THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria, and in the eastern Nigerian village of Ogabu in the 1950s; published in English in 1961.
Jagua Nana details the affairs and adventures of an aging prostitute in the “wicked” city of tagos, and in her idyllic home village of Ogabu, during the turbulent years preceding Nigerian independence in 1960.
Like many of the characters he wrote about, Cyprian Ekwensi grew up outside his Igbo (Ibo) homeland in eastern Nigeria. Born in Minna, northern Nigeria, in 1921, Ekwensi was educated at Government College, Ibadan; Achimota College in what was then the Gold Coast (now Ghana); and finally at the Chelsea School of Pharmacy at the University of London. Also like many of his characters, Ekwensi tried his hand at several professions. Trained as a pharmacist, he taught biology and chemistry before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, where he became head of the features department. He also practiced journalism, for which he had a certain flair, and began writing fiction. Ekwensi’s first published work, When love Whispers, appeared in the market town of Onitsha in 1947. By all accounts (including the author’s) this novella was of a piece with the other “market literature” coming out of Onitsha in the fast-changing years between the end of World War II and the Nigerian civil war (1967-70). It is urban, erotic, picaresque, written in a popular idiom, and devoted to the dilemmas of romantic love, a subject that university-educated Nigerian writers avoided, at least at that time. Ekwensi became ever more proficient at refining his pulp fiction. In the U.S. edition of Jagua Nana, he lists his complete works: seven novellas, four works of “folklore,” two collections of short stories, and six full-length novels. Of these, Jagua Nana is his widely acknowledged masterpiece. It captures the heady spirit of an era in which everything seemed possible, even the improbable good fortune of a sexy middle-aged prostitute who somehow always lands on her feet.
From the mid to late nineteenth century, Great Britain exercised authority over parts and then all of Nigeria. Forming a colony with little regard for the cultural mix, the British created a restless amalgamation of ethnic groups. Over the decades power in the colony shifted from British to Nigerian authorities, who belonged to the various ethnic groups. By the time of the novel, most local rule had in fact devolved into Nigerian hands with the promise of complete independence in the offing. Ekwenski sets Jagua Nana in the city of Lagos and the town of Ogabu during this era of promise, the decade preceding Nigerian independence in 1960. It was a decade of extreme turbulence, as Nigeria’s various ethnic groups vied with one another to take over the senior service positions being abandoned by departing English colonialists, and to grab as much of the “national cake” as skill, muscle, and bribery would permit. The three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria—Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba—were also the three largest in Africa, and each had a political party dedicated primarily to its welfare. The northern Hausa were ruled by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), the western Yoruba by the Action Group (AG), and the eastern Igbo by the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC).
Of these, the Hausa were the most numerous and the most conservative; they were ruled through emirates established by the marauding Fulani in the early nineteenth century. Fiercely religious, the Hausa-Fulani rulers had kept Christian missionaries—and their schools—out of the northern emirates. The North was therefore at a comparative disadvantage in relation to the South, where the Igbo and Yoruba had accepted missionary schools and therefore had many more Western-educated professionals prepared to take over government administration. For this reason the North purposely delayed the date of independence, which Nigeria might otherwise have been granted several years earlier, until a sufficient number of northerners had achieved higher education.
Since the foundation of the colony in the nineteenth century, the steamy Yoruba port city of Lagos, in the southwest corner of the country, had been its designated capital. As the colony grew, so did the city, becoming the country’s commercial as well as political center. There were positions to be had in government ministries, schools, businesses (especially those with government contracts), import/export trade, and all the services these jobs required: petty traders, taxi drivers, musicians, prostitutes, and hustlers of every variety. Changing the ethnic composition of the city, migrants from all over Nigeria—mostly Igbo, but also people from smaller tribes—flooded into Lagos in quest of those jobs. Lagos was transformed into one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa.
