A Country Out of Control

In Wole Soyinka’s laceratingly satirical new novel, Nigeria has lost its way and is inured to corruption and violence.

In Welcome to Lagos, a TV miniseries broadcast a dozen years ago, the BBC claimed to turn a compassionate lens on the sprawling Nigerian city of at least 10 million, which it portrayed as an uncaring and brutal place populated by resourceful poor people, rogues, and vagabonds. The program followed impoverished inhabitants eking out a living on the beach, at the lagoon, and at a rubbish dump.

When Nigeria’s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka watched the episodes, he struggled to contain his ire at what he considered a reflection of the worst aspects of Britain’s attitude toward its former colony. The depiction was “jaundiced and extremely patronizing,” he lamented, as if it were saying, “Oh, look at these people who can make a living from the pit of degradation.” Lagos, as a microcosm for Nigeria, acted as a soiled canvas, Soyinka implied, on which others, largely ignorant of the society’s nuances, had too often and without sanction imprinted their prejudices. The BBC was guilty of a reductive portrayal of a richly vibrant city.

Soyinka’s complaint has long been echoed by his contemporaries and by younger generations, who have questioned the myriad hackneyed ways the continent and its cities are depicted by outsiders. In his fiercely satirical essay “How to Write About Africa,” the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina advised:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book…. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these…. Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved).

Soyinka would concur, though in writing about Nigeria he has at times sounded like a relative who is happy to voice criticism of family members himself but takes umbrage when a nonmember articulates similar sentiments.

On Key

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