Teju Cole’s first book “Open City” was critically acclaimed winning the PEN/Hemingway Award and being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Every Day Is For the Thief” was published in Nigeria in 2007, but was not published outside of Africa until 2014. It is a work of non-fiction treated as a work of fiction. It is unclear if it is autobiographical. It highlights certain events from a short-term return of a Nigerian citizen from the United States to Lagos. The narrator is a young doctor who has spent his adult life in the United States after growing up in an upper middle class family in Lagos. The title conveys the theme about living in Lagos in 2007: corruption is a way of life to survive. The focus is on the petty thievery not on the large-scale government/ big business corruption which is taken for granted. The narrator and his family all can afford the “tipping” that is common in emerging nations where income alone does not keep pace with the cost of living.
The computer fraud perpetuated from Nigeria (and many other countries) is pervasive in internet and other cafes. The fraud is illegal, and is known as “419” from the section of the Nigerian legal code that it violates. There is no meaningful prosecution, the police being more than willing to take a bribe to look the other way. Those active in this business are called “yahoo yahoo” or the “yahoo boys”. University students ply the trade. The author compares them to the uncouth human-like creatures (“the Yahoos”) that the horse-like Houyhnhnms confront in “Gulliver’s Travels”. It is funny that the company Yahoo is a tongue-in-cheek acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle” that with a unique identifier, enabled the company to get a trademark despite other companies named Yahoo. None seemed to recognize Jonathan Swift’s usage as did the Nigerians.
Like many African countries tribal differences still predominate as do ethnic differences in other melting-pot countries. The author notes the role these warring factions played in the U.S. slave trade.
“There were constant skirmishes between Ijebus, the Egbas, the Ekitis, the Oyos, the Ibadans, and many other Yoruba groups. Some of the smaller groups might even have been wiped out from history, as the larger ones enlarged their territory and consolidated their power. The vanquished were brought from the interior to the coast and sold to the people of Lagos and to communities along the network of lagoons stretching westward to Ouidah. And they in turn arranged the auctions at which the English, the Portuguese, and the Spanish loaded up their barracoons and slave ships. Some of these inter-tribal wars were waged for the express purpose of supplying slaves to traders. At thirty-five British pounds for each healthy adult male, it was a lucrative business.”
This novella is a quick interesting read. Given the seven-year difference between its 2007 African publishing and its 2014 publishing outside of Africa it would have been nice if there was a chapter that reflected Lagos today. As a work of fiction it might have been felt unnecessary, but with its patina of non-fiction, the author and publisher could have done it. It is still interesting recognizing its limited vista.