BOOK REVIEW: Welcome to Lagos By Chibundu Onuzo

Welcome and Welcome to Lagos is an enjoyable trip to a destination that is known for its rife corruption, bustling and chaotic city life and quite importantly bent officials. My personal views of Lagos in Nigeria seems to have been stained by the many articles that appear that discuss officials put in place to govern the country but have their own personal agendas which normally involve them being bribed or even finding substantial amounts of money in suitcases. Lagos though against all these odds and a bad PR campaign, continues to thrive in the face of all this adversity, it’s a country where traditions are celebrated in a vibrant, culturally and religiously inclusive way and this is the Lagos that Onuzo paints whilst ensuring she doesn’t scrimp on any of the corruption which forms the undercoat and undercurrent to her colourful story.

Onuzo offers us an unequivocal guide to Lagos, which you wouldn’t find in any ‘Rough Guide to Nigeria’ and she pulls no punches in telling us about the issues colonialism has caused her beloved Nigeria. How the raping of their oil resources has cause tremendous issues that plasters and money cant cover whilst also touching on the corruptness of political figures, the army and militants – which the book primarily focuses on. Onuzo’s use of language here strikingly poignant and pulls no punches somewhat helping me to validate my own personal thoughts of the issues surrounding the subject of Nigerian politics and state of play.

“The whole of Nigeria’s fortunes rose and fell on what foreigners would pay for her sweet crude”.

The ‘Welcome to Lagos’ protagonists sum up the hustle and bustle of this busy city with its eclectic cast of characters that Onuzo deploys as our guides through this frenetic city. Many of these characters are fleeing something in their lives. Chike who is a deserter from the army is accompanied by his right hand man Yemi an illiterate hard to understand, hard talking Nigerian soldier (a bugbear I had is I don’t think I understood one thing this man said in the whole book – only realising what he said through the other characters interactions with him – was this an artistic element I’m not too sure) – both of these men deserted the army with disillusionment over the war they were fighting with violence and terror. The opening few chapters of this book paint a part of Nigeria that has all to often been spoken about in new articles and reports about death squads which flood the internet but very rarely are reported in mainstream news (strange hey). Onuzo doesn’t shy away from telling us the brutality of this hidden war in ways which cant help the reader feel moved by the tragedy she paints so vividly in the opening chapters. Fineboy is a militant soldier who Chike and Yemi stumble upon in the woods whilst fleeing the army; Fineboy has dreams of being a radio DJ rather than the militant he tries hard to be (he’s the type of person that would fall into a vat of shit and come out smelling of roses). Isoken is a young woman who lost her family and was also sexually assaulted by a group of militants whom she thinks Fineboy was one of the aggressors. Oma is a wife fleeing domestic violence but struggles with her strong belief in the idea of marriage.

Onuzo delicately weaves her Christian faith into this story through the eyes of her motley crew and the mind of her main protagonist Chike. There are some wonderfully delicate scenes where Chike sits down and reads from his bible aloud to the group of misfits like Jesus delivering a sermon; the best of these passages in my opinion are when the group are homeless and sleeping rough under a bridge in Lagos; Chike is desperately searching for something  to belong to and feels that he will find his purpose in the Lagos and within the pages of his battered bible.

A strange turn of events and our rogues gallery find themselves somewhere to live (an abandoned fully furnished basement apartment) and the group form a somewhat unconventional family unit, with some of them getting jobs, the women home making, cooking and cleaning. It’s a wonder stroke that Onuzo pulls next by dropping the disgraced Minister of Education Chief Sandayo into the middle of this already somewhat dysfunctional family unit – with his suitcase of stolen money fleeing back to his abandoned apartment in Lagos.

After placing the Chief under house arrest and confiscating his money Chike and the Lagos crew decide to use the money for good, this helping Chike find his purpose in a town full of rogues and robbers. They begin using the money for its original purpose to raise attainment and improve education in Nigeria one school at a time, using Lagos as their epicenter. The misfits manage to do more with the money in the space of a few weeks than Chief Sandayo was able to achieve in years of being in post, which after original reservations and seeing their enthusiams as infections the chief warms to the idea and somehow eventually ends up owning it and being the reluctant mouthpiece of their project  – placing the crew and their plans into turmoil. Onuzo’s depiction of the Nigerian governments corruptness continues as she indicts the tight grip it has over its people and here we see it in action, when the leaked names of the principles who received anonymous donations are arrested some being pulled out of the school by mobs with school children looking on and basically disappear, vanish without a trace – sound familiar?

I do like Onuzo’s prose; her writing speak softly to the reader, with many revelations about characters being sprinkled throughout the book as side notes. Onuzo doesn’t feel the need to take us there and experience these things in person, she trust her characters depth and range to help bridge the gap between these revealed truths and violence.

The final third of the book which coincides with the introduction of the reporter / journalist Ahmed Bakare for me bogged down the flow of the book. I can understand why Onuzo introduced this section to highlight the censorship issues journalists have in Africa.  Welcome to Lagos quite clearly showcases that if the people of Nigeria don’t like what your reporting about they will quite happily ‘burn your building down and kidnap your workers’. I feel it was a chance for Onuzo to show the reader the true scale of the censorship issues regarding investigative journalism. The government and its hit squads have free reign to quash revolutionary forms of reporting at the source and send a clear message to other would be revolutionists.

For me this part was just an expose to far for the book and I’d much rather have been spending my time with the characters Onuzo tailors and nurtures through the first two thirds of the book. The subplot of Ahmed Bakare finding love with an old collage friend felt really out of place and nothing I really cared to see come to its conclusion. It did little to progress the story and when looking back at it, the book could have continued with just the mention of this restriction on the press instead of taking us out of the cauldron that is Lagos and to London – moving the reader away from the boiling pot to me broke the immersive and atmospheric environment Onuzo worked so hard to create.

I’d personally like to say that for a story with such little action (some to open the story and also towards the end) I found myself really drawn into these sections of her storytelling; Onuzo’s imagery being one of these driving factors causing me to feel the heat and stickiness of the day, the dusty busy roads, the coldness of the night, the concrete pillows they slept on under the bridge, the constant hustle and bustle of Lagos and the hopelessness of their situations.

It’s a book that helps to challenge your knowledge and world view of Nigeria and the things that go on in the dark when no one is watching; a story that focuses on real people with real problems, on flawed human characters that come together with all their baggage and are dramatically weaved into this redemptive story of ‘Welcome to Lagos’. It’s also a book that reiterated the continued systemic corruption that exists in Nigeria and at the highest of levels. Whilst the books focuses on the dark underbelly and corruption in Nigeria the characters are entertaining and I’d love to see them pop up in any other work Chibundu Onuzo creates next.

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Chibundu Onuzo was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1991. Her first novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, won a Betty Trask Award, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize, and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Etisalat Prize for Literature. She is completing a PhD on the West African Student’s Union at King’s College London.

Photo courtesy of Blayke Images

Welcome to Lagos was published by Faber & Faber on 12th January 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Welcome to Lagos from Waterstones:

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Review by Ross Jeffery

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