13 November 2007

Nigeria: Ode to a Literary Colossus


Lagos — "To Die to sleep,

No more, and by that sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousands natural shocks That flesh is heir to "

-SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616) Hamlet, 111, ,i, 60

The stock of literary colossuses in the world got depleted once more with the death of Chief Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi, pharmacist, social critic, veteran novelist, excellent short story teller and children's books author, on November 4, at the age of 86. You will recall that Roberto Bortoluzzi, famous Italian journalist and radio broadcaster also died at the age of 86 in November this year. With the death of Ekwensi, another chapter has been closed in children's literature and short stories in the literary world. Even though Ekwensi, who began his writing career as a pamphleteer, distinguished himself as a novelist, it was in the writing of short stories and children's books that the quintessential Ekwensi really blossomed.

I first met Cyprian Ekwensi in the 70s in his novel: The Drummer Boy which some confuse with Florence Nightingale's The Drummer Boy. Our English literature teacher, I still have a vivid memory of him, was a lanky young man then completing his National Youth Service posting. He would come to the class and try to explain The Drummer Boy to us. He would describe, in throbbing and unforgettable prose, Bisi's encounters with Akin, the blind drummer boy: how the compassionate and big-hearted Bisi brought Akin into her home to absorb him as a member of her family and how eventually Akin escaped and returned to where he thought he rightly belonged. We listened with rapt attention occasionally disrupted by snoring and shuffling of the feet. Perhaps when Ekwensi was penning The Drummer Boy he was probably trying to illustrate the anonymity and identity crisis in the Lagos social life, but for many us in that class who probably had not been to Lagos , the novel was a first-hand information about the Lagos hassling life. But it is in The Passport of Mallam Ilia that, for me, Ekwensi greatly succeeds in captivating the mind of young readers. The Passport of Mallam Ilia may look small in size, but by the time you flip through its pages you, will discover that it is dense, concise without unnecessary determiners and modifiers. The ideas, sentences and details in the novel perfectly fit together for readers to follow. In fact while we were studying The Passport of Mallam Ilia in school, we nicknamed one of our classmates, who was always looking dirty and unkempt, Mallam Ilia. In anger, he would waylay us after school and chase us with stones and cudgels. Wherever he is now, I am sure he will be chuckling away with laughter upon reading this. Such is life.

Besides Akin the Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Ekwensi has authored many novels, short stories, radio and TV scripts which include People of the City (1950), Gone to Mecca (1991). Under the pen name, C.O.D Ekwensi, he published many works for children like Ikolo the wrestler and other Ibo Tales(1947), Leopard's Claws (1950), African Night Entertainment (1962), The great elephant-bird (1965), Samamkwe and the Highway Robbers (1975), Masquerade-Time (1992). Ekwensi highly-read novel is Jagua Nana published in 1961.

As we pay tribute to Ekwensi today, let us remind ourselves that he is one of those literary giants who shaped the literary lives of many Nigerians with his writings. When we were growing up we searched for heroes and heroines that could serve as our models, and we found them in the world of literary celebrities. If my secondary school memory still serves me right, we prided ourselves in the number of novels, especially novels listed in the African Writing Series, which we had read. Then it was a common sight seeing secondary students in the streets clutching their novels. In those days any student, whether a Science student or an art student, who has not read People of the City (Cyprian Ekwensi), The man Died (Wole Soyinka), Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), Tell Freedom (James Ngugi), The African Child (Camara Laye), Weep Not Child (James Ngugi Wa Thiongo), Toad for Supper (Chukwuemeka Ike), Zambia Shall be Free (Kenneth Kaunda), Eze Goes to School (Onuora Nzekwu), Macbeth (Shakespeare), New broom of Amanzu (Anezi Okoro) etc, could not lay claim to being a brilliant student. Avid readers of Onitsha Market Literature will not forget the bestseller: Veronica My Daughter. Remember those James Hadley Chase and Nicholas Huntington Carter (Nick Carter) novels? There were also books by Oscar Wilde and Charlotte Bronte for devouring. We took part in different novel-reading competitions. Some students use to hide themselves in the school library for days reading and re-reading books. At the closure of school every Friday, students will draw up their reading time-table for the weekend. Some will give themselves the target of finishing two or three novels. After we left, one of my former classmates, who was a voracious reader, acted in Ken Saro Wiwa's Basi and Co.

Unfortunately, the reading culture has disappeared today. Most public libraries are now empty. Nowadays most students, if at all they still admit they are students, carry guns and knives, or at best, GSM handsets, DVDs and gadgets for listening to music. The books are now considered as old-fashioned, they have been replaced by flash drives and PCs. The watching culture has replaced the reading culture too. People now openly boast about the number of home-videos they watch in a day. Instead of memorizing Mathematics formulae or classical quotations from Shakespeare, our secondary students have become adept at memorizing the names of all the footballers in the world and how much each of them earns in dollars. Whenever Arsenal, Chelsea , Liverpool or Man U is playing a football match, Nigeria is closed. Any wonder standards are falling. When students have stopped reading, the best they could do to get along in life is to cheat in exams.

The passing on of Ekwensi challenges the Nigerian youth to start taking interest in works of literature. Reading , they say, maketh a man. If Ekwensi mainly wrote for young people, then he would have been a failure if the Nigerian youths do not read him. 2007 Orange Fiction prize winner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a young Nigerian lady who sees Chinua Achebe as a model. With her novel, Half of Yellow Sun, she has won a big literary garland for herself. Other Nigerian young should draw inspiration from her wonderful feat. The story of Adichie is the story of a creative talent. Initially she wanted to study Medicine, but later she changed her mind and went ahead to study social and political Sciences and later capped it up with a Master Degree in Creative Studies. Ekwensi studied Pharmacy and even taught Pharmacy in Lagos , but it was in writing that he attained his fulfillment.

Finally, literary giants like Ekwensi do not die: they continue to live in their works. If we want to immortalize the name, Cyprian Ekwensi, it is not by naming a street after him: the best way to immortalize his name is to preserve his literary works and make them available and affordable to all. Perhaps Ekwensi's works could be reproduced in films and drama or be included in the junior WAEC and NECO literature syllabi.

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