Flora Nwapa, Nigeria’s First Female Novelist
Atimes, I wonder how my childhood would have been without the African Writers Series. Without the legendary books of the sages. Without the profound writings of Africa’s brightest minds. I can’t even imagine it. One of such dazzling writers is a woman so towering in intellect and wisdom that her people conferred upon her a title traditionally set aside for men who have greatly distinguished themselves.
She was made the Ogbuefi (The Cow Killer) in 1978, not a small achievement in the paternalistic societies of Africa where some men look upon women as objects of ridicule and subjugation. But with Flora Nwapa, even men doffed their feathered hats and gave her the salutes she truly deserves. The woman of substance carved a niche for herself, and like everyone else who knows where he or she is going, the world made a way for her. Ladies and gentlemen, Abiyamo presents to you, Ogbuefi Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa-Nwakuche, Officer of the Order of the Niger.
-Nigeria’s first female novelist and the first female novelist in the English Language in all of black Africa to be published internationally, Flora Nwapa was born in January, 1931 in Oguta (or Ugwuta), a city situated on east of the majestically beautiful Oguta Lake in Imo State, southeastern Nigeria. (Oguta is also the home of Dr. Alban (Alban Uzoma Nwapa)(Nigerian-born Swedish musician), his cousin, Charly Boy (Charles Chukwuemeka Oputa, you all know him) and Senator Arthur Nzeribe, yeah, you know him too).
-First of six children, her parents were Mr. Christopher Ijeoma (an agent with the United Africa Company) and Mrs. Martha Nwapa, a teacher (she taught drama) in Oguta, then under the subjugation of British colonial masters but were relatively wealthy & influential. Her maternal grandma nourished her with tales and stories (do you still narrate those lovely stories to your children? Oh, sorry, I just remembered you are too busy for such abominations and inanities) while her uncle whipped up her talents and skills by introducing her to classic English literature of George Bernard Shaw and the rest. While also growing up, she listened attentively to the stories exchanged by customers in her mother’s sewing shop. A darling daughter, she later wrote a wonderful biography for them, titled The Golden Wedding Jubilee of Chief and Mrs. C. I. Nwapa in April 1980. Her parents got married on the 20th of April, 1930. Flora attended Ugwuta CMS Central School, Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls’ School, Elelenwo, Rivers State, CMS Girls’ School, Lagos and the prestigious Queens College, Yaba, Lagos (QC babes no go let us rest now…lol) from 1951-1952, then proceeded to the University of Ibadan (then University College, Ibadan) in 1953 where she finished with a bachelor degree in arts (BA) in 1957. Still thirsty for more, she went to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and finished with an education diploma in 1958.
-Justifiably referred to as the mother of modern African literature, Flora Nwapa would come back to Nigeria in 1959 and put her knowledge to good use in Calabar, Cross River State as an education officer. From there, she went to the Queen’s School, Enugu where she was a teacher of geography and English (two of my best subjects…lol!). By 1962, she was made the Assistant Registrar at the University of Lagos (Public Relations) and was in that position till 1964.
-Then the madness came. Nigerians lost their sense of brotherhood and killed one another with reckless abandon (I am not sure we have regained it with the absolutely needless ethnic chauvinism, tribal jingoism and parochial politics all over the place today). The Nigerian Civil War broke out and by the time the carnage ended, a million people lay dead (some records indicate far higher). Nwapa and her family had no option but to flee Lagos for the southeast. But a true mother that she was, she did not remain idle and watch people die, she became the first female Minister (also called Commissioner or State Secretary then) of Health and Social Welfare for what was then the East Central State (now Anambra, Enugu, Abia, Ebonyi and Imo states) from 1970 to 1971, East Central State bore most of the brunt of the bombing and destruction of the war.
During this time, she worked assiduously to reunite lost children with their families displaced and also to provide adequate shelter for 2,000 kids orphaned by one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts. This was one of her many tasks, rehabilitating refugees was another (she focused on orphans and refugees). (I ask, are we still not refugees in our own land today?) Well, within one year, she was able to successfully reunite all the refugee children with their families. An indefatigable woman, she painstakingly did the tracing of individual families on an immense scale. To appreciate her efforts, just imagine reuniting thousands of children with their families and relatives across Nigeria at a time when there was no Internet or GSM. And she did it, within 12 months. #Abiyamo.
