Hausa-Igbo… Nzekwu’s vision of a binding North-South Nigerian Union
Chief Onuorah Nzekwu, co-author of Eze Goes to School, died at 89. He will be buried this week in his country home in Onitsha. But before Nigeria ruins itself again, here is Nzekwu’s vision of a true believer in the country as set out his last fiction work, Troubled Dust.
In Troubled Dust, Nzekwu makes a metaphor of marriage, using it to symbolise the Nigerian nation’s need to stick together, whatever betides the union. It is the story of mutual exchanges in problem-solving that hardens into an enduring cross-cultural friendship and relationships. It is the story of Mr. Joshua Nwite, an Igbo railway worker and hunter in Kano, northern Nigeria, who helps to solve on request, Alhaji Garba Lamin’s wild animal invasion of his crop farm by hunting down the invaders, in exchange for some requested farmland initially, and later the higher exchange whereby Garba, a Hausa/Fulani assists Nwite in solving his wife’s bareness by taking him and his wife to consult his seer aunt who confirms that the waiting will last thirteen uninterrupted years. And within the waiting period, he offers his willing girl-child Mero, to the Nwite to foster so long as she goes through Koranic schooling and not infused with crazy revolutionary ideas.
In return, the Nwites train Mero from primary school through university in Igbo land, where she reads history and later falls in love with, and marries Professor Richard Umaji Okenjom, a renowned physicist. It is in this type of mutually benefiting relationship that Nzekwu roots the hope of a better relationship among Nigeria’s federating parts.
These relationships are rigorously tested by the crisis preceding the Nigeria-Biafra war, and the war itself. Surviving the different wars of identity and acceptance and having the stamina to withstand all of these assaults by the abiding love that sustains Mero’s social ties and marriage to the point of indivisibility are ways by which Nzekwu seeks to settle the troubled dust that is often raised within the Nigeria union.
In the true and time-tested, crisis-rocked and death-resistant friendships between Mero’s father, Alhaji Galadima Lamin, her foster father, Mr. Nwite; Alhaji Galadima and Bala that outlasted the raging and engulfing fires of tribalism and politics, we see the kind of cross-cultural relationships and the type of citizenship that Nzekwu prescribes for a better Nigeria.
And among friends of the same culture, we see the honest tooth and gum close friendship between the Okenjoms and the Ajies as they stick together through the war in all of its compelling movements from threats to life without needless conflicts or adultery of any kind. Though one thinks that some almost overcoming sexual temptation should have made it a bit more believable. Implicit in the much tried but sustained cross-cultural marriage between Mero and Prof. Okenjom is the indivisibility of Nigeria. A point Mero keeps underscoring with the saying: ‘’a wife’s place is beside her husband.’’
Troubled Dust opens in 1966, with a letter that arrives all the way from Kano through Andrew Afokansi, himself decimated to penury by its reprisal coup crisis, announcing the death of Ogbuefi Joshua Nwite and his entire family save his wife and foster child, Mero, who are in his Obodoani village in Igbo land, and his only son, Enenia, who narrowly escapes the mob attack on his family by the share luck of being on a football field in Kano. He is kept away and taken care of by his father’s Hausa friend, Bala in league with Alhaji Galadima, Mero’s dad.
This information suddenly changes and threatens Mero’s secure status among a people she has so well embraced and who have accepted her as their own. The rest of the story is all about how she struggles to retain her relationships amidst the hostile and cultural differences as Hausa/Igbo by breeding, marriage, friendship and social ties, resisting the conversion attempts from both sides of the warring divide as she retains her common humanity and healthy Nigerianness and Biafra sympathy inside Biafra; is all the story is about.
Her fidelity to her husband while he is whisked away, her fidelity to a just Nigeria and Biafra, fidelity to her social ties and to a fair treatment of issues and individuals are the broad but related layers of stories told through her, and woven into her character in this tale of war and the things it seeks to destroy, indestructibly.
Whilst praising the Mrs. Remi Oyo-led transformative state of things here at the News Agency of Nigeria beyond familiar recognition, an agency pioneered by the man for whom we are here gathered and hosted by her, this historical novel on the Nigeria-Biafra war, Troubled Dust, which has now just chosen to arrive published years after it was written, at the passing on of the major human force of the episode, Dim Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, whose Lagos version of his burial is ironically happening at the same time as this book launch.
It naturally supposes that one dedicates this review to a most misunderstood and so misjudged and mistreated Nigerian, who was forcibly made to temporarily sever himself and his own from a country he loved so much, he signed up his death warrant by the very act of enlisting in her army at a time when he was well beyond it by the judgment of the time, owing to his rare, Masters of the Arts’ Oxford education in History.
