Skip to content

A Writer for the Masses

The illuminating hackwork of Cyprian Ekwensi

Cyprian Ekwensi, who died in 2007 at the age of eighty-six, was always something of an outsider in Nigerian literature in English. This was partly because of his subject matter, partly his industry, and partly his attitude toward the business of writing, the last of which was captured in a 1962 BBC interview, in which he declared himself “a writer for the masses”:

I don’t think of myself as a literary stylist: if my style comes, that is just incidental, but I am more interested in getting at the heart of the truth which the man in the street can recognize than in just spinning words.

His first foray into print, When Love Whispers (1948), was the maiden title of a short-lived project that became known as the Onitsha market literature: hurriedly produced English-language pamphlets from local printing presses aimed at those same “masses.” Other attempts followed before People of the City, his first full-length novel, which was published in London in 1954 and received good notices: The Times praised it for its “vivid picture of life in a West African city”—in this case pre-independence Lagos (although the city remains unnamed). Thereafter, the books poured forth, sometimes at the rate of one a year, with only a lull during the two-and-a-half year civil war in the late 1960s, when the Igbo-majority fledgling state of Biafra attempted to secede. Ekwensi joined the cause, as did a number of other fellow Igbo writers (notably Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo), and spent most of the war chairing the Biafran Bureau for External Publicity. Afterwards, he returned to Lagos and resumed his prolific output, writing two novels on the conflict itself. Although a complete list of his publications is difficult to come by, I counted twenty-five, mostly novels and short story collections but also a number of children’s books. All this while he held down jobs as various as forestry officer, broadcaster (he was at one time Head of Features at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation), and pharmacist, having trained in that profession in the UK on a scholarship.

Taken together with his prose, which is serviceable when it isn’t clumsy, one can see why Ekwensi quickly earned the reputation of a hack. People of the City, now reissued by NYRB Classics, is hardly going to revive his reputation. The novel focuses on Amusa Sango, a twenty-six-year-old crime reporter-cum-dance-band leader who, we are told, was “fast with women, slick with his fairy-tales, dexterous with eyes and fingers.” We follow him as he navigates his way around the temptations waiting to ensnare him, from fourteen-year-old girls whose “breasts were taut and large with ripeness,” to older women with their “loose, revealing trifles, clinging to the body curves so intimately that the nipples of the breasts showed through.” But it is the city, a drug that “never failed to excite him,” that is at the real center of the story:

Veiled women slipping from hazy light into the intense darkness of corners; young girls leaving their buckets at the public water-pumps and stealing away under the trees where the glow of a cigarette-end told of a waiting lover . . . 

All this was heady stuff at the time, a period of nationalist fervor as the country moved towards independence from British colonial rule in 1960. The historical moment called for a more uplifting tone, one that would help the society “put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement” by demonstrating that Africans “had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity.”

One can see why Ekwensi quickly earned the reputation of a hack.

Thus wrote Chinua Achebe, describing the impetus behind Things Fall Apart, which was published four years after People of the City and immediately eclipsed it. Achebe’s novel goes back in time to recreate life in an Igbo community before the white man came along with his religion and his guns and put “a knife on the things that held us together.” We are shown a world complete in itself as it had seemingly existed for centuries, with its own gods and manners, living in harmony with nature as the seasons come and go, each person fulfilling their allotted role in the scheme of things. To his many admirers then and now, Achebe succeeded admirably in his self-imposed mission. Moreover, he did all this in an elevated language which drew heavily on his native Igbo idioms and proverbs, thereby giving it a spurious solemnity, a far cry from Ekwensi’s low-life characters grubbing around in brothels, beer parlors, and short-time hotels.

And yet dig a little deeper into Things Fall Apart and what do we have? A society where human beings are sacrificed on the orders of fetish priests and where women are considered chattel, as in: “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women), he was not really a man.” In other words, there were perhaps good reasons why the society Achebe described crumbled so easily, and why Ekwensi, attempting to deal with the fallout, was actually performing a more necessary service. In any case, Nigeria’s romance with the ancestors proved short-lived. Within the first decade of independence the country suffered two military coups and a civil war which claimed over one million lives. So much for the pristine past; welcome to Ekwensi’s messy present of rapacious landlords, spiteful colleagues, and rogue politicians who made—and continue to make—a mockery of that independence, this last species being one of his specialties:

“Yes,” said the Councillor, beaming. “I pray I get in. My party fights for the people, for the poor. There are poor men in every tribe and race, therefore my party is the Universal Party. But my rivals!” Here he snorted. “They’re out to line their own pockets! They’re out to capture all the highest posts. We must defeat them and have things our own way—for the people’s good.”

Yet People of the City is not a good novel, although it is occasionally an entertaining one. The main problem is its lack of conviction. We are told at the outset that beneath our hero’s “gay exterior lay a nature serious and determined to carve out for itself a place of renown in this city of opportunities,” that he had “his name to make as a band-leader and journalist,” and that all else “must be subordinated” to these twin ambitions. At first it seems as if all is going his way. He has a regular gig at the All Language Club, where there were no bars—“social, colour, political or religious”—as a matter of deliberate policy because the proprietor wanted to “create a place where men and women of all languages and social classes would meet and get to know one another more intimately.” By and by, the proprietor finds it difficult balancing the books and is eventually forced to sell up. The person who buys it happens to be Amusa’s former landlord who had earlier thrown him out of his one-room apartment because of the company he was keeping—and doesn’t want him in the club now, either. This is one of those coincidences which abound in the novel and give it an air of happenstance, the more so as the landlord is himself incidental to the story except to be a thorn in our hero’s flesh.