The greatest number of these migrants came from the east, the overcrowded homeland of the Igbo people who looked to Lagos as if it were a foreign country where men and women could make their fortunes, as long as they did not forget who they were and why they had come to this place. Diaspora Igbos gathered together in urban ghettos, and joined “Progressive Unions” and “Town Societies” that reaffirmed ethnic loyalties and provided mutual support.
The Nigerian economy grew very quickly in the 1950s, based primarily on agricultural exports (cocoa, palm products, peanuts), and increasingly on oil, which had been discovered in the eastern delta region. Nigeria would soon become one of the main oil exporters in the world, increasing the national income. In short, there was a great deal of money in the city, but a lot more people who were in pursuit of it.
The first independent Nigerian government was an alliance of the NPC and NCNC, with a Hausa prime minister (Tafawa Balewa) and an Igbo governor general (Nnamdi Azikiwe). The Yoruba AG was in opposition. By 1965 this uneasy coalition fell apart and the rivalry among the main ethnic groups increased greatly. In January 1966 a bloody coup d’etat was staged by five young majors, four of them of Igbo ethnic origin and the fifth a Yoruba. The coup faltered and was downgraded to a mutiny, a failure engineered by the mass of loyal government soldiers and the Igbo general who was the British-appointed head of the Nigerian army of independence. There was, in effect, a coup within the coup. The loyal military stepped in and took control of the government. Within six months, however, there was a genuine coup d’ètat, beginning a series of military regimes that took control of the country thereafter. Civil war followed in 1967, in the wake of pogroms that decimated the Igbo communities in Lagos and elsewhere in the Federation of Nigeria. Within a decade of Jagua Nana’s publication, then, the society described by the novel had already disappeared.
As with most countries in modern Africa, the borders of Nigeria were artificially constructed by European imperialists. It was Britain, at the end of the nineteenth century, that cobbled together a nation out of the three largest ethnic groups in Africa: the Hausa in their emirates north of the Niger River, the Yoruba in forest kingdoms west of the Niger, and the Igbo in village clusters mostly east of the Niger. Of these three groups, the Igbo were the least cosmopolitan at the time of conquest. Political allegiances rarely transcended villages, which were usually ruled by councils of elders, together with people (usually men) who had achieved status through prowess and entrepreneurship. This period of Igbo history is captured by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart (also covered in African Literature and Its Times).
British rule caused the Igbo to question many of their traditional measures of success, which stressed defiance over negotiation, and prowess over pliancy. Why, they asked, had the British succeeded in conquering them? At first it seemed their old adamant gods may have been deficient, and so Igboland experienced one of the most rapid and thorough conversions to Christianity in all of Africa. But the Bible did not bring power, so the Igbo turned to Western education. Villages taxed themselves to send favored sons overseas to school, and to build so many high schools that teachers could not be found to staff them.
Many of the semieducated, who left school before graduation, became disenchanted with village life and so struck out for the rapidly growing cities in search of new lives. By midcentury these malcontents constituted a new urban class known simply as “school leavers.” This is the class from which Ekwensi drew both his characters and his readership for Jagua Nana. Jagua and her erstwhile boyfriend, Freddie, are living, like hundreds of thousands of other Igbo, in the Yoruba city of Lagos. Every important Nigerian city had a similar diaspora community. Because jobs were always scarce, there were constant tensions between the original inhabitants and the newcomers. Frequently willing to take any job without regard to its prestige, and to work tirelessly to achieve commercial success, the Igbo often proved more financially successful than other groups in these new urban environments. Because of their entrepreneurship—and their valorization of education—the Igbo were taunted as “the Jews of West Africa,” an epithet they seemed to enjoy. Many joked that perhaps they really were the lost tribe of Israel, and should be known as the “Heboos.”
