African Library: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Published in 2014, Lagoon is dedicated “To the diverse and dynamic people of Lagos, Nigeria – Animals, Plant and Spirit”.

Lagos is simultaneously the topic and setting of this text, and was also the title the author originally gave this fascinating modern fantasy novel. Concerning this teeming city (more correctly termed a conurbation – a clustered settlement), the largest urban centre of the African continent, a friend of the main character is quoted: “Everybody wants to leave Lagos. But nobody goes, she said. Lagos is in the blood. We run back to Lagos the moment we step out, even though we may have vowed never to come back. Lagos is Lagos. No city like it. Lagos is sweet” (64).

Nnedi Okorafor is a prize-winning author of a number of novels, as well as a professor of creative writing in the USA. In this, her third novel for adults (she also writes short stories and fiction both for young adults and children), Okorafor has made a valuable contribution to the still small but growing body of African fantasy fiction. Rich in perky humour and reflecting wry social insight, political savvy and ecological and gender sensitivity, Lagoon is a splendid and vividly imagined account.

An especially interesting background detail is the following among the author’s “Acknowledgements” near the end of the text: “Thanks to the South African science-fiction film District 9 for both intriguing and pissing me off so  much that I started daydreaming about what aliens would do in Nigeria. This novel was birthed from my anger at District 9, but it quickly became something else entirely” (299).

A particularly cute touch in the novel’s brief “Postchapter” is the following comment from one of three worldly wise African students, responding to social media and television broadcasts of the events depicted in the text:

“… You think it’s some Orwellian shit?” Jordan asked. “Like that War of the Worlds radio broadcast back in the day that caused all that panic? You think Nigerians are that gullible? In this day and age? And look at the ‘stars’ of the show. They black. Even the heroes are black. You think they gon’ spend they money to put somethin’ together that looks this real and actually allow black folks to star in it? Real Africans? And then set it in Africa?” He guffawed with glee and shook his head. “Nah, man, not gonna happen. This shit real. That’s the more likely scenario.” (302)

Okorafor defamiliarises the reader from the start of the novel by giving a gigantic female swordfish, one with “attitude”, the “voice” with which the text introduces its setting. The unnamed creature is on a mission to which she is fiercely dedicated: to destroy, by means of puncturing it with her sword, what one works out is the pipeline of an oil excavation operation in the lagoon. Okorafor also gives the swordfish the opportunity to discover an amazing and unknown new presence deep under the waters of the lagoon – she does not perceive it from close by, but registers its immediate transformative effect on the lagoon. Hence, when a “golden blob” ascends to meet her and engages her in a conversation, she responds with increasing delight, especially as this “presence” allows her to fulfil her desire to increase her size three times and further streamline her shape for water speed.

Despite the FPSO Mystras’s loading hose leaking crude oil, the ocean water outside Lagos, Nigeria, is now so clean that a cup of its salty-sweet goodness will heal the worst human illnesses and cause a hundred more illnesses not yet known to humankind. It is more alive than it has been in centuries and it is teeming with aliens and monsters. (6)

Okorafor’s narrative moves at a rollicking pace, and would make a wonderful graphic novel (or, of course, a film). The scene changes among the short chapters are rapid and work to build up a mosaic of Lagos and its inhabitants: the new “people” (aliens) interacting with and affecting the lives not only of people (of all kinds and occupations), but the creatures, the vegetation and the ancient spirits of the land, whom they awaken and with whom they communicate successfully, since they are above all communicators.

