“The plank walkways, which crisscrossed three-quarters of the slum, rang out like xylophones as a variety of shoes hurrying over them struck diverse notes.” (Abani 24)
Source: Google Images (original site no longer available)

Graceland and Urban Development in Nigeria

Urban development has consequences every time and every place that it occurs. With the rise of a city, we often see the decline of the surrounding villages and rural habitations to some degree. In large cities, we often also encounter concentrations of impoverished peoples bordering the downtown areas.  In Nigeria, these consequences are far more severe and have not been able to be corrected by city planning and infrastructure changes resulting in mega-slums.  Mega-slums are vast areas of inadequate housing which lack sanitation, security, and access to necessities especially potable water.  Part of the reason for this is that the industrialization which typically helps to finance necessary changes to infrastructure has not occurred in Nigeria. Instead, Nigeria has been a victim of globalism,  the policy of placing the interests of the entire world above those of individual nations. Africa in the past has been all but excluded from global trade of manufactured goods providing no incentive for industrial development. In addition, Nigeria refuses to import many staples which can be manufactured elsewhere for less, and export restrictions amongst the nations of Africa fail to provide incentive for agricultural development in numerous regions.  This combined with the corruption and military unrest in the nation has created a poor economic state for much of the population.  In Nigeria we see cities that are literally torn in two. On one hand we have a thriving tourist destination and mega-city, on the other the wretched and nearly uninhabitable mega-slums.

Calabar Beach, Nigeria

It seems that the Nigerian government is content to neglect their own people, especially the Igbo, for the sake of appearances.  Through the use of mass media, the government exposes only the glamorous side of cities hiding the fact that there are dangerous mega-slums on their borders.  One example of this can be seen on the Lagos government website. There you will find beautiful landscapes with palm trees and parks as well as clean new housing developments.  According to the Ministry of the Environment, their vision is “A flood-free ,hygienic and beautiful Lagos.”   What they do not address are the millions of people living in slums and what they propose to do to help them.  Open sewers, unstable make-shift housing, and unsafe traffic situations caused by urbanization and over-population are also forgotten.  Are the people living in the slums of Nigeria any less “forced” than the Jews in Nazi concentration camps?  One could certainly draw the conclusion that the Nigerian government and external forces have driven millions of people into these sub-human living conditions forcing them to concentrate into mega-slums.

Early in the narrative our protagonist, Elvis, mentions that he himself “hadn’t known about the poverty and violence of Lagos until he arrived” (Abani 7).  All that he had known was what the mass-media had depicted, the side of the city that had earned its name of  “One Copy” because there is a copy of nearly every type of architecture in Lagos. Elvis and his father, Sunday, were forced to relocate to the Maroko slums of Lagos, Nigeria after his father was a victim of the political corruption after the Biafran war. Elvis’ father, Sunday, was coerced to retire from his esteemed position and run for office during a corrupt election where he lost and incurred massive debt. They were then forced to relocate to the Maroko slums of Lagos, Nigeria, eight hundred miles away.

Traffic in Lagos

Another consequence of urbanization is a loss of culture, especially in the case of Nigeria and other African nations.  The culture and traditions of African people have in the past resided in villages amongst small tribes and have been passed down through oral tradition to the younger generations.  In the city, those traditions become as lost as the villagers themselves.  How does one “find” their missing traditions?  How does one find their own people in the slums?

We see an attempt to hold on to the Igbo tradition in the extra-literary elements within the story.  These elements, although not a part of the narrative, are very much a part of the story.  Each chapter of the narrative contains two elements: a reference to an Igbo tradition (often involving the kola nut), and in all but the first chapter, a recipe from the journal of Elvis’ mother, Beatrice.  At the beginning of each book of the narrative, the extra-literary elements are expanded to include a paratextual reference, .  These are quotes taken from other works of literature incorporated into this text. In Book I, the quote from Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1), seems to point us towards the transnationalist perspective of Chris Abani as he narrates the story of Elvis Oke:

It seemed almost incidental that he was African.

So vast had his inner perceptions grown over the years…

Abani who is himself in exile, has a unique ability to be able to join multiple spaces together understanding each of them, but belonging to none.  That is why transnationalism is also defined by being permanently homeless.  Not home as defined by a house, family, etc., but home in respect to national identity, heritage, cultural tradition.  We see this often in African Diaspora literature.  The nature of being forcefully removed from ones native land and culture and assimilated into another creates a sense of permanent homelessness.

For Further Reading:

Lagos Government Website:  This link will take you to the Lagos State Government website where you can see what they claim to be doing to address the issues of urbanization.

Igbo Tradition:  All about the Igbo people of Nigeria as well as information on Nigeria as a whole.

Nigeria Planet:  This site contains a vast amount of information on Nigeria, including urbanization information.

Slum Cities and Cities with Slums:  This document (PDF) contains detailed information about slum cities and circumstances surrounding the cities with slums.

CESR and Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC):  This is a link to The Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Social and Economic Rights Action Center of Nigeria.  This non-political, not-for-profit organization assists those who have been forcibly evicted from slum cities as well as many other people and causes.

Import Bans in Nigeria Create Poverty:  This link contains information and statistics directly linking the Nigerian ban on imported staples with an increased incidence of poverty within the nation.

Rapid urban growth, cause for concern:  This is a link to the Nigerian Daily Times’ article regarding the effects of urbanization as well as irresponsible government spending.

