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Artistry and Social Consciousness in Cyprian Ekwensi’s Novels and Stories
Starting off from his thrilling and exciting plots it is most evident that Cyprian Ekwensi spins mostly very good and interesting stories. But his plots are often episodic thus losing organic unity. In People of the City the plot is loose and episodic. The looseness at the end of the various sub-plots makes the novel read like a chronicle of events in the lives of people. However, the placing of the same characters in all these events holds them together. The plot is also episodic in Jagua Nana with about three subplots not firmly linked and justified within the wider contexts of the novel. One of them is the one that brings Jagua to Freddie’s homeland. The other three novels however are spared this problem as they have better plot control.
Some incidents in the works do not come out real and convincing. All too often there is frequent recourse to melodramatics. These are most evident in the many dramatic incidents involving Amusa Sango and Jagua Nana, those of murders, fights and suicides as well as the numerous sexual orgies involving the same characters. Fortunately Survive the Peace seems to have been spared much of that.
In addition, many characters fail to come off real and convincing. The women Amusa Sango meets with in People of the City are mostly unvaryingly portrayed as beautiful. Even the main character himself, Sango, comes off as shallow and stereotyped.. Much of what we know of him is through authorial commentary rather than through what is revealed of him through his words, thoughts, and actions. Freddie’s portrayal in Jagua Nana is very shadowy. Many of his actions seem rather implausible. It is improbable for such an honest and idealistic young man to be suddenly transformed to a self-serving and lusty political aspirant simply because he has just returned from studying overseas.
Other characters such as Uncle Namme, Uncle Ofubara, and Dennis Odoma are almost as good as pawns. Uncle Taiwo’s comical presentation makes him more of a caricature than a fully developed character. He is there simply as a pawn introducing the political aspects of Lagos life. Seldom does Ekwensi allow the reader to follow the thought processes of his characters. Neither is his use of diction successful in distinguishing the various characters whose speech remains unvarying in spite of the varying situations and circumstances in which they find themselves. Freddie’s superior education does not enable him to speak differently from his uneducated prostitute lover, Jagua. Ekwensi’s characters even when involved in events of cultural significance reveal only a superficial awareness, learning little or nothing about themselves in their quests.
There is also not much striking in Ekwensi’s use of language. For one, his use of English is mostly uncertain, displaying little mastery of the rules and current usages. Unlike Achebe, he has not developed an authentic African voice. His language seems largely imitative of fourth-rate westerns. For he seems to be merely pandering to the tastes and expectations of the book-buying public in the West that expected from him certain literary conventions and forms. His style of writing therefore had to be influenced by them. For as he himself said he was writing for a mass appeal so much so that in an interview with Larson he was anticipating the wealth he would have been swimming in if he were writing in America.
Despite the above, hundreds of thousands of readers both in the West and in Nigeria, have found entertainment and a realistic picture of the pleasures and hazards of city life in his writings. But could his works be redeemed by his serious preoccupation with some of the most pressing social and political problems threatening modern Nigeria? How well does he come to terms with the social and political concerns of Nigeria as well as Africa? It might also be necessary to look at how he grapples with the “chaotic formlessness and persistent flux of the modern Nigerian city.”
In response to the interviewer who asked him what basically inspires him as an artist. he. said:
You can call it social consciousness. You have to be conscious of the people you are living amongst, their likes and dislikes and you respect them and still extract their culture and all that.
Ekwensi’s works are set in rural as well as urban centers. These bipolar environments enable him to show up the ugliness and monstrosity of the city beside the idyllic and pristine beauty of rural life. In the rural countryside values such as honesty, industry, and respect for the elders, ancestors and Gods are held in high regard. But in the cold, foreign, alien and barren wasteland which is the city, people are dishonest, politicians are corrupt and neighbors are at hostilities. It is such a hostile world that the émigrés from the rural area are thrust into as prey. In contrast to the beauty and innocence of the country, here they are “daily confronted by wretched filth, decadence, hopelessness, and prevarication.” Thus despite the superficial luster they might see in the city their hopes of self-fulfillment are always beset with stifling setbacks, For the city has a formidable influence, a magnetic force that brandishes from a distance only its excitement, gaiety, and transient glitter, luring people to either destruction or downfall.
