Timothy Ogene reviews Onuzo’s brand-new 2017 Faber novel, discussing intertextuality, gratuitous representations of African poverty and ‘what it means to exist in Nigeria.’
Chibundo Onuzo, Welcome to Lagos (Faber, 2017), 368pp.
There are two events that readers are required to know in order to fully appreciate Onuzo’s new novel. First, the 1999 violent encounter between Nigerian soldiers and militants in Odi (a small village in the oil-rich Delta) which resulted in the death of innocent civilians. Second, the 2010 BBC Documentary, “Welcome to Lagos,” which aired to a backlash from Nigerians around the world. The Odi massacre itself is one of many tragedies to befall the Delta since oil was struck there in the 50s. The BBC documentary, a gratuitous chronicle of slum life in Lagos, is yet another example of an obsession with visual evidence of extreme poverty and impoverishment in Africa, often at the expense of historical context and nuance. Between both events are indications of a broader “Nigerian problem,” that of a country driven to complete madness and decay by its political class. It is from these two angles that the reader can sufficiently enter the intricate world and destines offered in Onuzo’s novel.
The novel itself is structured to follow the sequence of both events, opening with the first, and transitioning to engage the later. In the Delta swamps, a group of soldiers have been deployed to stamp out militancy. Chike Ameobi, a young commanding officer, has decided to conscientiously abandon his post, unable to participate or witness the killing of innocent villagers. With private Yemi, his sidekick, he escapes through the jungle, where they run into Fineboy, a young militant, and the 16-year old Isoken. They will eventually meet Oma, the fifth member of Onuzo’s motley team of displaced Nigerians hoping to find a better life in Lagos.
In a way, Welcome to Lagos is a tale of relationships forged in and by adversity, of internal migration and of displacement. Yet, above all it is a celebration of the human capacity to navigate self-realization in spaces where new identities are formed out of necessity, where hopes are redefined or erased and old aspirations are offered new meanings. Fineboy, for instance, is forced to shed his militant past and revive his dream of becoming a radio DJ; Chike finds himself assuming the role of father-organizer, “drawing up a dishwashing rota” for the strangers under his care. To make ends meet, he draws on his military experience to secure a job “directing traffic” at a chaotic intersection in a city that couldn’t care less about his existence and that he does not understand.
Underneath these micro quests for belonging and self-actualization is a critique of the Nigerian condition, as Lagos a mirror of what it means to exist in Nigeria. To be born in Nigeria is to enter a pot of endless contradictions. And Lagos, as Unozu reveals, is a metaphor for that contradiction: glowing mansions that stand a drive away from sprawls of shacks and shanties.
In painfully contrasting circumstances like this, as obtained in Lagos, the very existence of the poor is an intrusion on the lives of the rich, and the rich is an irritating inconvenience to the poor. Chief Sandayo, for instance, fleeing the law, shows up to only disrupt the lives of the displaced five who, as it turns out, are squatters in the Chief’s abandoned house. Ahmed, the journalist they recruit to cover the Chief’s escape and subsequent abduction (by them) ends up moving into the same house after his office is torched by followers of state politicians. Rooming together, they painfully begin to find hints of shared interest. In a sense, the Chief’s abandoned house is a symbol of what Lagos is to Lagosians, a looping interstices that invents its own hybrid identities (amidst a disconcerting rhythm of everyday life.)Where it appears verisimilitude is sacrificed in Onuzo’s novel – the Chief’s situation, rooming with squatters in his own house, is highly unlikely in Lagos – the setup in itself speaks to the confrontations of daily life in Lagos, and how those claustrophobic intersections are as cathartic as they are draining.
Indeed, the narration of Lagos as chaotic, and chaos as breeding ground for resilience, is often the focus of the (rather self-essentializing) Lagos novel, a genre that has its origin in Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954). Readers of Ekwensi’s work will find traces of similarities between Welcome to Lagos and People of the City. In some way, Onuzo’s Ahmed Bakare is Amusa Sango, the protagonist of Ekwensi’s novel, who also happens to be a journalist. Somewhere in Ekwensi’s novel, Sango is sent to cover “The coal crisis which broke out in the Eastern Greens.” There, he sees “the thorn scrub where many wounded miners had crawled in agony to die of bullet wounds.” Miners share with him “how . . . outstanding allowances” were not paid “and how the mine boss – an overbearing white man – would not listen.” In the end, the narrator observes “the shooting had been purely human: strained feelings.”
The 1949 massacre of coal miners in colonial Nigeria is almost forgotten today. Onuzo however uses Ahmed’s desire to send reporters to cover the Delta crisis as a link between both atrocities. Here is Ahmed speaking “to the senior editorial staff of the Nigerian Journal,” where he is founder and editor: “Reports are coming in that the army has destroyed a whole village in Bayelsa State. We need someone to go down there and find out what happened.” The oil crisis in the Delta thus becomes a stand in for the coal miner’s crisis in colonial Nigeria. And both massacres – Odi (1999) and Iva Valley (1949) – become a brutal reminder of Nigeria’s “cursed” relationship with natural resources.
Careful readers will indeed see Chike and Ahmed as rewritten halves of Ekwensi’s Amusa Sango, with features and events from Sango’s life spread out between Ahmed and Chike. Somewhere else in Ekwenzi’s novel, Sango goes to observe a Yoruba ritual dance and tries to stop the lead dancer, completely misunderstanding her performance. In Onuzo’s novel, Chike “misreads” a couple’s birthday ritual – a man “dousing” his partner “in water” – and tries to fight off the man.
Welcome to Lagos is, in many ways, a strong intertextual novel, making use of existing materials to contextualize moments and memories. It is strongest when it stays with the fleeing five, as their existence in that monstrous city is almost similar to the experiences of displaced persons everywhere.
Timothy Ogene is the author of The Day Ends Like Any Day (Holland House, 2017).
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