When a White Man Writes a Good Book About Africa: On Tim Cocks’s “Lagos”

Kovie Biakolo contemplates Tim Cocks’s 2022 book “Lagos: Supernatural City.”

By Kovie BiakoloJune 12, 2023

When a White Man Writes a Good Book About Africa: On Tim Cocks’s “Lagos”

Lagos: Supernatural City by Tim Cocks. Hurst. 344 pages.

IN THE LAST two weeks of December 2022, during the proverbial 11th hour if you will, I finished what became one of my favorite books of last year—Lagos: Supernatural City by Tim Cocks, a journalist who has reported throughout the African continent for almost 20 years. Against my best wishes to not like a book about Africans written by a British-born white man, I did. But more on that later. A year following its release, Lagos is best described as a remarkable if underrated book of narrative nonfiction about what everyday life looks like for a range of the Nigerian city’s residents, in all of their shame and glory. Back in December, however, my initial impression of the book and its writer reminded me of a cinematic take on another city that couldn’t be more different—Joe Talbot’s 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

In that movie, protagonist Jimmie Fails, played by himself, listens to two women on the bus gripe about his home city. (Fails wrote the story with director Joe Talbot, partially based on the former’s life.) The women’s tirade is the kind many an unconscientious transplant makes when residing in a place they are not from, displeased that it hasn’t lived up to their expectations or has failed to satisfy the so-called “hype” attached to inhabiting certain coveted locales. But there’s much more than a battle of native city-dweller versus migrant resident going on here: Jimmie is Black, the women are white, and the film largely centers the racialized politics of gentrification and its consequences for those displaced by it. The women conclude their characterizations with an emphatic “Fuck this city.” Jimmie, listening intently, asks the pair whether they love San Francisco. One woman responds, “It’s … I mean, yeah, I’m here. Do I have to love it?” Jimmie asserts a conclusion of his own, onto which he will cleave hereafter, “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

I’ve reexamined this sentiment a lot over the past few years, given my status as a migrant resident many times over, in a few cities and countries outside the one I was born in—Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria—or the one my family hails from—Ughelli, Delta State, Nigeria. It certainly came to mind as Cocks’s Lagos renewed my understanding of a city I had only become familiar with in adulthood; he uncovers its dynamism by documenting the lives of a handful of its residents—their hardships and ambitions, their failures, and their seemingly unending hope—with the theme of faith in the divine a universal through line that unites the book’s characters. It’s a theme that arguably also bonds the roughly 20 million people who live in the city today—an uncertain number because, as Cocks notes in the book, no one is quite sure just how many people really live in Lagos.

A hybrid work of journalistic profiles and literary nonfiction, Cocks’s book blends sociology with history, offering a wonderfully composite portrait of the miraculous doggedness and delight Lagosians display in the face of the complexities and Nigeria-specific hardships that make living in the city challenging. While I found some of the author’s storytelling choices and language unsettling, the book boasts a cohesive, compelling narrative, even as it is broken into individual accounts that merge candor and hope with much-needed humor. But perhaps, most unexpectedly (and this is personal), Cocks’s book—and the author himself—instigated a self-examination of some struggles I’ve had in the last few years, during which time I had been quietly but noticeably limiting my interactions with white people.


If you can’t tell from his name—and this is undoubtedly a presumption, though an accurate one—Cocks is not from Lagos or Nigeria. Currently working as the Reuters chief correspondent for Southern Africa, he was previously the bureau chief of Central and West Africa and formerly based in Dakar, and before that Lagos, where he lived from 2011 to 2015. He is also white, born in England, and of South African parentage via a host of European descendants. Learning of his genealogy—German, Cornish, Danish, Scottish—is akin to being at a bar with a multigenerational white American as they inform you of the array of colonizers—sorry, ancestors—that made their way to the Native American lands that later became the United States.