Ekwensi was gifted as a writer with an acute power of observation. With his talent for immersing himself deeply into any scenario or environment, he not only observed people closely, but translated their mannerisms and manifestations into many of his characters. drawn broadly from his firsthand knowledge and interactions with Nigerians and a sharp and scientific mind – being first and foremost a pharmacist- an orderly trait that manifested itself in his works.
Cyprian Ekwensi has thus had a prolific output of popular novels and stories repeatedly focused on the Nigerian capital city of Lagos showing the negative impact of the urban milieu on immigrants from rural areas, portraying the lives of prostitutes, shady politicians, businessmen, police officers, reporters, thieves, and others who witness the seamier side of life there as well as portraying the erotic love in a society where marriages are mostly arranged and fiction eschews plots dealing with love and marriage.
In People of the City Sango and almost everyone with whom he interacts are shown as suffering from oppressiveness. The city moves to becoming a central motif and then graduates to almost like a character, controlling, defining, organizing and often destroying other people’s lives. It is like a trap helping to devour the unwary as is suggested in the very first sentence: “How the city attracts all types and how the unwary must suffer from ignorance of its ways.” The policeman’s warning after Aina’s arrest: “. . . person who’s not careful the city will eat him” further captures the incipient danger. Added to that is the constant warning voice of his mother, about the women of the city.
Beatrice is the prime victim. though she seems the most vulnerable. She already demonstrates, on our first acquaintance with her, the restlessness and the yearning for excitement, activity and freedom which usually impel those who are destined to be the city’s victims, but she is also showing signs of degradation and disintegration – she already suffers from the deadly disease which is eventually to claim her life.
Beatrice is so entrapped in its clutch that at the end she could not respond favorably to redemption thus earning for herself in the end a humiliating pauper’s funeral.
The young girl, Aina, when led to court, standing against a city determined to show her no mercy,” though initially capable of demonstrating warm feelings, becomes inevitably conditioned by the city’s callousness into a hardened thief and blackmailer.” earning herself finally a hard prison sentence.
Dazed by the illusory glitter, they all surrender to the money, fame and influence to be gained. Lost in such a hysteria of living, they follow their basest inclinations with total abandon. Sango in the end, however, cannot bear the scrutiny of others.
Jagua, like all other oppressed females “who came to Lagos, imprisoned, entangled in the city, unable to extricate themselves from its clutches” had come to free herself from the taunts and menacing attitude of her people in Ogabu who kept chiding her for not being productive even after three years of marriage. The Lagos she goes to is found to cherish values diametrically opposed to those of her village. There “girls were glassy, worked in offices like men, danced, smoked, wore high-heeled shoes and narrow slacks and were free and fast with their favors.” There no one stands in judgment over another for failure to fulfill any responsibility. In effect, Jagua feels relieved, for she cannot be held down to account for her failure to fulfill her responsibility as a woman and a wife as has been the case back home. She thus falls into the open but pernicious arms of the city. She keeps moving from one situation of desperation to another with little, if any self-satisfaction. At the Tropicana, a favorite night spot for the Lagosians, she entertains varying species of men with the make-believe luster of this degenerate world, it’s dim lighting making her look even more seductive and beautiful than usual.
All the women wore dresses which were definitely under size, so that buttocks and breasts jutted grotesquely above the general contours of their bodies. At the same time the midriffs shrunk to suffocation. A dress succeeded if it made men’s eyes ogle hungrily in this modern super sex-market. The dancers occupied a tiny floor, unlighted, so that they became silhouetted bodies without faces and the most un-athletic man could be drawn out to attempt the improvisation called High-life.
