Exploring the Breath, Range, Character, Scope and Reception of Cyprian Ekwensi's Writings
Ekwensi one of Africa’s most prolific writers who died late last year and was buried early this year, maintained a vibrant writing activity throughout his life, publishing a collection of short stories, Cash On Delivery, his last work of fiction and completing work on his memoirs, titled, In My Time for several years on to his death. With over twenty novels, collections of stories and short novels to his name, Ekwensi’s thematic preoccupation equally covered the Nigerian Civil War from the perspective of a journalist and life in a pastoral Fulani setting in Northern Nigeria.
Ekwensi’s first published work was the novella, When Love Whispers, published in 1948, ten years before the great African novel, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, appeared in London. He was inspired by sorrow over his unsuccessful attempt to court a young woman whose father insisted that she makes a marriage of convenience to write it. This short, light romance formed part of what became known as the Onitsha Market school of pulp fiction, and its success inspired Ekwensi to continue in that same mode.
Ekwensi had already distinguished himself by the several short stories he had written for broadcast on radio. These he later put together, within ten days, while on his way to Chelsea School of Pharmacy, London, to realize his first novel, People of the City, which Nigeria’s premier newspaper, The Daily Times, published in installments before it appeared in book form in 1954. but which was not published in the United States until 15 years later. People of the City (1954) was the first West African novel in modern style English to be published in England. It’s publication thus marked an important development in African literature with Ekwensi becoming one of the first African novelists to receive much exposure in the West and eventually the most prolific African novelist.
The fact that Cyprian Ekwensi started his writing career as a pamphleteer is reflected in the episodic nature of People of the City (1954) a collection of stories strung together but reading like a novel, in which he gives a vibrant portrait of the fast-paced life in a West African city, Lagos. People of the City which recounts the coming to political awareness of a young reporter and band leader in an emerging African country is filled with his running commentary on the problems of bribery and corruption and despotism bedeviling such states. In it and several others, Ekwensi explores the lure, thrills and challenges of urban life, and the extreme permissiveness and impersonal relationships permeating the lives of migrants to the city, where close-ties normally fostered by the extended family system of their traditional societies constitute a serious check on the deviant lifestyles that find full expression in the city.
According to, Bernth Lindfors, none of Ekwensi’s numerous works is entirely free from amateurish blots and blunders. Lindfors therefore concludes that he could not call any “the handiwork of a careful, skilled craftsman.” On his portrayal of the moral irresponsibility in city life, Bernth Lindfors, argued that “because his sinful heroines usually come to bad ends, Ekwensi can be viewed as a serious moralist whose novels offer instruction in virtue by displaying the tragic consequences of vice. But it always seems as if he is more interested in the vice than in the virtue and that he aims to titillate as well as teach.” While this view may be contested, it is undeniable that he always strove hard to reach his audience in the most immediate and intimate style. Indeed, it was to maintain this that he clung to those themes that afforded him the mass readership he so much craved
In a 1972 interview by Lewis Nkosi, Ekwensi defined his role as writer thus: “I think I am a writer who regards himself as a writer for the masses. I don’t think of myself as a literary stylist: if my style comes, that is just incidental, but I am more interested in getting at the heart of the truth which the man in the street can recognize than in just spinning words.”
Ernest Emenyonu, a Nigerian critic noted for his sympathy towards Ekwensi, charges that Ekwensi “has never been correctly assessed as a writer.”
Another sympathetic critic,the long-standing American convert to the study of African Literature, Charles Larson, describes him as one of the most prolific African writers of the twentieth century. According to Larson, Ekwensi “is probably the most widely-read novelist in Nigeria–perhaps even in West Africa–by readers whose literary tastes have not been exposed to the more complex writings of Chinua Achebe and other more skilled African novelists.”
