Literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum, a great writer once remarked, continuing that it is given impetus by things happening around it. One such thing is the culture of a people. When in the late 1950s and all through the 1960s, African nations began to gain independence, a problem arose: They need to prove their worth to the rest of the world, basically, they need to prove that they were not the barbaric, backward tribes European nations conquered the previous century. There’s a sub-problem, so many countries have so many diverse ethnic groups. Nigeria, for one, has over 250 groups and each one, not just the major ones with Igbo writers, Hausa-Fulani writers, and Yoruba writers, needed to prove themselves to the world.
Looking back, it feels degrading that African nations and peoples needed to prove they were civilized before the white man set his foot on the continent. They didn’t have to, but in those days, racism and ignorance of the European (the kind of ignorance that see a white man claim to have discovered a river that the locals have fished, swam, and drank from for generations before he was thought of).
One good thing about trying to prove something was that Africans ended up driving genuine interest in their culture. The Igbos were not left by the fireside; they were involved and richly so. Here, we chronicled nine Igbo writers who wrote about their people. We began by putting this list in the order to which they were relevant but we gave up in the middle but somehow the list still looks like it was built in a descending form.
P.S: One name you won’t see here is that of Cyprian Ekwensi. While a great writer, his novels were more cosmopolitan in nature as he set stories in pre-colonial Hausaland, in the slums of Lagos, and elsewhere.
Christoper Okigbo would have been placed higher in this list but he didn’t live long enough to have more influence on literature and perpetuate the culture of his people. He died in 1967, killed in the Nsukka sector of the war. By the time of his death, he was 34 and one collection to his name, “Lybarinths, With Paths of Thunder” with dozens of unpublished poetry which later appeared in countless anthologies.
It is hard to make the case for Christopher Okigbo as an exporter of Igbo culture because he wrote poetry which is a subjective genre of literature. It is also hard to dismiss him as a non-exporter of Igbo culture because he wrote poetry that can be interpreted toward that cause.
One of Okigbo’s most known poems is “Heavensgate” where what is arguably his best lines are seen:
“Before you, mother Idoto, naked I stand,
Before your watery presence,
Leaning on an oilbean;
Lost in your legend…”
Even people who can argue that Christopher Okigbo didn’t explicitly push Igbo culture are aware of him being the subjects of numerous discourses, essays, and publications all of which recognize him as an Igbo writer. If this isn’t enough, the fact that he paid the supreme price defending Igboland.
John Mononye wrote, “The Only Son”, “Oil Man of Obange”, “Obi”, “A Wreath For The Maidens”, etc. All these books were snippets in the exportation of Igbo cultures. The only problem for Munonye is that he isn’t well-known nor his books well-read like those of his counterparts. His most popular book is “The Only Son” which tells the story of a widow whose only son she devotes her life to make him a useful man is snapped by the new religion.
“The Only Man” is a good book but suffers from being compared with Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”. These are different books and contributed their share in the selling of Igbo culture to the rest of the world.
You may not have heard of his name,e but he wrote a novel you know about, or should have known about due to its lofty title, “My Mercedez Is Bigger Than Yours”. Set in the 1970s, this story tells about a young man’s obsession with owning a car. This car becomes more than a vehicle, it becomes a symbol of his obsession, his vanity, his aspirations, his growth, and his connection with his hometown.
But it is not this book that did the most to Igbo culture. It is his first novel “Danda” which was published in 1964 and went on to be made into a musical that was performed across the continent and beyond. It was entered in the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.
During the civil war, he contrived his quota by publishing, “Biafra: The Making of a Nation” with Samuel X. Ifekjika.
Chimamanda is most known for her novel “Half of A Yellow Song” which has since been turned into a movie. This book about the Civil War is not just about the history and culture of Igbo people in the 1950s and up to the 1960s. We saw, thanks to this seminal work, Igbos in the 1960s north, Igbos in Lagos, Igbos who with money before the way, and Igbo intellectuals as seen
Chimamanda’s last novel, “Americanah”, also gave us some insights into the life of the Igbos in the early 1970s, 1980s, and even today. Or maybe not us, we may already have awareness as to how Igbos lived in these periods but the outside world may not be aware and it is to them that she sold our culture.
Some of her stories in her short stories collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck” also spoke decibels of Igbo people and culture.
Chukwuemeka is most known for writing “The Potter’s Wheel”, a novel that was set in colonial Eastern Nigeria, at a time when Christianity and education were fully accepted but with a degree of cynicism that set the ground for a powerful story. Written with a witty story-telling style, Ike brought his characters alive, making the audience relive what it was to be a trader, a student, a teacher, and an Ogbanje in 1940s Igboland.
Chukwuemeka Ike also published “Bottled Leopard” a novel that underscores the dualism of mankind. A man can be a normal person at day and a leopard at night and he is no witch. He becomes a leopard when he is invoked to carry out the duties of his people. You don’t understand? Well, you may have to read the book, and even then, you may still have questions. It is okay, it is Igbo culture, it is Igbo science.