Three people – Adaora, a professor of oceanography, a visiting Ghanaian rapper/musician, Antony Dey Craze, and a badly beaten soldier named Agu – find themselves inexplicably converging on Bar Beach in Lagos just before midnight of January 8, 2010. Adaora, who is in a state of fury and bafflement because she had been going to the Ghanaian performer’s concert when her formerly loving husband forbade her to attend a “heathen” event (Chris is a new and overly zealous Christian convert heavily under the influence of a charismatic but bogus preacher, Father Oke) and assaulted her when she objected (upon which she responded in kind and somehow transfixed his limbs with powers she had not known herself to possess), at once recognises the musician. Anthony Dey Craze (real name, Edgar) had decided to take a stroll on the beach as a post-concert break. Agu had fled from his fellow soldiers and his officer, Lance Corporal Benson (who happens to be the nephew of Nigeria’s ailing president, at the time hospitalised in Saudi Arabia for an operation to address his pericarditis – a heart condition where the membrane encasing the heart is infected). When Agu had intervened as his officer attempted to rape a woman they encountered driving her car in a state of inebriation, his fellow soldiers turned on him instead of supporting him. Agu had given Officer Benson a blow with his fist that, strangely, sent this strong, heavy man flying through the air. Like Agu’s special power, Anthony’s had first manifested in his childhood, also when he was defending weaker people (his siblings) against more powerful attackers – his own (late) father’s siblings. His is a power using rhythm to send sound waves of immense power to heal or to repel. These qualities that offset the “chosen” three – chosen to “meet” the aliens – from ordinary people are gradually revealed and become increasingly useful as the plot unfolds.

Lagoon’s narrative is densely layered; very late in the text we learn that the “real” narrator is the primordial spider/goddess Udide (full name: Udide Okwanka), who toils unceasingly in the spirit sphere underneath earth. She is the ultimate tale-spinner and loves change, hence she approves deeply of the aliens’ arrival for the changes they bring to Lagos, her favourite city, to Nigeria and its people and emanating from here to the whole human, animal, plant and spirit world.

This is how she comments on what happens:

There are new people among the old people.

And the digital ether has gone wild.

The great Ijele [the greatest of the Igbo masquerades] leads the wildness, and the tricky Legba [a Yoruba trickster god] laughs.

The Bight of Biafra’s waters are teeming.

The president is healed.

His eyes are dry and white. His skin is clear and brown.

His mind is strong and free. (229)

The above quote gives something of an outline of the narrative arc of Lagoon, but little indication of the fascinating, complicated story as it unfolds. Something of this tale of unusual and other very “usual” encounters and actions can be roughly sketched in what follows.

Just as Adaora, Anthony Dey Craze and Agu find themselves face to face on Bar Beach at near midnight, they (and everyone and everything within the vicinity) hear an ear-shattering, near earth-shattering noise, a “sonic boom” as it is later described. Then a huge, ten-foot-tall wave comes for the three of them as if the ocean has put out a paw to claw them in, and they are drawn deep underwater, where each of them has an unforgettable encounter with the aliens’ “Elders”, of which they yet have only a blurred memory.

As Adaora awakens on the beach, to which the lagoon has returned them, she sees a “woman” in a white dress, who resembles members of her family. This is the form that this alien, despatched as the first “ambassador” from the aliens, has assumed in order to engage with humans.

Aware now of the aliens’ powers and afraid for her compatriots, Adaora suggests they leave, but the “woman” simply replies: “No. We stay” (17). Resigning herself to this, and itching to discover more about this scientifically exciting presence in her world, Adaora decides to give her the name of a friend killed in childhood – Ayodele.

Returning to her home with the two men and Ayodele, Adaora takes them to her basement laboratory. Analysing a skin sample taken from inside Ayodele’s cheek, Adaora discovers that she is not made of cellular matter, but of “tiny, tiny, tiny, metal-like balls” (25), a substance that allows Ayodele, and presumably other aliens, to change their shape at will.

On the widescreen television in the lab an interview is proceeding, with none other than Lance Corporal Benson (who seems to have been put in charge of the military presence that was sent to cordon off Bar Beach, perhaps because he’s the president’s nephew), who announces firmly: “This is not a suicide bomber. We have never had that nonsense in Lagos. But we are treating this as an attack” (27). Asked to explain by whom Nigeria is being attacked, Benson admits not knowing, but asks tellingly: “But did the Americans know who destroyed their World Trade Towers when it first happened?” (28).

When Chris comes downstairs and finds Adaora with her guests in the lab he had built for her in happier days, he erupts again in fury and attempts again to assault her. However, Agu defends her physically and Anthony verbally – both are aware of the couple’s earlier altercation and have little sympathy for Chris.