Kole Omotoso past President of Nigerian Association of Authors and Drama professor at University of Ibadan confessed a lifelong fascination with him after reading his novelette The Yaba Round about Murder as a child, for, as he confesses, it taught him the importance of space in writing fiction. Omotoso goes on to state that Ekwensi’s major importance in Nigerian writing is because he believed in himself and ‘made us believe in ourselves.’ The pan-Africanist slant of his writings and his publications being mostly in Nigeria were found commendable. When many other African writers were in self-exile, he chose to remain in his native country, rather than live abroad where publishing opportunities are more abundant.
While some scholars discounted Ekwensi’s novels, others valued their social realism. Charles R. Larson put his work in historical perspective: “Local color is their forte, whether it be Ekwensi’s city of chaos, Lagos, or Onitsha … ; the Nigerian reader is placed for the first time in a perspective which has been previously unexplored in African fiction.”
Placing Ekwensi’s work firmly in the popular idiom, Douglas Killam explained their importance: “Popular fiction is always significant as indicating current popular interests and morality. Ekwensi’s work is redeemed (although not saved as art) by his serious concern with the moral issues which inform contemporary Nigerian life. As such they will always be relevant to Nigerian literary history and to Nigerian tradition.”
Ekwensi told stories that, like well-cooked onugbu (bitter leaf) soup, left a pleasant after-meal tang on the palate. Through his works Ekwensi told us that a work of fiction does not deserve that honourable name if it does not at first sight-…-arrest the reader like a cop’s handcuffs….. I read many of Ekwensi’s books, and save for ‘The Drummer Boy’, which was a recommended text when I was in junior secondary school in Plateau State, the others were read because they are what a book-hungry soul needs for sustenance. Who can, having been initiated into the cult of Ekwensi, forget the revenge-driven Mallam Iliya, the sokugo-stricken Mai Sunsaye, the skirt-besotted Amusa Sango, the raunchy belle, Jagua Nana (they don’t create women like that any more, whether in fiction, on the telly, and probably in real life); and the heart-rending Ngozi and heroic Pedro? They are my friends for life.
Ekwensi did much more than create ‘airport thrillers’. He told great stories that live on in the hearts of all who encountered them. ( Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama a Lagos-based writer and teacher)
An Ibo, like Chinua Achebe, Ekwensi was born in 1921 in Minna, Niger State, in Northern Nigeria, but attended secondary school in a predominantly Yoruba area, Ibadan. He is very familiar with the many major ethnic groups in his country, and thus possesses a knowledge often well exploited in his novels. He went on subsequently to Yaba Higher College in Ibadan and then moved over to Achimota College in Ghana where he studied forestry. For two years he worked as a forestry officer and then taught science for a brief period. He then entered the Lagos School of Pharmacy. He later continued at the University of London (Chelsea School of Pharmacy)
during which period he wrote his earliest fiction, his first book-length publication Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tale (1947) , published in London. His writings earned him a place in the National Media where he rose to Head of features in the Nigerian Broadcasting Services and ultimately becoming its Director.
Several events in Ekwensi’s childhood contributed later to his writings. Although ethnically an Igbo, he was raised among Hausa playmates and schoolmates and so spoke both tribal languages. He also learned of his heritage through the many Igbo stories and legends that his father told him, which he would later publish in the collection Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales. In 1936 Ekwensi enrolled in the southern Nigerian secondary school known as Government College, Ibadan, where he learned about Yoruba culture as well as excelling in English, math, science, and sports. He read everything he could lay his hands on in the school library, concentrating on H. Rider Haggard, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and Alexandre Dumas. He also wrote articles and stories for numerous school publications, particularly The Viking magazine.
