Tributes to the great Nigerian novelist, Cyprian Ekwensi, who died on November 4, 2007, aged 86
Ekwensi’s life is marked by many border crossings: his voyages within the space of the nation speaks totally of a transcendent spirit and a freed imagination whose plural encounters with the cultures that inhabit the space of what is known as Nigeria, gave ,him the courage to speak the truth of fiction. As he once told an interviewer, Basil Okafor, “You can call it social consciousness. You have to be conscious of the people you are living amongst, their likes and dislikes and you respect them and still extract their culture and all that.”
- – Obi Nwakanma, writing in Sunday Vanguard, November 11, 2007.
Ekwensi’s works are set in rural as well as urban centres. These bipolar environments enable him to show up the ugliness and monstrosity of the city beside the idyllic and pristine beauty of rural life. In the rural countryside values such as honesty, industry, and respect for the elders, ancestors and God are held in high regard. But in the cold, foreign, alien and barren wasteland which is the city, people are dishonest, politicians are corrupt and neighbors are at hostilities. It is such a hostile world that the emigres from the rural area are thrust into as prey. In contrast to the beauty and innocence of the country, here they are “daily confronted by wretched filth, decadence, hopelessness, and prevarication.” Thus despite the superficial lustre they might see in the city their hopes of self-fulfillment are always beset with stifling setbacks, For the city has a formidable influence, a magnetic force that brandishes from a distance only its excitement, gaiety, and transient glitter, luring people to either destruction or downfall.
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!
While many regarded Chinua Achebe as the father of modern African novel, Ekwensi's first novel, People of the City, published four years before Achebe's Things Fall Apart, was the first work by a Nigerian author to gain international acclaim, and the first modern novel to be published in Britain.
He could sometimes be rather blunt if not brutal, as on an occasion when a student wanted to know what he had in mind when he wrote certain lines in one of his novels, he took an exception to the question and retorted, ‘Have you ever asked Shakespeare what he wrote in Macbeth or Henry?’
- – Philip Ideh, a reader, in The Punch 18/11
Indeed, he encouraged me to put my pen to paper and write The Last Flight To Enugu, a short story that chronicled my experiences as an international election observer in 2003. Chief Ekwensi was a patient teacher and consistently demonstrated a willingness to explain the complexities of this remarkable country, Nigeria to me.
I think it would only be fair to admit that Ekwensi’s books were part of my growing up process, and that I would be the poorer if I had not read them. I don’t know if I have the right to say that I would miss him - not that I had thought so much about him until I heard he died - but reading about his death reminds of my childhood, and of how further I have moved away from those times. And I find myself wondering whether the fact that I am not upset about his death reveals how far away I have moved from the days when I used to stay in my grandfathers library and race to finish two African Writers Series books in a day. I wonder if I should be worried about this. I don’t think I need to add that Cyprian Ekwensi will be missed, most of all by his family, but also by the people he touched through his writing.
- - Loomnie