Teju Cole’s EVERY DAY is for THE THIEF : A review by Ndi Charles

Teju cole

EVERY DAY is for THE THIEF is a thought provoking, witty memoir of an i- been – to (american returnee’s) encounter with the city of Lagos after a decade and half of absence. The author is also a photographer, so this is a book of snapshots; pictorial and literary on the state of Nigerian affairs.

The first chapter abruptly introduces the reader to national bad habits as experienced in the embassy in New York. Dirty carpets, in orderliness, and corruption. The narrator’s early account of travelling to Nigeria is replete with traffic standstills, bickering policemen, and traffic toll collection corruption:

money, dished out in quantities fitting the context, is a social lubricant here. it eases passage even as it maintains heirachies.
(Pg 19)

The informal economy is the livelihood of many lagosians. But the corruption, in the form of piracy or of graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the people out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Nothing works precisely because everyone takes a short cut, and for this reason, the only way to get anything doneis to take another short cut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidder, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.
(Pg 21)

One cannot stay in Nigeria and not experience a power cut (nepa don cease light).

The fan resumes spinning, like a broken conversation continued in mid- sentence. Light bulbs hiss back to brightness in the hallway and living room. The heat is difficult to deal with at night, and often I dont get to sleep until the power is restored. Only then, as the fan cools the room down, do I finally fade out of consciousness. But, within an hour or two, the sun comes up, and the muezzin and the cockerels begin their daily contest; and any further hope of sleep is futile. The hardest thing to deal with after weeks of constant powercuts, is the noise of generators. The house, which is quite large, has been carved up into three sizable apartments. Two have been rented out to other families, an arrangement that supplements my relatives income. One negative result of this arrangement is that there are now three loud diesel generators in the compound. When they all come on, as they do nightly, I can feel my mind fraying. The noise, the dark grey plumes of diesel smoke are foremost in my mind. The moment there is a power cut, my evening is finished. The neighbours downstairs watch south african sitcoms at top volume. My bedroom, near the generator house is filled with the din. It is impossible to hear myself think. I would prefer, on these evenings, to sit in silence wit a candle, but that is not a decision I can make for the eighteen other individuals in the compound.
(Pg 55)

Cockerels crows skittering over the muezzins call to prayer in melismatic arabic is very familiar. The narrator suggests that the proliferation of cyber cafes – symbolic of a connection to a larger world, is wrongfully harnessed by youths – who in trying to shake off poverty have emerged as the yahoo yahoo. Some info on 19 boys is given:

While they often work in the daytime, they especially favour the night; that is when they have discounts at internet cafes. Under cover of night, the yahoo yahoo can work for long coffee fuelled stretches, unmolested by censors.
(Pg 27)

All Lagos owambes I have attended, sitted amongst aso oke caps and shiny geles, I have made sure to consume jollof rice and moin moin, just like the narrator. I am fascinated by religion, also the narrator.

Pastor Olakunle owns several mercedes cars. It is not clear if he is living as victoriously as Pastor Michael who well known, owns both a Rolls Royce and a Lear jet, praise the Lord.
(Pg 45)

Church has become one of the biggest businesses in Nigeria, with branches and ministries springing up like weeds on every street and corner. These Christians are militant, preaching a potent combination of a fear of hell fire and a love of financial prosperity. Many of the most ardent believers are students in the secondary schools and universities. This is the world-view in which prayer is a sufficient solution for plane crashes. Everyone expects a miracle, and those who do not receive theirs are blamed for having insufficient faith. Partly in response to this, and partly from internal urgings, Islam has also become extreme, particularly in the north. Some of the northern states , such as Zamfara, are de facto theocratic entities in which sharia is the law of the land. Staying opposite the Zamfara state house in Abuja, I could not sleep for the constant wailing emanating from the official mosque in the compound.
(Pg 109)

EVERY DAY is for THE THIEF gives the reader a glimpse into how suppression of history has negatively impacted the tourism industry.There is a sad commentary on a museum in Lagos. History, which elsewhere is the bone of contention, is yet to enter public consciousness, at least judging by institutions like the museum. It is indeed jarring to recall: artefacts caked in dust under dirty plastic screens, nonchalant staff, absence of brochures on collections, courtyards rented out for birthday parties. Oya ponder on the prevalent ineptitude of government since tay tay ago:

