After years of soft living in the U.S., Nigerian-born writer Teju Cole is heading back to his old home on the outskirts of Lagos. While he is proud of the progress made by Nigeria and Nigerians during his absence, especially in literature and the arts, he is exasperated by two destructive traits engrained in Nigerian society. The first he calls “the same old, same old” which he blames for the peoples’ enduring tolerance of omnipresent corruption and low level criminality. The second is the attitude of “close enough.” While Nigerians overcome this in their art and literature, it stops them from making any meaningful contributions in the precise disciplines of science and technology. For this he views a lot of the country’s progress as borrowed.
The book is an enjoyable (and safe for the reader) jaunt through a city most readers are unlikely to visit or even take the time to think about beyond wondering if anyone is still falling for those Nigerian Internet Scams…Dearest Sir, I am the Director of the 1st Nigeria Bank of Petroleum have a confidential business proposal, please send me your bank account number so I can route $87,000,000 into your account to hold yada, yada, yada. Cole knows that certain ideas about legality that have taken root in him while in the West, thereby making him an easy target in the Wild, Wild West that is most of Lagos. Black skin alone doesn’t get you a free pass. The hunters look into the eyes of those of the herd to find the hunted. Fortunately, our self-aware chronicler has a pair and heads into the big city on his own. It makes for some great vignettes.
He is flabbergasted at the condition of the national museum, which seems to be ignored by the public and to have been looted of its cultural treasures.
He is appalled that a government official is only sentenced to 6-months for stealing over $100,000,000 from the people.
He thinks about what a powerful writer like John Updike would have produced had he lived in Africa rather than outside Reading, Pennsylvania. My goodness! What the explosive raw material of everyday African life would have done for his writing Cole can only wonder.
There is a great chapter revolving around a bus ride where a woman gets on carrying a book by Michael Ondaatje. This a rare sight on an NYC subway, let alone an African danfo. His mind races with questions…where did she get it, how could she afford such a book and still be on public transportation, what does an African woman who likely has not studied in the west get from the writing, are there others like her? In those few minutes he fell in love with what she represented for Nigeria.
There are other neat scenes, such as when he visits his first sweetheart, now married and with a family of her own, but you can’t help remembering the one where he drives by a billboard that blazes “Corruption is Illegal, Do Not Give or Accept Bribes” and is left to wonder how much the billboard owner bribed the government official to land the ad.
The book isn’t a must read, but if you want to spend a few hours in a strange land with an intelligent, affable writer like Teju Cole, you won’t begrudge him your time. A quick read. Accumulate.