Monday, November 05, 2007


Sunday November 5, 2007. Members of the CORA collective stood in front of their secretariat at 95 Bode Thomas Street, Surulere, Lagos. The gathering was an extension of a long meeting that had stretched from 2pm call time to that time – about 8pm. Someone raised the question: how far are we with Cyprian Ekwensi; would the old man make it to the opening of the Book festival? Toyin Akinosho, the secretary General of CORA responded that he had had a recent chat with the wife; and she was not certain the man would make it. One he was ill; two, he was in Enugu and flying him to Lagos was not visible. The members were disappointed at the news, but they understood.
Unknown to us, at time we were deliberating over him, the man famously called the forefather of the City Fiction’ had passed on.
Cyprian Ekwensi died on Sunday November 5, 2007. He was 86 (born September 26, 1921).
The passage of Ekwensi has changed the tenor of the 9th Lagos Book and Art Festival. The edition has thus been dedicated to the memory of the man who documented city life in his works. You can say then that this is a CYPRIAN EKWENSI LAGOS BOOK AND ART FESTIVAL.

(Statement by CORA at the Opening of LABAF 07)

"By the end of the twentieth-century Lagos had become established as one of the world’s pre-eminent fictionalized cities, as with London and Paris by the end of the previous century."

That was international scholar Chris Dunton speaking in September 2005 on the theme ‘Lagos in the Imagination’ at the international workshop organised by CORA as part of the 7th Lagos Book & Art Festival (LABAF).

One book must take the credit for starting that process. It is People of the City (1954) and its author, the legend, Cyprian Ekwensi who passed on, on 4th November, 2007, aged 86 has the undisputed crown of being the father of the Lagos novel, writing other novels and short stories that celebrated the social life of the city over the decades.

Cyprian Ekwensi had agreed to be guest and to read at the Colloquium on Civil War Literature themed ‘Constructing a Nation: 40 Years After the First Shot in Biafra ’ being organised as part of the 9thLABAF holding from Friday 9th and 11th November, 2007. His novel, Divided We Stand had been chosen as one of the texts for the panel discussion during the colloquium. Then, just a week before the Festival, we had signal that the old man had taken ill and been transferred to Enugu for treatment. And then, a couple of days later, the news of his demise.

This is the second time we would fail to ‘stampede’ Pa Ekwensi into an event organised around him or his work. The first was in September 2006 when he could not attend the Highlife Party organised in his honour on his 85th birthday. He took ill a few days to the event.

Beyond the Lagos and the Civil War novels, Cyprian Ekwensi’s significance perhaps finds the deepest etching in his contribution to children and popular literature. Which child grew up from the 1960s to the 1980s and did not pick up an Ekwensi off a bookshop shelf? From The Passport of Mallam Illia through An African Night Entertainment, Juju Rock, The Drummer Boy to Trouble in Form Six, Ekwensi gave to children and adolescents the pride of reading books with the blurb containing the same author’s biography as that on the book read by their parents. And as they matured, they never had to take a course in advanced literature before picking up novels like Jagua Nana, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, The Burning Grass and Beautiful Feathers. It was only Ekwensi that could be profiled in a compendium on Onitsha Market Literature and generate so much debate between two scholars, Ernest Emenyonu and Bernth Lindfors, on the pages of the elite African Literature Today.

Ekwensi’s work went ahead to inspire popular music (such as Orlando Julius’ highlife song, Jagua Nana) and would have, were it not for the intrusion of a sanctimonious government, inspired the first international film based on a Nigerian novel.

It is in recognition of the significance of this writer’s work to the lore of Lagos and the popular imagination of generations of Nigerians, youths and adult alike, that we have decided to dedicate this year’s (the 9th) LABAF to Cyprian Ekwensi. In furtherance of this, the opening Arthouse Party of the fist day of the Festival will be presaged by an EKWENSI OPEN HOUSE in which Mr. Kunle Ajibade, the Executive Director of The News magazine, will deliver a keynote tribute to the late writer and members of the public would discuss their first encounters with his work. Also, an exhibition of the Ekwensi section of LABAF would be opened where discussions, reminiscences and condolence signing would continue for the duration of the Festival. In this regard, a competition amongst Fine Art students within the Lagos environment has been commissioned for the drawing of the portraiture and caricature of the late writer. Emphasis should be on drawings that locate the writer within the ambience of the city life.

CORA believes that Cyprian Ekwensi’s life should be celebrated rather than his death mourned. The events at the 9th LABAF are just to kick off the celebrations.

