All the demented facets of Nigerian life today, from brazen kidnappings and robberies to rampant prostitution and political heists, are like the many wonderful tales of Cyprian Odiatu Duaka (COD) Ekwensi who died on November 4, 2007.
The man simply known as Cyprian Ekwensi lived a charmed life as a pathfinder in the annals of African literature, and it is a striking tribute that the current shenanigans of Nigeria read like the yarns of the popular writer.
Ekwensi was arguably the most prolific author in the comity of Nigeria’s first generation of acclaimed writers.
A novelist, short story writer, children’s literature master, journalist, pamphleteer, columnist etc, Ekwensi gave the world a formidable body of work that can never be wished away.
He was a nonpareil craftsman of popular literature who got to the heart of his readers without any unnecessary dabbling into obscurantism and self-serving ambiguities.
Cyprian Ekwensi is Mister Nigeria, born in Minna in the North on September 26, 1921 of Igbo parentage and lived 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 breadth of the country as a pan-Nigerian phenomenon.
His work has been acknowledged all over the world such that while I was in Canada as a Distinguished Visitor, I was told by Professor Peter Desbarats, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, that Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana was the only book from Nigeria he had ever read.
Some critics tagged Ekwensi as Africa’s Daniel Defoe, after the irrepressible author of such classics as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.
Ekwensi was a progenitor of Onitsha Market Literature when back in 1947 he published When Love Whispers to spur the market literature that flowered in the Nigerian city of Onitsha after the Second World War.
His novel People of the City became one of the pioneer titles of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, such that alongside Chinua Achebe he 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 wandering known as “Sokugo” was popularized by Ekwensi but let’s not go there because of the wandering president!
It is in the documentation of city life that Ekwensi earned lasting plaudits from the literary critics.
Jagua Nana dwells on the travails of the eponymous ageing prostitute and her tango with the young and dashing Freddie.
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.
Ekwensi eventually wrote a sequel of the novel, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, published by Joop Berkhout’s Spectrum Books, Ibadan.
A yarn-spinner with legendary page-turning intensity, Ekwensi authored The Passport of Mallam Illia which 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 junior secondary school curriculum in Nigeria.
An old title of his written early in his career but not published, For a Roll of Parchment, was released by Heinemann, Ibadan, and it bore all the hallmarks of the Ekwensi mystique in Nigeria’s promotion of paper qualification.
For a man who had his training as a pharmacist and worked in forestry, Ekwensi astounded the world with his high literary output.
Some critics like Bernth Lindfors had said harsh things about the quality of Ekwensi’s writings while other equally eminent literary scholars such as Ernest Emenyonu rose up solidly in defence of the man from Nkwelle-Ezunaka in Anambra State.
Ekwensi maintained a home in the very heart of the city of Lagos, at Ojuelegba Road to the very end.
His service in the public sphere had been stellar. From 1957 to 1961, he was the Head of Features at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
He later earned the distinction as the first Nigerian Director of Information in the Federal Ministry of Information.
He was the Director-General of Radio Biafra during the Civil War and became the Chairman of the East Central State Library Board after the war.
He would later become the 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 and reputedly coined the acronym WAI – War Against Indiscipline – that the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari put into effect.
All the kidnappers, robbers, debtors, looters, and ill-assorted brigands and prostitutes being paraded all over the nation today are quintessential Ekwensi characters! He created all of them in his many fictions before he died.
This way, Cyprian Ekwensi can never really die!