-With the war over and satisfied with reuniting her refugee children with their families, Mrs. Nwakuche was made the Commissioner for Lands, Survey and Urban Development (and later to the Ministry of Establishments) from 1971 to 1975. Unlike many of the public servants (serving their own pockets), crooks and crickets that we have in high places today, she performed excellently and left a clean record. The government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari crowned her efforts and garlanded her with the sixth highest national honour in the Federal Republic, the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in 1983. University of Ibadan had also gave her the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1982. But that was not all: in 1985, she received the Merit Award for Authorship and Publishing at the Ife Book Fair of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) while she also received a Certificate of Participation, Iowa University School of Letters International Writing Programme (1984). Also, as well as being a distinguished member of PEN International and the Commonwealth Writer’s Awards committee, she was also the President of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). In 1989, she was made a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Maiduguri and remained so till her death (the same university that had to be shut down not too long ago because of Boko Haram. #smh4Naija).
-What launched Nwapa to global fame was not even her exploits and reconstruction efforts during and after the Civil War but her incredibly sublime skills of writing. In the year 1966, Heinmann Educational Books Limited published her first book. Titled Efuru (if you have not read this book, you are on a looooooong thing), the novel made her the first woman in sub-Saharan Africa to be published in English Language. She did not stop at that, she also became the very first woman in Africa to publish novels all by herself when she established Tana Press (she called it thus as she fell in love with the River Tana in Tanzania, East Africa).
She was not too impressed with the way Heinmann was handling the publicity and distribution of her works, and decided to take the bull by the horns (she was surely not made Ogbuefi for nothing). She founded her own press, Tana Press Limited and in 1977, Flora Nwapa Books. It was through these two publishing houses that she released the remaining of her books. She fell out with her publisher who regarded her as a ‘minor writer’ from the ‘Third World’ and refused to give her books the much-needed coverage, like it was to books of writers from the so-called ‘First World’. Upon forming her own press, she declared that she wished to:” . . .inform and educate women all over the world, about the role of women in Nigeria, their economic independence, their relationship with their husbands and children, their traditional beliefs and their status in the community as a whole.” And that she also promised to continue writing for kids, with one more task: ‘to write for European, American and Asian children about African children.”
-In 1975, the highly-cerebral writer fired another novel, it was called Idu. And thenNever Again in the same year, One is Enough (1981) and Women are Different in 1986. Her other works include short stories and poems: My Spoons Are Finished(1967), Idu (1968), The Campaigner (1971), This is Lagos & Other Stories (1971),Cassava Song and Rice Song (1986) and Wives at War & Other Stories (1980). She also penned some of the most outstanding children’s books out there: Emeka, Driver’s Guard (1972), My Animal Colouring Book, My Tana Colouring Book, Mammywaterall in 1979, Journey to Space, The Miracle Kittens and The Adventures of Deke, all published in 1980, My Tana Alphabet Book and My Animal Number Book in 1981. She also wrote plays and essays: The First Play, Two Women in Conversation, The Saycophants all in 1993 and an essay, Nigeria-The Woman as a Writer (1985).
Before her death, she completed The Lake Goddess but was not able to publish it, a task that would later be carried out by Africa World Press in 1995. She had entrusted the piece to Chester Mills, a Jamaican professor. In addition to these, she wrote countless essays. In her interview with Marie Umeh, she says: -“When I do write about women in Nigeria, in Africa, I try to paint a positive picture about women because there are many women who are very, very positive in their thinking, who are very, very independent and very, very industrious”.
-However, not at one time did she resign from her work as an educator. She continued to teach across the globe. She taught at Trinity College, New York University, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota and University of Ilorin.
-Interestingly, she never saw herself as a feminist but preferred to be described as a ‘womanist’, based on the writings of Alice Walker, American writer. In her books, she projected women as self-reliant and hardworking. She also gave a superb rendition of the other sides of women such as gossip, and in one of her books, Idu, she pointed this out: ‘you know, women’s conversation never ends’ (Page 97). She also emphasized the importance of women in African marriages, on page 150 of the same book, she writes: ‘…what we are praying for is children. What else do we want if we have children’. However, she tactically fought the maltreatment of childless married women, a practice still rampant as you are reading this. And for her, something was psychologically wrong with people who see children as everything, keep breeding them and yet, neglect to take care of them, like the despicable Oguagara in her book with 15 wives. In Idu, some of the points she raised were not well-received by male readers, many of whom felt she was promoting female rebelliousness. She was married to Chief Gogo Nwakuche, with whom she had three children.
