The Death of Popular Fiction Writer Cyprian Ekwensi is a Big Loss to African Literature

Cyprian Ekwensi (September 26, 1921 – November 4, 2007), one of the grand old men of African fiction-and one of the few who made the transition from Onitsha-market-pamphlet-fiction to an author with at least something of an international reputation passed away as The Literary Saloon announced on Sunday 4th of November in Enugu at the age of 86. DARKNESS fell again in the Nigerian literary firmament .. when veteran novelist, pharmacist and public commentator, Cyprian Ekwensi passed on. So another Lagos-based paper The Guardian announced this sad event.

The author of the popular Jagua Nana series of novels died at the Niger Foundation in Enugu where he he had undergone an operation for an undisclosed ailment.

He is the author of the earliest published fiction depicting social life in the Lagos Metropolis with his down-to-earth style of writing and his prolific output, with over 20 novels to his credit. Ekwensi thus became celebrated as the ancestor of the city novel, which stressed ample description of the locale with a largely episodic style drawn from his earlier pamphleteering.

Mrs. Ekwensi, who is in her late 60’s said that she cut short her visit overseas after spending two weeks to fly him from Lagos back to Enugu, adding that in the last one month, they had regularly visited the hospital. “Since we left Lagos, we have not rested. It is from one thing to another …”, she said.

Mrs. Ekwensi, who reeled in waist pain as she told her story, disclosed that the pains increased during their long days at the hospital, while attending to her husband. “The hospital bench became my bed,” she complained adding that her husband’s condition remained critical until his death. The deceased’s eldest son, George who flew in from the U.S. when he learnt about his father’s ailment, began consultations with relations and notable indigenes of Anambra State on burial plans.

Speaking with the Daily Sun, the novelist’s son, Ike, noted that his father’s burial would not be determined by family members only, considering his outstanding contributions to national development.

Ekwensi was due for an award in Lagos, on November 16. He had left Lagos in good spirit a month before with the hope of picking the award later not knowing that he would not make it.

Following the death of this renowned novelist , the Anambra State Governor, Mr. Peter Obi, apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, past and present governors, ministers of government, writers and All Progressive Grand Alliance have expressed shock over his demise.

They described Ekwensi’s death as a great loss to Nigeria and the entire literary world. Factional President-General of Ohanaeze, Dozie Ikedife, said a great Igbo son had departed, stressing that he left enviable legacies that would last for generations to come. “It is a pity. He is one of the greatest authors of our time. . . . He has been around for sometime….Nigerians and the entire literary world will definitely miss him. . . .,” he said. Ikedife urged the family to bear the loss with fortitude, trusting in God and believing that he had contributed his best to writing and social engineering.

The governor said Ekwensi’s death has created a gap in the state and in the literary world and made assurances that the state government would fully participate in the burial arrangements. Being a traditional chief and titleholder, Ekwensi’s family will first meet before officially communicating the news of his passing to the government.

In his tribute, the National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance Chief Victor Umeh said Ekwensi’s death has robbed Nigeria, of one of the greatest literary minds to have passed through the land. He observed that his works had contributed immensely to the development of literature in Nigeria, adding that he would be greatly missed by all Nigerians.

Former Health Minister, Professor A.B.C Nwosu recalling that the late literary icon who had started life as a pharmacist, played a crucial role in the eradication of the then dreaded guinea worm disease in old Anambra state as chairman of the state Health Management Board at the time when he (Nwosu) was Commissioner for Health said he would find it difficult to refer to Ekwensi in the past tense, having become used to his resourcefulness as both a writer and administrator.

“It is a terrible blow. . . . He gave me the slogan ‘Get rid of guinea worm’ when he was chairman Anambra State Health Management Board and I was Commissioner for Health under the late Emeka Omeruah. We traversed the whole of Abakaliki area in the quest to kick out guinea worm. He helped me get funds from Japan to finance the project. We both received former American President Jimmy Carter. A fine man with a fine mind. . . .” Nwosu added.

Former Governor of Old Anambra State, Chief Christian Onoh also described Ekwensi’s demise as a big blow to the literary world. Onoh, among the first set of people that paid a sympathy visit to the Hill view Crescent, Independence layout, Enugu residence of the late prolific writer, said that, the news came to him with rude shock, expressing dismay that Ekwensi could die at a time when according to him, ” we need him around to reform our education”.

Clad in white lace, the elder statesman, said he was however consoled by the fact that the late Ekwensi never wasted his time on earth, adding that his contributions to the literary world would live forever. He said that, Ekwensi who authored many literary books, lived and died for writing and extended his sympathies to the Nigerian literary world as well as the entire south East.

The Minister of Information, Mr John Odey described the late “Ekwensi as a great contributor to the unity of Nigeria and the development of literary education in the country”.

The message reads: “the Federal Government received the news of the sudden death of a prominent citizen of your state and a reputable literary icon of this country, Chief Cyprian Ekwensi, with sadness. “I am particularly touched by his death because of his having served as a staff of my ministry where he rose to become a Director”.

