A Call to Arms; the Impact of Colonialism on Nigerian Society Through Teju Cole’s Eyes

A Call to Arms; the Impact of Colonialism on Nigerian Society Through Teju Cole’s Eyes

If only Charlotte from A Book of Common Prayer had spent time in Lagos instead of Boca Grande. I think that she would have found it more truly “A land of contrasts” (Dideon 13). This is because of the exceptional portrait that Teju Cole paints of Nigeria, specifically Lagos, in his novel Every Day is For the Thief. His protagonist, an unnamed Nigerian man who returns to his childhood home in Lagos after 15 years abroad in the United States, struggles from slight culture shock as he comes to terms with what has changed in his absence and what has remained wholly the same. In a series of chapters, some spanning hardly more than a page, Cole touches upon every aspect of his narrator’s return to Nigeria — taking the danfo busses, visiting the National Museum, and haggling at the market. In addition to the narrator’s relearning of how to live in Nigeria, he remembers and is told stories from his past, often horribly graphic in nature, giving the reader an even more complete picture of life there. Through his narrator’s exploration of modern day Lagos, Cole seeks to elucidate the reader as to what it means to be a Lagosian citizen. By illuminating his narrator’s difficulty coping with the system of bribes and tips that are part of everyday life and his coming to terms with a legacy which has been imparted on Nigeria by its history of slavery, Cole explains the daily struggles of a modern Nigerian. In highlighting these struggles he attempts to find space where their stories can be told.

From the very first pages of the novel, Cole aims to emphasize just how entrenched the system of bribes is in Nigerian society.  The narrator attempts to get a new passport issued at the Nigerian consulate in New York City.  After spending far too long dealing with the bloated bureaucracy of the place, he is forced to pay an additional fee in order to get his passport “expedited”.  This fee, as another Nigerian man remarks to him while they wait in line, is “for their [the clerks] own pockets” (6).  Here, the irony is compounded after the narrator pays the fee. He leaves the building, only to see a sign which says, ‘”Help us fight corruption.  If any employee of the Consulate asks you for a bribe or tip, please let us know”’ (8).  This is the first of many of these ironic moments, where the Nigerian government promotes the importance of honesty in work, only to have it undermined by their own employees.  Cole comments on this through the narrator, remarking, “Isn’t it this casual complicity that has sunk our country so deep into its woes?”(7). We see this casual complicity resurface several more times throughout the book.

One such example is when, on the drive to his Aunt’s home after his arrival in Lagos, the narrator observes several policemen participating in this complicity.  They stand in a roundabout, collecting bribes from commercial vehicles who pass through. The policemen’s behavior is juxtaposed with the billboard hanging above where they work, which reads,’” Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes”’ (15).  The narrator calls this Nigeria’s ‘”informal economy”’ (15), which infects all classes of society there.  As the narrator notes, the informal economy spreads to all reaches of Nigeria, including the wave of Pentecostal churches which have been founded there.  In a short chapter, only two pages long, Cole writes about how the wealth of two pastors are intertwined with their love of God.

Pastor Olakunle owns several Mercedes-Benz cars.  It is not clear if he is living as victoriously as Pastor Michael, who, as is well known, owns both a Rolls-Royce and a Learjet, praise the Lord…Nevertheless, our God is not a poor God, and Pastor Olakunle does very well (51).

These men, who preach healing and the love of God to their followers, happen to also be grossly wealthy for what they do.  This again is a terrific example as to how the casual complicity in Nigerian society allows these men to draw so much unentitled revenue from their churches through bribes and solicitations.  Furthermore, it harps upon the ideas preached by many of the powerful Nigerian religious figures, who tell their followers that God will provide, only to have their followers themselves provide for them.

By including these stark contrasts between prescribed ideals and reality, Cole wishes to highlight the challenges of life which are unique to Nigeria.  He depicts a society wherein many people seek less than fair methods to make money, leading to a trickle-down effect of bribes and tips.  The Yahoo Boys, who spend all day writing scam emails at the hope of a big payoff, would rather do this than earn an honest living.  Despite Nigeria being a leading producer of crude oil, when the narrator and his friend attempt to find gas for their car, they have visit ten stations before they find one which is open and able to serve them.  After the narrator’s Aunt receives a large shipment of school supplies, going through several bribes in the process, she has to deal with the Area boys who wish to share in her “wealth” by theft.  As the boys say, “You have become wealthy and we must become wealthy too” (106).  Herein, Cole addresses another difficulty of Nigerian life; the constant tug downward from those who see others getting wealthy.  This goes hand in hand with the society of bribes, as Cole argues that the Area boys represent a part of a larger whole.  They exist to level the playing field, to bring those who have rose up back down to the rest of them.  Because of this, Cole suggests that many lower and middle class Nigerians are caught in a pickle.  They cannot make enough money to survive without taking bribes, and if they do make enough money, it is systematically collected from them through bribes and other methods.   In addition to Cole’s narrator recognizing that Nigerian nationhood is defined by its culture of bribery over the course of the novel, he also acknowledges the part that slavery has had to play in this definition.