Betaking himself to his pastor’s house even this late in the night, Chris is advised (by Father Oke) that Adaora is like other women, who are “weak vessels” (35). Told how Adaora had earlier managed to restrain him with some strange power, Father Oke assures Chris that Adaora is definitely a “marine witch”, and that he will visit their home the next morning to see the alien woman for himself. When he does so, Ayodele confirms Chris’s account of her shape-changing abilities by turning herself into the spitting image of Father Oke’s own mother – a miracle that initially terrifies even this arrogant bully of a man. But he soon recovers his confidence, because (as he decides on the spot) he was “chosen to bring this creature and all of her kind to the light” (46) – a boast that makes Adaora, who detests the pastor, snort with contempt.

When Chris and Oke have left, Ayodele explains to Adaora, Agu and Anthony that the three of them were chosen by the aliens not only for their special powers, but in Adaora’s case for her connection to the waters, Agu for his connection to rural Nigeria through his beloved village family, as well as his ability (through Benson) to place the aliens in touch with Nigeria’s president, and in his turn Anthony, for his communicative abilities. She also tells them that Adaora’s home is well located to host a mass gathering where the aliens’ arrival can be announced and explained.

In the meantime, the news of the alien woman’s presence is already being spread, for unbeknownst to the three adult humans, Philomena, Adaora’s “house girl”, had filmed Ayodele’s encounter with Father Oke on her cell phone and shows it to her boyfriend Moziz, a struggling medical student who gets by by means of 419 scams, and who immediately sees in Ayodele’s presence a money-making opportunity. “We go ask am to print money for us,” he announces to the friends he has called to his house – and the money will not be merely Nigerian naira, but dollars, euro, “even sef, pound sterling!” (56).

Akin to Father Oke in their conmen’s greed for easy money, which the pastor expects to make by impressing and hugely increasing his flock and the young men by kidnapping Ayodele, they are also linked in the crude sexism they display. When his friends indicate anxiety about the “danger” the alien woman might present, Moziz answers confidently: “No worry. … Na woman de ting be, o. Look am” (56) – in other words, she’s a mere woman, and would be easy to control and exploit (as he is doing with Philo).

What Moziz is unaware of, is that his friend Jacobs has quietly forwarded the cell phone footage to his own phone. He in turn shows it to another group with which he associates, The Black Nexus, the only LGBT student organisations in Nigeria. They in turn perceive Ayodele’s presence as an opportunity for Nigerians to accept “difference” and change, hence their own unusual gender choices and roles. Jacobs delights in the thought that he personally could be “a part of the money-making kidnapping scheme and the Black Nexus revolution. He’d have his cake and eat it, too” (75). He is sadly mistaken, as it transpires.

In the meantime, Agu and Adaora, who are strongly attracted to each other, have been sent to negotiate with Lance Corporal Benson, to enlist his help in contacting the Nigerian president and in setting up a meeting between him and Ayodele. The attempt goes badly wrong when Benson attempts to excuse his rape attempt as “just alcohol” (80). Agu snaps, but manages not to hit Benson again and dares not exert his superhuman strength when two soldiers are summoned to arrest him. And Adaora is forced to show Benson where her home is, where the swaggering officer, along with a whole platoon of soldiers, intends taking Ayodele into custody. But when they and Moziz and company (on their own, concurrent mission to kidnap the alien), theatrically decked out in black clothes and masks, arrive on Adaora’s street, the place is teeming with crowds of people, among whom both opportunistic vendors and pickpockets are plying their respective trades. The crowds had come because Anthony Dey Craze (at Ayodele’s request) has asked an associate to spread the false rumour that he, Anthony, will be giving an impromptu, free concert at Adaora’s home, so that the gathering will provide a good opportunity for Ayodele to address the Lagosians. While they are there, Agu (in handcuffs) is being taken out to the oil rig on the lagoon, since the two soldiers guarding him are the only two available to go and help out in the crisis presented by the crude oil leak caused by the swordfish. He will persuade his guards to open the handcuffs since (as he argues) he cannot escape from a boat at sea and hence, when their boat is capsized by sea creatures who have now together turned against humans and their polluting ways, he manages to catch a “lift” to the beach with a manatee swimming past; from there he will arduously make his way back, through the dangerous Lagos streets, to Adaora’s home. As we are told at one point, “if there is one city that rhymes with ‘chaos’, it is Lagos” (212).