The full effect of her corruption by the city is fully realized when the villagers of Ogabu ridicule her values and her standards:
The women fixed their eyes on the painted eyebrows and one child called out in Ibo “Mama! Her lips are running blood!… Jagua heard another woman say, “She walks as if her bottom will drop off. I cannot understand what the girl has become
Jagua’s abandonment to the excesses of city life only leads to her drifting away from true self-knowledge. She thus escapes into living momentarily, intensely, desperately, without use for social conventions. But upon realizing that the Tropicana was a mere illusion which she must quickly renounce to attain a new life, the big change begins in her life.
Jagua thus returns to Ogabu “with new attitudes, and is rewarded with fulfillment she had been longing for all her life. Her pregnancy gratifies this longing. And for this, Jagua’s joy is boundless.” Quite significantly the act that led to her conception takes place in the countryside in “a shed by the river, a stone’s throw from the shrine.” She is thus seen reuniting with the land, her roots, which she had so long rejected and fled from.
Poverty and squalor are both a cause and an effect of the problems of the city. Just a glimpse of the house of Aina’s mother tells so much:
It had looked drab enough in the sun, but now the darkness gave it a quality of musty poverty. The only light was from a street lamp some fifty yards away, though the two houses that flanked it fairly glittered with their own lights
Predictably the internal conditions are worse off:
He could not see his way forward. With hands outstretched he groped towards what might be a door. His hand caught against something and he ducked…Then he realized that the entire floor was covered with sleeping bodies. He was covered with sleeping bodies. He was in a kind of bed less open dormitory. Everyone but the old woman slept on the floor. Old, young, lovers, enemies, fathers, mothers, they all shared this hall. From early childhood Aina had listened to talks about sex, seen bitter quarrels, heard and perhaps seen adults bare their passions shamelessly like animals.
Buraimoh Ajikatu is a representative of the underdogs in the stifling economic system of the city. It is ironic that in the midst of such abundance as are to be expected in such stores a clerk in a big department store could hardly have enough to support himself, his four children and wife. Even he himself found it incomprehensible. He therefore regards the city as “an enemy, that keeps raising the prices of its commodities without increasing his pay; or even when the pay was increased the prices quickly raced ahead thus worsening the situation much more than before. His situation is only redressed when he joins a secret society. Then he receives a salary increase and the much overdue promotion with promise of another major one within a month. He now realizes why all along he had been subjected to suppression, being the only non-member. And then:
One night the blow fell. . . . They asked him in a matter of fact manner to give them his first-born son. He protested, asked for an alternative sacrifice, and when they would not listen threatened to leave the society. But they told him that he could not leave. There was a way in, but none out–except through death. He was terrified, but adamant.
He had told no one of his plight, and that was when he vanished from home. Now that the good things of life were his, he would not go back and tell his wife. All this Sango learnt, and much more besides. For him it had great significance. By uncovering this veil, he had discovered where all the depressed people of the city went for sustenance. They literally sold their souls to the devil
In Jagua Nana we are given more insights into the lower reaches of Lagos life with very gory details of its filth and pain:
A young woman in the corner of the smelly room seemed to be making a statement which Freddie had interrupted. She began bawling swear words at the young police constable, who ignored her and kept on writing steadily . . . other constables were deriving some lecherous satisfaction from the young woman’s behavior. She had a defiant twinkle in her eye, her breath smelled of alcohol and her blouse–one arm of which had been in some scuffle–slouched over a naked young breast with a dare-devil abandon that could not but be comical. She seemed by her manner to be conscious of the power of her feminity over the males in the khaki uniforms. Freddie stared at this ragged woman who confronted him with the eternal struggle to live, so tragic in the lower reaches of Lagos life.
Ekwensi vividly captures the squalor and filth:
She stored away the food, then took out her towel and went to the bathroom, but when she knocked a man answered her from inside and she went instead to the lavatory. The same old bucket piled high, the floor messed about, so she could see nowhere to put her silver sandals. It was all done by those wretched children upstairs. Why blame them when their mothers did not know any better. Where was the landlord? Where was the Town Council Health Inspector? This Inspector was supposed to come here once in a while and whenever he came he made notes in his black book but nothing ever happened. She would talk seriously to him the next time. The unpleasant side of Lagos life: the flies in the lavatory–big and blue and stubborn–settled on breakfast yam and lunch-time stew (they were invisible in a stew with greens). But Jagua closed her eyes and shut her nostrils with her towel.