The Queen of England had come to Nigeria for a state visit in 1973. The then head of state, General Gowon had telephoned Udoh Udoh, director of the museum at the time, to inform him that he was coming over to the museum to select a piece as a gift for her. Dr Udoh, the moment he put the phone down, scrambled to put some of the best pieces away into storage and out of harms way. But how does one hide a whole museum? Gowon arrived in due course, picked a fine benin Queen Mother head from the seventeenth century, much to Dr Udoh’s horror, and gave it away to Elizabeth II. The Queen of England reasonably enough assumed it was a replica. She put it on a shelf in the Royal library. The true status of the piece was not discovered until 2002 when it was brought out for the jubilee exhibition. The fact that it was found to be a genuine antique – John Wallace helped detect this – substantially weakened the Nigerian governments case for the return of the numerous Benin plaques currently in the British museum. The strangest thing about that particular Benin Queen Mother head was that it had originally been plundered by the British in 1897 during the punitive expedition, that destroyed Benin city, and only returned in the 1950’s to help set up the Nigerian national museum. It had already crossed the ocean twice before the General, in gratitude for Britains support of the federal cause during the Biafran war, gave it away again. And the British, this time around, had no intention of returning the work.
(Pg 64)

If that did not make you feel bad for Nigeria. This should:

The narrative on the three most recent regimes, printed on paper, are tacked near the end of the circular gallery. No one could possibly form a positive impression of Nigeria on the basis of this museum. The worst of the butchers that ran the nation aground are celebrated, without exception. Abacha is there, in his dark glasses. Babangida is there, with his oily smile. The sequence of plaques gives an impresion of orderliness and continuity in Nigeria’s post independence history, and no analysis of the coups and counter coups that were the rule rather than the exception for changes of regime. What I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history.
(Pg 66)

If you are a Nigerian reader, it is highly possible your inner shock absorbers have been damaged.

At times, the absurdity makes me laugh. Other times, the only possible response is stunned silence. shortly before I left New York for Lagos, there was a plane crash in Nigeria. A Bellview aircraft plying the Lagos – Abuja route went down three minutes after take – off, into forests near the village of Lissa in Ogun state. None of the hundred and seventeen passengers on board survived. A government inquiry was promised, and there was much public hand wringing and talk about a time of national prayer. While I am in Nigeria, two months later, a plane belonging to the Sosoliso airlines goes down on the Abuja – port harcourt route. One hundred, and six people are killed, and there is asingle survivor. The victims include seventy – five school children returning home for the holidays. Almost all of them are pupils of the Ignatius Loyola Jesuit boarding
school. There are harrowing scenes of parents contending over the bodies of children burnt beyond recognition. Many of the parents witness the accident, because it happens on arrival, when the plane overshoots the runway. The fire department has no water and can only watch as the plane incinerates its passengers. A few days later, mothers of the dead children stage a peaceful protest in Lagos. At the march, these mothers, some of whom lost as many as three of their children, are tear gassed by police, and that is the end of the matter. There is no further protest, and there is no redress.
(Pg 105)

Just opposite the museum is the music school for rich kids (aje butters) with instruction in singing, violin, piano, flute, clarinet, trumpet, cello and classical guitar for all ages. No wonder Nigerians were rated happiest people in the world.
My favourite quote is: Touting is not a job. It is a way of being in the world. Pure attitude: the chest puffed out, the body limber, the jaw set to brook no opposition. There is, in every single tout , the same no- nonsense attitude, the hair trigger temper, the willingness to get into a fight over any and all conflicts. There is a strut they do, a swagger. These are the original wise guys of Lagos, some of them as young as fourteen. They do not go home in the evening and stop being touts: the thing is bound to their souls. The regular Lagosian, too, has to share this attitude. The body language as one moves through the street has to be one of undiluted certainty and self assurance. Because uncertainty in the face or gait attracts attention, and attention is bad. When you catch a strangers eye, the message you send has to be unequivocal: Trust me, you don’t want to mess with me. There are people who roam around looking for victims. People who by dint of practice, can sniff out weakness.
(Pg 33)

I learnt the difference between: a danfo and a molue, a labyrinth and a maze. I wondered why the narrator hated his mother.

Photo credit: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1345189865l/2320230.jpg

©Ndi Charles 2015

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