(This article was originally published in Sunday Trust, 31st January, 2010)
By Abubakar A. Ibrahim
It is difficult to imagine what the literary scene in Nigeria would have been like if a certain Flora Nwapa had not graced the arena. She was the first African woman to be published internationally in English and has been described as the mother of women writing in Africa. It is easy to say she is to women writing what Chinua Achebe is to African literature. Like her name implied, she caused flowers to sprout in a barren land.
Women writers who have blossomed in the last five decades, such as Buchi Emecheta, Zainab Alkali, Razinat Mohammad and of recent Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie to mention but a few, have been inspired to flourish by the efforts of Flora Nwapa who died in 1993.
She was born Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa in the village of Oguta, January 18, 1931. The village was then in the eastern region, presently Enugu state. She was the first of six children and her parents, being wealthy and influential, realised that education would secure a better future for their daughter. They probably had no idea she would eventually write herself into the history of African literature.
Her education and career
It was at the height of colonialism, schools were administered by colonial officers and missionaries. The standards were high. Flora Nwapa had her primary and secondary education in Oguta, Elelenwa and Lagos. She later secured admission to the then University College, Ibadan and graduated with a BA in English, History and Geography in 1957. She travelled to the UK and obtained a Diploma in Education from the University of Edinburg, Scotland in 1958.
Her passion for education was legendary and upon her return to Nigeria, she was made the education officer in Calabar that same year. A year later, she proceeded to Queens College, Enugu where she taught for several years. Between 1962 and 1976 she held the position of registrar at the University of Lagos.
She was later made minister of Minister of Health and Social Welfare, East Central State (1970-71) and was charged with finding homes for the civil war orphans. She was later appointed Minister of Lands, Survey and Urban Development (1971-74).
Breaking New grounds
Cover of Nwapa’s landmark novel
In 1966, Flora Nwapa made history as the first African woman to publish in English with the publication of her debut novel, Efuru. She had written the book and sent the manuscript to Chinua Achebe, who was at the time editing the African writers Series. He loved the manuscript and after some editorial suggestions, forwarded it to Heinemann Education Press, publishers of the famed African Writers Series that had given African writers a voice.
Efuru was a landmark achievement. It was the story of Efuru, a local beauty who eloped with her lover for whom she later had a child. But her lover was abusive and later disappeared. She eventually married another man who despite a British education and English name was no different from her first husband. He too later absconded. Having lost her only child, the resourceful Efuru had to cope with two failed marriages and loneliness. She struggled to succeed in business but her greatest desire was to have a child. This led her to submit to local goddesses who gave her everything she had already but nothing she wanted.
It was a success. Flora Nwapa, despite having a strong female lead character insisted she was not feminist. She only wanted to demonstrate the strength of the African woman.
“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,” she had said.
Her second novel, Idu, came in 1970. Riding on the wave of success of the first novel, the second was not so well receive. It was also the story of a woman whose life is bound to her husband’s such that when he died, she preferred to seek for him in the land of the dead than live without him. The novel was compared to Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, but not in Nwapa’s favour.
Boldly going where no woman has gone before
Ultimately, Flora Nwapa was dissatisfied with distribution efforts of the publisher for her two books and courageously decided to venture into publishing herself. She set up Tana press in 1974 which published adult fictions. All her subsequent adult fictions were published by Tana. Between 1979 and 1981 she published eight volumes of adult fictions.
Her passion for children’s’ fiction inspired her to set up another publishing outfit, Flora Nwapa and Co. This published books combining Nigerians elements with general moral and ethical teachings.
Unfortunately, her foray into publishing died with her as the publishing houses she established fizzled out after her.
Death of an icon
Flora Nwapa died on October 16th I993 in Enugu aged 62. She had been married to a business man, Gogo Nwakuche with whom she had three children. Before her death she had been honoured with the traditional title of Ogbuefi by her local community; a title reserved for men of achievement.
At the time of her death, Flora Nwapa had completed a manuscript of The Lake Goddess, her final novel. It focused on the lake goddess, Mammy Water, the eternal spring and mythical inspirer of Nwapa’s fiction. Legends tell that the fairy godmother has her adobe on the bottom of Oguta Lake, near the author’s birthplace.
Her life and achievement is best capture in this eloquent tribute by fellow writer, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa who 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.”
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