Graceland and Mass-media in Nigeria

If you do an internet search for Lagos, there is a good chance that much of the information you will find will be related to Nollywood, or the thriving Nigerian film industry.  The Nigerian film industry is currently the second or third largest in the world (reports vary), the others being the United States (Hollywood) and India (Bollywood).  Nollywood began in the 1960’s as conflicts that would eventually lead to the Biafran War were developing.  This film industry was originally supported by the Nigerian government and was therefore able to experience growth during poor economic times. Imported information was limited by the government during the 1960’s through the 1980’s so much of the film industry in Nigeria consisted of old American films, Indian films, and Nigerian “home videos” which were low quality movies filmed on location.

As we read Graceland, we find that during his childhood Elvis desperately tried to pursue his dream of becoming a dancer and performer.  He often made his way to the cinema to watch both old American and Indian films hoping to expand on his performing abilities. Although his dancing dream was supported by his mother and grandmother, Oye, it was looked upon adversely by the men in his family.  As an Igbo man, Elvis was expected to be masculine and eventually take care of a family.  Elvis, who struggled with issues of sexuality, preferred to live in a fantasy world where perhaps he was able to escape his tragic life if only for a moment. Mass media not only influenced this fantasy world, but helped form it on a much deeper level.  Elvis used his imagination as a means to know. Edward Said called this “othering”.  Elvis often paravisualized, placing his own imaginary images/perceptions around actual images that he collected from film, books, and other print media (including a postcard of Las Vegas received from his Aunt), to create his own version of reality.  As we read further, we see Elvis’ strengthening desire to leave Lagos for Las Vegas as a solidification of his desire for a fantasy life. Nearly everything in Elvis’ life was imaginary: his memory of his mother, his grandmother, his home, his “job” as a performer, even his perceptions of his father.  In fact, Elvis’ friend, Redemption, referenced a scene from The Wild Ones in reference to Elvis’ relationship with his father.  All of these things resided in the mind of Elvis in an often unrealistic way and created an alternate reality where Elvis “lived” most of the time.

Elvis used the information that he saw in film and books to develop his speech, often reciting lines and slang from old American western movies. He also used this information to feign letters to his grandmother, Oye.  Elvis, who was supposed to be mailing out letters to her friends, used the postage money to get into the cinema.  He therefore had to use lines and scenes taken from movies to disguise the fact that her friends were not responding to her letters.  He used scenes from films such as Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone With the Wind to create fantastical stories of their lives.  Although Oye knew what was going on, she found his recreations interesting and allowed him to continue the charade, perhaps to allow him to further his dream without being directly involved.

Mass media also influenced other characters in Graceland.  The election that resulted in Elvis’ and Sunday being forced into Maroko was televised nationally.  Redemption, who had read Napoleon Hill, combined his “knowledge” with other knowledge gained from the television program Bassey and Company, by Ken Saro-Wiwa, to influence his ideas on becoming financially independent.  Mr. Aggrey, Elvis’ childhood dance instructor, told Elvis to go to the Indian cinema and “…watch Elvis Presley, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and nameless Indian film stars in order to study, up-close and firsthand, the moves of great dancers” (84-85).  Much of his dance lessons were based on these dances.  And the destruction of Maroko was announced in the newspaper and created dialogue amongst numerous characters in the slums. As they fought for their tenaments, they blared Bob Marley through the loud speakers and sang along as a form of protest. Sunday also used the inadvertent threat of the media while attempting to negotiate with the inspector when he mentioned that “A dead child is difficult to explain” (271).

Although Nigeria has claimed to allow free press, the media within Nigeria is very much government controlled.  Because the government has financially backed much of Nigeria’s media, it is easy for them to censor content.  We see this in Graceland when the Lieutenant informed the Colonel that the General had sent men to remove the press while he talked to the King of Beggars.  The BBC was present during this conflict and the government did not want any bad press reaching the public. The struggle of mass media in Nigeria continues.   In 1995, the regime of Sani Abacha executed television producer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (mentioned previously and referenced in Graceland) for treason.  This regime remained in power in Nigeria through 1998. Current administration continues to censor Nigerian and imported media.

For Further Reading:

Nigeria Films: Everything Nollywood and More!

The Nigerian Voice: An example of Nigerian Mass-media.  Digital news source.

Punch:  This article condemns the use of propaganda to change the image of Nigeria.

Modern Ghana: This link provides a brief (and somewhat outdated) history of Nollywood films.

The Representation of African Traditional Religion and Culture in Nigeria Popular Films:  This is a WOW article!  Somewhat difficult and tedious reading, but very interesting and informative.

Gollywood Frustrating Film Censorship In Nigeria-Mba:  An article addressing censorship of Nigerian and Indian films (2011).

Censorship of information and the Nigerian society:  Article on censorship within Nigeria (PDF)

Additional Information:

Chris Abani on the Stories of Africa (TED video)

Chris Abani belongs to the Third Wave of African Diaspora writers. The Third Wave of Diaspora literature is still unfolding.  There is a strong emphasis on multimedia and multicultural influence which really escalated in the 1980’s and 1990’s.   Because this wave is still evolving it remains undefinable. The time-line within Graceland borders in the Second Wave where people and literature were dominated by corruption, extreme disillusionment and the pursuit of civil rights. This struggle continues in Nigeria.

Chris Abani

Chris Abani’s Website:

The Chris Abani Bibliography: University of Liège- Chris Abani Bibliography

Link to the Chris Abani TED site with additional videos:


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