Saturday, March 7, 2009

Encyclopedia of World Biography on Cyprian Ekwensi

Cyprian Ekwensi (born 1921) 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 lbadan, 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. Ekwensi 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 at Enugu. He became chair of the Bureau for External Publicity in Biafra and an adviser to the head of state, Col. 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.

Ekwensi's 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 personalized 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). Ekwensi 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 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.

This is the complete article, containing 557 words (approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page).

Between stints as a teacher, forester, pharmacist, broadcaster and film-maker, the west African novelist Cyprian Ekwensi, who has died aged 86, published more than 40 books as well as radio and television scripts. His first novel, People of the City (1954), appearing four years before Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, was the first Nigerian work to gain international acclaim and the first Nigerian novel to be published in Britain. Jagua Nana (1961) won Ekwensi the 1968 Dag Hammarskjöld prize in literature.

People of the City tells the story of a young crime reporter who doubles as a bandleader in a large west African city. As one British critic wrote, the novel said more about west Africa than 50 government reports. However, Ireland banned the novel on the grounds of indecency. Controversy was to dog Ekwensi's literary career.

Of Igbo extraction, he was born in Minna, in west central Nigeria. His father, David Anadumaka, a famed storyteller and elephant hunter, inspired him towards creative writing. Ekwensi was a brilliant, gregarious pupil at boarding school - Government college, Ibadan - and became engrossed in Yoruba culture. His school life and multi-ethnic upbringing were to be reflected in his work. After stints at various Nigerian and Ghanaian colleges, he worked as a forestry officer (1945-47).

In that wild and lonely environment, he began writing short adventure stories, some of which were published in 1947 as Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales. The same year, five of his works were published in England by Lutterworth Press as part of its African new writing series. Another collection of light romance stories came out in 1948 from an Onitsha publisher in Nigeria. In 1949, Ekwensi began to read his stories on the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation while also writing for several Lagos newspapers.

Two years later, he won a scholarship to study pharmacy at London University. He said that it was while he was on the ship to England that he began to assemble People of the City. Working as a pharmacy assistant at Oldchurch hospital, Romford, Essex, he wrote plays that were broadcast by the BBC. He also recorded a voiceover for Man of Africa (1953), which featured at the 1954 Venice film festival. Ekwensi's film scripts included Nigeria Greets the Queen, marking her first visit to Nigeria in 1956.

On his return to Nigeria that year, he worked for the broadcasting corporation, becoming director of information in 1961. Two children's novellas, The Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Illia, were published in 1960 and the novel Jagua Nana and the equally successful collection of vignettes, Burning Grass, in 1961. From 1961 to 1966, Ekwensi published at least one major work each year. Jagua Nana, the story of a high-class Lagos prostitute, was vehemently attacked by the Catholic and Anglican churches for its sexually explicit language and was banned in several schools. An application to film the book was rejected by the Nigerian parliament - but then came the Dag Hammarskjöld prize.

When the Nigerian civil war broke out in 1966, Ekwensi became an adviser to secessionist leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, chairing Biafra's external publicity bureau. After the war, he resumed his literary and pharmaceutical career. He helped form the Association of Nigerian Authors in 1981, and in 2001, was made a member of the Order of the Federal Republic. Four years later, he was inducted into the Nigerian Academy of Arts.

"Five decades or more of writing have brought me world fame but not fortune," he said. "If I were an American living in America or Europe, I would be floating in a foam bath in my own private yacht off the coast of Florida." Lately, he had been working on his biography. He is survived by Chinwe, his wife, and their nine children.

· Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi, writer and pharmacist, born September 26 1921; died November 4 2007
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