Jagua is a 45-year-old “good time girl” who earns her income from sexual liaisons made at the Tropicana, a bar frequented by businessmen, politicians, and the assorted low-lifes who dominate Lagos, the fetid but alluring capital city of Nigeria. Afraid of losing her beauty, Jagua (whose assumed name is meant to evoke the glamour of the Jaguar automobile) clings to Freddie, a young, impoverished law student whom she hopes to marry after he completes his studies. However, taking a cue from his promiscuous mistress, Freddie proves unfaithful, leaving Jagua to descend ever deeper into the moral swamps of Lagos society.
The first two-thirds of the novel detail Jagua’s picaresque adventures as she jousts with friends, rivals, and lovers, each competitor locked into a brutal and hopeless search for money. Uncle Taiwo, Jagua’s sometimes boyfriend and the most charismatic politician in Lagos, represents a political system so meaningless that his party is merely identified as OP2 (Opposition Party # 2). With his Pontiac car, his bagful of ten shilling notes, and his Falstaffian laughter, Uncle Taiwo seems immune from the race for money, since the corrupt nature of Lagos politics keeps his pockets well-lined with cash. Nonetheless, as Taiwo contemplates the specter of a lost election, Jagua tartly observes, “Uncle, you look like you pissin in your trouser” (Jagua Nana, p. 105). Even Freddie Namme, Jagua’s other boyfriend and Uncle Taiwo’s nemesis, tells Jagua that he has settled on legal studies because “I wan money quick-quick and politics is de only hope” (Jagua Nana, p. 103). At the novel’s outset, Jagua is arranging to send Freddie to England to study law. She is motivated by a clear-eyed realization that old age is approaching and that she needs a
Among themselves the diaspora Igbo spoke various dialects of Igbo. But in the town they adopted Pidgin English as the lingua franca. Pidgin is a hybrid language, derived from several European and African languages. Its grammar and intonation closely resemble the coastal languages of West Africa. In a country as ethnically diverse and commercially active as Nigeria, Pidgin is one of the few elements of national unity
Ekwensi has explained that, like other African writers, he tried to recreate the Pidgin idiom in his novel: “African writers in English consciously or unconsciously try to Africanise the English language by colouring it with African idioms or pidgin English or in any other way retaining the speech rhythms of the African language” (Ekwensi in Larson, p. 24). But Ekwensi is also sensitive to the reading abilities of his non-Nigerian audience, so the dialogue of his characters often drifts from one register to another, Pidgin to “broken” (or substandard) to standard Nigerian-English dialects, sometimes within the same paragraph.
proper husband to take care of her. As she tells Freddie:
But as you is only a poor school teacher you no reach yet for marry Jagua woman. You mus’ go train yousself to be a proper man…. Den I kin born chil’ for you. An you can look after me, in me old age.
(Jagua Nana, p. 20)
Jagua sets to the task of getting Freddie to England with the same acumen and drive that she displays in all her affairs. She bribes just the right people to get a passport Freddie cannot get for himself. She makes all the arrangements for his room and board in England. Clearly, Jagua has not spent her time merely drifting in Lagos—she has mastered the wiles of the city.
ALL THAT GLITTERS…
Ekwensi’s portrait of Lagos as both corrupt and alluring was already a cliché in the market literature tradition of Onitsha (see “Sources and literary context”). The source of the corruption and the allure is the same: money, which arbitrates everything in this wicked city. It decides all matters of life and love among Jagua and her friends. The relentless pursuit of money brings Jagua and the other hotel girls to the Tropicana club to solicit, motivates the politicians to murder each other with hired thugs, and gives everyone a market value. “They and many others were practically strangers in a town where all came to make fast money by faster means, and greedily to seek positions that yielded even more money” (Ekwensi, Jagua Nana, p. 24).
During Freddie’s 18-month absence, Jagua throws herself into Uncle Taiwo’s arms—and into his political campaigns. She addresses the Lagosian market women so powerfully that Uncle Taiwo asks in disbelief, “Jagua, who teach you politics?” (Jagua Nana, p. 111). She further demonstrates her political skills by visiting Freddie’s home town of Bagana. There she manages to end a chieftaincy dispute with a neighboring village that had been threatening to flare into war for years. Between these delicate political maneuvers, she also manages to slip in a brief but torrid affair with Bagana town chief Ofubara.