During the later part of his stint as a forest officer Ekwensi started yearning for the city. So beginning in 1947 he taught English, biology, and chemistry at Igbobi College near Lagos. To his classes he read aloud manuscripts of books for children, Drummer Boy, Passport of Mallam Ilia, and Trouble in From Six, and short stories. Finally, after decades of supplementing his writing career by working in broadcasting and doing other public relations work, Ekwensi gave up his day jobs in 1984 to pursue writing full time. He returned to writing adult novels, picking and choosing from his personal “archive” of earlier written manuscripts much of which he revised into the novels Jagua Nana’s Daughter, Motherless Baby, For a Roll of Parchment, and Divided We Stand, which were published in the 1980s. For example, in For a Roll of Parchment he recounted his trip from Nigeria to England, as he had in People of the City. He did, however, update his material to portray post-World War II Nigeria, with its faster paced life.
Sex, violence, intrigue, and mystery in a recognizable contemporary setting most often in the fast-paced melting pot of the city were common diet in Ekwensi’s works especially in Jagua Nana, in which a very worldly and highly attractive forty-five year old Nigerian woman with multiple suitors falls in love with a young teacher, Freddie. She agrees to send him to study law in England on the understanding of their getting married on his return. Around this beautiful and impressive prostitute, Ekwensi sets in motion a whole panoply of vibrant, amoral characters who have drifted from their rural origins to grab the dazzling pleasures of the city.
And the novel itself shows us the seedy underbelly of the big city, Lagos, where Jagua’s favourite haunt, the Tropicana bar, sets the scene for much of the story.
Sometime, back in the 1950s the Onitsha Market ‘literary’ mafia, strarted producing and marketing openly, a semi-nude picture of a buxom Igbo teenage beauty, with the sassy caption, “Beateam mee lee” – I dare you to beat me!
Those were the prudish days of high moral values in Igboland and indeed Nigeria , of Elizabethan fashion with cane-wielding primary school teachers and headmasters. The offending picture sent shockwaves right down the spines of the public who, nonetheless, rushed to buy copies. Men who turned up their noses at the pictures in public, secretly bought, viewed and relished copies. And..school boys did odd jobs for parents, and the money they earned were saved up to the one shilling cost of the picture, which they used to purchase it and then usually tucked it away, in-between books, away from the prying eyes of parents or the class teacher, from where curious peeks of the treasure could be sneeked occasionally, at its owner’s risk, even in the middle of a lesson. Noted for churning out almanacs, with pictures of the famous, unfolding events, folk art, as well as such literature as those of Ogali A. Ogali, author of the legendary “Veronica My Daughter”, the mafia knew where to draw the line. Sex, however, sold any day and age and the mafia knew this. But nobody wanted to be identified with anything even remotely pornographic. “Beateam mee lee” was therefore, at the time, the mother of all daring.
It was against this backdrop that Ekwensi took the Nigerian literary scene by storm with the publication of the raunchy Jagua Nana. Ekwensi’s most widely read novel, Jagua Nana, published in 1961 returned us to the locale of People of the City but with a much more cohesive plot centered on Jagua, a courtesan who had a love for the expensive as reflected in her name itself, which was a corruption of the expensive English automobile, Jaguar. Her life personalizes the conflict between the old traditional and modern urban Africa. Although Ekwensi had earlier shown the direction of his works with the publication, in 1954, of People of the City, it was Jagua (the lead character in this novel) that built the Ekwensi legend and assumed a life all its own, becoming a folk hero of sorts. Jagua dared the reading public. Ekwensi the artist, also had the magic of picking out names of his characters that were instant hits. They stuck like glue in the reader’s memory and helped animate the fictional personality. Bold, defiant, imaginative and rendered with uncommon technical finesse, Jaguar Nana totally established Ekwensi as the ultimate chronicler of Nigerian city life.
Published in 1961, the novel Jagua Nana, tells the story of an aging prostitute named Jagua who tries to provide for herself security in her later life through her relationship with a younger man. Yet while this young man is studying law in England, Jagua involves herself in various activities, some dubious, some not. Jagua Nana, witnessed some improvement in plot quality and control, unlike what obtained in People Of The City, chronicling the adventures of an ageing prostitute in Lagos, in love with her work and the expensive lifestyles, but who ends up in grief and disappointment.
