Nigerian car culture is part identity, longing, and status

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Toward the end of Chimamanda Adichie’s best-selling novel Americanah, Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who has just returned to Lagos after over a decade of living in America, sits beside her ex-boyfriend as they drive to his private club in upscale Victoria Island. Adichie writes that Ifemelu “would remember this moment, sitting beside Obinze in his Range Rover, stalled in traffic, listening to [Nigerian music]. . . beside them a shiny Honda, the latest model, and in front of them an ancient Datsun that looked a hundred years old.”

The moment is memorable for Ifemelu because she has finally rekindled her romance with Obinze. But it is also memorable for all that it says about the new Lagos that Ifemelu returns to in 2009. The now-wealthy Obinze has acquired his Range Rover, along with a beautiful house, bank accounts, and a BMW, at a time when the Nigerian middle class is expanding under democracy and business opportunities, both legal and corrupt, have increased.

 Automobility and daily experiences on the road are a vital part of social life in Lagos. Obinze himself has been rewarded for the part he plays in undervaluing real estate that is then bought up cheaply and resold at a high profit margin. And though he now feels uncomfortable with all the material objects he has acquired, this does not stop him from driving to his club in luxury.

The driver of the new Honda has also presumably done well for him or herself, but the Range Rover and the Honda share the road with the driver of the old Datsun who, like the majority of Nigerians, moves through the city with less ease and comfort. And all three of the cars are stuck together in the notoriously crippling Lagos traffic.

Here, then, so many of the contradictions of modern Lagos play out on the road, in cars, and around cars. Though it is a novel about so many things—race, gender, migration, romance—Americanah affords readers a specific insight into what Nigerian automobility and car culture look like in two distinct postcolonial moments.

In the 1990s, when Nigeria was under the military rule of Sani Abacha and before Ifemelu left for America, “The country was starved of hope, cars stuck for days in long, sweaty petrol lines, pensioners raising wilting placards demanding their pay.” Ifemelu’s mother attends a church where she has the only shabby car in the parking lot because she hopes that she will be blessed with a nice car like the other worshippers. University students burn cars in front of the vice chancellor’s house in protest of constant faculty strikes. And, at the same time, wealthy criminals “who donated cars with the ease of people giving away chewing gum” (62) are able to cruise the city with impunity.

ump-green-simms-fig04A scene from the film 2002 Heremakono depicting car culture in Mauritania. (University of Minnesota Press.)

Years later when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, the petrol lines have disappeared and hope, at least for select members of the educated middle class, has been restored. Ifemelu’s previously unemployed father has a job at a bank and one of the first things he does is to purchase new tires for her mother’s car and buy a mobile phone, ensuring the family’s mobility.

But, at the same time, the roads and street life of Lagos in 2009 are as frenetic as they have always been. No longer accustomed to the chaos and energy, Ifemelu is inundated with scenes she had forgotten about: “At first Lagos assaulted her; the sun-dazed haste, the yellow buses full of squashed limbs, the sweating hawkers racing after cars, the advertisements on hulking billboards.”

Despite the obvious presence of new wealth, Ifemelu observes the roadside rubbish, the accident victim lying on the side of the street, and the patina of the decaying buildings. And even in this new Lagos infrastructural impediments become a prime topic of conversation. When her friend Ranyinudo picks her up from the airport the immediate talk is about traffic, power outages, parking woes, and how Ranyinudo wants her married boyfriend to buy her a jeep before she breaks up with him because the roads are so terrible.

Americanah reveals how automobility and daily experiences on the road are a vital part of social life in Lagos: they are intertwined with identity, longing, and status in a way that seems particularly pressing and unrelenting.

This is not to say that cars are radically different in America—in fact, many of Ifemelu’s initial observations upon arriving in Atlanta reveal that car culture is more similar than she assumed. Ifemelu, surprised that the cars in America are not new and shiny, finds them “disappointingly matte.” And when she observes her aunt’s wheezing American car that stands in contrast to the “green, glossy, intimidatingly streamlined” Mazda she drove in Nigeria, it becomes clear that class rather than geographical location often determines what one drives.

ump-green-simms-fig06A scene from the 2002 Senegalese film Xala. (University of Minnesota Press.)

But after a very short period of time, cars in the American scenes of the novel are simply part of the landscape. They may be covered in snow, or parked in a parking lot of the organic grocery store, or playing loud music as they pass by, but people do not seem to fixate on them or integrate them into daily conversation with the same intensity as they do in Lagos.

Unlike the Nigerian characters, the American characters are never introduced along with the type of car they drive, they do not seem to be particularly consumed with the need to acquire new cars, they do not carry on long conversations in stalled city traffic, and they almost never talk about infrastructural failures. Of course, cars in the United States are still objects that are crucial for mobility, they are still important signifiers of wealth and status, and they still breakdown, but what Americanah illustrates is that they are not discussed with either the same urgency or the same ambivalence.

Excerpted from Postcolonial Automobility: Car Culture in West Africa (2017) published by The University of Minnesota Press.

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