Losing the gig is one thing, but he still has his job at the West African Sensation. From the start, he sets his sights on the editorship, which we are led to believe is well within his grasp, as indeed he is assured by Mr. McMaster, the European “editorial adviser,” who commends him for “your drive, your fluent style of writing, your initiative.” Yet just when he’s on the verge or getting the prize, Amusa is summarily dismissed for his reports about a murder which the Board had found “most embarrassing.” 

The murder itself was a squalid domestic affair which wouldn’t have excited as much interest as Ekwensi would have us believe, but then one suspects that he didn’t believe it either, particularly since its only function is to get Amuso sacked, thereby making it even less believable. As with the case of the landlord, one gets the sense of the writer making it up as he goes along, as if the novel was written episodically. This is especially marked where our hero’s romantic attachments are concerned. There is the femme fatale who almost dies having an abortion for him after he beats her up but then gives him her blessing when he wants to marry someone else; another candidate is selected for him by his village-based mother who conveniently decides that she doesn’t want to marry him after all; finally he does marry a woman after her fiancé conveniently commits suicide, an event that helps her see Amusa was her true love all along. “You see, Amusa, we girls love you so much,” one of his many flames tells him from her sickbed. “I do not know why. You do not treat us so well, but we love you.” And so the novel ends, with our newly married hero jobless, homeless, and potless. It’s hardly any wonder that his wealthy father-in-law “sat like a statue” during the wedding ceremony, “moaning his loss.”

People of the City offers a portrait of a post-colonial society so adrift that one can understand the temptation some Nigerians have felt to retreat into a past that at least had values which everyone abided by. This is perhaps what Chris Abani, a leading writer of a younger generation (and himself partly Igbo), was referring to when he spoke of an “existential loss at the heart of what it means to be a Nigerian” as a result of the colonial encounter. Yet any rediscovery of older ways of being was and remains impossible because the past has been so thoroughly obliterated. Besides, there was no indigenous writing and therefore no records to draw on: just the memories of a few old people with little or nothing to offer to the modern world. Literacy came with the conquering power, which consigned the indigenous languages to the bush, where they belonged—precisely because they had no tradition of writing.

When a writer like Achebe recreates the past, he does so in the very language which denigrated it, which is why the society he shows us is static and one-dimensional. It is also why this society celebrates the crudest forms of male power, a habit of the subjugated. Brute force in the old days; politics, and with it access to money, these days.

Ekwensi saw these contradictions more clearly than most. And he was unusual, at least among what we might call the first generation of Nigerian writers, in not merely depicting women as people in their own right, with their own wants and desires, but being unafraid to explore the kind of power they can exert over men. It might be argued, with good reason, that he reduces this power to the most basic, animal level of jutting breasts and rounded behinds; but if so, then Ekwensi’s men are equally reduced to creatures of lust and little else.

Any rediscovery of older ways of being was and remains impossible because the past has been so thoroughly obliterated.

The shifting relation between the sexes comes to the fore in Jagua Nana (1961), of which People has been called a prequel. This was an even more sexually explicit story of an ageing prostitute (“You like Jagwa woman? Jagwa woman cos’ plenty money… Jagwa woman is for men in de Senior Service. For Contractor and Politician”) which was attacked in churches, debated in parliament, and banned, funnily enough, in the Republic of Ireland—although it went on to win the 1968 Dag Hammarskjӧld Prize. Unlike the earlier novel, Ekwsensi did not hesitate here to use English as we dey talk am, for which his ear was faultless and which gave life to his characters. In so doing, he also gave us a portrait of the first “correct” woman in modern Nigerian literature, a woman of herself: tough-minded, enterprising and realistic in a harsh world that nevertheless does not make her cynical even as she loses her only child and re-molds herself into a trader back in her hometown in the east.

Somewhat ironically, neither of these novels is especially typical of Ekwensi’s work, although they have largely come to represent what we may call his “style”: that of the chronicler of the modern city with little or no time for the rural backwoods. But it wasn’t as simple as that. Burning Grass (1962), for instance, a book beloved by generations of schoolchildren, is the story of a Fulani slave girl set among cattle-rearing pastoralists in the north of the country, where the writer grew up. Equally popular is The Passport of Mallam Ilia (1960), also set in the north, which follows the adventures of a man seeking revenge on another for killing his wife. In fact, of all Nigerian writers both then and now, Ekwensi is the only one who has written outside of his ethnic group in a country plagued by too many of them—250 altogether—attempting to live in uneasy relationship with each other, the result of the colonial adventure which artificially yoked them together. He also remains the most cosmopolitan, the most at ease with exploring the “existential loss” that is the modern Nigerian condition.

As for his popularity, it happened just recently that Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, the poet and himself Igbo, had cause to visit his ancestral hometown, Nkwelle-Ezunaka in Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State. Uzoatu, who considers Ekwensi “the most fundamentally underrated foundational icon of Nigerian literature,” was told by the inhabitants how shocked they were by the number of dignitaries who came from all over the country to attend his burial: “They spoke in the local dialect thus: ‘Anyi amoro na nwoke luru etua/We did not know that this man rose to this height.’”