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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 July, 2003, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Sense of the City: Lagos
The BBC is asking novelists who have a profound understanding of the city they live in to reflect on the fiction it has produced and the various works of literature set there.

Helon Habila
You can be good or bad in Lagos
Helon Habila
Helon Habila started his writing career as a journalist in Lagos. In 2001 he won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, Love Poems.The story is about a poet detained in jail, whose poetry is falsely claimed by the jailer as his own. His debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, charts the experiences of a young journalist, Lomba, living under military rule in Lagos.

Lagos is seen as a place where people come and lose their innocence. It is seen as a kind of enemy to innocence, because basically it is a colonial creation.

It is a city, and it was a new thing in Africa around that time - I'm talking about the 50s and 60s - where most of Nigeria was rural with people living in the villages.

So this new creation, which was the capital of Nigeria at that time, symbolises what was seen as Western, alien, opposed to what was African.

So most writers tend to use Lagos as a place where people go and become something else - something opposed to what they should be when they were living in the village.

It's not surprising to see authors talking about Lagos as the "Devil's City".

People see Lagos as a certain violent place. It's almost like a living thing - like some animal that's going to devour you
For instance in Chinua Achebe's No Longer At Ease, we see his main character, Obi, who is a civil servant.

He has just returned from Britain. He is one of the elite, he has been educated. He comes to Lagos, he comes from a very very good family from the village.

Then, after a couple of years in Lagos, he gets corrupted. He starts taking bribes, he starts sleeping around with women, he totally rejects his people, his village.

So that is, again, very typical of this depiction of Lagos in Nigerian literature.

Ben Okri
Ben Okri wrote about Lagos in the 80s and 90s
I think the main idea behind it is that these writers see Lagos as a very convenient symbol of whatever is alien to Africa, whatever is intrusive, foreign to African values.

There was a lot of debate, then, about values - whether African values are better than Western values - and most authors tend to reject Westernisation because they felt that Africans should be African.

Another writer who wrote about Lagos in the 80s and 90s, his name is Ben Okri.

He has this young person who wants to be a painter. He lives with his family, but gradually we see his family disintegrating.

The city is actually seen as a kind of enemy which kills family relationships. You can actually see him fighting the city, trying to achieve what he wants to achieve. There is violence, habitual violence.

In Lagos you have Nigerians themselves, coming from all over the country. Then you have foreigners - others from different neighbouring countries in Africa. Foreigners coming from the West - white people and all that.

Fela Kuti
Fela Kuti: A "typical Lagosian"
So you have this incredible mix in one place - this is like a godsend to an author - you can do so many things with that.

You can explore different people's psyche. Anything can happen in Lagos. People see Lagos as a certain violent place. It's almost like a living thing - like some animal that's going to devour you.

There are other artist representations of Lagos and music is especially important in that representation.

When I speak about music I tend to refer particularly to the late Fela Kuti, who lived in Lagos, who was a "Lagosian" (the indigenous of Lagos call themselves Lagosian).

And Fela is typical, typical Lagosian. His songs tend to portray this chaotic nature of Lagos.

But beneath the depiction of that chaos, beneath that fearful presentation, there is also a sense that if you come to Lagos, the songs seem to say, you just have to be strong, you have to stand on your own two feet, you have to lose your innocence, you have to learn so much, you have to be wise. Lagos actually makes you grow very, very fast.

There is something almost magical about Lagos. It's so perfect for a writer. You could be sitting by your window and looking out into the street, and you have the whole story happening right there in front of you.

All you have to do is just write it. But I think there is going to be a kind of change in this representation in the future, like I did in my own book here.

I tried to show more acceptance of this fact of the city in African life. It's not seen as an enemy now. it's just a fact of life.

I just show people going about their lives in Lagos. You can actually live there. You can be good or bad there. Not like it was presented before where if you came to Lagos you would be automatically doomed. No. It doesn't mean that.

So I think a lot of young writers are going to be more sympathetic in their representation of Lagos because they understand it more.

Sense of the City can be heard on the BBC World Service programme The World Today until Friday 8 August, and includes Orhan Pamuk talking about Istanbul, Romesh Gunesekera on Colombo, and Zadie Smith looking at London.

Author Helon Habila
"There is something almost magical about Lagos"


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