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Notes from an author: Chibundu Onuzo

How do you capture the spirit of Lagos, a city home to some 20 million people? It’s best done through one personal perspective at a time

Notes from an author: Chibundu Onuzo
Chibundu Onuzo. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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I was born in Lagos, I grew up there and even after I moved to England at 14, most years I returned to the city. Yet, I didn’t feel qualified to write a novel called, Welcome to Lagos. In its earlier incarnations, the book was called something else, a duller title my sister said, when she’d suggested the idea.

I ran it past my brother, who lives in Lagos. Too overarching, he said. The type of title an American production company would come up with. Well yes, I took his point. A white man passes through six African countries with a camera, and feels entitled to call his documentary: ‘Africa: the definitive story’. 

I envied that confidence. I wanted it. So I changed the title and then the novel grew to fill it. I began to see Lagos afresh, like a Johnny Just Come setting foot in the city for the first time.

There was the privileged entry. Arriving in Lagos from London by air, as I’ve often done, with my foreignness and relative affluence wafting from my person. If you arrive in Lagos this way, most likely, all you see is dysfunction. The air-conditioning doesn’t work. The baggage carousel is too small. For crying out loud, no toilet paper in the loos. 

You step out of the airport and a sea of touts accost you, selling you stuff, clutching at your bags, for all you know trying to rob, kidnap and kill you at the same time. You escape into the city and then wonder why you ever left the airport. The drivers are mad. You’ll die before you reach your hotel. Beggars come up to your car, maimed, blind, armless, legless. There are beggars in London, New York and Paris of course, but they are not so beggary. They hide their poverty better. They are easier to ignore.  

The airport is not like JFK. The roads are not like Zurich. All you see in Lagos is a place that’s not like somewhere else: a negation, a failure to reach international standards, whatever they are. Then there’s the entry into Lagos by road: more egalitarian, the way thousands flock to the city each year.

After spending a week in my village in Eastern Nigeria, I tried to imagine having lived in this village all my life. You have a mobile phone, but you also must travel by bicycle — and not because you want to save the planet. There are no street lights. You know what a television is but you don’t own one yourself. 

Driving into Lagos with this state of mind, the pace is outstanding. You’ve seen a car. You’ve never seen this many. There are rows and rows of street lights — the city never sleeps. There are flyovers, bridges, skyscrapers, radio towers, helicopters, mass transit buses with television screens and free wi-fi. You’ve never seen such a concentration of infrastructure. On closer inspection, if you don’t have money and the right education and the right contacts, it’ll be very difficult to work in those skyscrapers or fly in that helicopter or drive that Range Rover. Poverty in Lagos can perhaps be even more abject and desperate than poverty in your village, but on first glance the city dazzles.  

And then, although I didn’t want to turn the novel into a Lonely Planet guidebook, the new title made me think about what was iconic about Lagos. There was the atmosphere of the city, the pulse and the energy, but there were also specific places I wanted to mention now the novel was becoming a homage. It was fun to write about Mr Biggs, the only restaurant chain that my meagre childhood funds could afford. A character had to visit Makoko, the lagoon city with houses on stilts that the government alternatingly attempts to destroy — for not fitting in with its modern image of Lagos — and preserve because pesky foreign journalists keep flocking there. 

After the book was done and had gone off to the printers, I told a friend of mine the title and he exclaimed, “You’re in trouble! You’ll have to put everybody’s version of Lagos in that novel.” 

Of course I haven’t. There are over 20 million people living in Lagos. This is Welcome to Lagos according to Chibundu Onuzo: my version of the city on as broad a canvas as possible. The subject is as inexhaustible as London, or Tokyo, or Cairo or any of the other mega-cities of the world. Now I’ve attempted it, I’m looking forward to the next writer who will tackle a novel on Lagos. I wish them luck. 

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo is published by Faber & Faber. RRP: £12.99

Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)