Crime novels in small African cities: A rarity

I can’t be the only one who lets out a long, exasperated sigh when I see an exciting new crime novel by an African author on the bookshelves at a physical or online store, quickly rush to read the description, and realise it’s set in…

Lagos. Johannesburg. Nairobi. Accra. Abuja. Harare. Cape Town. Kigali. Dakar. Cairo.

Sigh.

One of the things you’ll catch me saying every time is that I would like to read books where the characters navigate a quirky small town in Eastern Nigeria (not Nollywood village oh, lol) or a small neighbourhood in the outskirts of a medium-sized city in Zimbabwe. Now, I’m not shading stories set in cities or saying they’re not at all good, but come on! So many stories and novels, especially in the crime and noir genres (I’m especially picky about the crime genre, where the setting is usually part and parcel of the narrative, like an extra character), have focused on cities (especially mine, Lagos) in the last two, three years. Half of them have “Lagos” or “City” in the title too, ugh.

So, you know how Toni Morrison says if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it? Well, I done gone and did just that.

In 2014, I started writing Finding Foowa. This crime novel, which is part mystery and part suspense-thriller, follows the kidnapped daughter of a university professor and Deanship candidate, and the efforts of the Chief Security Officer of the university to retrieve her. Unlike most other crime novels I’ve read from Nigeria (and most of Africa), it is not set in the capital city, Lagos. It is set in the University of Benin in Edo State, a small state in the south-south of Nigeria, where I was born, raised, and went to university.

This was not a mistake. It was deliberate rebellion. A cursory google search for “African Crime Novels” will give you a list of books written by caucasians. So, not only did I start this book with a mission to put more African-written crime novels on the map, I also wanted the usually maligned cities and towns to shine through.

Why I set the story in the University of Benin

In late 2009, during exams period as a student at the University of Benin, a usual thing happened: the academic union went on strike. They cancelled our paper for the day and suspended the rest of our exams until further notice. I had a roommate at the time, and another friend who stayed over with us for group study. We all went home, dejected, accompanied by two friends who didn’t want to return to their rooms so early. Five young men with nothing to do, we decided that rather than leave the school premises and return to our parent’s homes, we would instead explore the massive uncharted forest behind the school.

The rest, I can say, is history. That trip, which we cheekily tagged, The Expedition (we made a video about it and everything) turned out to be the inspiration for Finding Foowa. I ended up seeing my own city, my own university, as a different animal, as something with much more beneath it. I realised, even then, that this place was ripe for stories, and I could tell stories about anywhere. It didn’t have to have the gritty criminal elements of Lagos, or the famous hustle-and-bustle of a populous town. It didn’t need to have that allure of an African Capital CityTM. I figured it was all about the people and how they interacted with the place; and if I looked at the university’s and city’s underbellies right and pulled out all the dirty bits that make every story interesting, I had hit jackpot.

So, five years later in 2014, I did. I started Finding Foowa.

Anywhere but Lagos, please

Soon, you will hear good news about Finding Foowa (you might want to follow me on Twitter and keep abreast, heh). But in the interim, I’m here to remind all of us that we’d love to hear stories about elsewhere too. We do not want to read The Single Story over and over again. We want a diversity of experiences, especially African ones; a collection of peoples as varied as seasand.

There are thirty-six states in Nigeria and I want to read crime novels set in all of them. I want to read about female detectives and male detectives and straight detectives and gay detectives. I want to read about young and old people. We need crime stories from every corner, but also science fiction and fantasy and mainstream work and essays and just about everything. But, please, oh please, set this anywhere but Lagos, please. Or Johannesburg.

Or Nairobi, Accra, Abuja, Harare, Lilongwe, Cape Town, Kigali, Dakar and Cairo.


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