In his essay “The White-Saviour Industrial Complex,” the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole criticised Americans who see Africa as a problem for enthusiastic white individuals to solve: “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” Ill-informed enthusiasts could do worse than read Every Day Is For The Thief, which portrays Nigerian corruption and inefficiency as specific, intractable and endemic.
Cole’s travelogue-novella was first published in Nigeria in 2007; now, thanks to the success of his 2011 novel Open City, it is being published in the UK. The narrator, like the narrator of Open City, is a mixed-race Nigerian in the early stages of a psychiatry career in New York. Returning to Nigeria for the first time in 15 years, he travels around Lagos and other parts of the country looking for “what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.” Bribery, apathy and violence complicate his every move. The places which give him hope—a thriving western-style concert hall sponsored by Shell and Accenture, a Nigerian fast-food chain—challenge fuzzy liberal dreams of African success. The National Museum, supposed repository of Nigeria’s history and culture, is a muddle of incompetence and falsification, whitewashing the crimes of the country’s previous military leaders.
Though the narrator’s view doesn’t extend much beyond the middle classes, the reader is left in no doubt as to the scale of the country’s problems. If the anger and frustration that fuel Every Day For The Thief occasionally stray into polemic, Cole’s attention to individual moments makes the novella something quieter and more powerful, revealing a world beyond the kidnappings and bombings that make headlines.