Draper describes the same Lagos seen here in Onuzo’s novel. On the one hand, it’s a city rife with corruption. Everyone is on the take, hustling, from the lowliest person selling and buying on the street to the highest government officials. The level of corruption is so staggering it’s stupefying how the country functions at all. Yet it does, and on the other hand, Lagos is a vibrant city, economically and culturally. People start businesses here, become huge successes. The various tribes celebrate their traditions both different and common—both Draper and Onuzo mention the colour themes at Nigerian wedding and the expectation that guests all dress in the chosen colour.
Onuzo’s meditations on Lagos and the entire country’s political situation are unequivocal. She lays the blame for the country’s situation on the doorstep of colonialism and ongoing imperialism: “the whole of Nigeria’s fortunes rose and fell on what foreigners would pay for her sweet crude”. Later, in the book, someone jokes about how Western leaders want to “impose democracy” on the country—except it’s not really a joke. I love postcolonial fiction, but I don’t read enough of it about Africa. As a native of Lagos, Onuzo is in the best position to explain and portray her hometown’s history and situation. I loved learning about it from her, seeing it through her characters’ eyes.
Lagos is a complicated, paradoxical city, and Welcome to Lagos captures that. Its characters, for the most part, are outsiders to the city. They come in from the hinterland: Chike, a soldier who has deserted an army unit after becoming disillusioned by the brutality of his commanding officer; Fineboy, a militant more interested in radio and deals than in violence; Isoken, a woman who has lost her family and came too close to losing her autonomy; Oma, a wife fleeing an abusive husband but still tethered, spiritually, to the idea of her marriage; Yemi, Chike’s right-hand man, an illiterate and less educated soldier who nevertheless displays a deep and abiding interest in his country’s history and welfare. As these outsiders meet for the first time and begin navigating Lagos together, Onuzo introduces us to the city’s complicated character. None of them are 100 per cent adapted to navigating it. Fineboy is very adaptable but needs guidance, a goal, something bigger than himself and his own dreams. Chike is also searching for purpose, though he is more practically minded and will settle for a job first.
It’s kind of your standard motley crew of nobodies coming into their own. In this case, Onuzo drops a disgraced Minister of Education on them. With the money they confiscate from Chief Sandayọ, they start renovating and resupplying one school at a time in Lagos, ironically putting the money to its originally intended use. Sandayọ himself has mixed feelings about this, and I love this portrayal: he is upset, naturally, that his plans to flee have been stymied by this group of squatters in his abandoned Lagosian home; yet he is also intrigued by how swiftly Chike et al put that money to good use where, after a year as Education Minister, he met only frustration. Onuzo indicts the paralysis gripping the corrupt government of Nigeria, something underscored more terribly when, after Sandayọ reveals the names of the schools they helped, the police swoop in and arrest the principals involved.
Part of the brilliance of Welcome to Lagos is how softly it speaks. There is not a great deal of action in this book. Aside from the opening, and then later on towards the end, any confrontations or threats of violence tend to happen off the page and are recounted, theatre-style, by a character to the others. In this way Onuzo takes up the spaces between violence, focusing on the ever-present possibility of a situation becoming violent if the people with the guns, or the money, or the oil, or whatever leverage is potent at the moment, aren’t satisfied.
Like any good writer, Onuzo also investigates the role of the written word in revolution. Ahmed Bakare is an intriguing revolutionary editor: so dedicated to justice, to hard reporting, yet also strangely impotent. I love the observation of the futility of his continuing to print newspaper:
He would not bring down the government with the Nigerian Journal. Those days were gone, when newspapermen were feared and hounded and despised and worshipped for their recklessness.
Mmm, oh, it just feels so relevant to journalism everywhere in this, 2016, the year of the Trump. Ugh. Because the line between Nigeria and a country like Canada is a thin one: we have freedom of the press, but is it really free? Nigeria just does away with the pretext, makes it very clear that if people in power don’t like what you’re saying they will burn your building to the ground and make your secretary disappear! Ahmed flees the country into the welcoming embrace of mother England only to find that the news cycle there is different from how he operates, and of course, corruption in Nigeria only has so much currency as a story.
This tension between what is newsworthy and what should be reported to the public as a matter of human interest and empathy is a minor but important theme in Welcome to Lagos. Onuzo rather uses Lagos as a microcosm for the decisions that happen around the world to shape what we see, what gets reported. The report the BBC World Service runs is different from the story that Sandayọ tells David West which is different from what actually happened; along each link in this causal chain the distortions build like constructive interference. The BBC is interested in a different narrative from the one Ahmed champions or Chike encounters on a day-to-day basis. While these differing narratives share similar issues and facts at their cores, their distinct perspectives influence the opinions that form around them.
I’m hearing a lot about how we’ve suddenly entered a “post-truth” or “post-fact” era. And I can’t help but think the Western world is overreacting, at least in the sense that what’s happening now is somehow new or unimaginable and has never happened before in the history of the world. Onuzu aptly demonstrates here in her novel that Nigeria is plenty familiar with a post-truth society—everyone knows one truth but is careful to state another, and this is a feature common to dictatorships, failed communist states, and basically anywhere that corruption or bureaucracy has outlived a sense of duty and integrity.
And so while Welcome to Lagos does comment on how the colonialism of the past got Nigeria to where it is today, it also holds up a mirror to the continuing colonialism now impelled by international coalitions of oil companies and news services instead of the British empire. This form of colonialism might be subtler, at least to the outsider’s perspective, than what previously went on, but it is no less insidious as a result.
But by the end of the book, Onuzo tightens the focus again to examine the effects these national events have had on our heroes. Are they scarred? Battle-worn? Wiser? She offers us no easy or simple answers; this is not a Hollywood film “based on a true story” where the main character conveniently dies an honourable death and everyone else pairs off and keeps their memory alive. Nope. Relationships continue to inch ever forward, one day at a time, and whether they flourish or wither is not for us to know. Each one of the protagonists has to make decisions about who they want to be, how they want to slot into life in Lagos.
This is a book that captivates, that grabs your attention. It is, as I observed earlier, soft-spoken—but that does not mean it waters down its words. On the contrary, aside from the intensely interesting light it sheds on Nigerian politics, this novel is just beautiful prose from start to finish:
As always, there was too much food. The table was heaped for guests that would never arrive: his dead sister, her imaginary husband and their six obese children.
Onuzo wastes no words and deploys them with unerring accuracy, weapons of mass description that always find their target in the reader. Her imagery is impressive—and I say this as someone who generally ignores such things, since I don’t visualize when I read. Nevertheless, I found myself almost able to imagine the heat of the day, the sweat, the dust and grime, the absence of power and the noises of chaotic traffic. She plucks you from the familiar world, the world where your assumptions hold true, and transports you to Lagos, where everything is both the same and different. Welcome to Lagos will hopefully challenge your complacency in your knowledge of the world even as it entertains and moves you with the characters who come alive on its pages.