Every Day Is for the Thief

The protagonist at the centre of Teju Cole’s new novel returns to Nigeria for the first time in fifteen years. In this excerpt, the protagonist must decide whether or not it’s worth sticking to his principles—something he wrestles with at almost every stage of his journey.

Teju Cole was born in the United States in 1975 and raised in Nigeria. He is the author of Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City...
|| Lagos, Nigeria via Flickr user satanoid


I wake up late the morning I’m meant to go to the consulate. As I gather my documents just before setting out, I call the hospital to remind them I won’t be in until the afternoon. Then I enter the subway and make my way over to Second Avenue and, without much trouble, find the consulate. It occupies several floors of a skyscraper. A windowless room on the eighth floor serves as the section for consular services. Most of the people there on the Monday morning of my visit are Nigerians, almost all of them middle-­aged. The men are bald, the women elaborately coiffed, and there are twice as many men as there are women. But there are also unexpected faces: a tall Italian-­looking man, a girl of East Asian origin, other Africans. Each person takes a number from a red machine as they enter the dingy room. The carpet is dirty, of the indeterminate color shared by all carpets in public places. A wall-­mounted television plays a news program through a haze of static. The news continues for a short while, then there is a broadcast of a football match between Enyimba and a Tunisian club. The people in the room fill out forms.

There are as many blue American passports in sight as green Nigerian ones. Most of the people can be set into one of three categories: new citizens of the United States, dual citizens of the United States and Nigeria, and citizens of Nigeria who are taking their American children home for the first time. I am one of the dual citizens, and I am there to have a new Nigerian passport issued. My number is called after twenty minutes. Approaching the window with my forms, I make the same supplicant gesture I have observed in others. The brusque young man seated behind the glass asks if I have the money order. No, I don’t, I say. I had hoped cash would be acceptable. He points to a sign pasted on the glass: “No cash please, money orders only.” He has a name tag on. The fee for a new passport is eighty-­five dollars, as indicated on the website of the consulate, but it hadn’t been clear that they don’t accept cash. I leave the building, walk to Grand Central Terminal, fifteen minutes away, stand in line, purchase a money order, and walk the fifteen minutes back. It is cold outside. On my return some forty minutes later, the waiting room is full. I take a new number, make out the money order to the consulate, and wait.

A small group has gathered around the service window. One man begs audibly when he is told to come back at three to pick up his passport:

—­Abdul, I have a flight at five, please now. I’ve got to get back to Boston, please, can anything be done?

There is a wheedling tone in his voice, and the feeling of desperation one senses about him isn’t helped by his dowdy appearance, brown polyester sweater and brown trousers. A stressed-­out man in stressed-­out clothes. Abdul speaks into the microphone:

—­What can I do? The person who is supposed to sign it is not here. That’s why I said come back at three.

—­Look, look, that’s my ticket. Abdul, come on now, just look at it. It says five o’clock. I can’t miss that flight. I just can’t miss it.

The man continues to plead, thrusting a piece of paper under the glass. Abdul looks at the ticket with showy reluctance and, exasperated, speaks in low tones into the microphone.

—­What can I do? The person is not here. Okay, please go and sit down. I’ll see what can be done. But I can’t promise anything.

The man slinks away, and immediately several others rise from their seats and jostle in front of the window, forms in hand.

—­Please, I need mine quickly too. Abeg, just put it next to his.

Abdul ignores them and calls out the next number in the sequence. Some continue to pace near the window. Others retake their seats. One of them, a young man with a sky-­blue cap, rubs his eye repeatedly. An older man, seated a few rows ahead of me, puts his head into his hands and says out loud, to no one in particular:

—­This should be a time of joy. You know? Going home should be a thing of joy.

Another man, sitting to my right, fills out forms for his children. He informs me that he recently had his passport reissued. I ask him how long it took.

—­Well, normally, it’s four weeks.

