“Welcome to Lagos” – when it’s all right to be a thief “as long as one is a thief who shares”

This is my review of “Welcome to Lagos”  by Chibundu Onuzo

This wry satirical take on life in Nigeria introduces us to a Lagos of remarkable humour and resilience in a setting of vibrancy and squalor, extremes of wealth and poverty, violence and corruption. Still in her early twenties at the time of writing this second novel, after spending much of her life in England in what one senses is a relatively privileged position, the author seems to have done her research into “the strange chaotic order” of communal living under city bridges, or the wooden shanty settlement built on stilts over the lagoon.

Chibundu Onuzo has chosen to write what she calls “an ensemble piece” involving a disparate group of characters who may not be developed in depth for lack of space, but the benefit is that they serve to convey the diversity of Nigerian society. The five migrants from the Niger Delta include the thoughtful army officer Chiku and Nemu, “the lowest-ranking member of his platoon”, who are no longer prepared to carry out their maverick Colonel’s illegal instructions to shoot defenceless civilians. The neat, house-proud Oma is abandoning a life of material comfort to escape a different type of violence in the form of her abusive husband.

By chance, they become involved with Chief Sandayo, perhaps once an idealist but now corrupted by power, although its fragility is demonstrated by the threatened sacking from his post as Minister of Education, which has prompted him to steal ten million dollars from site coffers. The prospect of his “bean-spilling” testimony proves irresistible for Ahmed, who dreams of a scoop for what he would like to be the ground-breaking, socially conscious “Nigerian Journal” he founded five years previously. He has rejected a life of privilege in the higher echelons of Nigerian society or abroad, made possible by his father’s willingness to compromise his principles in the pursuit of wealth and connections.

Despite some loss of momentum at times, the overall plot is well-crafted. I liked the presumably made-up extracts from “Nigerian Journal” which introduce some chapters, and was impressed by the atmospheric opening chapter in the “barren army base” with the evening sky turning from mauve ….bruised to black” and the militants stealing out into the creeks, “sucking our oil, insects drawing on the lifeblood of the country”.

There are many humorous scenes, alternating with occasional bursts of the unpredictable, savage violence which is never far away if it cannot be deflected by bribery, and perhaps not even then. Some scenes are very well-observed, such as the rivalry between the condescending white BBC journalist with the black team he has not met before landing in Nigeria, since they travelled economy class, and the laid back Lagos-based white correspondent who can run rings round him since he knows the ropes. It is startling to realise that at least two of the main characters have never before seen a white man close up in the flesh.

I could accept my inability to understand fully or even at all much of the Nigerian-English patois which could be said to give an authentic touch, and there are some telling observations, but too often the narrative seems unnatural, even unclear, and in need of more editing.

This novel seems mostly designed to entertain, it is rarely moving, yet insight is often revealed through such humour.

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