In the same way that the Area boys seek to drag down those who attained some wealth, Cole’s narrator highlights how during the Yoruba wars the different tribes sold each other to the English, Portuguese, and Spanish colonizers there.  In both cases, Nigerians hurting fellow Nigerians.  The narrator begins his discussion of the impacts of Nigerian slavery in a compelling way; he calls Nigeria “an atmosphere in which the past has been erased, contradictions forbidden” (112).  This thought will be crucial to the narrator coming to terms with the mass exodus of Nigerians taken as slaves to America.  In the wake of this brutal colonial past, Nigeria lost its history.  Yet despite this, he cannot shake the idea that the city of Lagos has a “secret twinship…with another, thousands of miles away” (112).  He continues this idea, writing about how New Orleans served as a hub for the transportation and sale of African men and women into slavery, and how Lagos was one of the busiest ports.  This history of colonialism and the slavery that followed it is also seen in the narrator’s visit to the National Museum.

The narrator calls the museum “something they [he] holds onto” (72), and visits it in order to surround himself with Nigerian relics and history.  However, he is disheartened by the dearth of Nigerian artwork found there, and after asking the front desk, stumbles upon a single plaque which encapsulates the entirety of Nigeria’s history of slavery.  It merely says, ‘”in the early part of the nineteenth century, the efforts of various abolitionists gradually brought the obnoxious practice of slavery to an end”’ (78).  The narrator is shocked by the lack of meaning and history to this section, and this brings about another way in which Cole exemplifies the difficulty of life as a Nigerian.

This difficulty, Cole argues, is the lack of history, or at least the attempt to repress it.  The narrator struggles to cope with the fact that history has “yet to enter the Nigerian public consciousness” (79), which is in stark contrast to his home for the past 15 years, the United States.  There, the country’s history of slavery is all too apparent, and its results are still present and recognized even today.  His goal in visiting the National museum was to reclaim his history and roots, but instead he is lost in a sea of Nigerians who are not interested in remembering the past.  The narrator acknowledges this fact again later in the novel, when he writes,

This [the sailing of European ships in Nigerian waters despite their being banned] history is missing from Lagos.  There is no monument to the great wound.  There is no day of remembrance, no commemorative museum…Faulkner said: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” But in Lagos we sleep dreamlessly, the sleep of innocents (114).

Again, the narrator expresses his distaste in the lack of a Nigerian national pride or some sort of movement to reclaim and reparate for injustices done onto them by European colonizers.  In addition to this acknowledgement of injustices, Cole pushes back even further through his narrator.  Cole questions whether there is a burden on an average Nigerian to remember these injustices, and in remembering to work to do something against them.  The narrator wonders why there is no commemorative museum, and in doing so, Cole wonders whether it is the task of a Lagosian, in the wake of such unjustness, to take actions in return. Or at least, to create literature about it.

Throughout the novel, Cole’s narrator is plagued with an inability to put words on the page.  He tries several times over the course of the novel, but each time is met with distractions which cause him to lose focus and give up.  As this pattern continues, it becomes more and more clear that the entire focus of the novel is about that.  Cole sets up, by means of a witty and engaging narrator, a case study for understanding life as a Nigerian does, for any reader in any country.  He displays the difficulties of their everyday lives through the many occurrences of forced bribery which seem so entrenched in the society that they are just accepted for what they are.  Intertwined with this is the unescapable history of the slavery of Nigerians which, while many choose to forget and shrug off, is still present in the society today, though any remembrance of it is pushed to the edges of consciousness.  Cole correlates the two, using his narrator, who remarks in a bookstore in Lagos, “Why is history uncontested here?  There is no sight of that dispute over words, that battle over versions of stories that marks the creative inner life of a society” (117).  Through the text, he makes the case that Nigeria’s bribery-based society may have even been caused in some part by this past of colonization and exploitation.  However, this is just the how.

The why is Cole’s challenge to young Nigerians growing up in the same situation that he himself did.  Cole writes, “There is a disconnect between the wealth of stories available here and the rarity of creative refuge” (68).  This phrase is the penultimate point of the argument which Cole sets up through the entirety of Every Day is For the Thief.  Over the course of the novel, he acknowledges the difficulties of growing up and living in Nigeria.  He highlights the rocky and unfair past of European Colonialism and slavery which has put Nigerian society in the place that it is in today.  Finally, he calls to the young of the generation to fill the gaps of the CMS (now called CSS) Bookshop which his narrator visits on Lagos Island.  His narrator asks, “Where are the Nigeria-based Nigerian writers?”(116), and as a result of this novel, Cole puts the call out to them.  After seeing a fight between two car drivers caught in a collision, the narrator says,

Well, this is wonderful…Life hangs out here…it is a paradise for the lover of gossip…It [fighting because of car crashes] is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleep American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes (65).

In writing this, Cole shows that despite the problems that continue to plague Nigeria, there is still an exquisite beauty to it.  He is but one writer, and by creating this contrast between the overplayed and highly symbolized writing of American authors, he hints that there is much room for young Nigerian writers to grow and develop, while writing beautiful stories that no one besides Nigerians could experience and imagine, but all can enjoy.  Every Day is For the Thief serves as one giant call to arms for the creatives of Nigeria, to remember history and reclaim it, making it their own through the stories that they alone know.



In this essay, the book I am referencing is Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief.

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