I, of course, am also not from Lagos, although Ibadan, the city of my birth, is less than three hours away, in the southwest of Nigeria. Unlike Cocks, my own ethnic background is quite straightforward: Urhobo on both sides of my family, a people who reside mainly in what is currently the Delta and Bayelsa states in the part of the country known as the Niger Delta, the south-south of the country. (Or, as I like to say, a people whose exploitation has paid the price for rich and poor Nigerians alike, including many Lagosians.) In 2009, however, I began to adopt Lagos as a place I consider home when my parents returned to live in Nigeria years after departing from the country during the regime of dictator Sani Abacha in the early 1990s. Observing Lagos over the last 13 years in slivers of concentrated time, I can attest that it is both an exciting and an extremely exhausting place to live, with a host of incessant frustrations and failures.

Cocks, veteran journalist that he is, does not spare his readers warranted and harsh assessments of the city. He describes the eyesore it can be in terms of aesthetics, from the violent negligence and inequality to the downright destitution that is often difficult to ignore—although politicians and elites do try. These assessments are factual, of course, but they are still written by an oyibo man, one born in the country that colonized both Lagos and the nation-state it would occupy. And so, while reading the book, there were moments when I found myself having to actively relax my penchant to “defend” the perceptions of my partially adopted city against this white outsider, who I (begrudgingly) eventually had to admit knows this place more fully and better than I do.

This is not an easy admission. It does, however, demonstrate the limits of a certain kind of representational politics that rests only on the knowledge of what superficial identity characterizations can offer—e.g., I am Nigerian, he is not, and therefore I should know Lagos better than he does. Still, I do not. I may at any given moment understand the inner psyche of what it means to be a Nigerian, including a Lagosian, better than any non-Nigerian, but in the specificity of what makes Lagos work, the contrasts and contradictions its residents abide by, and the discrepancies between the lives of various Lagosians, it takes a keen and committed observer to accurately condense these people’s experiences without patronizing them or the many kinds of readers that might encounter the book, Nigerian and non-Nigerian.

Cocks illuminates the histories of different Yoruba groups within the ethnic nation and their claims to different parts of the city, and he shows why Lagos is also a place that can and does belong to migrants, non-Yoruba and Yoruba alike; Lagos respects its subject’s history and contemporary reality without allowing its many narratives to supersede the author’s own perspective. In fact, Cocks’s understanding of the megacity showcases the so-called “outsider perspective” at its best, capturing the ethos of a people with affection but also with veracity, seeking to comprehend rather than condemn, aware of his perspective as one among many without needing his view to be seminal. Cocks, oyibo man that he is, also does not enact a political correctness that would have explained the material and moral choices of his Nigerian characters as merely the outcome of living in a country marred by inequality, governmental failures, and numerous social and cultural conflicts. Lagosians—and many Lagosians would agree—are not merely the historical and personal sum total of the accidents that have brought them to the city.

In colorfully constructed vignettes, Cocks unfolds narratives of a wide range of people, avoiding big-city typecasts in favor of the kind of real-life Lagosians you are likely to encounter if you stay awhile. He includes six main accounts. Toyin is a devout Muslim woman and transportation gangster gone soft. Eric is an Edo Christian witchcraft practitioner, a dump-site treasure hunter in the day and a hopeful singer at night. Uju is a Catholic-turned-evangelical-Christian executive who takes an all-or-nothing gamble on a prospective project that requires finding oil. Fatai is a Muslim and Yoruba polytheist, an overlord who is trying to claim land in the part of city he believes is his ancestral right. Noah is a Christian native of the famous Makoko slum who honors the voodoo practices of his people while hoping that his educational pursuits might be his way out. Kemi, a born-and-raised Muslim, is also an Osun-worshiping devotee whose business in the sand industry affords her independence even as the industry itself becomes fodder for violent turf wars, with real estate and money at the center.

