Short book recommendation: pick up Teju Cole’s Every Day is For The Thief. It’s excellent and, though specific to Nigeria, the anecdotes and sights conjured up in a series of essays about a (fictional character’s) return trip to the country have the whiff of universality, at least in east Africa. The swaggering touts. The relentless, numbing generators.
The book is short and is self-recommending, so I won’t write a full review. Instead, here are a few excerpts I highlighted:
Touting is not a job. It is a way of being in the world, a distillate of pure attitude: the chest puffed out, the body limber, the jaw set to brook no opposition. There is in every tout the same no-nonsense attitude, the quick temper, the willingness to get into a fight over any and all conflicts. There is a strut they do, a swagger. These are the original wiseguys of Lagos; some of them are as young as fourteen. They do not go home in the evening and stop being touts. The thing is bound to their souls.
The informal economy is the livelihood of many Lagosians. But corruption, in the form of piracy or of graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the majority out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidders, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.
The energies of Lagos life—creative, malevolent, ambiguous—converge at the bus stops. There is no better place to make an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.
But also, there is much sorrow, not only of the dramatic kind but also in the way that difficult economic circumstances wear people down, eroding them, preying on their weaknesses, until they do things that they themselves find hateful, until they are shadows of their best selves. 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. There is venality in abundance here, and the general air of surrender, of helplessness, is the most heartbreaking thing about it.