Ekwensi’s works also demonstrate juvenile delinquency. Beatrice is said to be the one who promotes it in the city. For as Bayo reveals, she introduced Suad Zamil to him “and we fell in love. . . . Of course we used to meet in her room and she was kind to us.” The insidious influence of the city on the young is also brought out through Aina the mature teenage prostitute who represents the “mad age” and the mid-teens whose eyes are full of infatuation with life, Aina fuses within her all the evils of the wild life of the city, She contributes most to Sango’s depravity. Her meanness and dishonesty manifested particularly in her penchant for shop-lifting she transfers to Sango and uses him in many exploitative and destructive ways thus depriving him of his money and standing between him and good influences like Elina.
Through Aina and Beatrice we have a clear view of prostitution. Beatrice, the most sensual in the novel came from the Eastern Greens, the city of coal. She became attracted to the city as she herself said by the need for experiencing high life which to her includes cars, servants, high-class food, decent clothes, luxurious living all of which she could only gain as she recognized by attaching herself to someone who could. Once in the city she becomes immersed in its ways as well as becomes engaged in promoting it. She herself boasts of her inordinate sexual appetite as “hot stuff that Europeans are crazy about.” But then Gunnings the European with whom she has had three children was not enough to satisfy her. She then abandons him for Sango. She flirts indiscriminately with Lajide and Zamil and later allows her flat to be used as a nest for young lovers like Bayo and Suad Zamil.
There is also the pitiful case of Dupeh Mattin who was born and bred in the city with just primary education and perhaps the first few years of secondary education but yet knowing all about western sophistication–make-up, cinema, jazz, and so on.
This kind of girl Sango knew would be content to walk her shoes thin in the air-conditioned atmosphere of department stores, to hang about all day in the foyer of hotels with not a penny in her handbag, rather than live in the country and marry Papa’s choice.
In Jagua Nana, prostitutes are presented generally as victims of the city drifting along with it. The young prostitutes go to the Tropicana daily expecting something to happen that could put an end to their poverty and starvation. Lagos therefore is where many others are practically strangers in a town where everyone there has come to make fast money by faster means. Its bright lights, its noise, its suffocation, have in time become her friends. The Tropicana in time becomes for her “a potent, habit-forming brew,” which gives her a constant stock of excitement and gaiety as well as popularity, and money, though competition inevitably develops between her and her colleagues in their bid to lure and capture customers.
Ekwensi also exposes crimes and shady deals. Sango’s servant therefore warns that Bayo whom we already know is involved in the underworld of crime is a bad boy whom one including his master has to be careful of lest he drags you into trouble. But Sango apparently does not heed the advice and has to pay the consequences very dearly. Sango’s room becomes the venue for the execution of Bayo’s risky plans. So in the end the C.I.D. raided the apartment and whisked him off.
Jagua’s drift into crime also enables us to enhance our knowledge of that world in Jagua Nana. Obanla’s ugliness is shrouded by the offices of the highly reputed barristers, engineers, and business men in respectable cloak. In Dennis Odama’s place everything is so dark and mysterious that Jagua had to spend some time before she could accustom her eyes to its darkness. All its’ inhabitants pass time waiting for the night and keeping always on the alert for the police siren, upon hearing which they would swiftly climb into their hiding places. For Dennis, crime has become the only way to earn a living in a cruel city. As he states when dismissing the possibility of getting engaged as a clerk:
…I already try to find work. Dem ask me to bring bribe money. I give one man ten pound, and he chop de money and he no fin’ work for me. How I go do? .I mus’ chop. Myself and de taxi-man who die, sometime we kin make one hundred pound by Saturday. Sometime we don’ see anythin’. But we live happy. . . . We never look money in de face, an’ say ‘dis money is too much.’ We jus’ spen’, to get anythin’ we want. Anythin’. So why I worry? De day dat de policeman catch we, we go. Is all the same, whedder we live in cell or outside de cell.