This done, ladies and gentlemen, allow me now to introduce to you another case of injustice in the field of a bloodless war, the field of writing where the blood that flows, flows not from the barrel of the gun, but from the barrel of the pen, the real contender, the best of the unsung Nigerian novelists, deliberately neglected in the politics of selection by the Nigerian literati of the academia; the critical megaphone of our citadels of learning that learnt most largely from, and promoted most unevenly its own, paying scant attention to non-academics of the same fold among the lettered.
If there was any non-academic creative writer that they most felt threatened and frightened by, it was and still is, Mr. Onuora Nzekwu for whom we are here assembled. On him they imposed the greatest unnatural silence. If other non-academic creative writers like Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Elechi Amadi and T.M Aluko, to mention some of the dimmed lights of Nigerian and African literature complained of little and unfair critical attention, a different strategy was applied on Onuora Nzekwu, who most threatened their politics of selection, the strongest contender against their favoured ones, whose works very closely competed, not just from coming from a common background of culture, but who also mutually shared the potent power of the finest art of the written word in its most lyrical form.
In picking other novelists and dropping the real contender, they justified the gap they conceived and established existed between their favoured writer and colleague, and those they chose to compare him against. This is what one of them disrespectfully called the Children of Achebe; after some diagnosed ‘’genetic’’ similarities; deliberate and unconscious patterning after his choice of artistic vision and manner of conveyance that largely and happily contested favourably for an African space in the global scheme of things.
But this contender is not a follower, never did follow the same route even with all they shared in common – Igbo roots, geographical neighbours, journalism, teaching, imaginative and language competence, and a white mentorship – Ulli Beier for Chinua Achebe, his university teacher, and Michael Crowther for Onoura Nzekwu, his boss and editor at Nigerian magazine.
When our lead writers first wrote, very few got complimentary critical acclaim from white reviewers and critics of the time. While Mr. Cyprian Ekwensi got a very harsh criticism that could have dried any fountain pen, Mr. T. M Aluko struggled unnervingly hard to even get a preliminary nod of acceptance of his manuscript. The case of Elechi Amadi and how he broke the yoke is not very well known to me. But two Nigerian writers dared to send their works abroad for publishing and got acceptance.
Though Cyprian Ekwensi is the first published Nigerian writer, who later rose beyond the pride and prejudice of critics, conquering children and city literature like no other, the first to get a celebrated acceptance abroad by a publisher and the critical public was Chinua Achebe in 1958.
The other unsung and, therefore unknown hero, is the man we are here gathered to celebrate his historical novel, Troubled Dust, the lead co-author of one of the most popular children’s literature, Eze Goes to School, Nzekwu.
When Chinua Achebe’s novel of African pride, Things Fall Apart arrived in 1958 after many a tortuous route of having to pass the publishing test till it finally tasted the printer’s ink, it announced the birth of an acclaimed work that also gave his generation the inspiration and energy to dare to write and publish at a time when there were very few literate men and women in the English language, and so no viable market. The final authoritative nod that got the work published was from Professor Donald Michael, the educational adviser of Heinemann, who pronounced upon it his eleven words that ended the debate on whether to publish it or not: ‘’This is the best novel I have read since the war.’’ As for Times Literary Supplement, ‘’the novel genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside’’ while ‘’patterns of feeling and attitudes of mind appear clothed in a distinctive imagery written neither up nor down.’’
This early applause that subsequently led to the founding of the African writers series, thus establishing an African market, when Achebe was a broadcaster before the civil war, later moved him into the academia, helped greatly to promote his work at home.
Nzekwu, on the other hand, also hails from the same intimidating Anambra State of great Nigerian sons and daughters. An Onitsha and Igbo, he also shares the same strong sense of cultural and historical documentation of their Igbo worldviews in fact and largely in fiction. Both also got published abroad; in his case, three years after Achebe.
Of his first novel, Wand of Noble Wood, 1961, first published in the U.K. before Signet Book, U.S. published it for its own market, the London Sunday Times says of it: ‘’Subtle, sophisticated, and …funny.’’ But it is in his subsequent novel, Highlife for Lizards, 1965 that Maurice Richardson of New Statesman and Nation pays tribute to his penmanship: “Onuora Nzekwu is a young Nigerian novelist of real promise,” a fact unseen and unsung in Nigeria. Richard continues, “His writing has that quiet flowing quality which makes the congenial story-teller who never allows a situation to stand still. At the same time, he is subtle and oblique and often funny, a natural tragic-comedian.” Of the same novel, Highlife for Lizards, Times Literary Supplement says: “He writes about what he knows and has experienced, and has the power to bring it vividly to the reader’s eye.”
We can only appreciate these lofty appreciations from abroad if we know what the same foreign press and critics said of their older colleagues, Cyprian Ekwensi about whom they thought was ‘’an example of how not to write a novel,” and Amos Tutuola whom they said wrote, “young English.”