(As presented at the opening of LABAF 07)
Words can sometimes be so inadequate. Take this headline from the front page of The Guardian of Monday November 5, 2007, for instance: Renowned author, Cyprian Ekwensi, dies at 86.
See how bare, how banal almost, how bereft of emotions, how it fails so woefully in capturing the essence of the man, the breadth of his accomplishments and the sphere of his influence on Nigerian letters.
Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was born in Minna in Northern Nigeria on
September 26, 1921, was educated at Achimota College in the Gold Coast, and at the Chelsea
School of Pharmacy of London University. A pharmacist by training, he gained worldwide fame and acclaim as a novelist, who had an unusual facility for chronicling the angst and malaise of the metropolis even though he also had a finger on the pulse of the pastoral.
Ekwensi’s accomplishment is best appreciated when you realize that he is unarguably the most read Nigerian writer on account of his racy narrative and accessible prose as well as the fact that he remains the most prolific Nigerian novelist. Ekwensi was a man in love with the narrative, not for the stylistic pyrotechnics which have an uncanny way of alienating the reader, but for the racy, heart thumping story of human interaction, of fate and destiny checkmating our best laid plans.
His gift for the simple and uncomplicated prose was both a blessing and a curse. Eldred Jones has taken issues with Ekwensi’s writings accusing the novelist, who famously declared that he wrote a full length novel in 2 weeks while on a cruise ship no less, of not taking pains to hone his writing style, while Bernth Linfords nailed the coffin of Ekwensi’s literary aspirations shut with the tag “An African Popular Novelist.” His novels have also been accused of lacking structure, of being episodic and appearing as no more than mere vignettes, a charge that now elevates Ekwensi’s craft in the light of contemporary works from authors like Helon Habila, David Mitchell and even Stephen Crace who have offered us exquisite novels made up of interlinked narratives held together by no more than a common theme.
While many critics were right in taking umbrage at the “popular” flavor of Ekwensi’s novels, its mass appeal and lack of artifice, they did him great disservice by not taking into account how pioneering he was in moving Nigerian writing into a whole new locale away from ghosts and ghommids (Tutuola), wrestling matches and colonialism (Achebe), the insular and the provincial into a whole modern and cosmopolitan era.
Viewed from that perspective, it is easy to see that Ekwensi is in many ways the father of the “Modern” Nigerian novel and would then by extension be regarded as the literary forebear of writers like Ben Okri whose novel Dangerous Love (or its first incarnation The Landscapes Within) bear the hallmarks of Ekwensi’s influence from novels like People of the City and the Jagua Nana series. Other writer’s whose engagement with the metropolis evinces influences from Ekwensi would be Chris Abani in Graceland and Maik Nwosu in Alpha Song in their exploration of the seedy side of the city as well as night life. But the writer on whose work Ekwensi seems to have stamped the strongest presence may well be Helon Habila, a fact most critics have missed.
I am already exploring this in greater detail in a forthcoming essay, “Parallels and Convergences: Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel and Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City.” In Helon’s novel, the major character is Lomba and he is a journalist. In Ekwensi’s People of the City, the major character is Sango, a journalist and band leader. Both of them have names made up of two syllables. Lomba lives in a tenement house where a woman entreats him for sex and so does Sango whose young and nubile neighbour want to sleep with him and Ekwensi who was a master of description captures her essence thus: “She could not be more than fourteen, but her breasts were taut and large with ripeness….This was temptation.” Sango’s life and job are imperiled and so are Lomba’s. The two protagonists are estranged from their families. They both pine for an unattainable woman and both live in a sprawling modern metropolis on the cusp of both political and social upheavals.
It is also interesting to note that in the two books, the whiff of politics is strong, palpable and unnerving while the City is a character, huge, hulking and menacing with a gluttonous appetite. In Helon’s book, Lomba’s editor tells him that politics is part of our lives because “The air we breathe is politics.” Those very words sound like an echo of Ekwensi’s words from page 40 of The People of the City where the Councillor tells Dele and Sango that “Politics is life.”
This piece is by no means an exhaustive review or comparative analysis. It is a tribute really to a master story teller, a gifted writer who was at home in different cultures and genres straddling both the pastoral as in “Burning Grass” and the modern as in Jagua Nana’s Daughter with the ease of a maestro and despite his stature still found it easy to stoop low to accommodate the taste of the young in novellas like Drummer Boy, An African Nights Entertainment and The Passport of Mallam Ilia
His passing at the age of 86 in a country where the life expectancy is 49 is cause for celebration rather than mourning, but the pity of his death is the fact that Ekwensi died without a proper rehabilitation, one that was long due and which is in fact necessary in order to properly situate his place, importance and influence in and on modern Nigerian literature.