I didn’t exactly relate to any of these characters, but that didn’t matter as much as knowing that all of them and their stories sounded familiar, unique to each individual, yet easily, truly Lagosian. Besides, my relating to them was not as important as the way Cocks telegraphed their authenticity, sometimes offering counternarratives to the stereotypical stories you might hear, even among Nigerians. You get the sense that Toyin, for example, despite her growing softness, remains a woman not deeply interested in pursuing marriage with another man, after both her tough upbringing and her heartbreaking disappointment with the man she loved, who also fathered her children. The portrayal offers a much-needed counter to the idea that, for Nigerian women, marriage and relationships with men are of utmost importance. Add to that Noah’s unconventional narrative of staying in his Makoko slum: not exactly a rags-to-riches story but rather one of a son of the soil who has seen what his people might become, and rather than japa (i.e., leave for greener pastures), as the “Nigerian dream” often entails, he stays and becomes an anchor in the community.

Unsurprisingly, money, as much as religion and spirituality, is the focal point of many of the narratives—striving for it for the sake of survival, desiring it to attain a dreamed-up lifestyle, or pursuing more of it to fulfill a prophecy, as determined by The Divine, of course. Cocks seamlessly captures the shamelessness with which Nigerians of all classes pursue capital, and while this might bring discomfort to the reader who doesn’t understand the country or its people, it will be clear to most Nigerians that many of us do see money as the solution to life’s problems. And in a country where over three-fifths of the sizable population live in poverty, why wouldn’t we? This is especially noticeable in the case of Uju, who has a comfortable middle-class life. Uju’s belief that God desires more for her causes her to put her entire family’s finances on the line in pursuit of real riches in the country’s most prized means of accumulation: oil wealth. As you read Uju’s story, you may also note how Cocks has a flair for keeping the reader on their toes, only slowly revealing whether a character’s pursuit of money is successful, whether their faith in The Divine literally pays off.

Weaving the personal histories of his characters with that of the city, and even of the country of Nigeria more broadly, Lagos contextualizes the way that the city’s inhabitants manage to occupy what at times feels like entirely different universes. It’s a feeling that rings true to being in Lagos if you know it well enough. Cocks’s descriptions of people and places are also worthy of envy—the details are rendered in crisp, vivid language, the tone a mix of empathy, directness, and at times indulgent (if adopted) Nigerian banter, transporting the reader to scenes in a manner that is both striking and easeful. For example, Cocks periodically reiterates the tiresome nature of Lagos traffic in a way that anyone who has visited the city will instantly appreciate. His emphasis on the gaudiness of new buildings in the richer parts of Lagos, which showcase the laughable lack of taste of many wealthy Nigerians, is also notable. But most commendable of all, Cocks’s descriptions and depictions achieve a near-impossible feat that any writer documenting a place they are not from would envy: he never seems to be trying too hard.

That these descriptions are not without their limitations, even for the most imaginative reader, begs one stark criticism of the project: Why does a book about a place, and such a vibrant place at that, avoid the inclusion of any illustrations or pictures? Surely, if it is a copyright issue, the author, who is, after all, a journalist, might have taken some photographs himself? For example, when Cocks contrasts older Lagosian architecture with the new, the reader experiences the lack of images acutely. The absence of images to expose both Makoko’s beauty and its slum-like unseemliness is a serious shortcoming in a book that purports to depict Lagos as a city of many forms—the reader ought to see this.

Certain language and observations in the book also generated uncomfortable pauses for me, such as Cocks’s habitual use of the term “thugs” to denote those who inflict violence in the city (but who are ostensibly also victims of the state’s neglectful violence). The first time I read the word, I was shocked, given my own adulthood largely spent in the United States and the racialized context of that word there—before recalling that, in Nigeria, even coming from an oyibo person’s mouth, the word would not necessarily have the same connotations. Making greater use of the Yoruba equivalent, agbero, however, might have been a more linguistic and culturally appropriate characterization, and certainly would have saved me from cringing whenever I encountered the word in the book.