—­Four weeks? I am traveling in less than three. The website assures applicants that passport processing takes only a week.

—­It should, normally. But it doesn’t. Or I should say, it does, but only if you pay the fee for “expediting” it. That’s a fifty-­five-­dollar money order.

—­There’s nothing about that on the website.

—­Of course not. But that’s what I did, what I had to do. And I got mine in a week. Of course, the expediting fee is unofficial. They are crooks, you see, these people. They take the money order, which they don’t give you a receipt for, and they deposit it in the account and they take out cash from the account. That’s for their own pockets.

He makes a swift pulling motion with his hands, like someone opening a drawer. It is what I have dreaded: a direct run-­in with graft. I have mentally rehearsed a reaction for a possible encounter with such corruption at the airport in Lagos. But to walk in off a New York street and face a brazen demand for a bribe: that is a shock I am ill-­prepared for.

—­Well, I’ll insist on a receipt.

—­Hey, hey, young guy, why trouble yourself? They’ll take your money anyway, and they’ll punish you by delaying your passport. Is that what you want? Aren’t you more interested in getting your passport than in trying to prove a point?

Yes, but isn’t it this casual complicity that has sunk our country so deep into its woes? The question, unspoken, hangs in the air between me and my interlocutor. It isn’t until past eleven that my number is finally called. The story is exactly as he has put it to me. There is an expediting fee of fifty-­five dollars in addition to the actual eighty-­five dollars that the passport costs. The payment has to be in two separate money orders. I leave the building for the second time that morning, to go and buy another money order. I walk quickly, and am exhausted by the time I return at a quarter to twelve, fifteen minutes before the closing of the window. This time, I don’t take a number. I barge my way to the window and submit my form with the required fees. Abdul tells me to pick my passport up in a week. He gives me a receipt only for the original fee. I take it mutely, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. On my way out, next to the elevators, there’s a partially torn sign that reads: “Help us fight corruption. If any employee of the Consulate asks you for a bribe or tip, please let us know.”

There is no number or email address appended to the note. In other words, I can inform the consulate only through Abdul or one of his colleagues. And it’s unlikely that they are the only ones on the take. Perhaps thirty or thirty-­five dollars of the “expediting fee” is going to someone over Abdul’s head. I catch the look on Abdul’s face as I exit the room. He is absorbed in assisting other applicants. It is a farce, given a sophisticated—­“no cash please”—­sheen.


It is early evening when the aircraft approaches the low settlements outside the city. It drops gently and by degrees toward the earth, as if progressing down an unseen flight of stairs. The airport looks sullen from the tarmac. It is named for a dead general, and is all that is worst about the architecture of the seventies. With its shoddy white paint and endless rows of small windows, the main building resembles a low-­rent tenement. The Air France Airbus touches down and glides onto the tarmac. Relief enters the holds and cabin with the inward-­rushing air. Some of my fellow passengers break into applause. Soon, we are trooping out of the craft. A woman weighed down with bags tries to barge through the aisle. “Wait for me,” she cries out to her travel companion, loud enough for everyone to hear, “I’m coming.” And I, too, experience the ecstasy of arrival, the irrational sense that all will now be well. Fifteen years is a long time to be away from home. It feels longer still because I left under a cloud.

Disembarkation, passport control, and baggage claim eat up more than an hour of our time. The sky outside fills with shadows. One man argues with a listless customs official about the inefficiency.

—­This is an international airport. Things should be better run. Is this the impression visitors should have of our nation?

The official shrugs, and says that people like him should return home and make it better. While we wait for the luggage machine to disgorge the bags, a white man next to me makes small talk. He has a brogue, and I ask if he is Scottish. “Aye,” he says, and he informs me that he works on the rigs.

—­Got drunk in Paris last night, and got robbed. Firkin’ frogs lifted me credit card. But the Champs-­Élysées was something! Aye, pissed out me mind. Skunk drunk.