The only dark side to this quick trip back east is Jagua’s discovery that she does not have sufficient capital to establish herself as an Onitsha cloth merchant. For her, the cloth trade has always represented the best alternative to prostitution at the Tropicana. Her brother, Fonso, a merchant prince, explicates the attractiveness of trading for a certain kind of Igbo woman:
The merchant princesses, he boasted, were independent women, and he knew that his sister loved independence. And they were free. They turned their minds to business, not frivolities. They were grown-up women.
(Jagua Nana, p. 18)
Before the period described in the novel, Jagua had toured the west coast of Africa, collecting cloth to sell. With her hoard she then settled in Lagos and became the talk of the town. Her fashions were sought by all the smart set. Despite her entanglements in the affairs of Lagos, Jagua keeps reiterating her desire to return to the cloth trade, even singing the praises of her home market to a group of Lagos women merchants: “Go to Onitsha and see what a market should be like” (Jagua Nana, p. 110). But, we are told, three years have elapsed since Jagua has collected any new stock. She is prevented from such a trip by the (realistic) fear that younger women might replace her as Queen of the Tropicana should she leave Lagos for any length of time. And now, in a brief visit back home, she discovers that she will need more than Tropicana payoffs to begin the life of a merchant princess.
Unlike all of her peers, Jagua is conscious of the vicious nature of Lagos and of her precarious position in the city’s society. She has lived beyond the dewy age of most fictional prostitutes largely because of her clear vision of Lagos’s traps:
She knew that if a girl went to the Tropicana every day, that girl was a pawn; a pawn in the hands of criminals, Senior Service men, contractors, thieves, detectives, liars, cheats, the rabble, the scum of the country’s grasping hordes and headlong rush to “civilisation,” “sophistication,” and all the falsehood it implied.
(Jagua Nana, p. 96)
After her return from trips to Bagana and Onitsha, Jagua throws herself into Lagosian affairs with undiminished energy. She resumes her relationship with Uncle Taiwo, and becomes one of his chief campaign assets. By this time Freddie has returned from England and, with galling ingratitude, marries a younger woman and becomes Uncle Taiwo’s chief opponent for a seat on the Lagos City Council. Poor Freddie has not taken proper measure of his opponents. Taiwo sends out his goons to rough him up, and he dies from their blows. There is an uproar over this assassination and Uncle Taiwo loses the election.
Following the election fiasco, an apocalypse engulfs Jagua’s Lagosian friends and lovers. Uncle Taiwo is murdered, as is his chief henchman, Dennis Odoma (with whom Jagua also has had a little fling). Even Odoma’s girlfriend, Sabrina, is killed, along with an assortment of lesser hangers-on, in what Ekwensi surely means us to see as a judgment on their way of life. It is only the arrival of her brother, Fonso, who appears like “the day of Judgment,” with the news that their father is dying, that saves Jagua from this general doom. Accepting the traditional call back home to attend a parent’s funeral, Jagua escapes Lagos to begin life anew.
Although Jagua had deserted her father and her village ten years before the start of the novel, she knows she can return and be welcomed as the prodigal daughter. In fact, it is only when this nearly 50-year-old woman returns to her roots that she is able to conceive a child—by an anonymous lover, during a tryst near the river shrine of the traditional Igbo deity of fertility. The death of that infant a few days after its birth seems like the penitential price Jagua must pay for all her decadent years in Lagos. She is discovered by her mother near the river, holding the infant, “silent and stiff as an effigy before the oracle” (Jagua Nana, p. 144).