Even though, she stuck to her maiden name as a professional writer, people in the community referred to as Mrs. Nwakuche. For some, using her maiden name just shows her resilience and sense of independence as an Oguta woman while some others felt it was a ‘pro-feminist’ thing, and some others felt, she was just living up to her role as an ada, the first daughter of her father. Nwakuche would later go on to marry younger women after she had helped him become a successful businessman but she remained his first and most senior wife. The interesting twist here is that Nwapa had glowingly written about young ladies going for married men. Idu remains one of her most controversial works, in it, a lover chose to die with her husband even if that was shocking to the society. In the book, Idu says: “‘Who will I live with? Who will be my husband, the father of my only son? Who will talk to me at night?’”. Idu declares, “‘I am going with my husband. Both of us will go there, to the land of the dead. So, Adiwere, my husband, wait for me after you have crossed the stream. I am coming to meet you there, and we shall continue our lives there. It will even be better there’”. But that said, her books are loaded with a lot of valuable moral lessons.
-Soft-spoken Flora Nwapa felt male African writers were not doing enough justice to the portrayal of the African woman. Chinua Achebe said to have referred to women as ‘carrying fufu and soup to men discussing important matter’ in the words of Yemi Ogunyemi. Cyprian Ekwensi was even worse, as he showed women as prostitutes in his work, Jagua Nana. She told Wole Soyinka and Ayi Kwei Armah that their portrayals were derogatory and not befitting. Then she wrote books to correct this anomaly. She says: “From my childhood I lived among very strong women… all this influenced my writing and that is why I project women as great achievers. I did not see women as second-class citizens.”
-Interestingly, one of those who gave her undiluted support was one of Africa’s finest writers and the master storyteller himself, Albert Chínụ̀álụmọ̀gụ̀ Àchèbé. In 1965, he was the President of the Society of Nigerian authors while she was the secretary. She finished the manuscript of her first novel, gave him and he went through it. He loved what he read, gave it a title and returned it to her with one guinea for her to send to Heinemann in London for publication.
-A stout defender of women, she encouraged her sons to help out with the household chores, especially when she had to combine her role as a cabinet minister, writer, teacher, mother and wife. However, her mother-in-law, a woman steeped in tradition of a male-dominated society did not find this funny, and was horrified that a man, her grandson, would work in the kitchen! The young man replied that since their cook was also a man, there was no reason for him not to do the same.
-Although a mother and wife herself, she noted: “Marriage is not the end of the world, childlessness is not the end of the world. You must survive one way or another, and there are a hundred and one things to make you happy apart from marriage and children.”
-In 1993, after a tour of the United States of America (she never stayed in the US or UK for extended periods), death would snatch her away with his icy fingers. She was admitted at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu. On the 16th of October, she surrendered to pneumonia, an inflammatory condition of the lungs caused by bacteria and viruses. She was just 62 when she died, survived by her husband, son and siblings. She had planned to write a sequel to Efuru, (to be titled,Efuru In Her Glory) the book was to explore the spiritual power of women in the society but that was not to be. Today, she rests on at Amede’s Court, Oguta beside the serene lake that inspired one of the world’s finest writings. During her lifetime, she showed glowing appreciation to her kith and kin, and others in her local community, who told her very interesting tales and stories, one of which was about the divine powers of Ogbuide, the Queen of Women and the barren Mother Goddess of the blue Oguta Lake, whom she immortalized in her books as Uhamiri. Nigeria’s ‘first lady of letters’, she also saluted all hardworking men and women in the community, she referred to them as her role models. I say, she is surely one too.
-At her funeral, the late environmentalist, great writer and activist, Kenule Saro-Wiwa said of her: “Flora is gone and we all have to say adieu. But she left behind an indelible mark. No one will ever write about Nigerian literature in English without mentioning her. She will always be the departure point for female writing in Africa. And African publishing will forever owe her a debt. But above all, her contribution to the development of women in Nigeria, nay in Africa, and throughout the world is what she will be best remembered for.”
