No. 4: Cyprian Ekwensi
Cyprian Odiatu Odiaka Ekwensi was born in 1921 in Zaria to Igbo parents. He attended Government College Ibadan, and later School of Forestry, also in Ibadan. He studied Pharmacy at Yaba Tech, and earned a scholarship to study at London University.
It was during his stay in London that he began work on People of the City (1954). Although a prolific writer before then, Ekwensi was initially known for his short stories. His first short story collection was Ikolo the Wrestler and other Igbo tales, published in 1947. He also published another collection the next year, as part of the famed Onitsha Market Literature in the 40’s.
His novels though showed a deviation from the stories and folklore that characterised his short stories. Instead, he became the first Nigerian writer to detail the contemporary Nigerian scene – contrasting its proclivity with its shallowness. He painted the new invasive culture against the budding backdrop of the political strife apparent in the Lagos of his time, or inherent in any urban Nigerian city.
While Chinua Achebe and many other writers of the first generation were concerned with the classical past, and took inspiration and characters from it, Ekwensi sort out to present the contemporary, or the changing face of the new Nigeria, showing readers its new realities as it struggled to eclipse the old order.
His best novel – Jagua Nana, is a story of a woman who left her husband to become a Prostitute in Lagos and falls in love with a teacher. It chronicles the struggles, love, and conflict between culture and modernity by the urban woman, and acts as a binocular on pop culture and its fancy for instant gratification and physical pleasures. It was ahead of its time, and like everything of such, was ultimately misunderstood and deemed controversial. The Catholic and Anglican Churches criticized it for its “vulgarity” and it was subsequently banned in some schools. The Parliament also stopped the novel being made into a movie.
Ekwensi might not have had the fame or accolades of an Achebe or a Soyinka, but he was the first writer to deviate from the norm and itch a new form – the writer as a social realist, on the consciousness of African Literature.
BOOKS: The Drummer Boy (1960), The Passport of Mallam Ilia (1960), Jagua Nana (1961), Burning Grass (1961), Beautiful Feathers (1963), Restless City and Christmas Gold (1975), Divided We Stand: a Novel of the Nigerian Civil War (1980), Jagua Nana’s Daughter (1987).
Behind the Convent Wall (1987).