But unfortunately, Nzekwu had no local publisher to push his books and make a case for him, and so had no local readers and market, and also no trumpeters from the media or academia to present him to the world of lettered men and women. Worse still, he had no aptitude for self-promotion even with all his journalistic background; nor was he into social engagements and activism to incline media visibility his way. Not even his novel Blade Among the Boys, the story of growing up into adulthood, published 50 years ago this year by Hutchinson, a re-enforcement to his first book published by America’s Signet Book, did it for Nzekwu one year after the first novel; the ill-cast titles might account for this; not even the strategic move of changing his publisher did it either.
Not until 1972 did Heinemann, London, republish this pretty piece of writing on religious conflict and clashes of Islam, Christianity and traditional African religion in an individual, who goes through them all with the extra complication of the social effect of growing up in the city; the city of Lagos. Happily, however, it gained access into the school study text and some recognition among students, but not into profound public acclaim. Like Blades Among the Boys that he was to submit to the common publisher of his day, to make it its 91st after he seemed to have made a clear defiant choice against it, Nzekwu was to also later submit his first novel, Wand of Noble Wood to Heinemann to make him the publisher’s 85th African writer in its series.
A quiet fighter, in 1964, Nzekwu made three strategic moves to come to recovered reckoning. He changed his subject matter, audience and publisher. He moved into writing for children with a better title, Eze Goes to School, which was co-authored with his boss, editor and benefactor, Crowther and published with African Universities Press in 1964. And pronto, that did it! The book succeeded beyond his conception and expectation. It did not only give him a name, it became his name. Today, he is better known as Eze Goes to School than as Onuora Nzekwu. The book’s title has itself become an educational tool, inspiration and manner of speak for every type of return to school, including former governor ‘Orji Uzor Kalu goes to school.’
Trying to climb on the back of this success found in writing for children, Nzekwu the original and lead author and his co-author did some form of brand extensions. Nzekwu the lead author, wrote Eze Goes to College in 1965, while his white co-author, Crowther, went partnering across culture as he moved away from Lagos to Ibadan and Zaria, where he co-wrote Akin Goes to School, and a similar type targeted at the North. These other offspring did not exceed Eze’s fame and fortune, though they have continued to inspire new titles by the same cast of title from other authors till this day.
Having begun his literary career writing for adults with Wand of Noble Woods, 1961, the story of Akunna, a young man’s arduous search for a wife, navigating tradition and modernity as a city journalist; to telling the story of growing up and getting one’s fingers burnt in the process of experimenting in Blade Among the Boys. Here, a young man, Patrick Ikenga quits the seminary for impregnating his boyhood love and returns to his culture that has some accommodation for his misdeed, thus re-embracing it. Along the same marital path mingled with his usual infusion of religion and culture, Nzekwu, in Highlife for Lizards touches on a childless, but happy couple, who permit polygamy for child-bearing purposes, which almost ruins their home. This, however, brings with it the coming of the much-awaited children from the hitherto barren womb arising from the right attitude to bareness.
What is most fascinating about Nzekwu’s works is the way every new work peaks beyond the one before it in mature treatment of theme and technique, sweetened by a sumptuous narrative tone and telling.
In his latest and perhaps his last but certainly his best and most ambitious, coming 47 years after his last novel of 1965, filling and spicing his fictional lacuna with his documentarist non-fictional texts on history and culture – The Chima Dynasty in Onitsha, 1998; and Faith of our Fathers – 2003 on religion, he returns, this time, coupling history and fiction in his abiding theme of marriage, but with a new twist and profundity. Rather than make marriage the governing focus as he does in all his previous adult novels, in Troubled Dust, 2012, his historical novel marking his 84th birthday, post-50th anniversary year as a published writer, and post-50th year of successful marriage to his most supportive and committed wife, Osoenyi Justina Nzekwu, who has had to rise most dutifully to the challenge of being married to a writer.
In sum, Troubled Dust turns ambivalence and ambiguity of stance into an art form, weaving an unclear political stance into a mesh of Igbo bashing and Igbo possibilities; fusing into a war that needs to be fought amidst the futility of a war which could have been avoided or negotiated to an early end but was not; and without necessarily blaming the head of Biafra, whose person and leadership the author accords so much respect as have most other civil war novelists before him.
Similarly, one respects the writer’s masterly use of words and composition of sentences that sing and sit well – and with a lot of lyrical poise. The sentences are as well-measured, as the well-structured chapters in length that allows the reader a good breath and break. So that what it loses in not turning the informative into the evocative to engender a strong emotional telling, empathy and reader buy-in which it loses to a somewhat journalistic accounting, a reader gets in story architecture built with sweet sounding sentences and dialogues.
I predict that Troubled Dust will reclaim for Nzekwu the best of the unsung, his pride of place in African creative letters with or without the critical academic literary politics and politicians. Having settled the Trouble Dust my way, settle yours your way when you buy your copy, finding your meaning.
* Chike Ofili, reviewer and author of Our Unspoken Ties and The Weight of Waiting, delivered this review at the book launch of Troubled Dust in 2012 at News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Lagos