-Flora Nwapa in her own words: ‘I write because I want to write. I write because I have a story to tell. There is this urge always to write and put things down. I do not presume that I have a mission. If you continue to read my books, maybe you could find the mission. But I continue to write because I feel fulfilled. I feel satisfied in what I’m doing.’ She also divorces herself from any of the heroines she has written about: “None! I am not like Efuru, neither am I like Idu, neither am I Amaka in any way.” Few months before her demise, she said: . . .The African Woman is intelligent, beautiful, hardworking and everything an ideal woman should be. . . She has great independence of spirit. In her interview with Nwapa, Marie Umeh recalls:
Nwapa: . . . I feel that every woman, married or single, must have economic independence.
If you look at One is Enough, I quote a Hausa proverb which says ‘a woman who
holds her husband as a father dies an orphan’.
Umeh: My interpretation of the proverb is that a woman should be economically
independent. One should not rely on inheritance or men for survival?
(Today! Na so so aristos and Blackberrys….lol! The concept of economic independence is alien to many ladies nowadays. Some actively seek out alhajis, magas and mugus to suck dry. Shooo! When you no be female anopheles mosquito…lol! )
-Although she is long gone, Flora Nwapa is still a source of inspiration for many Nigerian writers today, one of which is the highly-gifted Buchi Emecheta, the author of The Joys of Motherhood. Emecheta (who calls herself ‘Nwapa’s new sister’) says of her: “As a young girl, I virtually devoured all the books I could lay my hands on written by women, whilst nurturing the hope of writing one, one day. When I came to England, borrowed a copy of Efuru from my local library, and read and re-read it, my mind was made up. Since [Nwapa] had written this, I could start writing as well. [She] became my model… During this time, I was going through hell (In the Ditch) and came across Idu. Then I started writing in earnest. When my first book was burned by my husband, I did not give up. Flora Nwapa could do it, so could I.”
Same goes for another female writer, Chika Unigwe, the Belgium-based Nigerian writer who won the $100,000 (but didn’t know absolutely what to do with it) 2012 NLNG Nigerian Prize for Literature for her novel about Nigerian prostitutes in Belgium; ‘On Black Sisters Street’ …The first time I knew I wanted to be a writer, I was in primary school. My classmate was the daughter of Flora Nwapa, the first African woman to be published in the United Kingdom. If I am honest, I’d say that they were all books by Enid Blyton – the Magic Faraway Tree, the Enchanted Forest and so on. They were all books with white children who sat on wishing chairs and went to fairs and grandmothers with jolly faces baking cakes. It made me yearn for their lives….So when Flora bustled into our class one day with children’s books she had written and published and distributed it to us to keep us occupied while she had a chat with our teacher – it was magical. The children in the book had adventures I could identify with. They had kinky hair and brown skin. Their grandmothers did not bake but told them stories. The imaginary landscape I shared with them was more familiar, more intimate and therefore much more profound. She displaced Enid Blyton making her the foreign aunt I visited who I never wanted to imitate again. I fell in love with Flora Nwapa and wanted to be everything that she embodied. I also felt free for the first time. Free to write about children like me, who ate bananas and groundnut and skipped rope. She opened my eyes to those possibilities. For the first time, I was not afraid to meet my characters.
-Some universities in the United States such as the Oberlin College and the Southern Connecticut State College have included her books in their curricula.
-In her memory, an international tribute was organized in faraway United States by the Flora Nwapa Society cofounded by a distinguished professor of English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the of the University of New York (CUNY), Dr. Marie Linton Umeh (her biographer). Dr. Umeh also wrote the book, Flora Nwapa -A Pen and A Press. On the eve of the International Women’s Day and to commemorate the Women’s History Month in 2011, the tribute was made in her honour.
-The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)/Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Flora Nwapa Prize for Literature (Best Female Writing) has been named in her honour (NTA Girl, Eugenia Abu won it in 2008). Same goes for the Flora Nwapa Awards in New York, USA and the Flora Nwapa Society (New York, USA) is also working brilliantly to keep her memory alive. Now, that’s one outstanding Abiyamo.
Thanks so much for your time, and I happy to announce that Abiyamo now has over 12,000 fans on Facebook. We are very grateful to our fans, readers and viewers for their incredible support in such a very short time. To you all, I dedicate this evergreen song my Sister sent to me yesterday. It is titled ‘Nigeria, My Beloved Country’. Singer? Funmi.