Chris happened earlier to catch a glimpse of Adaora and Agu exchanging a fairly chaste first kiss in her car at the military barracks, so when he now sees her with Benson, he assaults her again, half crazed by jealousy and the now even stronger conviction that Adaora  is a “marine witch” – the worst kind, supposedly. “It took two soldiers to pull Chris off Adaora” (109).

Kola, Adaora’s daughter, is filming the street scene after Ayodele (whom Moziz and company had attempted to kidnap after entering Adaora’s house from the back door) escaped capture and bullets fired by one of the fear-crazed would-be kidnappers. She did so by transforming herself into a small green lizard, resuming her human form in Adaora’s garden. She started to address the people gathering in the street, all the while filmed by Kola (as she requested): “Greetings, people of Lagos” (110). Simultaneously (as the reader discovers in due course) cell phones, computer screens and all other electronically connected monitors are flooded with the live broadcast of Ayodele’s speech, switching themselves on (seemingly) or interrupting other on-screen activities, images or texts:

“We landed here in the night,” the woman said in her strange voice smooth and confident. The picture moved a bit. It was obvious that someone was holding the camera and trying his best to stay still. “From beyond Earth. From space. You all will call us aliens. We are guests who wish to become citizens … here. We chose here. I am the first to come and I greet you.” (111)

She adds: “I apologize for the noise of our arrival and your rising waters from our landing […] Nobody is attacking you. And nobody will dare now. The winds of change are blowing. We are change. You will see” (112).

Ayodele mentions that in the under 24 hours of her presence in Lagos she has observed “compassion, hope, sadness, insecurity, art, intelligence, ingenuity, corruption, curiosity, and violence”. She declares, “This is life. We love life” (112). She assures her spell-bound audience that “We do not seek your oil or your other resources” because “We are here to nurture your world”, while warning: “Your land is full of a fuel that is tearing you apart”; hence: “We come to bring you together and refuel your future” (113).

As this is happening, Agu, recovering on Bar Beach from his most recent watery ordeal, sees “people, hundreds of people, walking straight out of the ocean onto Bar Beach”. What Agu further notices is:

Some of them were dressed in various forms of traditional garb, some in military attire, some in police uniforms, others in Westernized civilian clothes. Most of them were African, a small few Asian, one white. All were completely dry, and Agu could smell roses and seaweed as they drifted past him. All of them could pass for Lagosians. (116)

These are, of course, the aliens in assumed human form, entering Lagos from their vehicle that stays hidden deep under the lagoon waters, becoming a secret Lagosian minority of benign colonists or settlers from somewhere in outer space.

Then their “ship” raises itself from the water into the air, all but blocking out the horizon seen from the beach.

In the meantime, a riot has erupted among the people crowding the street outside Chris and Adaora’s home. Officiously claiming authority over the newly arrived (Ayodele and her not-yet-seen fellow aliens), Father Oke has announced that they will become part of his Christian flock.

Although he has a large group of his followers with him, his manner and plans do not go down well with other members of the crowd, and missiles start flying back and forth. The military method of quelling the violence – shooting, if initially only into the air – of course intensifies the mayhem. Benson, true to his type, orders his men to shoot Ayodele, who is merely peacefully observing the scene, but who offers a useful scapegoat and target. Despite Adaora’s attempt to stop this happening, Ayodele is shot at, and large holes appear in her white dress and body. Little Kola, Adaora’s eight-year-old daughter, is hit in her arm, causing a wound from which the blood spurts. As Adaora comforts the terrified little girl, Benson orders his soldiers to shoot to kill – at Ayodele, who in fury retaliates with some kind of force that causes the soldiers to disintegrate into bloody pieces of meat. As a horrified Adaora sends a silent plea to Ayodele, she transforms the meaty pieces into a plantain tree growing in Adaora’s yard.