He grins. His teeth are studded with metal. He wears an earring and sports a ginger-­tinged five-­o’clock shadow. He is not Europe’s finest, but he’ll earn well here.

—­Won’t get a flight to Port Harcourt till tomorrow. Staying at the Sheraton tonight. That’s where the air hostesses stay, if you get me drift.

I nod. My bags finally arrive, damp and streaked with dirt. I lift them onto a cart. On the way out, an official in mufti motions me to stop. He is seated to the side of the door, and doesn’t really appear to have any actual function. He’s just there. He asks if I am a student. Well, yes, sort of. I figure the lie will speed things along.

—­Eh ehn, I thought so. You have that student look. And where do you study?

NYU, I say, the answer that would have been correct three years ago. He nods.

—­Well, in New York, they spend dollars. You know, dollars.

A meaningless silence passes between us. Then, sotto voce, and in Yoruba, his demand:

—­Ki le mu wa fun wa? What have you brought for me for Christmas? Because, you know, they spend dollars in New York.

I have brought only resolve. I ignore him and roll my bags out to where Aunty Folake and her driver wait for me. When we unlock from our embrace, there are tears in her eyes. A scene out of the prodigal son. She hugs me again and laughs heartily.

—­You haven’t changed at all! How is that possible?

Outside, the airport looks finer, more regal than it did on approach. The entrances are clogged with passengers’ relatives and, in far greater number, touts, hustlers, and all sorts of people who are there because they have nowhere else to be.


On the way home from the airport, at the roundabout of Ikeja bus stop, where the late afternoon rush makes the traffic snarl, we come to a complete standstill. Not more than twenty yards away from us, under the overpass, two policemen bicker. “Go away,” one yells at his partner. “Why you always dey stand here? Why you no go stand that side?” He points to the far side of the roundabout. For a moment, it seems as if the other officer sees the sense in the suggestion, but he is slow about carrying it out because the disagreement has by now attracted stares from pedestrians. He is reluctant to lose face. Both men are slim and dark, in gray-­black uniforms, with machine guns slung over their shoulders. They stand confused and silent like a pair of actors who have forgotten their lines. A crowd of commuters gawks at them from a safe distance.

Aunty Folake explains what is going on. Policemen routinely stop drivers of commercial vehicles at this spot to demand a bribe. The officer being told off has drifted too close to his colleague’s domain. Such clustering is bad for business: drivers get angry if they are charged twice. All this takes place under a billboard that reads “Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes.”

And how much of the government’s money, I wonder, was siphoned off by the contractor who landed the contract for those billboards?

It is one thing to be told of the “informal economy” of Lagos, and quite another to see it in action. It puts pressure on everybody. Some fifteen minutes before we reached Ikeja bus stop, we had passed a toll gate on Airport Road. It, too, was in the shadow of a large billboard condemning corrupt practices and urging citizens to improve the country. The toll at the booth was set at two hundred naira: this was advertised and understood. However, enterprising drivers, such as ours, know that they can get through the toll gate if they pay just half of that. The catch is that the hundred naira they pay goes straight into the collector’s purse. “Two hundred you get ticket stub,” our driver says, “one hundred you get no ticket. What do I need ticket for? I don’t need ticket!” And in this way, thousands of cars over the course of a day would pay the toll at the informal rate, lining the pockets of the collectors and their superiors. The demand from the immigration officer, the Ikeja police, the toll booth story: I encounter three clear instances of official corruption within forty-­five minutes of leaving the airport.

Even before I get home that night, though, I see other ways of thinking about these exchanges of money. We stop at Ogba to buy bread. Ogba is some way past Ikeja, at the end of Agidingbi Road. On the way into the shop a doorman salutes us and holds the door open. When we leave the building a few minutes later, he follows us for twenty yards as we move toward the car, and asks for a tip. It is not a demand: it is soft. He does it with the gentleness of someone explaining something to a child.

Excerpted from Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole Copyright © 2014 by Teju Cole. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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