Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: A Review
Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos, has kept me company for the last few days and what a massively enjoyable read it was. In this masterfully-told tale, with amazing precision to detail, we are introduced to a cast of unforgettable characters. Chike – solemn and deliberate. His military training has formed him, his noble piety has provided him with a solid moral compass. Yemi – quietly formidable. His unwavering loyalty to Chike brings him to Lagos, understanding that in doing so he would satisfy a restless desire that burns in him to broaden his horizons. Ifeoma – demure and maternal. She struggles between the need to adhere to the traditional values she has been raised with and the demands of a contradictory society. Fineboy – smart and inventive. He is the archetypal Nigerian young man who, although betrayed by a corrupt system, does not dwell on those dashed hopes but successfully identifies his innate qualities. He builds on those to create a method to skillfully navigate through life (complete with an affected American accent). Isoken – sharp-witted, stoic and headstrong. Dazzlingly brilliant, she presents a fine balance of beauty and brains as the vagaries of life teach her to be resourceful.
Fate throws them together, but this unlikely posse of five is bound by something deeper – a redemptive hope that the future would carry them as far away as possible from their haunted past and, in taking a leap of faith they go to Lagos – a city which welcomes you with open arms and does not question your mission.
Lagos was a jungle, an orderly ecosystem, with a ranked food chain, winners and losers decided before they were born.
In Lagos, they encounter individuals who are battling demons of their own. The perverse and self-entitled, but fundamentally goodhearted Chief Sandayo. He adopts a braggadocio attitude to shroud the burden of of guilt he has to carry, as he comes to the realization that he has become a part of what he vehemently abhors. The inordinately selfless Ahmed, who understanding the source of his prestigious upbringing, is driven by a strong desire to valiantly fight social injustice, his newspaper serving as a much-needed catharsis.
It does not take long for the reader to discover that in reading this book you are being taken on a journey. From the Niger Delta, to Lagos (with vivid descriptions of oft-overlooked locales like Badagry and Makoko), with forays into Abuja and London.
Ms. Onuzo ingeniously creates a tapestry that showcases the diversity of the city of Lagos and the many facets that make it unique. The wealth and the deprivation: one moment you are under a bridge with unimaginable poverty gnawing at you, the next moment you are in a wealthy suburb complete with uniformed servants and perfectly manicured gardens. And then there is the amalgamation of languages: one moment a character is singing sweetly in Igbo, the next moment another character is being chastised in flawless Yoruba. And of course, the food. Nigerian cuisine unique and tantalizingly distinguishable, described so exquisitely:
Roadside food was there for the foraging, suya skewered and grilling, meatpies trapped in lit-up glass cages, golden nuggets of puffpuff bobbing in vats of hot oil, boli and groundnut to be mashed together in one mouthful.
There is drama, there is action, there is romance and flashes of comedy. You will laugh, you may even cry and you will be mortified, but more than anything you will be wonderfully entertained. Ms. Onuzo has a gift of language and she uses it well. There are sentences in this book that are so beautifully crafted, I experienced instances when I would momentarily put the book down to digest what I had just read.
And were pigs a lighter species with hinged wings, they would fly.
When I came to the end of the book, I was mildly sorrowful as I looked up and the world around me was going on as normal and I was not in Lagos anymore.