Flora Nwapa holds the distinction as the first female novelist in Africa. It wasn’t just for being the best that she is remembered today. She wrote powerful books. “Efuru” published in 1966 took us all on a journey to the pre-colonial Igbo village life. With “Efuru”, we learned how Igbos loved, courted, married, buried the dead, mourned, and worshipped their deities. We saw the enterprising nature of the Igbo people, especially so, the Igbo woman.
While many have read this book as a feminist copy (they are right, the book told the story of a woman and her travails), it is a great book in piping the culture of Ndigbo to the rest of the world. Nwapa’s other books “Idu”, “Emeka, My Driver’s Card”, “Never Again”, and her short stories all contributed their pieces in selling Igbo cultures to the world.
When a Rivers Igbo person says s/he is not Igbo, they raise a problem that would have to do with rewriting history and literature. Elechi Amadi considered himself an Igbo and wrote his novels to tell the story of Riverine Igbos. His novel “The Concubine” tells the story of Igbos’ relationship with their land, their neighbors, their family, their business, and their gods and believe-system.
We saw Ihuoma, a beautiful, favoured woman who is married to a sea-god without her knowledge and cannot have successful unions in real life. A powerful love story is thrown in to make an already strong story complex (and painful).
With “The Great Ponds” (1969), Amadi tells of Igbos responded to the Great Flu that claimed 20 million people worldwide in the 1920s. They thought it was the gods punishing them as they buried people until there are no more spaces to dig nor energy to lower the bodies to the graves. It is also with this book that we saw the art of warfare in Igbo villages of the past.
Even Elechi Amadi’s fighting on the Nigerian side during the war can be forgiven for what he did, on paper, to the culture of his people.
Born in 1944, Buchi Emecheta is one of the strongest writers to come out of Nigeria and arguably the most prolific novelist with more than twenty titles to her name. Her most popular book is “The Joys of Motherhood”, a book about a woman who did everything for her children but ended up dying alone. It is a great disservice to the character of Nnu Ego and the art Emecheta poured into the book to summarize it this way but this whole post may not even do justice to her story. Best to concentrate on the cultural aspect.
We saw the life of strong Igbo people in their hometowns and how they are reduced to mere servants in Lagos. We saw what it takes to raise children in early independent urban Nigeria, intertribal crashes, the connection to home, and the power of reincarnation.
With “Second Class Citizen”, we saw the life of an Igbo woman in England, how she tried to raise all her kids while dealing with a selfish and heartless husband and a racist country.
Other of her books, most especially “The Bride Price”, “The Slave Girl”, and “Destination Biafra” all highlighted an important culture of the Igbos or period of Igbo nationhood.
Buchi Emecheta s from Ibuza in Delta State and had always considered herself an Igbo person. In the beginning, she mentioned that she wrote about Western Igbos which later became Bendel Igbo and now Delta Igbo. Whatever way her person chooses to identify themselves, the fact remains that their story and culture weren’t left untold.
Referred to as the father of modern African literature in many quarters, Chinua Achebe is a force when it comes to the culture of Ndigbo. His book “Things Fall Apart” is the most popular book to come out of Africa. This book has been translated into dozens of languages and read in all quarters of the globe. If a foreigner tells you that they have read just one book about Africa, it is probably “Things Fall Apart”. It is a powerful book ad it is about Igbo culture as it confronts the imperialism of the white man.
“Things Fall Apart” is full of anecdotes, stories, proverbs, sayings, and characters that tell of the civilization, philosophy, and humanity of Igbos. Okonkwo has become a metaphor of many diversifications today and his killing of Ikemefuna has continued to haunt.
While telling of Okonkwo, we learned about Igbo marriages, Igbo seasons, Igbo religion and gods, Igbo trades, Igbo democracy, Igbo taboos, Igbo punishment system, Igbo festivals, Igbo foods, Igbo masquerades or masked spirits, Igbo art, Igbo sports, Igbo music, Igbo conflict resolution, the Ogbanje story, and many more.
There is hardly any book that can challenge “Things Fall Apart” in its platform as a piece for Igbo culture. Even if Achebe never wrote another book, he would still head the list of Igbo writers who sold the culture globally. But he went on to write “Arrow of God” and “No Longer At Ease” which were repositories of colonial Igboland and the Igboman in the civil service of the eve of Nigerian independence and his connection to his homeland and sentiments.
Achebe was also an essayist and his articles collected under the title “Morning Yet On Creation Day” saw him confront western racism, portrayal, and notions about African peoples and thier way of life while lecturing on the Igbo cosmology, philosophy, and consciousness.
Achebe’s last book is “There Was A Country”, a personal history of the civil war. This book was met with controversy mostly on the role Awolowo played in starving hundreds of thousands of Igbo children. But the book is not just about the war, it also speaks of the Igboman’s culture of enterprises, ingenuity, and survival.
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