The first thing that leapt out to me about this book was the title. A title which says joyous enthusiasm, exciting promise, all with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The second thing that really stands out at a glance is the exceptional cover design which, just to add in my tuppenny’s worth, really ought to be put forward for some kind of award. I’d describe it as ‘Lowry goes to Lagos’ – yes, you may have that for free Faber & Faber – and I bloody love it. Such a great jacket, such a great title. Can the inside possibly live up to such promise? (Spoiler: yes)
Welcome to Lagos brings together five disparate characters, all on the run, who find themselves in Lagos in search of a future: Chike, an officer and his private Yemi both having deserted after being ordered to massacre civilians; Fineboy, a militant with dreams of being a radio DJ; Isoken, who had escaped being raped by Fineboy and his fellow militants; and Oma, on the run from her rich but abusive husband.
Thrown uneasily together by circumstance, the group finds shelter under a bridge, until they find an abandoned flat. Together, they make do, a tenderness growing between Oma and Chike, and Isoken coming to terms with the demons of her past. All until one night, Chief Sandayo, formerly the Education Minister before he fell out of favour with President (for reasons he doesn’t understand), crashes into their life with a suitcase of ‘liberated’ money. After some debate, they set about lavishly donating the money to schools – purchasing computers, books, and even playground equipment for schools whose education budget has been sifted away from them for too long.
Inevitably, their philanthropy, along with the disappearance of a high-profile politician attracts attention. The press descends, and Sandayo is able to reposition himself as more than a ‘corrupt Nigerian politician’, but as a philanthropic benefactor. But how long can their luck last?
Welcome to Lagos is a treat from start to finish, successfully juxtaposing the serious themes of corruption and state-sanctioned murder with a touching story of friendship, and trying to do the right thing. By turns touching, thought-provoking and funny, it’s packed with brilliantly-drawn characters, written with genuine affection, and who feel just as real as the larger-than-life character of Lagos itself, thrumming endlessly in the background.
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo is out now, published by Faber & Faber.