From Uduma Kalu, Literary Correspondent, Enugu
DARKNESS fell again in the Nigerian literary firmament yesterday when veteran novelist, pharmacist and public commentator, Cyprian Ekwensi passed on. He was 86 years old.
The author of the popular Jaguar Nana series of novels was said to have died at the Niger Foundation in Enugu where he underwent an operation for an undisclosed ailment. It was not clear as at press time yesterday if he died during or after the operation.
Earlier this year, Ekwensi released Cash on Delivery, a collection of short stories, which turned out to be his last book. When he turned 86 last year, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Lagos State chapter and the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), feted him.
Ekwensi was celebrated as the forefather of the city novel.
He is believed to be the author of the earliest published fiction on social life in the Lagos Metropolis. The accomplished novelist is remarkable for his down-to-earth style of writing and his prolific output, with over 20 novels to his credit.
One of his books, Divided We Stand, a lampoon on the Nigerian Civil War, is slated for discussion by experts in a conference on 40 years after the civil war.
"How far so far", is one of the themes for discussion at the ninth edition of the Lagos Book Fair, holding on Friday morning at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos.
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.
News of the death broke as Nigerian authors were rounding off their yearly convention held over the weekend in Owerri, Imo State.
He was a Nigerian writer who stressed description of the locale and whose episodic style was particularly well suited to the short story.
Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was born at Minna in Northern Nigeria on September 26, 1921. He later lived in Onitsha in the Eastern area. He was educated at Achimota College in the Gold Coast, and at the Chelsea School of Pharmacy of London University. He lectured in pharmacy at Lagos and was employed as a pharmacist by the Nigerian Medical Corporation.
He married Eunice Anyiwo, and they had five children.
After favorable reception of his early writing, he joined the Nigerian Ministry for Information and had risen to be the director of that agency by the time of the first military coup in 1966. After the continuing disturbances in the Western and Northern regions in the summer of 1966, Ekwensi gave up his position and relocated his family to Enugu. He became chair of the Bureau for External Publicity in Biafra and an adviser to the head of state, Lt.-Col. Chukwemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
Ekwensi began his writing career as a pamphleteer, and this perhaps explains the episodic nature of his novels. This tendency is well illustrated by People of the City (1954), in which Ekwensi gave a vibrant portrait of life in a West African city. It was the first major novel to be published by a Nigerian. Two novellas for children appeared in 1960; both The Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Ilia were exercises in blending traditional themes with undisguised romanticism.
His most widely read novel, Jagua Nana, appeared in 1961. It was a return 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 auto. Her life personalised the conflict between the old traditional and modern urban Africa. Ekwensi published a sequel in 1987 titled Jagua Nana's Daughter.
Burning Grass (1961) is basically a collection of vignettes concerning a Fulani family. Its major contribution is the insight it presents into the life of this pastoral people. Ekwensi based the novel and the characters on a real family with whom he had previously lived. Between 1961 and 1966 Ekwensi published at least one major work every year. The most important of these were the novels, Beautiful Feathers (1963) and Iska (1966), and two collections of short stories, Rainmaker (1965) and Lokotown (1966). He continued to publish beyond the 1960s, and among his later works are the novel Divided We Stand (1980), the novella Motherless Baby (1980), and The Restless City and Christmas Gold (1975), Behind the Convent Wall (1987), and Gone to Mecca (1991).
Ekwensi also published a number of 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.
Ekwensi, a one-time Commissioner for Information in the old Anambra State, is survived by children and grand children.