Brief tribute by DEJI TOYE

Anybody who ever read anything asd a child or ever picked up a book off a bookshop shelf must have picked up an Ekwensi. This will be a tribute to the universality of his theme and style which unifies both old and young, expert and rookies. For me, i cant forget books like Juju Rock, An African Night Entertainment, The Drummer Bor, Trouble in form Six, The Passport of Mallam Illia (I laways imagined that train fight scene in a film) etc. Growing up, I read Jagua Nana's Daughter, then Jagua Nana itself. of all of these, only jagua Nana did I read as a recommended text in a university cause.

Ekwensi defined the literature of my childhood along with Kola Onadipe of such books as Sugar Girl, Sweet mother, Pot of Gold, Tha Boy Slave and Return of Shetimma.


I am deeply saddened by this news of the death of the pioneer Nigerian novelist Cyprian Ekwensi this week. He was 86. Ekwensi, the author of arguably the earliest major novel in Nigeria (People of the City, 1954) and other vastly popular novels--Passport of Mallam Illya, African Night's Entertainment, Lokotown, Jagua Nana, The Drummer Boy, etc--that, as secondary students in Nigeria in the 1980s, captured, intrigued, and liberated our fertile imaginations and youthful fantasies. His simple, uncomplicated plots, while a subject of longstanding critique by literary scholars, was the very reason we read, and re-read his incomparably entertaining works. He was the people's novelist!
Ekwensi was scheduled to participate in the key event of the Lagos Book Arts Festival (which begins this week), by reading from his novel on the Biafran War, Divided We Stand published in 1980. The CORA-organized Festival and its colloquium, Constructing the Nation: Stories Out of Biafra, will now serve as a memorial to a man who used his unpretentious yet prodigious fictive imagination to instill in me and a zillion others the love for the novel and for literature. Rest, Old Man; travel safely.


(Excerpted from kalu Uduma’s news report in The Guardian Monday Nov. 5, 2007, announcing Ekwensi’s passage)
Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was born at Minna in Northern Nigeria on September 26, 1921. He later lived in Onitsha in the Eastern area. He was educated at Achimota College in the Gold Coast, and at the Chelsea School of Pharmacy of London University. He lectured in pharmacy at Lagos and was employed as a pharmacist by the Nigerian Medical Corporation.
He married Eunice Anyiwo, and they had five children.
After favorable reception of his early writing, he joined the Nigerian Ministry for Information and had risen to be the director of that agency by the time of the first military coup in 1966. After the continuing disturbances in the Western and Northern regions in the summer of 1966, Ekwensi gave up his position and relocated his family to Enugu. He became chair of the Bureau for External Publicity in Biafra and an adviser to the head of state, Lt.-Col. Chukwemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
Ekwensi began his writing career as a pamphleteer, and this perhaps explains the episodic nature of his novels. This tendency is well illustrated by People of the City (1954), in which Ekwensi gave a vibrant portrait of life in a West African city. It was the first major novel to be published by a Nigerian. Two novellas for children appeared in 1960; both The Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Ilia were exercises in blending traditional themes with undisguised romanticism.
His most widely read novel, Jagua Nana, appeared in 1961. It was a return to the locale of People of the City but boasted a much more cohesive plot centered on the character of Jagua, a courtesan who had a love for the expensive. Even her name was a corruption of the expensive English auto. Her life personalised the conflict between the old traditional and modern urban Africa. Ekwensi published a sequel in 1987 titled Jagua Nana's Daughter.
Burning Grass (1961) is basically a collection of vignettes concerning a Fulani family. Its major contribution is the insight it presents into the life of this pastoral people. Ekwensi based the novel and the characters on a real family with whom he had previously lived. 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). He continued to publish beyond the 1960s, and among his later works are the novel Divided We Stand (1980), 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. Under the name C. O. D. Ekwensi, he released 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).
Ekwensi's later works for children include Coal Camp Boy (1971), Samankwe in the Strange Forest (1973), Samankwe and the Highway Robbers (1975), Masquerade Time! (1992), and King Forever! (1992).
In recognition of his skills as a writer, Ekwensi was awarded the Dag Hammarskjold International Prize for Literary Merit in 1969.
Ekwensi, a one-time Commissioner for Information in the old Anambra State, is survived by children and grand children.

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