Ekwensi’s attempt to dust her up later and usher her into some form of happiness and fulfillment introduces the quest motif in his work, which manifests itself fully in the sequel, Jagua Nana’s Daughter (1987), where Jagua, after a long search, was able to reconnect with her educated, socially elevated daughter, who had also had her own fair share of loose life. Both daughter and mother were at the same time engrossed in a quest for mutual fulfillment and healing until they met fortuitously. In the end, after she suffers sufficiently, Ekwensi allows her to have happiness.
As was to be in several of his other novels, Ekwensi’s moralizing is evident and reform is possible for some characters. For example, in the later novel Iska Ekwensi portrayed a young Ibo widow, Filia, who moves to Lagos after her husband’s death. There she tries to lead a respectable life. While she tries to get an education and responsible employment, she encounters numerous obstacles, which allow Ekwensi to show readers a wide range of urbanites. Yet this novel, published by a European press, could not compete for popularity with its predecessor, Jagua Nana, which caused controversy for its frank portrayal of sexuality. When an Italian movie company wanted to film Jagua Nana, the Nigerian government prevented this effort fearing negative media portrayals of the country.
Talking about what inspired him to write the work in an interview, Ekwensi said: I was a pharmacy student at the Yaba Higher College those days and I lived in the same compound with a young man who was very romantic. He would never miss his night club for anything. We had a night club then, called Rex Club, run by the late Rewane – the two Rewanes are dead now, by
the way and one of them was at Government College, Ibadan while the other one was a politician.
Now, many years later, I was called upon to do a programme for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about night life and I found out that I had so much material about this subject that I could really build it into a whole book. That was the inspiration.
Yet another of his novels is Burning Grass (1961) a collection of vignettes giving insight into the life of a pastoral Fulani cattlemen family of Northern Nigeria..The novel and the characters are based actually on a real family with whom Ekwensi himself had previously lived. For after studying forestry at the Yaba Higher College in Lagos during World War II, Ekwensi began a two-year stint as a forestry officer which familiarized him with the forest reserves,from which he was enabled to write such adventure stories in rural settings as Burning Grass..
“In the days in the forest, I was able to reminisce and write. That was when I really began to write for publishing,” he told Nkosi. The several months spent with the nomadic Fulani people, later became the subjects of Burning Grass.where he follows the adventures of Mai Sunsaye, who has Sokugo, a wanderlust, and of his family, who try to rescue him. While seeing his protagonists through varied adventures, Ekwensi portrays the lives of the Fulani cattlemen. This early work, considered one of his more “serious” novels, was published by Heinemann educational publishers and reissued in 1998
Two novellas for children followed in 1960; both The Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Ilia which were exercises in blending traditional themes with undisguised romanticism.
Between 1961 and 1966 Ekwensi published at least one major work every year. The most important of these were the novels, Beautiful Feathers (1963) and Iska (1966), and two collections of short stories, Rainmaker (1965) and Lokotown (1966).
Beautiful Feathers (1963) reflects the nationalist and pan-Africanist consciousness of the pre-independence days of the 1950s and how the young hero’s youthful commitment to his ideal leads to the disintegration of his family, thus underscoring the proverb alluded to in the title: “however famous a man is outside, if he is not respected inside his own home he is like a bird with beautiful feathers, wonderful on the outside but ordinary within.”
From 1967 to 1969, during the Nigerian civil war, when the eastern part of Nigeria attempted to secede, Ekwensi served as a government information officer the experiences from which he used to write the 1976 picaresque novel Survive the Peace. which realistically portrayed the activities of a radio journalist in the wake of the civil war in Biafra.who in his effort to reunite his family, encounters the violence, destruction, refugees, and relief operations that such chaos engenders. Through flashbacks, Ekwensi also depicts the war itself giving a post-mortem on the just-concluded , interrogates the problems of surviving in the so-called peace. It looks for instance at the pathetic fate of James Odugo, the radio journalist who survives the war only to be cut down on the road by marauding former soldiers.
