Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, but Èkó – or Lagos, from the Portuguese for lakes – has suddenly become fashionable, though not always for the best reasons. We can do without another TV documentary on the floating slum that is Makoko (many of whose 100,000 inhabitants shit and bathe in the lagoon they live over) and a further homily about the wonders of human (when not specifically African) resilience. People are bound to make the best of wherever they find themselves. And yet, for all the undeniable ‘shuffering and shmiling’, as Fela Kuti put it, there’s a creative energy in Lagos that matches the restlessness of its streets; most obviously in the music that has teenagers in China sharing TikTok videos of themselves covering the latest Afrobeats songs – from Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tems or Davido – complete with Nigerian accent.
Èkó itself, ‘an overpopulated, opinionated, 21-million-bodied eye … full of lies, full of mouths, full of secrets, full of death’, is the hero of Eloghosa Osunde’s first novel, Vagabonds! It’s not a pretty place and it doesn’t care who knows it:
Èkó doesn’t demand goodness, you see; it never has. What it does demand is luxury, beauty, boastful excesses, loud colours, as long as you keep your mask on in public. Kill a person if you want and sweep up the body, tucking it sweet and flat under gravel; fuck your brother if you want; eat a forbidden fruit and choke on it – just not in public. You’ll ruin the aesthetics. And everybody who knows, knows that that’s what drives the cityspirit mad.
But having resolved to tread this path, Èkó understands where it might lead: ‘The cityspirit knew that if it were to make its children in its own troubled likeness, spitting out flesh-skinned denizens born with masks fastened to their faces, then they, like Èkó, would be troublesome.’ One of these children is Tatafo, who introduces each of the novel’s six sections: ‘My job was one thing, and that thing was to obey; so in those days, there was nowhere in this life that Èkó could have sent me that me I’d say I wouldn’t go. And my god, did I go dark places.’
We encounter many of these dark places in the novel, mostly through Osunde’s depictions of a rabidly patriarchal society. There is Mr Osagie, proud of the fact that he has never raised his hand to Maria, his wife of fifteen years, even as he chains her to the bed as punishment for ‘being herself – not the dutiful wife or somebody’s mother, but her real self, stubbornly content’. Deep down he fears losing her to the invisible force he imagines is taking over the women in the community. This is also why he ties up his daughter, Julie, before locking her in a cupboard: ‘All this was only to protect them because he loved them.’
One day Maria is out walking with some friends when a madwoman charges towards them: ‘“This world is finished,” she said, baring her rotting teeth and laughing. “And now they’ve also finished me.”’ Confused, the friends stare at her. This is the first time the madwoman, Theresa, has spoken in four years. They notice that her skirt is ripped. One of them asks if she has been beaten, but Theresa stares blankly back and announces: ‘Your husbands are monsters … These men are monsters. You think they won’t do it to you too, abi? But they will.’ The women walk on, but Theresa’s words tug at Maria. After a short distance, she asks the others what Theresa could have meant but they won’t be drawn. Shortly afterwards, 45 women disappear; the men take to locking their wives and children inside their compounds. But then, as Maria is washing clothes behind the house, Theresa turns up again:
‘I know you’re sorry, so I forgive you,’ she said. ‘I can teach you how to go too. If you want.’ Maria blinked twice and pled mercy. Theresa stood unperturbed and calmly slid out her left eye before slipping out a small bead from its socket. ‘Look,’ she said, stretching out her palm. A dark pearl rested there, blackly wet. ‘You have one too. I’ve always known it. I can show you how to find yours and remove it. It’s not even painful. And then you will be free. Don’t you want to be free?’
That night, Theresa appears to Julie too, telling her that once the curfew is relaxed she will discover that some of her friends have vanished – ‘Young girls like you. Gone forever. Just like that’ – and that she can join them if she wants. Sure enough, when the curfew is lifted because the men can’t manage on their own, it turns out that fourteen more women and girls have disappeared. Then another thirty. Julie goes to Mama Erhun’s house, where a meeting has been convened to discuss a newspaper article that says: ‘Women all over the world who had heavy stories about unkind hands were, by some collective magic, finding both the voice and courage to say what happened out loud.’ Moreover, each time ‘women gathered to say the truth, a roiling power entered the room and immediately took them elsewhere. It happened gently, too, decidedly – like a sovereign evacuation.’
What is this collective power? Maria’s female lover, Ese, attended one such meeting and witnessed the phenomenon:
A cold breeze swept in from Ese’s window as she explained that after Mama Erhun made them feel safe, the women had started recounting their stories one by one, rewinding themselves into gaps. She said that the women all linked arms around each speaker in turn, watching as she faded in colour and size, until she was safely Gone, then they closed the space she’d occupied, making the circle smaller and tighter. ‘There’s no way to explain how it felt. Honestly, you had to be there.’
