Many writers make the habit of hiding from the public. They stay away from the city centre, claiming that there is so much distraction in a bustling city like Lagos. These writers almost always pursue their craft in rustic locales.
Cyprian Ekwensi was different.
The lionized author of People of the City lived in the heart of town, specifically at 141 Ojuelegba Road, Surulere, Lagos.
His house was just nearby the ever-bubbling Ayilara social rendezvous where merrymakers never knew the difference between night and day.
Ekwensi was a natural fit for the mix, never ever estranging himself from the hustle and bustle that was ready grist to his fictional mill. He cultivated friends amongst the rich and poor, the young and old, males and females alike.
As Ekwensi walked the streets you could see the old man chatting up a young damsel thusly: “CY ka bu CY!” which translates to – “CY is still CY!”
In light of the high jinks going on in all facets of Nigerian life today – from brazen kidnappings and robberies to bank heists and rowdy prostitution – one recalls the many wonderful tales of Cyprian Odiatu Duaka (COD) Ekwensi who died on November 4, 2007.
The very humorous Ekwensi told whoever cared to listen that his initials COD stood for “Cash On Delivery”!
Ekwensi could supply a story anytime, anywhere, anyhow!
A novelist, short story writer, children’s literature guru, journalist, pamphleteer, columnist etc, Ekwensi gave the world a formidable body of work that can never be wished away.
Born in Minna, Niger State on September 26, 1921 of Igbo parentage from Nkwelle-Ezunaka in Anambra State, and living most of his life in the western part of the country, Ekwensi was without 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. He deservedly earned his celebration across the length and breath of the country.
His work has been acknowledged all over the world. While in Canada, I was told by the distinguished Professor Peter Desberats, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, Canada that Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana was the only book from Nigeria he had ever read.
Ekwensi was a progenitor of Onitsha Market Literature. Back in 1947 he had written When Love Whispers to spur the market literature that flowered in the Nigerian city of Onitsha after the Second World War. Other early titles of Ekwensi were The Leopard’s Claw and Ikolo the Wrestler.
His novel People of the City was published in London in 1954, way before Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), and became one of the pioneer titles of Heinemann’s African Writers Series that gave the world a different view of the canon.
The versatility of Ekwensi can be seen in his novel Burning Grass that helped in no small measure to put the Fulani nomads in the global map of literature. The disease of wanderlust known as “Sokugo” was popularized by Ekwensi.
It is in the documentation of city life that Ekwensi earned lasting plaudits. Jagua Nana deals with the travails of the eponymous ageing prostitute and her tango with the young and dashing Freddie. The flash and fizz of the protagonist prostitute Jagua can indeed be put in proper perspective through a study of the ways and means of the hustling girls at Ayilara, near Ekwensi’s Ojuelegba home.
The book attracted sustained film interest from overseas, and it was debated in the Nigerian Parliament of the First Republic which stopped its filming by an Italian film company. Talk of debating a work of fiction in parliament!
Ekwensi eventually wrote a sequel of the novel, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, published by Joop Berkhout’s Spectrum Books, Ibadan.
Ekwensi was a yarn-spinner with legendary page-turning intensity. The Passport of Mallam Illia remains an everlasting adventure story that grips the reader from the first page to the last.
Ekwensi’s titles such as An African Night’s Entertainment and The Drummer Boy are ever-present staples in the secondary school curriculum in Nigeria.
For a man who had his training as a pharmacist and worked in forestry, Ekwensi astounded the world with his high literary output.
He reportedly coined the acronym WAI – War Against Indiscipline – during General Muhammadu Buhari’s first incarnation as a military Head of State.
It is strongly believed that Ekwensi became heartbroken unto death when the then Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Malam Nasir el-Rufai unilaterally revoked the title to his plot of land in the capital city in 2006, and the old man wrote to el-Rufai: “The land is the only property I have in Abuja after serving this great nation in various capacities before and since independence.”
Abuja’s loss was the gain of Lagos.