Cocks also takes some liberties when chronicling his secondary and tertiary characters. In one instance, he describes a woman’s hair loss as stemming “from a lifetime of having used too much hair straightener.” Now, how on earth would he know that for sure unless he asked her? (He certainly didn’t indicate that he had.) Even some Nigerians might find such criticisms needless, bordering on Western-oriented political correctness, a concept clearer to me given that my own Black consciousness has largely been shaped outside of Nigeria. But aside from my frequent disagreements with many of my countrypeople on matters of race, language, and identity, Cocks trades in words and therefore knows the power they wield, and how that power has been used to discipline and denigrate Black women’s bodies, from hair to toe. Simply put, he knows better and should have reflected as much in his writing.

Perhaps it is a near-impossible task for a white man writing about Africa to not slip at times into a colonial gaze or its implied language, no matter his best wishes. (I am not sure it is even possible for us, the previously colonized, to avoid this entirely due to our own sometimes unconscious mimicry of our oppressors.) Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2005 satirical essay “How to Write About Africa” outlines all the ways Western-minded writers erase nuances of the continent and its people; the essay points especially to the use of language that makes Africa into a monolith and simplifies our idiosyncrasies. Cocks largely avoids this problem, but he does not entirely escape the underlying attitude. For example, he repeatedly spotlights how poor people defecate in the city’s open spaces, thereby feeding into historical ideas and portrayals of the “uncleanliness” of the “savages”—a racist narrative Europeans have inflicted on the people they enslaved and colonized. Again, Cocks is not inaccurate in recounting this very real, desperate expediency, but who the speaker—or in this case, the writer—is while calling out this practice does matter. The writer’s relationship to the subjects and places he writes about, what he chooses to emphasize and to erase in terms of race, nationality, and space, cannot be ignored, even if he is technically correct.

On the matter of choices made and events emphasized (and maybe this is my most peevish criticism of all the problems that may not be entirely the responsibility of the author), there is rather too much repetition of certain observations, such as the public defecations and the city’s overall “filth.” Cocks’s editor should have gone over Lagos once or twice more to root out such belaboring of topics. Still, as a journalist, Cocks knows and would likely agree that he is ultimately responsible for his byline and his book.

Beyond what Cocks didn’t quite get right, what the book could have used more of—though I suspect this would have gone against the author’s instincts—was greater inclusion of his interactions with the peoples he was documenting. He allows himself into the stories in a way that is often humanizing, confessing, if slightly, his own relationship to faith—or lack thereof—relative to those he interviews. He discloses the personal struggles that affected him while meeting with religious and spiritual leaders, such as his wife’s mental health problems, revealing an attempt to receive an evangelical (Christian) spiritual healing but backing out of it, out of fear. Despite hints of self-deprecation in the account, Cocks affords himself this vulnerable moment, congruent with many others he recounts in Lagos.

Cocks makes other admissions in Lagos that might be easy to miss, such as his affection for animals and his vegetarianism (animals slaughtered for sacrifice or sustenance in the book are always written about with pity). But there is also, in my opinion, a most unconscionable confession: the author says he finds unbearable the smell of stockfish, a necessary ingredient in some Nigerian cuisines. The consequence for Cocks is that, during his time in Nigeria, he probably did not partake in the country’s full breadth of dishes, especially the soups that are a true culinary art form. It is likely that this will be the most egregious discovery Nigerians note while reading the book. Certainly, for me, the revelation ensures that—whatever Cocks may write about in the future, whether in books or journalistic articles—food should certainly not be among his subjects. Were he to venture into that realm, we would all recall his lack of taste for stockfish and promptly ignore anything further he has to say.

On this topic, I have a confession of my own: I knew about Cocks’s dislike of stockfish before I opened the book, having met him at the Aké Arts & Book Festival in Lagos in November. (I am still struggling to come to terms with his unbelievable comparison of his dislike of stockfish to mine of marmite—one contributes to an aphrodisiacal food that keeps many Nigerian homes happy and the country’s birth rate high, while the other ought to be listed among Britain’s greatest crimes, likely contributing to its declining birth rate.) But while I am making admissions, here is another: had I not met Cocks, it is highly unlikely that I would have picked up Lagos at all.