‘Did it hurt?’ Maria wanted to know.
No, Ese said. They looked like they were facing true release, like they were being absorbed by a promising light.
Ese’s own daughter has gone and she wants to disappear too. Maria ‘could feel the world getting smaller and more pointless as Ese floated out. No matter how close Maria tried to hold her, she only deflated more quickly, until she was just the memory of a hug against Maria’s chest.’ Shattered, Maria crawls into herself. Her husband chains her to the bed again and invites his friends to see her: ‘They started striking her, kicking and hitting her as they pleased.’ When Mr Osagie finally releases her and tells her to go and wash herself outside, she flees with Julia. He and his friends trace them to Mama Erhun’s. The door is locked so they set fire to the house:
The fire tongued down the roof of the house. As the women wailed around her, Mama Erhun reassured them. ‘You’re free. We’re free now. We can go. We can go. Just trust.’ Soon, the air was crammed with names and crying voices. Mama Erhun’s heart pounded in her chest as it occurred to her to fear what would happen if no answer came. But the first woman, pregnant and shaking, faded first. Then more followed.
The men, more confused than ever, quieted down. Mr Osagie broke the door in half, catching the last of his wife and daughter, now wisps of themselves.
The only life-enhancing relationships in this novel are those between women, like Wura, a fashion designer to ‘upper-class women’ who is suffering from terminal cancer, and her lover, Adura, a high-flyer in the corporate world. Both women harbour ‘terrible secrets’ thanks to having corrupt fathers ‘who’d robbed the country insane’. Wura isn’t a society person – ‘I’m never doing this again, she would think as the bride walked down the aisle or the choir croaked their hymns’ – and regrets not being able to spend more time with her lover, but Adura, living in the spotlight, is obliged to be cautious.
After Wura’s death, Adura writes her a series of letters explaining the way she and a previous lover – an ambitious woman intent on a political career – had conducted their relationship. In public they passed as men, wearing ‘bodymasks’ made for them by a mysterious doctor: ‘The first day I wore a bodymask, it was like a visibility suit: everyone saw me with respect … Sometimes, when men pissed us off, the power sped to our hearts and we didn’t rest until we’d fucked their frustrated wives and given them what their husbands hadn’t in years.’ Later, at home, ‘we’d kneel in front of each other in bed, each helping the other unclasp our masks, peeling the sleeves off, unfastening our outside faces, locating each other’s mouths. In a matter of minutes, we’d become the tenderest things.’ By and by, with elections drawing near, her lover begins to change: ‘She went harder, put her back into it. Everything was about winning. I saw her become colder, saw her begin to refuse – more and more – to take the act off when she entered the house. She started sleeping in our bed with her outside body and mouth. Her beard scratched against me when we kissed.’
What these characters don’t realise is the city itself is ‘gently pushing them towards madness, to their knees’. They see all the city’s outward trappings – ‘the music, the nightlife, the restaurants, the shops, the cars on the road’ – and think: ‘Why can’t I survive this? Is the problem me?’ But by the end of the novel, Tatafo begins to wonder whether Èkó’s ‘wickedness’ and ‘potbelly for cruelty’ is sustainable. ‘Powerful as it is, Èkó has its god, Èkó has its government, Èkó knows who it must obey, who it must answer to. Here, the only one above the city, the only one that matters, is money – kudi, cash, Owo – because money makes beauty possible.’ All this is laid bare in a club called The Secret Place where
rich, powerful older women came to relinquish the control they had in their daily lives, and younger women came to gather the power they were used to being stripped of.
Money, pain and pleasure changed hands here: big names on all fours begging for bodies that weren’t theirs to have, their fantasies standing at a height, overlooking them with calculated control.
For these women, Nigeria’s laws against same-sex relationships are irrelevant. Some of them, in fact, ‘were even hell-bent on making freedom like this impossible outside. They wanted it for themselves, in the dark, underground. And why not? Where’s the thrill in something that everybody gets to have?’
Lagos has featured in any number of novels by Nigerian writers, most notably Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954), but usually the gaze is relentlessly male, with women little more than objects of lust. One exception is Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979), a bitter denunciation of those values from the point of view of a woman ‘enslaved’ (her word) by an ossified tradition which dictates her place in the scheme of things. ‘God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?’ she prays. Vagabonds! is different: it tells compelling stories of survival, about women seizing agency in spite of the forces ranged against them. Men are largely incidental in this brave new world, when they aren’t in the way. Osunde makes her point with one-liners: ‘When she moved, she seemed to bend the mood of the room.’ Or as she says on the dedication page: ‘There are simple and good and straightforward and well-behaved people, I’m sure. But this is not a book about them.’