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Read Your Way Through Lagos

Read Your Way Around the World is a series exploring the globe through books.


Lagos is an experience of a lifetime. The city will enchant and wreck you. The bedlam. The 15-minute journeys that stretch to five hours because of traffic jams. The multitudes everywhere you turn, each individual fizzing with hope and energy and stories, each unfazed by the maladies of living here — crumbling infrastructure, an oppressive kleptocratic government, the daily whiff of disasters brewing.

Lagos, or Èkó (as it’s known in Yoruba), is a city of paradoxes, of extremes. Every condition exists prodigiously here. This is why Lagosians sometimes quip, “Èkó no dey carry last”: “Lagos never ranks last in anything.” Take housing. In the neighborhoods of Lekki and Ikoyi, you’ll find mansions posher than any in Manhattan or Mayfair. But across the Lagos Lagoon, you’ll find a floating city: thousands of families living in shacks built over stinking waters.

With more than 15 million people, Lagos is Nigeria’s capital of culture, finance and entertainment. It is the laboratory of two of Nigeria’s major cultural exports: music (including Afrobeat) and cinema (Nollywood). Afrobeat songs chart high on the Billboard Hot 100; Nollywood is the world’s second-largest movie industry by output. Even when I was a boy growing up in northern Nigeria, hundreds of miles away, the city was my reality. Like most Nigerians, it informed my identity — culturally, linguistically, philosophically.

Each time I visit, time seems both to freeze and to hasten. Every moment amid the orchestra of Lagos’s streets or the polychrome of its markets, every stop at its psychedelic owambe parties or its devious police checkpoints, every conversation overheard or scene witnessed makes me wiser, more conscious, more human.

What should I read before I pack my bags?

Although Lagos is ever-changing, like most Nigerian cities, its spirit, and how it informs its residents, remains largely consistent. Thus, many modern classics still offer powerful and faithful evocations of the city.

Set mostly between 1930s and 1940s Lagos, Buchi Emecheta’s novel “The Joys of Motherhood” follows Nnu Ego as she navigates childlessness and the challenges of womanhood and motherhood in a patriarchal society. Emecheta, with immense deftness and subtlety, provides a haunting and forceful attack on patriarchy, sexism and misogyny in Nigeria, and indicates how they taint and limit a nation.

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