White people have been writing about Africa for centuries, and much of it—apart from being racist and infantilizing, often expressing Eurocentric and white-supremacist sensibilities—is just not all that interesting. Consider the historical writings of “explorer” Henry Morton Stanley and how his book In Darkest Africa (1890) influenced the 20th-century Western media depictions of, and cultural perspectives on, Africans, from our historical civilizations to our present-day ones. Stanley’s book contains a litany of inaccuracies and an underlying perspective steeped in Western superiority; it is an influential depiction that Africans are still subject to today—and thus my inclination to steer away from the writings of white people on any aspect of Africa.

Given my own parents’ politics and academic backgrounds, I was raised reading African literature, fiction, and nonfiction, written by Black Africans, as the (resisting) standard for contemplating the continent and its people, historically and in the contemporary moment.  Living between the West and the continent hasn’t changed this, except for adding Black European (including Black British), Black American, and Afro-Caribbean literature to my canon.

When I gifted a copy of Lagos to a fellow West African friend also living in New York City, we laughed heartily because neither of us could remember the last book we read by a white person, much less a white man. And yet we were keen on this one because it was just a damn good book. As I attentively made my way through it, even with my notable criticisms, I said to her, “A white man wrote a good book about Africa! Ma sœur, we are doomed! Who will we be reading next?” This bemused statement contains a kernel of truth I found myself having to reckon with in my encounter with Cocks at Aké and when reading his book: I had been avoiding white storytellers, yes, but I had also been avoiding white people in general.

That is, perhaps, a silly statement given that I write for many mainstream (i.e., white/white-owned) publications, teach at New York City’s public university, live in a (sadly) gentrifying part of Brooklyn, and therefore encounter white people every day. (Some of my best editors and colleagues are white!) And yet it is still also true—I had been avoiding white people when I didn’t have to be around them. Given that my life of migration, of travel between cities and countries in Africa, Europe, and the United States, has all but guaranteed me a gauntlet of multiracial relationships, including with white people, it is surprising in taking stock of my life to realize that, some time in adulthood, my interactions with white people narrowed, and that this was intentional.

Perhaps it was a consequence of the shooting of Mike Brown in 2014, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the subsequent reactions of ordinary white people, some of whom I had broken bread with, and the racism that reared its ugly head among them—the racism many of our Black elders had always warned us is never too far from white people’s perspectives on ordinary Black people (whom they don’t know personally). Maybe it was witnessing Trump’s rhetoric at the start of his 2016 campaign for president, and the openly bigoted rhetoric coming out of his White House thereafter. Or it might have been the way Brexit’s biggest supporters and leaders in the United Kingdom (i.e., Nigel Farage and company) spouted racialized xenophobia. London is another of my many homes, but as with my experiences of New York, I extract my feelings about a city from the way I feel towards the country at large and how many of its people may feel towards folks who look like me and are from countries like the one I’m from.

Whenever this avoidance strategy began—which was clearly in fragmentary fashion rather than in one sweeping decision—it came with a set of what I like to think of as “defensive prejudices,” which I told myself (and certainly believe) were in service of my own self-preservation as a Black Nigerian woman, and of course a migrant resident many times over. These defensive prejudices often meant that I met white people I didn’t know as if they were liable to whiteness and the baggage that comes with it until proven otherwise. Being around the average white person I wasn’t already acquainted with started to feel like it required an energy that I wasn’t willing to give—an energy that often assumed a goodness and innocence in them that ran counter to all the theories I had learned in graduate school and all the stories I was reading and writing for work. Beyond the Black-white binary, I tended to give non-Black people of color more grace, but not that much more, knowing how prevalent anti-Blackness can be; as a result, my circle got smaller, Browner, and Blacker. The joke among my closest friends, including those who were white, was that most of the white people in my life would have to be grandfathered in by age 24, with only rotating openings when a relationship with another oyibo came to an end. And even then, to put it in the words of the very quotable Real Housewives of Atlanta, the door was (often) closed.

