Marco Werman: A busy guy who's "global buzz plenty" as they say in his home country of Nigeria, writer Teju Cole has a book that's just been published here in the US. It's called "Every Day is for the Thief" and it takes readers on a wild odyssey through one of Africa's most chaotic cities: Lagos, Nigeria. Corruption, bribes, scams, they're all front and center. Teju Cole was raised in Nigeria but now lives in the United States. We asked him how corruption Lagos-style might different from what he's experienced here in the States.
Teju Cole: Here in the US, you pay lobbyists and the lobbyists buy the senators and it's horrendous but it's clear.
Werman: But you wouldn't bribe a policeman here in the United States. It wouldn't even occur to you, where in Nigeria it's almost expected.
Cole: That's right. I suppose I'm careful to say that having a senator in your pocket which, again, I don't think I'm committing any libel to say that senators depend on money from corporations and individuals and try to make those people rather than the electorate. I don't know if that's any better than having to buy a gateman or policeman. The problem with having to bribe everyone at every level of society, the person at the registry who's doing documents for you, the driver of your car, the teacher at your students school, the problem with that is it now puts you into an environment of a barely containable hysteria where getting anything at all done depends on skipping the queue, jumping the line and seeking some kind of instantaneous advantage. I don't think that's actually good for people because it means that every negotiation in this society becomes tainted with money.
Werman: The narrator finds one group of guys, the "yahoo yahoos," who are they? I mean, talk about opportunity.
Cole: I think everybody who's listening has gotten emails from these guys. Emails originating most often from Nigeria, an email from a stranger that says if you could help them transfer some funds into a bank that you will get a cut of it.
Werman: Did you meet any of them and did they strike you as clever, world-class fraudsters?
Cole: I would be in social situations, I'd meet a guy who was living large and it would be mentioned, it would be rumored that he made his money by defrauding people internationally. I think one of the strange things about Nigerian society in general and about Yoruba culture in general, Yoruba is, I would say, a dominant ethnic group in the city of Lagos and that part of the country, and one peculiar thing about this culture is that we don't really have a class system the way it is understood here in the United States. We don't really actually have a caste system either.
This understanding is there that if you get money, it is utterly transformative, not just in terms of what you can do financially but in terms of your status, the way people look at you, the amount of respect that you get within the systems of the culture itself. You're considered great, people greet you in obsequious ways because of this dream of a fabulous wealth, that desire to hustle and make it by any means possible becomes heightened.
Werman: So it's African proverb time because what you just described, that reality combined with other things in this book, like the 419 scams and bribery, they all kind of go back to that Yoruba proverb, which is the basis for the title your book, so explain the proverb.
Cole: There is a Yoruba proverb that says "every day is for the thief, one day is for the owner of the house," and I think the sense of it is that when you're doing something that's not right, when you're involved in fraud, when you're committing a crime, when you're acting with impunity, it is actually possible to do it. You just keep doing it and you just keep doing, except that one day it stops working. So that when we view people who are involved in corruption or they're not observing the rules of how things ought to be done, I think it can be a comfort to understand that it only takes one day for all of that to come crashing down, for them to enter a kind of disgrace. But of course I think there's a bit of wishful thinking in this because people do get away with it.
Werman: This book is kind of a portrait of Nigerian psyche today. You talk about the tremendous cultural pressure to claim that one is happy even when one is not, especially when one is not. How do Nigerians do that like no one else?
Cole: I think one thing I should quickly say here is that this is a portrait of this city that I grew up in that's affectionate and grimly funny in parts. But I was also willing to be quite direct about the things I was seeing and one of those things is a general sense of burying your head in the sand, which really is the only way that people can deal with a situation that's crumbling all around them. I live in New York City, I can afford the privilege of getting down to brass tax and just saying "this is what things are," in part because there's a lot in the society that will catch me if I stumble and fall.
But when you're in Nigeria and you're really just trying to live a regular middle class life and trying to get your kids to school and trying to get treatment at the hospital and all of that, I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that humanity cannot bear very much reality or something like that. I think if you're living in an environment like Nigeria where everything is just sort of an illusion in terms of the functioning of the society. You don't want to look too closely at it. So the idea that Nigerians are the happiest people in the world makes sense, it's a coping mechanism. It sort of goes hand in hand with the posttraumatic stress that I perceive a lot of the society to be dealing with.
Werman: You quote T.S. Eliot, you always quote in your book the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, his song "Shuffering and Shmiling," which is a great note to go out on, as it kind of captures all of that.
Werman: Teju Cole has just published in the US "Every Day is for the Thief." Thanks very much for speaking with us Teju, great to speak with you again.
Cole: Thanks very much, Marco.