In such early works as the collections Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales, and An African Night’s Entertainment, the novel Burning Grass, and the juvenile works The Leopard’s Claw and Juju Rock, Ekwensi told stories in a rural setting.
Ekwensi continued to publish beyond the 1960s, and among his later works are the novel Divided We Stand (1980) in which he lampooned the Nigerian civil war, the novella Motherless Baby (1980), and The Restless City and Christmas Gold (1975), Behind the Convent Wall (1987), and Gone to Mecca (1991).
Ekwensi also published a number of works for children.such as Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales (1947) and The Leopard’s Claw (1950). In the 1960s, he wrote An African Night’s Entertainment (1962), The Great Elephant-Bird (1965), and Trouble in Form Six (1966). Over time, Ekwensi produced other books, mostly for children, which though they may not have been internationally acclaimed, were nonetheless well known and read all over Nigeria and Africa. They included Rainmaker (1965), Iska (1966), Coal Camp Boy (1971) Samankwe in the strange Forest (1973), Motherless Baby (1980), The Restless City and Christmas Gold (1975), Samankwe and the Highway Robbers (1975), Behind the Convent Wall (1987), Gone to Mecca (1991), Masquerade Time! (1992), and King Forever! (1992). In 2006, he completed work on two other books; “Tortoise and the Brown Monkey”, a short story and “Another Freedom”.
Gratifyingly Ekwensi is still writing, He has published several titles as When Love Whispers, Divided We Stand, Jagua Nana’s Daughter and King for Ever! all related to earlier works.
When Love Whispers like Jagua Nana revolves around a very attractive woman with multiple suitors. But whilst she thinks she has won the love of her life her father expects her to get married to an older man in an arranged marriage.
Divided We Stand (1980) was written in the heat of the Biafra war itself, though published later. It reverses the received wisdom that unity is strength, showing how ethnicity, division, and hatred bring about distrust, displacement, and war itself.
Jagua Nana’s Daughter (1986) revolves around Jagua’s daughter’s traumatic search for her mother leading her to find not only her mother but a partner as well. She is able to get married to a highly placed professional as she, unlike her mother, is a professional as well. She thus gains the security and protection she desires.
King for Ever! (1992) satirises the desire of African leaders to perpetuate themselves in power. Sinanda’s rising to power from humble background does not prevent his vaulting ambition from soaring to the height where he was now aspiring to godhead
In the decades since Ekwensi began writing, the Nigerian readership has changed. Unlike the days of the Onitsha Market fiction, when books were printed inexpensively and sold cheaply to suit popular tastes at the turn of the millennium few publishing companies controlled the choice of books published; book prices made books often go beyond the reach of the masses, restricted mostly to schools and libraries, which cater to nonfiction and instructional materials. With various forms of media increasing in popularity, the incentive to read has fallen. With fewer people reading for pleasure, novels are in little demand. Because of these circumstances, creative writers suffer. Of this downside, Ekwensi told Larson, “Journalists thrive here, but creative writers get diverted and the creativity gets washed out of them if they must take the bread and butter home.”
At a public lecture in 2000, quoted by Kole Ade-Odutola in Africa News, the elderly but still vivacious Ekwensi expressed his desire to “build and nurture young minds in the customs and traditions of their communities” through his writings. He explained, “African writers of the twentieth century inherited the oral literature of our ancestors, and building on that, placed at the centre-stage of their fiction, the values by which we as Africans had lived for centuries. It is those values that make us the Africans that we are–distinguishing between good and evil, justice and injustice, oppression and freedom.” In tune with the times, he had started self-publishing his writings on the Internet. Despite the vagaries of the African publishing world, at age 80 Ekwensi was still pursuing his goal because as he wrote in his essay for The Essential Ekwensi 15 years earlier, “The satisfaction I have gained from writing can never be quantified.”
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