Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi (eh-KWEHN-see) has an important but controversial place in contemporary Nigerian English-language literature. He was one of the first authors to publish a new type of national literature, one that employed English rather than a Nigerian mother tongue. This phenomenon later spread to numerous other African countries. In Nigeria, the early 1950’s saw the development of a major local literature that soon achieved worldwide distinction. In particular, novelist Chinua Achebe and Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Wole Soyinka earned an international acclaim that ranked them among the great twentieth century authors. To understand why Ekwensi has not received similar respect one must look to the historical background, which requires brief comment on the status of English in independent Nigeria.
Under the colonial administration, English became the official national language of the multilingual state, a lingua franca that was the regular medium of school instruction and the second language of its citizens. In practice the quality of the English used ranged from a full pidgin to the highly competent English of the university educated, which retained only minor peculiarities of local usage. As the most populous African country, Nigeria educated its citizens to varying degrees of English linguistic ability. Now literate, they sought reading materials that were not available in their own languages but only in English. The range of publications resulting to fulfill this need was as extreme as the competence in usage. One type of writing that served this demand was the so-called Onitsha novels. On the somewhat primitive presses located in the town of Onitsha, entrepreneurs crudely printed a large number of story books, about twenty pages long. These cheap products were very popular because they were written in a lively, local English that approximated the idioms spoken by readers. These books depicted the startling and exciting opportunities presented by independence and the decay of the inhibitions imposed by the restrictive tradition. Passionate love stories, tales of city corruption—all concluding on a heavily moralizing note—were eagerly purchased by those who found in their romantic plots a glamorized version of their own expectations.
Because Ekwensi’s work originated from such publications, it is...
(The entire section is 960 words.)