Ekwensi also confronts his society with its social injustices and immoralities. This includes housing problems allied with the high-handedness and almost inhuman attitude of its landlords, and the fraudulent means by which the rich keep enriching themselves at the expense of the poor. For instance when tenants are thrown out of their lodgings they become rich meat, as was the case for Sango, for the ruthless exploiters: the housing agents, the pimps, and liars who accept money under false pretenses.
Zamil, the Lebanese, a carefree, wealthy financier who keeps tossing his money to bait attractive women is one of those so-called foreign investors who come into African cities with promises of bringing in industrialization but who only succeed in edging the small African traders out of business. They could even promote misery further by taking a whole compound and paying its rent for five years in advance while ten Africans would squeeze into one musty, squalid, and slummy room.
Lajide, a local landlord prefers foreigners as they are willing and able to offer him “five thousand pounds cash…for a tenancy of five years.” He is a frivolous spender when in the company of beautiful women but often stingy and cruel to men. He has no scruples when it comes to acquiring more money. He buys stolen military vehicles at reduced rates and then sells them later at a high profit part of which he would then use to influence the law in his favor. Because of his callousness to the less fortunate, Sango regards him as his “one great obstacle in the city.”
In Survive the Peace Ekwensi moves on to examining the social effects of the Nigerian Civil War which was fought to prevent the Ibo’s attempt to breakaway from the federation to form the Republic of Biafra in 1967 to 1968. With the end of the war the devastation was of such dimension that it was almost unbelievable that the war itself had ended. Families, tribes, and cultures have all disintegrated. Deaths have become so common that mourning becomes pointless. Wives get so entrenched in harlotry that they couldn’t be redeemed whilst husbands shirk their marital responsibilities thus causing a general disruption of family life.
The effort required to survive the peace becomes greater than that required to survive the war. Essential commodities become either rare or prohibitively priced. A chicken which cost fifteen shillings before was now going for twenty pounds. Life here is marked by suffering. Whilst some are starving to death others keep fearing the possible onslaught from prowling bands of armed bandits who loot and kill. It is indeed ironical that in the midst of peace many keep dying and girls are being raped.
The war has not changed anything for it is both stupid and pointless, being the product of cursed power-seekers who whilst protecting themselves send others to be killed. For according to Pa Ukoha:
When some black men begin to rule they become too greedy. They eat and fill their stomachs and the stomachs of their brothers. That is not enough for them. They continue till their throats are filled. And that too is not enough. They have food in their stomachs and in their throats and they go on till their mouths are full and then proceed to fill their bags. But no one else outside their families or their tribe must partake of this food. Yet everybody should have a share in the food. This is what brings the trouble in Africa. So, I want to rule – so as to have my share. You want to rule, to have your share. Then we start killing ourselves. God forbid.
Ekwensi, in spite of the earlier mentioned shortcomings has contributed much to the development of African literature through the wide corpus of works that brought life in the city so much alive with vivid evocation of setting along with local color. .
Beier, Ulli ed., Introduction to African Literature (1967);
Breitinger, Eckhard, “Literature for Younger Readers and Education in Multicultural Contexts,” in Language and Literature in Multicultural Contexts, edited by Satendra Nandan, Uinveristy of South Pacific, 1983.
· , Volume 117: Caribbean and Black African Writers, Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography
Dathorne, O. R. The Black Mind A History of African Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974.
Emenyonu, Ernest, Cyprian Ekwensi. Evans Brothers, 1974.
Emenyonu, Ernest, editor. The Essential Ekwensi. Heinemann Educational Books, 1987.
Larson, Charles R., The Emergence of African Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1971
Larson, Charles R. The Ordeal of the African Writer. London: Zed Books, 2001.
Laurence, . Margaret Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966 (1968).
Lindfors, Bernth, ‘Nigerian Satirist’ in ALT5
Palmer, Eustace. The Growth of the African Novel. Studies in African literature. London: Heinemann, 1979.
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