Cyprian Ekwensi is one of the leading, first generation of Nigerian writers. Prolific, insightful and tireless, he has won acclaim as the most notable chronicler of ordinary people’s lives, especially in the choking urban areas where survival of the fittest is the norm. Chief Ekwensi is the author of novels like People of the City, Beautiful Feathers, Jagua Nana, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, Survive the Peace, Iska, The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Burning Grass, An African Night’s Entertainment, Motherless Babies, and collections of short stories such as Lokotown, Restless City and Christmas Gold, etc.
Born in Minna in 1921, Chief Ekwensi was educated in Ibadan, Achimota, Lagos, and London. He was Head of Features at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, where he started writing, and became Director of Information in the Federal Ministry of Information in Lagos but resigned at the outbreak of the civil war to do the same work in the East. He is a one-time Managing Director of the Daily Star in Enugu and, later, chairman of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN).
I interviewed the jovial Chief Ekwensi, who is in retirement, in Ilesha, Osun State, recently during the 1999 Conference of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). Excerpts:
IBRAHIM SHEME: First of all, I wonder why at your age you’re not wearing glasses like your peers.
CYPRIAN EKWENSI: That’s a clever observation. I can actually read if the script is big enough. But I can read without glasses. Let us say that age has started to make me short-sighted; that’s what my optician told me. But for comfort, I use glasses – for reading and writing only. But sighting long distance, I can see anything coming to hurt me. But I don’t drive anymore, not because anybody stopped me but for safety considerations. That split second in which you didn’t see something is critical.
SHEME: Why did you decide to attend this year’s ANA convention after so many years’ absence?
EKWENSI: A very good question. The last two conventions I attended, really, were, one, the one in which (the late General) Mamman Vatsa gave us the Writers’ Village in Abuja. That was a very successful event; it lasted for five days. Then I didn’t attend for many years until another one which held in Lagos, at the National Theatre. Since then, I hadn’t attended another until this one. (That is) because I have a fundamental belief that attending a convention doesn’t help you to write. If you have a serious business of writing, you sit down and write. A lot of people believe that if they attended a writers’ conference, they become writers. It’s a useful thing for trade activities like copyright and book publishing and so on.
SHEME: Does that mean you don’t totally see benefit in writers coming together…?
EKWENSI: No, it doesn’t mean that. But if there is a coincidence or a clash between a writers’ conference and something which I consider more important, I’d go to that thing. But the ANA convention has the advantage that it’s once a year. So you don’t lose anything really by going there.
SHEME: Do we take it, then, that other writers like Chinua Achebe and Labo Yari, who have not been attending regularly, share that view?
EKWENSI: You see, the case of Chinua Achebe is not a good example because he is incapacitated physically at the moment. But don’t forget that he founded ANA and was the founding president. The other man, Labo Yari, I think distance is giving him trouble. He is a professor, isn’t he?
SHEME: No. He is at present the Director for Government Printer in Katsina.
EKWENSI: Ah! A lot of people don’t see the importance of attending the ANA conference, so they keep dilly-dallying until the moment passes. I must mention that this year’s is particularly unique. I wanted to find out why they (the conference organisers) sited it at such an out-of-the-way place (Ilesha). This place is really a punishment to get to. (Laughter) Even if you eventually enter town, you’re still suffering from bad roads to bad direction; there’s no proper signposting.
SHEME: Perhaps they wanted writers to have a feel of the problems at the grassroots level.
EKWENSI: Writers are not government!
SHEME: Don’t you think this would help them appreciate what’s happening at the local level and write about it?
EKWENSI: Actually, actually! But I wanted to tell you that I found that the reason they sited it here was a question of infrastructure. You know, you need to have a different hotel, a conference hall, a dining hall – that sort of thing. And looking through Osun State, they have alternatives: either Oshogbo or Ife. They chose this place because of infrastructure, so I forgive them the punishment!
SHEME: Now, you can be described as a member of the old guard of African writers. Looking back on the past years, how do you feel now that the century is coming to an end and we’re getting into another one together with you?
