Cyprian Ekwensi – Quintessential Surulere man

By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

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         Cyprian Ekwensi

Cyprian Ekwensi was celebrated as Africa’s greatest urban novelist. Most writers make a habit of staying away from the city centre, and almost always pursue their craft in rural locales. Ekwensi was different. He lived in the heart of town, specifically 141 Ojuelegba Road in Surulere. His house was close to the ever-bubbling Ayilara social rendezvous where, until his death on 4 November 2007, merrymakers never knew the difference between night and day. Ekwensi was a natural fit for the mix, never estranging himself from the hustle and bustle that was ready grist to his fictional mill. He cultivated friends amongst rich and poor, young and old, males and females alike.

The high jinks going on in all facets of Nigerian life today, from brazen kidnappings and robberies to bank heists, makes one recall the many wonderful tales of Cyprian Odiatu Duaka (COD) Ekwensi. He lived a charmed life as a pathfinder in the annals of African literature.
He was arguably the most prolific author in the comity of Nigeria’s array of writers. A novelist, short story writer, children’s literature master, journalist, pamphleteer, columnist etc, Ekwensi gave the world a formidable body of work. He was Cyprian4unmatched in popular literature. He tugged the hearts of his readers without obscurantism or self-serving ambiguity. He was, in short, the city man writ large.

Born in Minna, Niger State on 26 September 1921 of Igbo parentage, and living most of his life in the western part of the country, Ekwensi was withoutCyprian6 question the most Nigerian of Nigeria’s tribe of writers. He was versed in Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba cultures, as much as he equally dwelt on the life and mores of the minorities. His work is acknowledged the world over.

There is no argument that Ekwensi’s work will outlive him. Some have tagged him Africa’s Daniel Defoe, after the irrepressible author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Ekwensi was a proge
nitor of Onitsha Market Literature with his 1947 novel, When Love Whispers, the spur for the market literature that flowered on the banks of the River Niger in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Other early titles included Ikolo the Wrestler (1948) and The Leopard’s Claw (1950).
His novel, People of the City, was published in London in 1954, four years before Chinua Achebe’s seminal Things Fall Apart, in the process launching the pioneer titles of the Heinemann African Writers Series that gave the world a different view of the canon. Ekwensi’s versatility is evident in his novel, Burning Grass (1969), which put the Fulani nomads on the global map by popularizing the wanderlust known as “Sokugo”. The current menace of these Fulani herdsmen can be glean
ed from his early offerings.
It is in his documentation of city life that Ekwensi earned lasting plaudits. Jagua Nana remains the prototypical novel from the departed master. It deals with the travails of an eponymous ageing pr
ostitute and her tango with the young and dashing Freddie. The flash and fizz of the protagonist can indeed be put in proper perspective through a study of the ways and means of the present-day hustling girls at Ayilara. The book attracted   Cyprian8 the interestCyprian9 of an Italian film company but they were prevented from shooting following a debate in the First Republic Parliament. Ekwensi eventually wrote a sequel, Jagua Nana’s Daughter (1987).
Ekwensi was a yarn-spinner with a popular touch. The Passport of Mallam Illia (1960) remains an everlasting adventure story that grips the reader from first page to last. Others, such as An African Night’s Entertainment (1948) and The Drummer Boy (1960), are ever-present staples in our schools. He was deeply affected by the Biafra war effort which resulted in his pacifist novel, Survive the Peace (1976).

His service in the public sphere was equally stellar. From 1957 to 1961, he was head of features at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He rose to become the first Nigerian Director of Information in the Federal Ministry of Information. He was the Director-General of Radio Biafra during the civil war
, after which he was appointed Chairman of the East Central State Library Board. He would later become Managing Director of the Star Printing and Publishing Company, Enugu, publishers of the Star group of newspapers. He was appointed Information Commissioner, Anambra State, in 1983. He reportedly coined the acronym WAI – War Against Indiscipline – during General Muhammadu Buhari’s previous incarnation as a military head of state.

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