What Cyprian Ekwensi meant to me
Kole Omotoso is Professor of Drama at University
of Stellenbosch, Private Bag XI Matieland, 7602 South Africa. email:
The first major city that began what was to be my wandering
around the world was Onitsha, the market emporium on the eastern shore
of the Niger. That visit gave me a novelette about the story of a young
school girl who, after visiting her boyfriend during the holidays, left
his house 'with a weight inside her', or words to that effect. I could
relate to that story. I was a school-boy. We were already learning to
write love letters from pamphlets sold in the Onitsha market that taught
us How to Write Love Letters!
On a visit to Lagos I found The Yaba Roundabout
Murders. Today, of course, there is no longer a Yaba Roundabout.
That Ekwensi novelette taught me the importance of space in fiction
writing. Ekwensi was putting on paper my environment and it was so delightful!
During one long vacation, the Federal Ministry of Information where
Ekwensi was an information officer, advertised holiday jobs for students.
I was into my Higher School Certificate programme at Kings' College,
Lagos. The advertisement had to do with writing and I thought it was
what I could do. I was sent to go and see Cyprian Ekwensi. I was delighted.
I knew the man. Well, I had read some of his writing. He must be dying
to help me! Ekwensi took one look at me and asked me to leave his office
since they already had the complement of the people they wanted. I obviously
did not make any impression on him.
The next encounter with Cyprian Ekwensi was years
later. I had spent three years working on contemporary Arabic Literature
for a doctoral thesis for the University of Edinburgh, with additional
supervision at the then Centre for Middle East Studies in Oxford and
the American University in Cairo. It was during one of those visits
to Cairo that I found a surprise, an Arabic translation of Cyprian Ekwensi's
People of the City, the story of a journalist in Lagos entitled Ahl-il-Madinah.
I was thrilled. I bought two copies. I came back to teach at the University
of Ibadan in 1972 and on the occasion of a Nigerian writers meeting
with John Updike of the United States of America, I met Cyprian Ekwensi
and gave him a copy of the Arabic translation of his book. He was naturally
surprised to see it because he knew nothing of it. Over the next few
years I attempted to track down translations of African writing into
Arabic as well as tried to encourage more to be done. But that is another
Cyprian Ekwensi is important in Nigerian writing
for many reasons, but especially because he believed in himself and
made us believe in ourselves. Not just as writers. The writing is justly
pan-Nigerian. This is as it should be. What is also important is that
Cyprian Ekwensi published in Nigeria. He was one of the initial writers
who published their works at home along with T.M. Aluko of One Man
One Wife fame. These important writers initiated the story of Nigerian
It is no wonder then that Cyprian Ekwensi was
such a strong supporter of the process that brought about the creation
of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the now ubiquitous ANA. Sometimes,
some commentators have given the impression that it was the work of
one man. This is short of the truth.
On the occasion of the 80th birthday of Cyprian
Ekwensi, I wish to say Long Live Ekwensi, to continue to charm us with
our stories! [BPN 29, 2001, pp. 12]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 29, 2001>>