But the gods have one more trick left to play. Jagua has returned to Ogabu with Uncle Taiwo’s briefcase, which he had entrusted to her the night he lost the election. She believed the case was full of party documents, but when she opens it some months later, she finds that it is filled with money, thousands of pounds stolen from the party treasury, which will now finance Jagua’s dreams of becoming a merchant princess. So, full of her incorrigible optimism, Jagua muses at novel’s end, “I goin’ to Onitsha. I wan’ to become proper merchant princess. I goin’ to buy me shop, and lorry, and employ me own driver. I goin’ to face dis business serious. I sure dat God above goin’ to bless me” (Jagua Nana, p. 144).
Flight east. In contrast to the greed and corruption of Lagos, Ekwensi describes Ogabu as a paradise, not lost to our heroine, but temporarily set aside:
In Ogabu the people tilled the soil and drank the river water and ate yams and went to church, but came home to worship their family oracles. They believed that in a village where every man had his own yam plots, there is much happiness ….but where it is only one man who has the yam plots there is nothing but anger and envy.
(Jagua Nana, p. 52)
This lack of artifice accentuates the artificiality of Lagos, and the disharmony of those who live the high life there. The village children wonder if Jagua is bleeding when they see her red lips, and a village woman comments that “she walks as if her bottom will drop off” (Jagua Nana, p. 53). But regeneration comes to Jagua when she resumes the natural rhythm of Ogabu life. While bathing nude in the village stream, she comes to the realization that this freedom to live naturally is denied to all those who escape to the city to find “freedom.”
A FEMALE-DOMINATED TRADE—FROM LAGOS TO ONITSHA
Most of the cloth traders in Lagos were Yoruba rather than Igbo women. There were sizable cloth shops in Lagos, some with stock worth £5,000 or more in the 1950s. Most of the Igbo women who engaged in trade in Lagos concentrated instead on foodstuffs, In the novel, lagua Nana logically plans on centering her cloth trade in Onitsha, one of Igboland’s two main trading centers, the other being Aba.
Jagua’s return to the East marks her transformation from harlot to heroine, from call girl to merchant princess. In an odd sort of way, her shameless story becomes the archetypal quest narrative for the Igbo in diaspora. For a while, a woman of unparalleled beauty and great natural skills forsakes her village, her family, and the traditional path of duty. But in the end she returns to Igboland, ready to commence the trade that will make her rich and happy. Jagua Nana’s ordeals and her return home blaze a fictional trail that became, in fact, a bloody highway for hundreds of thousands of Igbos who fled from Lagos (and other cities) back to their eastern villages after the pogroms of the 1960s.
Between the years of the novel’s publication in England (1961) and the United States (1969), resentments towards the Igbo grew. Communal attacks against them marked periods of political tension throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Following the overthrow of the First Nigerian Republic in 1966, thousands of Igbo were killed in riots, and hundreds of thousands more fled back to the East. In 1967 eastern Nigeria declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra, and a bloody civil war followed. Unsuccessful in their attempt to secede from the rest of the country, the Igbo would be reintegrated back into the federation of Nigeria in 1970.
Much of the plot of Jagua Nana is shadowed by this history: the social life of the Igbo diaspora community in Lagos; the competition for jobs and scholarships; and the haunting desire of many Igbo to flee back to the safety of their natal villages. In her own return to Ogabu, the fictional Jagua precedes by a decade the mass exodus of her fellow Igbos from Lagos at the start of the Biafra War.
Sources and literary context
Urbanization and the spread of education created a new social class in Nigeria. Originally from overcrowded rural areas, members of this class came to the city looking for further education and a chance to make money. A natural center for this migration was Onitsha, a city that has always had the largest number of secondary and commercial schools in the country. The students, petty traders, artisans, and school leavers who constituted this new class developed a taste for reading through their limited education, but did not have the background reading ability to appreciate most conventional forms of literature. For a time, “penny dreadfuls” and “shilling shockers” from England and extravagant romances from India satisfied the popular reading taste. But following World War II an indigenous body of “market literature”—produced by local publishers who set up their presses in the marketplace—arose in Onitsha to eclipse these foreign rivals. jagua Nana is the best realized novel to come out of this tradition.
