Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo (Faber & Faber, 2017)
Introduced by Emma Fowle
I love a book that transports you to another place. That makes you feel as if you are strapping on your backpack and exploring the big wide world, whilst in reality you’re sitting on your sofa, or snatching a few moments whilst cooking dinner for the kids. Take it up a notch, and even more, I love a book that does the above whilst simultaneously wrapping you in a great story and offering you more than just a nugget of history, social commentary and insight too. It’s like the Holy Grail of novels for me. Entertained and educated in one fell swoop. Genius.
Which is why, at the recommendation of two friends, and after seeing a myriad of images of the coolest book launch ever swarm my social media feeds, I jumped at the chance to review Welcome to Lagos.
The book follows the story of Chike, an army officer who becomes disenchanted by the brutal murder of innocent civilians by his army unit. Along with one loyal soldier, they desert and head for Lagos, hoping to start afresh amongst the anonymity and opportunity of the vast, sprawling metropolis. Along the way, the pair reluctantly acquire a small band of fellow journeymen. Fineboy, a mercurial, wannabe-Radio star and rebel soldier is also running away from the violence of the Niger Delta. Isoken, young, bright and feisty, gets separated from her family, attacked by rebels and takes flight. Oma, a beautiful and wealthy housewife, can take her husband’s abuse no longer and recklessly boards a bus one day in a fit of courage. With nothing in common apart from their desire to leave the past behind and start over, the unlikely bedfellows find themselves embroiled in a government scandal of the highest order when they stumble upon a deserted house and decide to bed down for the night. When $10 million dollars and a disappeared government official ends up in their midst, what will they decide to do with the traitor and the money?
Welcome to Lagos is an engaging and thought-provoking story, as well a social and political commentary that paints a vivid picture of Nigeria and its complicated history. Onuzo’s ability to weave together the stories of seven people from different social, political and religious backgrounds both entertains and educates, poignantly highlighting the difference between what is fundamentally two different types of Nigerian; those with dollars, passports and connections abroad, for whom everything is ultimately achievable at a price, and those without, for whom life and all its ambition will forever be limited by a system that refuses to play by the rules.
The eventual fate of the story’s protagonists was for me, sadly predictable – although I would hazard this to be entirely the author’s intention. To have written it any other way would have been to court accusations of rose-tinted glasses and Hollywood endings. Ultimately, it is a story that nonetheless manages to weave beauty and hope into the reality and predictability of a system that has, much like much of Africa, yet to change.