words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

eighth letter

Dear friend,

It has been one of those days. The weather outside is cold, slightly colder than cold. There hasn’t been a snowfall recently, but the combination of salt and unmelted snow makes the road look as if someone has sprinkled fine powder on it. I have been pitched all of a sudden into winter after weeks of purest Nigerian sunshine.

I miss the sun. Normally, one prepares for winter through the gradually intensifying cold of autumn. Not so for me in this year. This is an entirely different world from the one I’ve just come from. I am no stranger to winter, but something seems to have shifted now. Maybe it has to do with Nigeria itself. The country didn’t merely evolve, quickly, during my stay there; it also evolved in its relationship to the United States. Sometimes, it’s hard to see how one is viewed until one is outside the home base. Attempted plane bombings aside, Nigeria seems to be much in the news here. To the vague embarrassment of Abdulmutallab’s idiocy, we have added the specific embarrassments of being a country without a president and without any clear plan forward. The issues that swirl around this confusion make Nigeria the subject of jokes.

Are our other leaders doing their duties with honor and transparency in oga’s absence? Or are they in the midst of frenzied looting? Are they showing proper respect for the country’s constitution? Who will vouch for them? In Lagos and Abuja, I thought a lot of the things I was reading about and seeing were strange, but I couldn’t be sure. A traveler needs distance and time to evaluate what he has seen. What I thought strange late last year, I can now, from a few thousand miles away, confirm as unquestionably strange.

Perhaps most troubling of the hints and shadows emerging from the Yar’Adua affair is the suggestion, which you will have seen widely repeated, that Goodluck Jonathan’s new deputy will be someone anointed by the Northern power brokers. That deputy, it is understood, will then go on to rule the country. These powerbrokers are “the same old politicians wey spoil Nigeria before” (to quote a Fela song). We say these things so blithely: we talk of people being “selected,” we talk of people being “chosen,” and we seem to forget that Nigeria is a democracy.

Meanwhile, as if to illustrate that there’s no better time to kick a person than when he’s down, other troubles gather. In the New York Times today, there was a prominent story about the Nigerian consulate. Apparently, the consulate owes the City of New York unpaid taxes to the tune of sixteen million dollars. Although diplomatic buildings are normally exempt from municipal taxes, the Nigerian consulate for many years housed the offices of Nigeria Airways, which was a commercial venture. The money is owed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself something of a crook, has said, “The city will go after every dollar that is owed to taxpayers.” Haba! Doesn’t the man know that we have bigger fish to fry at the moment?

More trivial but perhaps not entirely insignificant news comes in: the Super Eagles have just been thrashed by Egypt at the Nations Cup, 3-1. The mediocrity of “our boys” doesn’t come as a shock to anyone, since our preparation is always sub-standard. But the humiliations are piling on rather thickly. Quite clearly, Nigeria is not having a good day, or a good week, or, let’s be honest, a good decade.

Is that true? Is it fair? There’s been another Nigeria getting attention in New York City. The biggest show on Broadway right now is about the life of Fela. It is making lots of money, and many people are seeing it. That’s a good day for Nigeria. I’m told the show is well done, though I haven’t seen it myself. I suppose I don’t need to see an American doing his impression of Fela when I’ve just seen Seun do an impression that goes beyond an impression. In any case, my computer contains a day’s worth of Fela albums. Today, I’m listening to one of Fela’s most liquid grooves, a slow-burning, angry masterpiece from the early 80s called  Look and Laugh.

As I listen, I begin to talk back to Fela. “I just look o, and I dey laugh. I dey America, Fela, and I dey look Nigeria and I just dey laugh.” I want to tell Fela all about the latest outrages. I want to be the first to tell him about the Senate resolution that has just passed, courtesy of which Nigeria’s former leaders are due a hefty pay raise. Pay for what? Am I dreaming? There is Shagari. There is Babangida. There are lesser lights like Shonekan. They are all there, the same people who dribbled Nigeria, who wrecked the country, who put its innocent people under the lash, and at the same time carted off the national wealth. The amount to be paid out to them annually is said to be in the region of N2 billion. Abi dem swear for this country? Fury gets the better of me. I want to spit. But here comes that liquid groove again. I just dey look. I just dey laugh.

I look, yes. I look closely. Lagos was full of stories, all of them symptoms of our larger condition. Lagos as a geographical space reclaimed me again and now, in the frigid cold of America, looking, laughing unhappily at Naija, I want to find a way into how to tell the story that needs telling. In my view, the biggest challenge for the writer, within Nigeria or outside it, is to write about the place in a balanced way. What you want to do is take that anger, that fury, that observation of the suffering of the people, and let it form into something creative within you. The greatest risk I see is that the fury might obscure another important part of the story: that Nigeria is livable, that people live well in Nigeria, and in some ways it isn’t all that different from living anywhere else.

After all, children go to school, accountants go to offices, young lovers meet, computer technicians repair computers, and life goes on. All this must be depicted, and it is urgent because out here, in the wilfully blind West, they really don’t know that such things are true of Nigeria. They think we live on trees and that warlords roam the streets.

But at the same time we must keep that inner fire, keep it on our own behalf and on behalf of those who are suffering because of the system: the people who are enduring a country with no president, no leadership, no morals, no fuel, no nothing. Fury can make a writer fearless, and fearlessness is required of us now, and fearlessness is contagious.

The fire within and the freezing cold without: the conditions are perfect. I dey look and laugh. Time to get to work.




Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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