Perhaps the most popular Onitsha titles were pamphlets of the “How To” variety: How to Write Good English; How to Conduct Meetings; How to Know Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, and English Languages. Another popular form of the didactic pamphlet offered advice on the ways of the city, the pursuit of money, and success in the “game of love.” A bestseller in this variety, J. Nnadozie’s Beware of Harlots and Many Friends: The World Is Hard, levels 24 charges against hotel girls, all of whom resemble Jagua.
Although the majority of market literature is didactic, the most vigorous writing was fictional, and the bestsellers were novellas or plays. Their themes were similar to those of the didactic tracts: the treacherous glamour of “true love” versus the mores of traditional marriage; the pleasures of the “high life” versus the respectable duties of achieving success in the world. Although the Onitsha novelists occasionally chose a schoolboy as hero in their romances, the most frequent protagonists were “Highlife” queens: women of dubious virtue and immense desirability.
Highlife queens seemed to share the same life story: all were born beauties and were pampered by doting parents. Though intelligent, they lost interest in school when they discovered the game of love. Marriage was a disaster: the husband was either too poor, too old-fashioned, or a thief. Eventually they became harlots, a profession that their love of Highlife, fashion, and money made inevitable. Repentance came too late for most, as the heartbroken heroine died “a miserable, lonely and lamentable death” (Maxwell, p. 1). Within the limits of the stereotype each author brought his peculiar imaginative and linguistic skills to the portrait. While an individual author might repeat a successful characterization in a later novella, no two authors created the same heroine, and thus the composite of the Highlife queen gained fresh nuances from each publication.
In the pursuit of love, the Onitsha heroine was most resourceful. She could be charmingly coquettish, or as direct as the heroine who would write a letter to her boyfriend demanding to know his intentions regarding carnal love, and then throw the poor lad into a frenzy by enclosing “a partially nude picture of mine which I took specially for you to show you that I mean all I say in this letter” (Iguh, p. 13). Although the strategies of love were fully explored, the brass
THE WORLD OF “HIGHLIFE”
A few years after the publication of Jagua Nana, many Nigerian radio stations and outdoor record shops were playing the Highlife tune, “Baby One Pound, No Balance”, by Stephen Osadebe and his Nigerian Sound Makers. The lyric (transcribed and translated by D, Cosentino from the original 45 rpm disk) sings of a young man chastising his girlfriend for her harlot ways:
Baby, wat thing yu dey fine?
One pound, no balance...
All men yu go sabi, because of money-o,
When I give yu my love, yu no go tek.
Sisi, I say wat ting yu dey fine,
Yu say na money-o.
When I give yu money, wat ting you go do-o?
Yu go drink, yu go smoke
Yu tire, I dey go….
Baby, What turns you on?
[You answer] ‘Big bucks, no small change’...
You go for every guy, because of money,
When I give you my love, you won’t take it.
Babe, I ask, What turns you on?
You say it’s money.
But when I give you money, what things do you do?
You drink, you smoke,
get bummed, and I scram.
Osadebe’s lyrics describe a world of harlots, sexually frustrated boys, cigarettes, beer drinking, lipstick and pancake makeup, sleazy bars, and rent-by-the-hour hotel rooms. These are the elements of the social world created by and for the school leavers who made a new world for themselves in the post-World War II cities of Nigeria. Although the particular elements of this glitzy world were more often fantasized about than lived out, nearly every school leaver could dance the “Highlife”, a highly syncopated, percussive, and brassy blend of traditional and imported African sounds, which was the music of Jagua Nana’s world. They could also speak in and about that world in the idiom of Pidgin, the universal language of Highlife.