EKWENSI: You see, the time we grew up was different. We had the British colonial administration. In 1903, which was at the turn of the century, the British were still fighting in Kano, trying to conquer the North into Lugard’s territory, sacking the Sultan of Sokoto and putting somebody else (on his throne), and so on. Then we had the British education, the scholarships, free primary education, and so on and so forth. Writing in the country was one of the things happening; they were publishing and printing in England. Everything has changed now. We’re now coming into our own. Writers are now making a contribution where publishers have to chase them. Then we didn’t have to chase publishers, because they were taking the job into their own hands, printing and distributing their books. So where is the publisher coming in here? It’s a healthy development. Writers don’t have to wait for years for a negative decision (from the publishers).
SHEME: The present generation of writers considers yours a lucky one in terms of getting published. Now there are so many people wanting to get published but they don’t have the chance. Do you actually consider yourself lucky?
EKWENSI: Yes, I do. If you go through my books one by one, you will find that there was an element of luck in my writing. There was also an element of foresight in that what we were doing at that time, not many people were doing it. For instance, I came into writing by way of radio broadcasting: I used to read a short story every week on Radio Nigeria in Lagos. Eventually, I fashioned the stories into a scenario for People of the City, my novel. And when I went to England on scholarship, I went to the BBC and they introduced me to a publisher who published it. You may call all that luck. But you (as a writer) also have to make the effort first, otherwise the luck will not come. And they treated our own books with the same respect they treated those of British authors. They promoted them because it was in their own interest to promote them. Now what’s the position? The position is that the publisher looks more to his naira and kobo than to the philanthropy – the social responsibility – of promoting African literature. The British publishers had a quality of using very successful books to support fledgling new books by new writers. So, while they were making a very big profit off their leading authors, they were cultivating people who would take up their position. They didn’t deal with successful writers only and then threw away the unsuccessful writers. They were carrying all at the same time.
Another thing which the British publishers did was that occasionally they made a big effort to package the books, keeping them in print for as long as possible, and they covered the world, selling in hard currency.
SHEME: Now let’s talk about your own writing. Do you feel adequately compensated for all your effort on the literary scene?
EKWENSI: No, I don’t feel adequately compensated.
SHEME: Why not?
EKWENSI: I should be making more money, really. I really should.
SHEME: Are you not being paid your royalty?
EKWENSI: No, not being paid my royalty. But it’s not it. Supposing I was a contractor, would I be paid that kind of royalty, ehn? Ten thousand naira is not money! It’s not even enough to pay my non-refundable deposit.
SHEME: But writers in Africa always say they’re not writing for money.
EKWENSI: I am writing for money! Take it, whether you like it or not. Don’t tell me I’m not writing for money, because writing is part of the commercial process. But I’m not writing for money at the same time because if money were impelling you, the kind of money you get in writing is not money to write home about.
SHEME: I recall that one of the criticisms made on your writing is that you concentrated more on city life rather than the villages where most Nigerians live. How do you defend that?
EKWENSI: Yes, no apologies for that. I was born in Minna, it’s a city; I went to school at Ibadan, it’s a city; I went to school at Yaba, Lagos, it’s a city; I went to school in London, it’s a city. All my life has been spent in the city, (so) why should I write about rural areas? I don’t know them! Are there rural areas in Nigeria? (General laughter) Actually, I am more at home (with city themes).
The thing about writing is that it deals with a Nigerian Nigerian and not an ethnic Nigerian. On the stage of the city, everybody is a Nigerian. On the stage of a region or a state, everybody is ethnic.
SHEME: Another curious thing about your writing is also the books you produced with Northern background, such as The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Burning Grass, and Iska. What motivated you to cover the North so much?
EKWENSI: What motivated me was that I lived there and grew up there. I drew my inspiration from there. It’s not strange to me at all! My father lived for forty years at Jos; our house was in Sarkin Arab Street. But (the spot) is now the Juma’at Mosque. My father used to take me along hunting expedition. Sometimes they sent for him from Chad to come and shoot elephant. He was a Sarkin Farauta (the Chief Hunter). So I was not trying to show that I knew Northern Nigeria; it was just natural.
SHEME: What was your father’s occupation then?
EKWENSI: He was a carpenter. But he tried and went into big game hunting.