Reacting to the death of the novelist, National President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Wale Okediran, said, “his death, though at a ripe age, marked the end of a tradition of story telling. As a writer of popular fiction, COD was a natural storyteller whose works were both accessible and entertaining.”

Okediran, who described the late Ekwensi as his teacher in the popular literature genre, said a structure in the proposed ANA village in Abuja would be named after him as part of ANA’s plan to immortalise him, adding that ANA would collaborate with the Nigerian arm of PEN, a global association of writers, to make available, a documentary made on Ekwensi to all Nigerians.

A former ANA President Professor Obafemi, on his part, said “Ekwensi’s loss is the loss of a key architect of modern Nigerian literature and the first to carve a national character for Nigerian fiction. He was one of those who erected the canon and pillars of popular fiction in Nigeria. His death has taken away an ancestral voice in the Nigerian creative cosmos.”

Professor Olu Obafemi described the late writer as a key figure in the establishment of what is now known as Nigerian literature. According to Obafemi, Ekwensi would forever be remembered as one of the oldest writers of the English expression who kept and gave national character to Nigerian literature. “Ekwensi’s death” he said ” is a major deprivation to Nigerian literature. He was one of the major architects of modern Nigerian literature, who, as early as in the 1950s and 1960s, began to write about issues and events beyond his ethnic background.

The assistant General Secretary of ANA, Mr Hyacinth Obunseh, described Ekwensi’s death as unfortunate. Obunseh said that the literary community and indeed the world would miss him especially for, his peculiar style of writing. “Ekwensi’s imaginative and descriptive power will be greatly missed,” Obunseh said.. He, however, regretted that the late literary giant did not live long enough to complete his autobiography.

Another writer, Fred Uzo, expressed the hope that Nigeria would “give him the honour that is due to a scholar, a writer and a humanist of his stature.”.

Earlier in 2007, Ekwensi released Cash on Delivery, a collection of short stories, which turned out to be his last book. When he turned 86 the previous year, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Lagos State chapter and the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), feted him.

Told of the passing on of Ekwensi, poet and past president of ANA, Odia Ofeimu, was “shocked beyond words” to comment immediately.To the newly elected Lagos State ANA chairman, Mr. Chike Ofili, it was an unnerving piece of information. He too withheld his comments till later. When news of the death broke out Nigerian authors were rounding off their yearly convention held in Owerri, Imo State.

Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was born at Minna in Northern Nigeria on September 26, 1921 to Ogbuefi David Duaka and Uso Agnes Ekwensi. He later lived in Onitsha in the Eastern area.. He was educated at Government School, Jos, Government College, Ibadan; Higher College, Yaba in Lagos, Achimota College, Ghana, in lbadan University where he earned his B.A

He studied forestry and worked for two years as a forestry officer. He also taught science and worked for Radio Nigeria before entering the Lagos School of Pharmacy which led him on to the University of London where he continued his studies at the Chelsea School of Pharmacy It was during this period that he wrote his earliest fiction Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Tales and When Love Whispers both of which were published in 1947. He also participated in an international writing program in. University of Iowa, USA.

He lectured in pharmacy at Lagos and was employed as a pharmacist by the Nigerian Medical Corporation. After favorable reception of his early writing, Ekwensi joined the Nigerian Ministry for Information and rose to becoming the director of information by the time of the first military coup in 1966. The continuing disturbances in the Western and Northern regions in the summer of 1966, may have led Ekwensi to give up his position and relocate his family at Enugu. There he became chairman of the Bureau for External Publicity in Biafra and an adviser to the head of state, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu.

Ekwensi began his writing career as a pamphleteer a fact which is clearly reflected in the episodic nature of his novels. This tendency is well illustrated by People of the City (1954)the first major novel to be published by a Nigerian, in which Ekwensi gave a vibrant portrait of life in a West African city. Two novellas for children followed in 1960; both The Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Ilia which were exercises in blending traditional themes with undisguised romanticism.

Ekwensi’s most widely read novel, Jagua Nana,which appeared in 1961.returned 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 automobile. Her life personalized the conflict between the old traditional and modern urban Africa. Ekwensi published a sequel in 1987 titled Jagua Nana’s Daughter. Ekwensi stressed description of the locale and his episodic style was particularly well suited to the short story.

Burning Grass (1961) is basically a collection of vignettes about a Fulani family through which Ekwensi gives insight into the life of this pastoral people. Ekwensi based the novel and the characters on a real family with whom he had previously live. Between 1961 and 1966 Ekwensi published at least one major work every year. The most important were, Beautiful Feathers (1963) and Iska (1966), and two collections of short stories, Rainmaker (1965) and Lokotown (1966). Ekwensi continued to publish beyond the 1960s, with the novel Divided We Stand (1980) in which he lampooned the Nigerian civil war, the novella Motherless Baby (1980), and The Restless City and Christmas Gold (1975), Behind the Convent Wall (1987), and Gone to Mecca (1991). His work, Divided We Stand (1980), , is slated for discussion by literary experts in a conference on 40 years after the civil war.

Ekwensi also published a number 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.