Welcome to Lagos

Chibundu Onuzo
Welcome to Lagos
(Catapult, 2018)

Welcome to Lagos has been described as comic by some reviewers but aside from a few slapstick-esque moments and some sharply funny critique of English race relations, it reads as modern African tragedy. The book opens in the Nigerian Delta with Chike Ameobi suffering through his twelfth month as an army officer. While the descriptions of the delta are compelling, “The sky was wide and open, the stars visible in a way he never grew used to,” the central action is focused on a horrific war, a war between an army that murders and burns entire villages and aimless militants who destroy oil pipelines while raping and pillaging. Both sides seem to have forgotten the plot. On a night when his Colonel orders another innocent village eradicated Chike makes a decision to desert. And so the journey begins: Chike and his junior officer, Yemi, walk away from the army base with a vague idea of heading to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. As such stories go, our two travelers meet strangers along the way and the group grows larger. The first person they meet is a young militant, Fineboy, who speaks with an odd pseudo-American accent. Although Fineboy is on the run from the war as well and has never been away from the Delta, he has dreams of becoming a radio DJ.

Chike, Yemi, and Fineboy next meet one of the only women in the book, sixteen year old Isoken. Fearful after an assault by a rebel group and a likely orphan, she is trying desperately to get home; instead she ends up at an uncle’s who is as lecherous as the rebels she’s escaped from. Chike is chivalrous enough to invite Isoken to come with them to Lagos and the four eventually end up on a bus. Now that the three men have deserted their respective armies, they are fugitives with an unclear future. Once on the bus, they meet the only other significant female character in the book, Oma. Maternal and beautiful, Oma is escaping a wealthy but abusive husband. To balance out the narrative of this traveling group are two additional parallel narratives. Ahmed Bakare is an English-educated, wealthy young newspaper editor whose liberal idealism rests on his ability to remove himself to his parents’ London apartment when his journalism upsets the wrong people. And finally, there is Chief Sandayo, the Honorable Minister of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria. A former idealist himself and one-time member of the Yoruba People’s Congress, Sandayo is about to be fired from his ministerial post when he steals several million intended for the Basic Education Fund and travels to Lagos.

The group headed by Chike arrives in Lagos without resources and cannot find jobs or a decent place to live. They spend time living together with a crowd of homeless under a bridge until Fineboy eventually finds them a more permanent home: a well-hidden and ostensibly abandoned luxury home. Here they live in relative comfort (with Oma doing the bulk of the domestic chores) until the owner shows up. In true Dickensian fashion, the home’s owner is none other than the fugitive Chief Sandayo, dragging with him the stolen millions.

Onuzo does a brilliant job of presenting the overcrowding, the bureaucracy, and the terrible choices those stuck in poverty are forced to make. While none of the character’s are without fault, the events that ultimately bring them together show the men at least as complicated individuals—charitable and selfish, ethical and greedy, realists who refuse to give up on their individual dreams. When the group decides to spend the stolen money to somehow improve local schools, it becomes clear how impossible it is to create real change in a society as corrupt and weighed down with bureaucracy as Onuzo’s Nigeria.

The book’s language shifts between English and two of Nigeria’s languages: Yoruba and Igbo. Nigeria is a country of multiple ethnic groups and several languages and Onuzo makes little effort to explain to outsiders the various politics between groups, but class and race-based interactions are easy enough to understand. Lagos, Onuzo tells us is, “a jungle, an orderly ecosystem with a ranked food chain, winners and losers decided before they were born.” This is well illustrated in the interactions between the novel’s Nigerians and the BBC crew that comes to speak with fugitive minister Sandayo. For David West, BBC veteran and star of the fictional West Presents, Nigeria is nothing but a failed African state. West describes Lagos as a city that “hasn’t moved on from its colonial past.” It becomes clear that West hasn’t moved on from his own British colonial prejudices. He is there to interview Sandayo about the missing funds but soon becomes sidelined by the much younger Richard Brown, the local BBC correspondent in Lagos.

Central to the book’s message are themes of greed, conflict, courage, and redemption. Chike reads the Bible to his small group in their hard times under the bridge and in easier times in the Chief’s borrowed home. The novel ends with a dramatic death read as near-messianic by Chike and a wrapping up of near-happy endings for everyone else that all seem a bit unlikely however well earned. The plot can be overly reliant on Dickensian coincidence and the lack of development of female characters is frustrating but this is a novel full of heart, humanity, grief, and a powerfully wrought image of a beautiful mess of a city and the people who struggle to survive there.

Contributor

Yvonne C. Garrett

YVONNE C. GARRETT holds an MLIS (Palmer), an MFA (The New School), two MAs (NYU), and is currently working on a PhD in History & Culture at Drew University where her dissertation focuses on women & gender identity in 1980s American punk rock. She is Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press.

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