Since today marks the eleventh year of his passing, we shine a spotlight on Cyprian Ekwensi and his outstanding works of literature.
Cyprian Ekwensi passed on the 4 November 2007. Today, we celebrate the life and times of the author who gave us many classics.
Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was a Nigerian author, pharmacist, journalist and broadcaster. He was a prolific writer and the second Nigerian to gain international acclaim for writing with his first novel People of the City (1954), after author Amos Tutuola for his novel, The Palm Wine Drinkard.
Life and Background
Ekwensi was born in Minna in present-day Niger State on September 26, 1921. From there, he learnt Hausa culture and language. He later lived in Onitsha, Anambra State, in the eastern part of the country where his family was originally from. Ekwensi was educated at Government College in Ibadan, Oyo State, Achimota College in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and the School of Forestry in Ibadan. He also studied pharmacy at Yaba Technical Institute in Lagos, the Lagos School of Pharmacy and the Chelsea School of Pharmacy of the University of London. After that he settled in Nigeria, worked as a pharmacy lecturer in Lagos and married Eunice Anyiwo, with whom he had five children.
After his early works gained international attention, he joined the Nigerian Ministry for Information where he rose to be the director. By 1966, with increasing tensions in the country, Ekwensi gave up his position and relocated his family at Enugu. He became chair of the Bureau for External Publicity in Biafra and an adviser to the head of state, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu.
He wrote many critically acclaimed novels, novellas, short stories and scripts. Some of his plays were broadcast by the BBC while he was working as a pharmacy assistant at Old Church Hospital in Essex. He also recorded a voice-over for Cyril Frankel's movie movie Man of Africa (1953), which featured at the 1954 Venice Film Festival.
Ekwensi was awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld International Prize in Literature in 1969, chiefly in recognition of the success of Jagua Nana. In 2006, he became a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) awarded him a posthumous medal of honour shortly after his death.
To complete the full circle of life, Ekwensi died on November 4, 2007 at the Niger Foundation in Enugu, where he had undergone an operation for an undisclosed ailment.
Ekwensi began writing short adventure stories inspired by the wild and lonely environment he worked in as a forestry officer, and the stories he heard from his father, an elephant hunter. From that he published the book Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales in 1947.
That same year, five of his works were published in England by Lutterworth Press as part of its African New Writing series. Another collection, a collection of romance stories, was released in 1948 by a publisher in Onitsha. In 1949, Ekwensi began to read his stories for NBC shows while also writing for several Lagos newspapers.
Ekwensi was prolific in every sense of the word. Between 1961 and 1966, Ekwensi published at least one major work every year.
Let's take a look at some of his most popular works.
People of the City (1954)
Ekwensi began work on his first novel People of the City in 1951 while sailing to England, having won a scholarship to study pharmacy at London University. Published as pamphlets, his episodic style portrayed a vibrant portrait of life in a West African city.
The Drummer Boy (1960)
This was one of the most popular literary texts in Nigeria. The Drummer Boy was based on the life of Benjamin 'Kokoro' Aderounmu, a well-known blind minstrel and early pioneer of Jùjú music. It is a moving description of the poverty-stricken life of a street artist who is on a quest for true happiness.
The Passport of Mallam Ilia (1960)
Written in 1948, The Passport of Mallam Ilia tells of love and retribution. Blending traditional themes with undisguised romanticism, this classic novella explores the life, love and adventures of Mallam Ilia during Nigerian colonial times. It is one of the few Nigerian novels that inspire a yearning for adventure, as it takes you on a journey into Northern Nigeria and to self-reflection.
Jagua Nana (1961)
Jagua Nana was Ekwensi's most successful and widely-read novel. Taking the same setting as People of the City, the story centred on the character of Jagua, a courtesan with a love for expensive things who leaves her husband to work as a prostitute in a city and falls in love with a teacher. The book explored the conflict between traditional and modern urban Africa. It was vehemently attacked by the Catholic and Anglican churches for its sexually explicit language and was banned in several schools. An application to film the book by an Italian movie company was also rejected by the Nigerian parliament. A sequel titled Jagua Nana's Daughter was published in 1987.
He also wrote Burning Grass (1961), a collection of vignettes depicting the life of a pastoral Fulani family; Divided We Stand (1980), Motherless Baby (1980), Restless City and Christmas Gold (1975), Behind the Convent Wall (1987), Gone to Mecca (1991), The Leopard's Claw (1950), An African Night's Entertainment (1962) and Samankwe and the Highway Robbers (1975). His last published work was a collection of short stories titled Cash on Delivery (2007).