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Teju Cole: Every Day is for The Thief

One of the loveliest blogs of the past few years was Teju Cole’s, a literary and photographic journey from New York to Lagos and back. The blog has subsequently disappeared, leaving dozens of dead links, fellow bloggers calling to each other, “You gotta read this”, and pointing towards a 404 page. Blogs usually don’t work like this – they outlive the enthusiasm of their authors, lying neglected and silent. The Japanese call dead blogs “ishikoro” – pebbles. A missing blog is something else, a hole, like a dropped stitch in a row of knitting.

Janet quotes Teju Cole as she sets off for a trip to Uganda:

The most important thing to know about Africa is that it is normal. But no one who depends on American media for information can come away with this impression.

The most powerful lies can be those of omission, and this is the kind of lie the West tells against Africa every day. Africa is all game reserves and refugee camps. When last was a glittering African financial center- of which there are many- broadcast on American television? When was the last time you saw images of a middle-class African family at a shopping mall in their country, or of young people in a university, or in a restaurant, or on a normal city street?

The World Bank (or, at least, one of their better bloggers) cites him as an authority on advance fee fraud:

The man seated next to me my first time at Tomsed was composing a message by the hunt and peck method. He pressed one letter on the keyboard, searched for the next, pressed that one, and so on. It was his one-fingered technique that attracted my attention, but when my eye alighted- not entirely accidentally- on his text, I caught my breath. The man was composing a 419 letter. A real-live scam artist sitting next to me. The words were as expected: “transfer”, “dear friend”, “deposited into your account forthwith.” So this was the origin of all that flotsam.

I’ve been exhuming the digital remains of Teju Cole – going as far to seek out favorite posts via the Wayback Machine – in the wake of reading his lovely and all too short “Every Day is for The Thief“. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and one that I plan to press into the hands of friends travelling to West Africa for the first time… and especially into the hands of African friends returning home.

The book wanders the fine line between fiction and memoir. It’s the story of a Nigerian intellectual living in New York returning home to Lagos, a story told in part on the Teju Cole blog. Reading it, I realized how many books I’ve read about northerners encountering Africa for the first time and how precious few I’ve read by Africans returning. There’s a commonality to the narratives – a narrative of discovery, combined with a search for one’s place in this overwhelming and beautiful world. But they diverge sharply – even in the best of the Northern narratives, there’s a sense of a search for the “real” Africa, which leads to either a xenophilic embrace or a recoiling from a Conradian heart of darkness.

Cole is looking for something else entirely – we see him search for his possible place in a Nigeria that’s unfamilar, strange and sometimes unfriendly to him. He gets ripped off by petrol dealers, threatened by “area boys” when his family imports a load of school supplies, and stands out as a kind of foreigner to bus drivers and market women. His childhood friends greet him with warmth, but he struggles to put himself in their shoes, surviving power cuts and insultingly low salaries. He’s stunned by the criminality, the corruption, the struggle each resident is occupied with, making it each day in Lagos.

The most moving moments, I found, were the ones where Cole sees reference points, not of the Nigeria he remembers, but of New York intellectual culture. A woman on the public bus is reading Michael Ondaatje, and we watch Cole struggle to place her within the Nigeria he’s encountering again, wondering where she found this thick, rich book. He finds a jazz record store that doesn’t sell records, but pirated copies, the source CDs too expensive to be sold legitimately. A music school teaches privleged Nigerian students the piano, the violin, the cello… but African teachers are paid a small fraction of the salary of foreign ones. He’s looking for a way he might live in this Lagos and continue life as he knows it, and it’s a losing battle.

One of the scariest moments of my life was landing in Accra for the first time in 1993, a catastrophically underprepared and stupid 20 year old. I’d written a narrative for myself in which I moved into a high-rise building in Accra and surrounded myself with witty, smart 20-something young Africans who were living the post-collegiate life in Accra that I’d otherwise have been living in New York or Boston. We landed at night, and as I peered out the window, it became very, very clear that there was a shortage of multi-story buildings and electric lights and that I was heading into a situation I was entirely unprepared to deal with. Cole’s book took me back to those moments of trying to carve out a life that made sense in connection to my previous experiences. His narrative is several thousand times more poignant, as it’s a homecoming, not a ill-considered youthful exploration. But when he decides to return home, fighting a malarial fever, his pain is palpable – here’s a place that Cole loves but no longer fits. He’s a Nigerian, but the locals will call him “oyinbo”, foreigner.

On finishing the book, I wanted more. And I began to plunder the Internet Archive, re-reading old posts by Teju Cole, looking to see what parts of the book had come directly from the blog, which had been re-edited or written on reflection. As I started making notes as to origins of different passages, I had the odd feeling of dissecting an animal, hoping to see how it moved and ran, and realizing that I would doom it to stillness in the process.

I don’t know why Cole took down his brilliant blog, or why this beautiful book ends on a lovely but abrupt note. But if I respect a man’s right to speak, I’ve also got to respect his silence.

6 thoughts on “Teju Cole: Every Day is for The Thief”

  1. “I realized how many books I’ve read about northerners encountering Africa for the first time and how precious few I’ve read by Africans returning.”

    Have you ever read anything – a book, an article, a blog post – by someone in between those two situations? That’s kind of how I feel. My family lived in Uganda for my first year and a half, which left me with very few direct memories (I do have about four or five) but it still left me with something. Perhaps all the African stuff, and family films, that we had at home for the next few years of my childhood was part of what.

    When I visited Kenya as an adult, it was both the most foreign place I’d ever been, and familiarly nostalgic in ways I have a hard time describing. Things that seemed intellectually very strange were sometimes intuitively sensible; landscapes and smells and mannerisms were new to me but clicked. It was unsettling, exciting, and calming at the same time.

  2. teju cole’s every day for the thief,reminds me of the hopelessness of our situation as Nigerians,it reminds me of the bleak future we have ahead of us,wat scares me more is the fact dat we still celebrate the mess,pain and waste we have become.God will help us and heal our land.well done ‘cole’kip it up.

  3. Teju Cole’s Everyday is for the Thief is a beautifully writen text by some one who gets to experience the entity called Nigeria. it is raw and it is a fight everyday for survival. what pains one most is the fact that we drown more everyday in that sea and no one seems to notice. God will help us all.

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