When I officially moved to New York City from Chicago in 2015, I found myself breaking off, eluding, and distancing myself from past (and potential future) relationships with white people—platonic and otherwise—because the burden of being in a community I had built, and in a place I was familiar with, no longer applied. I could thus start afresh. Back then, I was self-reflective enough to know that is what I was doing, even though the extent to which I had done it did not hit me until the BLM protests of 2020, when several white people from my past came out of the woodwork to apologize for their transgressions, many of which were relatively minor insensitive remarks I had mostly forgotten about. I found most of these blasts from the past humorous despite choosing not to respond to many of them—an absolver of white guilt I am not. And I usually let bygones be bygones anyhow. Besides, while I had no interest in rekindling connections with some white people from my past, my position on avoiding white people as a group was due for a shift.

If the causes of my white avoidance were a series of events rather than one major incident, then the way I came to soften my stance and navigate back to the openness that felt most natural to me was also episodic. I fell out of love with Pan-Africanism and a certain kind of Black identitarianism that can sometimes require Black women (and queer people) to ignore their own personal and political needs, and which has led to my most overemphasized political belief—that shared identity does not indicate shared values. Or maybe I also just periodically continued to encounter white people I didn’t know very well but who were the actual #notallwhitepeople examples I needed to witness, and not those on Twitter or in real life who act like the #whitepeople that prompted my defensive prejudices in the first place.

All this brings me back to encountering Cocks at Aké. He is as contemplative a person (of any background) as one could hope for. I admired this quality in his dialogues with myself and others, and especially when watching him navigate a panel discussion on how and whether outsiders (mostly white people) should tell stories of Africans in Africa given their repeated historical and contemporary blunders. I had joked that he was completely set up given the audience and subject matter, and I suspect he might have slightly felt that way too. Yet still, he handled the event in a gently assertive manner, without obvious defensiveness, acknowledging the negative realities of the history of white storytelling in Africa without feeling the need to answer for every white person’s crime on the continent, which would have been tedious and boring. And so, Cocks becomes another living example, the latest yet, of the fallacies of my (previous) defensive prejudices.

When I related this account of Cocks to the same West African friend I mentioned earlier, she said, “Ah, so he is just a white person who knows how to be around Black people. Then the book is certainly worth a try.” And maybe what is left unsaid between my friend and myself is that the writer’s proximity to the people he writes about is not that of the tourist or transplant, but of a person who is part of the community where he lives, for however long or short his time in Lagos may have been. In one of the book’s more profound moments, Noah from the Makoko slum tells Cocks he is tired of how outsiders write about his home, to which Cocks responds that he wants people to see the place as Noah does. So, I, as an outsider-insider in Lagos myself, would be so bold as to say that Cocks, in this book, writes about Lagos as Lagosians see it and want—no, need—others to see it.

I believe that the only way the author could have pulled this off was by exemplifying the posture that Jimmie in The Last Black Man of San Francisco demands of us when we talk about people’s cities, the places they’re from: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” As such, even in those parts of Lagos where you might question Cocks’s use of language or his adoption of a colonializing gaze, or indeed where you can feel his overt contempt, he still clearly loves the city. In fact, he manifests almost perfectly the fact that an outsider’s hate can be permissible, even endearing, when they also clearly love the place they are talking about and the people who are from it.


Kovie Biakolo is a journalist, writer, and lecturer specializing in culture, identity, and multiculturalism. Her debut book, Foremothers: 500 Years of Heroines from the African Diaspora, is set to be published in 2024 or 2025. 

LARB Contributor

Kovie Biakolo is a journalist, writer, and lecturer specializing in culture, identity, and multiculturalism. Her debut book, Foremothers: 500 Years of Heroines from the African Diaspora, is set to be published in 2024 or 2025.


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