SHEME: Was that where you got the background for The Passport of Mallam Ilia?
EKWENSI: No. You see, the background for The Passport of Mallam Ilia was very interesting. I used to be at Government College, Ibadan, and my parents lived at Jos. Every holiday I would travel by train, change trains at Kaduna Junction – sometimes at Kafanchan – and go to Jos to spend my holiday. So I met this man in the train; his name was not Mallam Ilia. And at that time, around 1940, the man was holding a passport! I thought, “What sort of curious man is this who can have a passport?” Do you have a passport now? (Laughter) My father also had a passport for going to Chad. So when I got home I read my father’s passport. It said: “The bearer is allowed to go without let or hindrance. Give him every assistance you like. He can travel to every part of the world”, and so on. So I said there’s a story there. That’s where I got the inspiration.
SHEME: You made Mallam Ilia a criminal, if I remember…
EKWENSI: No, I didn’t. I made him a character who hated oppression, so he decided to take the law into his hands.
SHEME: Another of your books, An African Night’s Entertainment, contains exactly the same story as a Hausa novella by John Tafida Wusasa and Rupert East titled Jiki Magayi, which was also published earlier than yours. Why the coincidence? Did you translate Jiki Magayi?
EKWENSI: No, I didn’t translate it. That place where we lived, the Sarkin Arab Street, was a hunters’ centre; people came to buy ammunition, cartridges, and so on, and we got friendly with many of them. So, one retired policeman – he is dead now – Francis Chinweze, said he had a story which he would tell me, that this story would keep me busy. He said I called myself a writer, wait until I heard this story! So, he sat down and started telling me the story. And I said, “I’m going to write it down.” So, I wrote it, refined it, put it into shape so that it became a folk tale. I didn’t know that there was any book like that.
SHEME: Do you now feel that Francis Chinweze might have read the book and simply retold the story to you?
EKWENSI: I don’t know. Probably. I was a young man at the time – in my 20s.
SHEME: Do you now regret that you might have been deceived into rehashing someone else’s story?
EKWENSI: If it’s true, then it is unfortunate. No offence was intended.
SHEME: Now that the century is ending, do you advocate any change in the direction of African literature?
EKWENSI: Yes. The change which I am advocating is that we should become more independent. And there should be more incentives. The incentive given recently by the Minister of Culture is the sort of thing I have in mind; Chinua Achebe was given a prize for creativity. We should be able to produce our own literature and circulate it within Nigeria, so that if somebody wants to study African literature he comes to Nigeria. He doesn’t go to London University library where most of our books are kept. We have not built up a reserve of our own literature under our control and encouraging our authors to be something. This new step the Minister of Culture told us about is very interesting. It makes us realise that the government is changing its attitude; it now recognises storytellers and artistes and culture people as essential to the building of Nigeria of the next century.
SHEME: Do you still write?
EKWENSI: Yes, I’m writing the biography of a retired general right now.
SHEME: Who is that?
EKWENSI: I can’t give you his name.
SHEME: Are you no longer in creative writing?
EKWENSI: I am. I am also writing my autobiography. And there are a number of novels I want to shape up. You see, when I write a book I don’t publish it, after some years I take it up again and rewrite the whole thing.
SHEME: Did you consider your age and thought it was high time you wrote your autobiography?
EKWENSI: If you consider your age, you wouldn’t be able to travel by road to Ibadan for fear you would die on the way! (General laughter) You see, there is a funny thing about me. Whoever looks at me as an old man, I look at them as the old people because I’ve never thought about age as a theme. God created us to live. My mother just died two months ago at the age of 102 years. My father died in 1978 at the age of 98 years. I am 78, from last September 16th. But I don’t feel it, apart from some defects – such as the eyes are not as sharp as they used to be. Otherwise, there is nothing that reminds me that I am an old man.
SHEME: So, you don’t think about death?
EKWENSI: No. But if it comes, we move. One of my sons was killed by the Army last year. He was only thirty-something.
SHEME: I am sorry about your son. Now, when should we expect a novel from you?
EKWENSI: Either at the end of this year (1999) or at the beginning of next year.
SHEME: That means it has already been written.
