International Sisi Eko as tour guide to the city of dreams
The snapshot, near photographic nature of the short story makes it a fitting format to tell the ubiquitous and inexhaustible Lagos story that seemingly stretches to infinity. This is what the Department of English, University of Lagos, has latched unto to give lovers of the short story slices of life as it is lived in Lagos, the city of aquatic splendor, which is indeed a more fitting epithet to the dream-making city than the rather drab ‘Centre of Excellence’ its managers officially adopt.
As captured in these stories and as has become increasingly evident, ‘excellence’ is a word that is far from the daily reality of living in Lagos. But in a sense, it is also part of the ambivalence that makes the city what it is: a city of many shifting shapes, shades, and colours!
With the Head of Department of English, Prof. Hope Eghagha, and Prof. Karen King-Aribisala leading the pack as editors, International Sisi Eko and Other Stories, subtitled Lagos Stories – Volume 1 (Prestige – Kachifo Limited, Lagos; 2018), and other lecturers of the department and their past students, the volume is a tidy anthology that explores parts of the unending Lagos story. It is why the editors indicate there is more to come as no single volume can satisfactorily tell the Lagos story. International Sisi Eko faintly echoes Toni Kan’s 2017 novel The Carnivorous City which is an apt exploration of the wily underbelly of Lagos city.
According to the editors, “It is an experimental effort and we hope that with the completion of this volume, we will start a tradition of telling the story of Lagos to the world as we see it.”
The volume opens with Lola Akande’s ‘I Fixed it’, which explores marital infidelity and the monster it could turn out to be when things go awry. When Dr. Femi Duduyemi falls for Theresa in somewhat awkward circumstances as doctor and nurse working together, it seems ordinary enough act of breaking marital vows. But when Theresa’s husband finds out and throws her out, things rapidly change for the unexpected. And when Theresa gets pregnant for Duduyemi, things escalate to the point of murdering an innocent child that results from the illicit liaison. That is when Duduyemi finds that murdering the innocent is not so innocent an act, as the child begins to haunt him in broad daylight and he gets confined to a psychiatric ward, with his wife also lending credence to his incipient insanity.
‘The Long Night’ by Pascal Nwankwo explores the drug-dealing underbelly of Lagos and how such illegal business partly fuels big politics and other big businesses. Real life cases of drug dealing fueling politicians’ career are common. It is a fine example of how politics and crime get cozy in bed in the Nigerian clime and how the aspiration of the electorate gets truncated. An entire family is enmeshed in the drug business as foot soldiers for a politician. When the agency responsible for stopping the drug trade comes calling, the family escapes through the backdoor. But this is as far as they go.
The reader cannot but be get sucked into Nwankwo’s optimism when he projects that good men later assume power and both the drug-dealing politician and the family get deserved justice. Only two members out of the family escape the sting of justice, as their future aspirations rise above board in their quest for better education.
Chris Anyokwu’s ‘Lucky’ is quite antithetical, as a couple, Okorie and Orie, finds to their dismay that their only child so named only brings them temporary luck. Okorie had been warned by his uncle in the village not to marry Orie, as her community is known for evil, but love-struck Okorie would not listen. And so for many years when they fail to have a child, they begin to seek solution from many strange quarters before Lucky is born. But two years’ old Lucky can only crawl and refuses to walk. To his parents’ shock, he would turn into a python at night to drink from the oil lamp.
A babalawo eventually reveals what is wrong with Lucky: “You went from church to church, from mosque to mosque, from shrine to shrine. But you also went to a particular religious sect where you were made to do a lot of rituals, ostensibly doing a lot of praying and fasting, and burning all kinds of incenses. That creature is a product of those spiritual exercises. You strayed beyond the pale of normality and wandered into the occult realm and now the Evil Ones have sent one of their own to plague your earthly existence. Oma se o!”
At the seaside exorcism, Lucky turns into a dreadlocked grown man that makes a deathly duel with the babalawo before going back to the sea from where he came to torment Okorie and Orie.
A couple of stories dwell on the experience of commuting through the city. Tope Larayetan’s ‘Two Face’, after the popular music crooner, navigates how commuters who, only a while ago, fought each other for a chance to get a seat in the few scarce buses, fall under the spell of music and join in the chorus in harmony as if nothing happened only a few minutes ago. Abayomi Folaranmi’s ‘Two-Way Streets’ is anecdotal in its snippets of slices of the city’s haunts.
Chika Nzekwe’s ‘My Chip-toothed Angel’ is redolent with the notorious ‘one-chance’ incident that many have fallen into. It examines how one’s fortunes can easily change in this sometimes amorphous city from good to bad to ugly. A schoolgirl tells the story of her narrow escape from the ‘one-chance’ saga and how one of the criminals becomes her saviour. King-Aribisala’s ‘Those Etceteras’ also follows this pattern, as a white lady thirsty for a dawn walk is confronted with the spectre of possible kidnap for ritual to aid the smooth transition of a dead oba.
Chidiebube Onye Okoha’s ‘Tale of the Traffic’ extends the ubiquitous Lagos traffic grind and how cruel it often becomes, as it kills its victims not just slowly but literally. Deaths of drivers in Lagos traffic are common scenario, as Okoha’s tale indicates. Chinyere Chimodo, whose story provides the title for this anthology, highlights how optimism and patriotism easily die in the face of the unrelenting pressure Lagos life presents. Oluyemi returns for her NYSC after studying abroad, brimming with zeal to make a difference, but doesn’t find things easy. Having fallen short of her own standards, she opts to return abroad as she finds the system too powerful to make a dent.
In place of the idealistic NYSC anthem, she says, “I resumed battling with the flashing images of my hand squeezing money into the hands of the officials in the bus station and the seats reserved for me on several occasions. Then I stopped singing the anthem, as guilt gripped me tighter than a hangman’s noose”.
And so from Eghagha’s ‘Mmman, the Party Man’ of Lagos owambe parties and the characters that pepper it, especially the photographer who has fallen into hard times and lives off the leftovers of the sumptuous food served, to Bayle Asuquo’s ‘Groundnut’, where a hungry child’s fistful of groundnut stolen from a woman’s stall, is enough reason for a mob to decorate his neck with the tyre of car ready to have him burnt, to how Njoku lost his house rent in a bus after escaping robbers in Alaba market in Miracles’ Smarties’, and to Temitayo Arowolo’s ‘Road to Yesterday’, of how a nurse’s false alarm leads to the death of a husband whose wife and child are waiting for him to bring the money for the child’s treatment in a clinic that would not treat without a deposit.
These stories define slices of life as lived in parts of Lagos. However, the reader is not shown the affluent lifestyle in the city or the nouveau riche. Yet this is commendable pioneer anthology that will inspire yet other anthologies that explore, expose and export Nigerian cities both to Nigerians and outsiders.
However, while this volume emanates from contributions of the English department of University of Lagos as model, next volumes should grow beyond the campus to writers and contributors living in the city for an expanded exploration of the city’s story for a more robust, rounded storytelling about Lagos using the short story as tourist guide for the preferred destination city for where dreams are made.
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