But Ayodele is now filled with hatred for humans and as she turns away from all of them, the injured Kola (attended by her mother’s comforting presence and one good soldier administering first-aid to the child) begs her not to leave, stating softly, “We need you” (138). Ayodele heeds the child’s plea and – having reconstituted her own wounded body – heals Kola’s injury with her special powers and by enjoining her to “become better” (139).

Later on, inside her house, Adaora overhears Ayodele declaring again that she wants nothing further to do with humans, a remark to which Kola and her six-year-old brother Fred respond by insisting that “just because a few humans acted stupid, it doesn’t mean we’re all stupid” (Fred’s contribution) and “you can’t cause all that has happened and then just leave” (as Kola insists, reminding Ayodele that she came as the “am … ambah-sidoor” of the aliens in Lagos) (141).

Agu, still making his way back to Adaora’s home, finds the central city streets full of “shouting, fighting, breaking, laughing, running, hiding” people (147), reminding him of scenes witnessed when he was sent as one of the soldiers to help quell murderous Christian-Muslim riots in  the north of Nigeria. Desperate to contact his family in the village (knowing that Benson had sent off some soldiers to harm them in retaliation against Agu’s “insubordination”), Agu goes to the grandest of the Lagos hotels, where European and Americans stay, knowing that this particular space will have been protected. He has a younger cousin who works there whom he manages to persuade to call his family and hears with much relief that they are safe and that the soldiers are withdrawing from their village after seeing Ayodele’s broadcast on their phones. He also sends a message to Adaora and Anthony that he is on his way.

Adaora speaks to a still furious, suspicious Chris and explains that she has to be part of the delegation – along with Agu and Anthony – who will be going with Ayodele to meet the president, whose plane will be landing at six the following morning. She enjoins Chris to take their children to the safe space of his mother’s rural home. Resentfully, he appears to accept her plea and the three of them – father and children – set off.

They have hardly left when a Molotov cocktail is tossed through Adaora’s front window, setting the sofa on fire; the missile thrower probably intended it for Ayodele.

It transpires that there is a crowd of attackers out there, led by a relentless Father Oke.

At this point, Anthony releases his power in a sonic wave of his own, effectively repelling the attackers, who all fall down like nine-pins, not dead or injured, but unconscious.

Moziz and cohorts, attempting to flee the city in their car, knock down a woman who turns out to be an alien. She heals her terrible injuries and assists them when the road – one of the secret indigenous forces that has been re-empowered by the aliens energies – rises up and attempts to devour them, even sacrificing herself to be devoured by it, to save them and pacify the road’s rage.

A further complication is shown when Chris and his children pick up a stranger who is being persecuted by a mob on their way through the Lagosian outskirts. The locals have become aware of aliens among them and have begun attacking them. His children even invite the “man” to eat with them at their grandmother’s home, where they are joined by a number of other aliens in human form and end up having a delightfully sociable evening!

As the president’s plane lands at last on a dark runway in the early hours, the tiny delegation moves forward to greet him. Adaora announces herself first, by name and then profession: “I am a marine biologist. This is Ayodele. She is one of them, one of the … extraterrestrials [… and] their ambassador … and she seeks an audience with you, Mr President. We’ve gone through a lot to get her here” (216).

When the president, who is a northern Nigerian Muslim, comments that Ayodele resembles “a woman from Igboland”, she tells him that “looks can be deceiving” (217). When he challenges her to prove this, Ayodele assumes the shape of a white man, none other than Karl Marx! Both intimidated and impressed, the president asks Ayodele what she and her “people” want, and when she tells him that they want a home among the Nigerians, she asks in turn what he desires. When he says it is to be well again, Ayodele declares that she will effect this.

Once healed (despite his first wife’s near hysterical distrust of Ayodele) the president is eager to meet the extraterrestrial leaders, and asks, “Private Agu, where can we get a boat?” (227). His second wife, a lawyer, will accompany the delegation, which absorbs one among the clamouring journalists who have spotted them, eager to get the story of a lifetime.

While all this is transpiring, a reawakened Father Oke, opportunistic as ever, has spotted and been approached by a sexy woman he takes to be one of the aliens. She turns out to be local, or an “internal alien”, since she is none other than Mami Watta, the temptress/spirit who entices men into the water with the promise of enormous riches and endless pleasure. And “No one ever saw Father Oke again” (235).