EKWENSI: Oh, yes!
SHEME: Do you still speak Hausa?
EKWENSI: Ina ji kadan-kadan!
SHEME: Can you sustain a conversation?
EKWENSI: Mu taba mu ji! (general laughter) Lokacin da an ba ni ciyaman na Federal Radio Corporation, na je Kaduna, sun ce in yi broadcast da Hausa. Na ce masu na dade na bar kasar Hausawa, to menene kuma zai sa in yi magana da Hausa? In soma jin kunya wai ban fadi gaskiya ba?
SHEME: What do you think about literature in the Nigerian languages?
EKWENSI: It all depends on the attitude of Nigerians. There are some, like my Igbo people, who have this arrogance that if you read Igbo you are a bush man. Why should they bother themselves reading in Igbo? There was a time I started an Igbo newspaper. Nobody wrote to us.
SHEME: Apart from that, did you try to write literature in Igbo?
EKWENSI: I did. At the beginning. I wrote folk tales – tales of praying mantis and so on. The editors at that time – it was the colonial era – insisted on a particular type of Igbo in which they printed. So if you didn’t write in that Igbo, you got nowhere. So I gave up. Why should a white man be teaching me how to write in my own language?
SHEME: Recently, I read in The Guardian that you’re planning to go into film production. Which film is that?
EKWENSI: It’s based on one of my books called Motherless Babies. This is the story of a teenage girl who got pregnant and abandoned the child where somebody will pick it up. Somebody does pick it up. Later, she gets married and can’t get a child. She wants to go back and get that baby.
SHEME: Is it going to be one of those home videos now in vogue or a celluloid production?
EKWENSI: Home video.
SHEME: You are one of very few successful Nigerian writers who decided to remain in the country and not go on exile. Why didn’t you go?
EKWENSI: What a very stupid thing to do! Where am I running to, ehn? Look, let me tell you something – and I hope those living abroad will read it: apart from the idea of political asylum, I wouldn’t live in America for anything. Government talks a lot about human rights and so on. If you want to guage the human rights situation in any country, just look at the way its policemen arrest, detain, or harass people. Secondly, I can never have a house in America, have a compound, have a house-boy washing my car and my shoes. I can never live as a king in America. Even though I am a poor man, I live in Nigeria as a king. You will be surprised, but you’re living in Nigeria as a king! So why should I go and live in America? Zik tried to live in England, he couldn’t. Babangida tried to live in Saudi Arabia, he couldn’t. I can go out to Surulere to buy kamu da daddare (night pap). I just go to the woman making the kamu, give her N5 and go and make it in my room or call my boy to do it for me. You are really, honestly, free! And I can be a president in this country or a commissioner. I cannot be a commissioner in America. I cannot even enter the local council. They have a heavy dose of discrimination. You never see it really happening until it’s happening, then you’d almost cry. So, why should I leave this country? Why? Look at the heat we get free of charge here; you have to pay for heat there to heat your room.
SHEME: You seem to like living in Nigeria.
EKWENSI: I do. I like living in the real Nigeria, going to the market to buy pepper, groundnuts or any other thing.
SHEME: Yet the Nigerian writers living abroad give the impression that they do enjoy better living conditions there.
EKWENSI: Well, good luck to them! I don’t envy them. Okay, look at what is happening now. In ten or twenty years’ time, there will not be any more Nigerians but what I call Americo-Nigerians. If you listen to our FM stations, the way they speak… they speak Americana. They’re not speaking English or Yoruba. Our children go to America and marry Americans. Their spouses prevent them from returning to Nigeria. We lose them – the women and the men. And if they come back, they are arrogant towards their parents. Our culture is going. I hope the Minister of Culture is listening. Government should educate Nigerians on the need to realise that the American culture is not the ultimate, most Godly thing to happen.
* First published under the title, “Ours was a Lucky Generation” in the Weekly Trust of January 7, 2000
1 thought on “I Didn’t Plagiarise Jiki Magayi – Cyprian Ekwensi”
I must confess I’m impressed reading this.
Thank you sir.
Ekwensi built my childhood fantasy in literature.
It’s nostalgic reading this.