Flora Nwapa: Mother of Modern African Literature
Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwakuche–Nwapa (January 13, 1931 – October 16, 1993), best known as Flora Nwapa, was a Nigerian author who has been called the mother of modern African literature.
The forerunner to a generation of African women writers, she is acknowledged as the first African woman novelist to be published in the English language in Britain and achieve international recognition, with her first novel Efuru being published in 1966 by Heinemann Educational Books. She is best known for recreating life and traditions from an Igbo woman’s viewpoint.
Early Life and Education
Nwapa was born on January 13, 1931 in Oguta, present day, Imo State, into a wealthy and influential family of Christopher Ijoma Nwapa (a landowner and managing director of a British palm oil exporting company) and Martha Onyenma Onumonu Nwapa (a schoolteacher). She was the first daughter of six children.
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.
Nwapa attended C.M.S Central School, Oguta, Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls School, Elenlenwa, Rivers State and Queens College, Yaba, Lagos. She studied English, History and Geography at University College, Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan) from 1953 to 1957. While there, she was president of the Queen’s Hall and met the Queen of England, Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, during their visit to Nigeria in 1956.
In 1958, Nwapa attended the University of Edinburgh where she obtained a Diploma in Education.
Family and Career
After returning from Scotland, she became an Education Officer in Calabar. In 1959, she became a Geography and English teacher at Queen’s School, Enugu. From 1962 to 1967, she held the position of assistant registrar at the University of Lagos.
When the Nigerian Civil War broke out in 1967, she left Lagos with her family and, like many members of the Igbo elite, returned to the Eastern Region.
Nwapa married Chief Gogo Nwakuche, a businessman with whom she had three children; daughter Ejine (b. 1959), son Uzoma (b. 1969) and daughter Amede (b. 1971).
Nwapa is also known for her governmental work in reconstruction after the Nigerian Civil War. She served as Minister for Health and Social Welfare for the East Central State (which now comprises Imo, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi and Abia States) from 1970 to 1971—the first female minister of the region. In this role, she found homes for two thousand war orphans. She also served as Commissioner for Lands, Survey and Urban Development from 1971 to 1974.
Nwapa made her literary debut with the novel Efuru, which is based on an old folktale about a woman chosen by the sea goddess to be her worshipper. The book, which she began in 1962, was the first novel published by a Nigerian woman in English and challenged traditional portrayals of women. The central character, Efuru refuses to resign to fate and tradition because of the challenges she faces from her two marriages, demonstrating that a woman can survive with or without a man in her life.
The novel was published in 1966 by Heinemann Educational Books as part of the African Writers Series after consultation with her good friend Chinua Achebe, who edited the series. A year earlier, she had been made the secretary of the Society of Nigerian Authors (now the Association of Nigerian Authors – ANA), of which Achebe was the president.
Nwapa’s second novel, Idu (1970), is a story about a woman whose life is bound up with that of her husband. When he dies, she chooses to seek him out in the land of the dead rather than live without him.
The war novel, Never Again (1975), which was her third book, drew its material from the Nigerian Civil War.
Over the course of twenty-seven years, Nwapa published six novels, nine children’s books, three plays, two collections of short stories, a book of poems and innumerable essays.
Some of these works include, One is Enough (1981), This is Lagos and Other Stories (1971), Cassava Song and Rice Song (1986), Wives at War and Other Stories (1980), Driver’s Guard (1972), Mammywater (1979), Journey to Space (1980), The Adventures of Deke (1980), and Women Are Different (1986).
At the time of her death, Nwapa had completed The Lake Goddess, her final novel, and had entrusted the manuscript to a friend. It was published posthumously in 1995.
Efuru: A Review
Efuru is an eponymous book about a young woman and is set in the Igbo rural community in Nigeria.
The story’s protagonist, Efuru, is the daughter of Nwasike Ogene, a respected and celebrated man in the tribe. Efuru falls in love with a poor farmer, Adizua, and elopes with him because he doesn’t have the resources to meet traditional wedding requirements.
As the story progresses, we see how Efuru supports her husband financially, rejecting the idea of helping him on the farm and deciding to be a trader instead. Her influence on her husband is strong enough to make him forsake his farming tools and join her in trading.
Efuru and Adizua have a daughter but he soon abandons her, just as his own father did in the past. After Efuru loses her daughter to the cold hands of death, she finds out that Adizua has married another woman and had a child with her. Her in-laws try to convince her to remain in their marital home but she refuses and decides to go look for him. After failing to find him, she decides to go back to her father’s house. He receives her with joy because she can care for him better than anyone else.
Later, Efuru meets an educated young man in her age group called Gilbert. They get married, this time following the traditions of the land. For a while, their marriage is a happy one, Gilbert and Efuru do business together as equal partners. However, things start to get bitter when Efuru is unable to conceive any children.
Efuru is chosen by Uhamiri, the goddess of the lake, to become one of her worshippers; Uhamiri was known to offer her worshippers wealth and beauty, but very few children. Her second marriage eventually fails as her husband starts to treat her badly and favour his two other wives.
When Efuru was released, it received a lot of criticism, most of which was targeted at Nwapa’s “weak writing” and “inauthentic story.” Nevertheless, Efuru has over time become an icon of literature, inspiring many African women and granting Flora Nwapa the title of “mother of modern African literature.”
About the book, Efuru, everything about Nwapa screamed ‘feminist’, everything but her own words, where she considered herself as a “womanist” rather than a “feminist” in the Western sense.
Honours and Awards
In 1983, the Alhaji Shehu Shagari-led Nigerian government bestowed on her the OON (Officer of the Order of Niger), one of the country’s highest honours.
She received the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) Merit Award for Authorship and Publishing at the 1985 Ife Book Fair.
In 1989, she was appointed Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Maiduguri in Borno State; a position she held until her death. She was a member of the PEN International committee in 1991 and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes committee in 1992.
In 1978, she was awarded the highest chieftaincy title (Ogbuefi—killer of cow) in her hometown, Oguta.
Death and Legacy
On October 16, 1993, Nwapa died of pneumonia at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu and was laid to rest in her hometown of Oguta, the place which inspired much of her writing. She was 62 and was survived by her mother, husband, two daughters (both attorneys), and one son (also an attorney).
Apart from writing books, Nwapa, with the help of her husband, established herself as a publisher by launching Tana Press in 1974 after becoming dissatisfied with her publisher. The company, which published adult fiction, was the first indigenous publishing house owned by a black African woman in West Africa. Between 1979 and 1981 she had published eight volumes of adult fiction.
Nwapa set up also another publishing company, Flora Nwapa and Co. in 1977, which specialised in children’s fiction. With these books, she combined elements of Nigerian culture with general moral and ethical teachings.
She also encouraged other women with her own example to break the traditional female roles of wife and mother and to strive for equality in society through entrepreneurship.
The late Nigerian-Ogoni environmentalist, writer and activist, Kenule “Ken” Saro-Wiwa (1941—1995), in paying tribute to her at the funeral said, “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.”
Unbowed! Unbent! Unbroken! A Perfect Gentleman…