Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Cassava Republic, (2007) Revised and updated 2015
Soft Cover, 139 pages
A Nigerian narrator, living as a professional in New York for 15 years, returns home to (re)explore his home, perhaps in search of some part of himself or his past. In a series of mostly short chapters, he describes his interactions and experiences as he makes his way about Lagos, finding himself confronted by things he does not always expect despite the fact that this is his old home. Many reviewers think the narrator believes he has returned to a changed Nigeria, but actually it is probably the narrator that has changed the most. This book is labeled as “fiction”, but really reads more like a personal journal; one cannot help believing that the author is writing about himself.
Teju Cole’s writing is compact and easy to read, but still manages to completely paint each scene vividly. Although the potential for violence is mentioned several times throughout the chapters, the presence of full-on malevolence is never really felt. The most prominent theme is the constant experience of petty corruption that throws shade on almost every one-on-one contact between strangers. The official salary that most livelihoods pay is far too little for most Nigerians to survive on, and they must “derive a living from their affairs” (as described in an old story of Imperial Russia). As the narrator says: “The problem used to only be the leadership. But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation.”
The corruption starts in the very first chapter when the narrator visits the Nigerian consulate, a dingy place, to get the new Nigerian passport that will enable him to go home. The normal wait for a passport is four weeks, despite the official website insistence that normal turnaround time is only ONE week. This can be expedited by payment of an additional fee. Tellingly, the money order for “expediting” needs to be provided separately from the passport fee itself, and the receipt one receives includes only the passport fee. The expediting fee simply disappears into a pocket. Right in the office is a sign: “Help Us Fight Corruption.” It is not the last time he sees such a sign.
Electrical service is spotty, especially after dark, and those who can afford generators for backup have them. For the rest, the house frequently goes dark early in the evening and can stay that way until the next day. The narrator speaks of sleep disturbed each night due to the constant assault by the noise of diesel generators running outside. He also makes a trip to an Internet café, and talks about observing with sideways glances that others are busy tapping out their own versions of the email scams Nigeria has become infamous for. These are illegal under Nigerian law, but that doesn’t observably slow the perpetrators down. Getting caught and being required to pay a fine is just a cost of doing business; like so many other parts of the typical Nigerian's life, unexpected surcharges abound.
Based on what I’ve heard about Nigeria, I was not completely surprised by the general description of life in Lagos, but the writing is still quite interesting and added color and humanity to what was only my general conceptual impression. I found this an interesting and well-written book and a worthwhile read.