Reaching the aliens’ “ship” in the small boat steered by Agu is anything but plain sailing, however. The lagoon’s and all oceanic creatures are in revolt against humans and the harm they have done to the waters and their inhabitants, and monstrously enlarged marine creatures launch an unrelenting attack on their vessel. It takes the combined powers of Adaora, Agu and Anthony to repel the attackers they see, while Ayodele (unseen by them) “takes care of” some even bigger and more horrifying oceanic creatures.

Eventually they arrive and the president is taken by Ayodele to meet the Elders of the extraterrestrials. While he is speaking to them, Adaora (in particular), Agu and Anthony have further amazing and transformative underwater experiences, including a further encounter of their own with the Elders; an indelible experience, yet one which they will be unable to recall.

As the delegation returns to a small and secluded harbour after the conclusion of the Elders’ and the president’s meeting, a new and terrible danger confronts them. Despite soldiers’ desperate gunshots at it, a gigantic octopus whose tentacles can reach the men on shore is hovering exactly where they need to land. Ayodele is the only one who can deal with a threat of this magnitude. She dives into the water and manages to chase off the creature. However, as she resurfaces, attempting to join the others on shore, the soldiers see in her only another terrifying, alien presence and begin a deadly barrage of shots at her, despite the desperate shouts of Adaora and the others. But Adaora begs Anthony not to use his power to harm the soldiers; she knows they are terribly confused. Still, by the time Adaora reaches her, Ayodele is terribly hurt – “Adaora grasped Ayodele tightly, pressing her face to the alien woman’s neck. She could feel Ayodele’s warm blood seeping into her clothes. She could smell its coppery scent, mixed with sea water and urine. Ayodele was breathing in raspy gulps” (267). Adaora cannot understand why Ayodele allowed the soldiers to harm her and seems to be accepting her own imminent demise. Then Ayodele, whispering, explains her decision: she is not a singular being, but part of a collective. And she knows: “You people need help on the outside but also within”, adding, “I will go within […] you’ll all be a bit … alien” (268).

As Ayodele allows herself to disintegrate into a white mist, a final sonic boom occurs. Adaora at once understands: by this method, Ayodele has become part of everyone and everything around, so transforming them forever. “Lagos will never be the same,” Adaora says, and she realises that both the following are true: “Ayodele was gone. Ayodele is here” (269).

The ancient analogies of this ending will be clear to many readers, as the novel ties up the final loose threads.

The president of Nigeria makes a speech that (by means of the aliens’ new technology) is broadcast simultaneously to every device with a screen in Nigeria and far beyond. In it, he says:

The occasion that has put me here before you tonight is momentous. It marks another kind of transitional shift. Now listen closely to me. This shift is cause for celebration, not panic. I will say it again: celebration, not panic. There are others among us here in Lagos. They intend to stay. And I am happy about it. They have new technology; they have fresh ideas which we can combine with our own. Hold tight. We will be powerful again, o! People of Lagos, especially, look at your neighbour. See his race, tribe, or his alien blood. And call him brother. We have much work to do as a family.

In the final actual chapter, titled “Spider the Artist”, Udide speaks, foreseeing the jealousy and fear of other nations in response to Nigeria’s newfound prospects of prosperity. But she resolves that she will keep her people safe: “And we spiders play dirty,” she warns (292).

In her portrayal of her compatriots, Okorafor has certainly not idealised them, but she also unmistakably demonstrates Adaora’s children’s understanding that even though it is true that all too many humans/Nigerians/Lagosians are awful – selfish, violent, greedy, corrupt – they, like people all over the world, are able to illustrate the mixed and multiple qualities of human beings; qualities that manifest themselves with especial intensity when human beings are faced with major changes and perceptions of a threat to their lives and livelihood.

Many details of the novel’s often bizarre yet equally convincing details have perforce had to be omitted from this profile of the text, so readers are invited to read the novel for themselves. It certainly delivers entertainment in plenty, but also wisdom and insight.

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