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Lagos: A City of Paradox and Metaphors. A Critical Review of Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief.

Lagos in Nigeria has been described by so many people as the economic hub of Nigeria and that is quite true. The state is not just known for its booming economy and rising industrialisation but it is symbolic of the dream of every Nigerian – the dream to rise to economic prosperity. Hence, Lagos sees a rising influx of people every day who seek passionately to fulfil their economic dreams.

Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief is very realist in showing Lagos as it is. The book is based on the writer’s personal experience hence the book is premised on real events in his life. It begins with his arrival to Lagos after been away for fifteen years in the United States. He encounters the highs and very lows of a state that is one of the most populous states in Nigeria and where vices and virtues stand at two parallels.

The opening chapter exposes corrupt practices from within the Nigerian consulate in America and throughout the book, Teju gives more and more instances of the deep rooted culture of corruption, social malaise and indiscipline that plagues the state. More paradoxical is that the land where men dream to become the next millionaires become slaves to institutionalised corruption and depravity that can stifle creativity, zeal and passion. Cole discusses this when a friend of his pays him a visit. His friend is a doctor who is paid peanuts in a private hospital points to the kind of difficult life that many face living in the city of Lagos. Teju Cole summarizes it “It is difficult for the average Nigerian to live a middle class life style. And even those whose profession gives them an income well above the average still struggle.”(P.81).This also points to the very uneven distribution of wealth in Lagos and of course Nigeria generally if one was to examine this on a larger scale.

Teju Cole also draws our attention to how the history of Lagos is quickly forgotten. In Chapter Nineteen, Teju goes down to memory lane and brings to the readers notice what they may not be aware of or vaguely aware of. 

The thought is of the chain of corpses stretching across the Atlantic Ocean to connect Lagos with New Orleans. New Orleans was the largest market for human chattel in the New World. There were twenty-five different slave markets in the city in 1850. This is a secret only because no one wants to know about it. It was at those markets that buyers came to bid on black men and women who had survived the crossing, but the history is now literally submerged… The human cargo that ended up in New Orleans originated from many ports…and here is another secret, none of those ports were busier than Lagos. (p.97).

Every Day is for the Thief- Teju Cole

This history might sound so far past yet, one cannot but feel that many within Lagos may be free (that is, without chains and shackles) but are bound by poverty, pain, suffering and inhumanity that is meted on them by leaders who have turned a blind eye to deep economic issues.

This is but one issue out of many. Combined with traffic congestion, which is s serious problem in Lagos, and considering the thousand natural shocks to which the average Nigerian is subject- the police, the armed robbers, the public officials, the government, the total absence of social services, the poor distribution of amenities-the environment is anything but tranquil. (P.61).

Every Day is for the Thief- Teju Cole
Teju Cole

Cole’s portrayal of the Museum sends chills to any reader. The total disregard for artifacts is synonymous to a total disregard for culture, history and values. The place according to Cole, “…is clotted with a weird reticence. It is clear that no one cares about artefacts. There are such gaps in the collection that one can only imagine that there has been a recent plunder.” (P.67) Though Lagos prides itself with been a land of prosperity, one cannot ignore the culture of poverty, cheating, misdemeanour and total nonchalance for values and virtues that can be a solid base for economic prosperity.

More disturbing is the attitude of Lagosians to these problems. Their apathy is seen in their avoidance of details. The nature of not wanting to know, not wanting to be bothered, not wanting to care. The social Darwinist configuration of an average Lagosian pulls him away from focusing on the main problem and just is satisfied with having a little idea about the problem. All they need is an idea and that is all and just as long as they can survive based on that idea (that shallow knowledge). It is all about surviving the already decayed structures and social systems.

This points to the slow but frightening erosion of thinkers, contemplators and intelligentsia. This sad culture of “idea l’a need” (idea is all we need) is what baffles the author and he cites the examples of the two plane crashes in Nigeria that saw about 75 pupils killed as the plane went up in flames and the firefighters could not work because they had no water.  Cole laments the consumerism nature that plagues the city.

We do not manufacture any aircraft, telephones or jet engines and “But more important, we do not foster ways of thinking that lead to the development of cell phones and jet engines. Part of that philosophical equipment is an attention to details: a rejection of only the broad outlines of a system, a commitment to precision, an engagement with the creative and scientific spirit behind what one uses.” (P.119)

Every Day is for the Thief- Teju Cole

The book closes with dimness and gloom as the author describes a herd of coffin makers which is symbolic of the dire situations in Lagos. It may be symbolic of hopelessness and sadness. For Teju Cole, he cannot ignore the magnetic pull that the city has on him and this feeling is a common one. Many have a love hate relationship with Lagos. In spite of its many troubles, the vibrancy in the city cannot be ignored. The city’s loud yellow and black colours stand out in Nigeria as a beehive of activities. Teju Cole ends the book by showing that life in Lagos is a blend of good and bad. In the concluding paragraph he puts it thus,

“And there are, perhaps, women in the back rooms of their humble houses who help prepare the bodies for their last journey, washing down what remains of a father or mother or child, fitting the heavy limbs into new clothes, putting talcum powder on the face, working coconut oil into the hair and scalp” (P.139). 

Every Day is for the Thief- Teju Cole

Maybe, the city dwellers can ignore their daily deaths caused by pain, struggle and poverty and just rub talcum powders on the faces of their situations. Powders supplied by religion, hope and the dire need to just survive.  The book is quite pessimist but does justice in drawing up a realist commentary of Lagos. The language is simple and straightforward. It reads like a documentary but the reader is better exposed to the inner workings of Lagos as the writer vividly describes common areas in the state and the road networks. The book might be boring for anyone seeking a huge plot but an interesting story does not seem like what the writer was about. Rather, he was focused on truth. It is a book that is a product of a lived experience and lived experiences may not all be fun. Well done, Teju Cole.

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