JAGUA NANA AS POP CULTURE ICON
Although several of Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana characters are distinctly drawn, they are hardly originals. He had created similar urban tough guys and fallen women in his earlier fiction, especially in People of the City, which is a kind of prequel to this novel Their analogues can also be found in the tough guys, hotel girls, and “been-tos” (been to foreign lands) of Onitsha literature, and in the melodramatic actors and actresses who starred in the grade-B American and Indian movies popular during the 1950s in Nigeria.
In Jagua Nana, it was Ekwensi’s inspiration to take the common figure of the prostitute with a heart of gold and transform her into an aging but highly determined cover-girl-like character. Jagua Nana is the composite perfection of pop culture fantasies: her superb breasts are “God’s own milk to humanity”; three times in the novel they “swell in sensuous arcs” (pp 5, 26, 84). Her “olive-orange skin” makes her look like “an Indian beauty”—an aesthetic quality much appreciated from the romantic novels that were flooding into Nigeria from India.
What descriptions of Jagua and her attire most resemble, however, is advertising copy from the popular press, especially from Drum, the first and most popular pan-African “fanzine.” Through the following sort of language, clearly derived from marketing, jagua becomes a model for what sociologists term “the Revolution of Rising Expectations”—the way in which advertising language creates a desire for and expectation of commodity acquisition:
She had chosen the brightest lipstick in her bag, her blouse was sleeveless and cut so low that only the tips of her breasts were covered. The skirt was so tight she could not take a stride of more than six inches at a time. It was a grey skirt with three big buttons down the front and a big slit down the back. Her olive-skinned calves were fully on show and her feet were barely kissed by open-worked wedge-heeled shoes….
(Jagua Nana, p. 67)
Ekwensi’s easy use of Drum’s visual language gives a tactile quality to his characters that sometimes seems cinematic. Perhaps for this reason an Italian film company proposed making Jagua Nana into a movie, the first “Spaghetti” African romance, Ekwensi carried that same language into the sequel, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, which may partly explain why that novel caused a cultural mania during the last years of the Nigerian oil boom in the 1980s.
tacks of lovemaking were usually avoided. Authors tended to draw a discreet veil around the lovers’ beds. It may be that pornography is a culturally developed taste, or that traditional Igbo mores inhibited detailed literary discussions of the acts of love (inhibitions certainly not on display in the graphically satiric mbari art tradition). In any case, Onitsha writers did not have to undress their heroines in order to inflame the imagination of their readers.
Where did she come from, this Onitsha heroine? The authors who created her were first and foremost good observers of their own society. The same forces that brought these men and their readers to the city also helped create a new urban woman, one less bound by traditional expectations. For the first time this new Igbo woman could play an independent role in society. The wealthy and independent merchant princess of Onitsha, whose flamboyant entrepreneurship inspires Jagua, is one example of this new woman; the hotel harlot described by the market literature authors is another. Most urban Igbo women conform to neither stereotype, yet as a new class these women have inspired a whole genre of literature devoted to examining their independence and the dangers that men feel arise from it.
Like the servant girl in Victorian literature, or the cowboy in American movies, the Onitsha heroine became a symbol of her age and society. She summed up a time of transition between a rural and at least a partially urbanized Nigeria. Often condemned as a harlot, she must have been secretly admired by writers who wrote obsessively of her adventures, and by readers who spent precious shillings to buy the works.
There were approximately 250 titles of Onitsha market literature extant in 1963, though this was only a fraction of the total number published. No effort had been made to preserve all the titles, and no adequate bibliography exists. A few years after the publication of Jagua Nana, the Onitsha market was badly damaged in the Nigeria civil war (1967-70). The presses that printed the novellas were not repaired or replaced following the war, and a tradition ended.
The first critical responses to Jagua Nana were in the English press, and they were positive. An unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement stated:
Jagua Nana in its own right is a very good novel indeed, and one of the first to give us a truly authoritative picture of a little-known side of the New Africa, of the “High-life” of the towns and their night-clubs and bars and political intrigues….[Ekwensi] has dealt with themes of great importance, and though he has not solved them—is that the novelist’s business?—he has depicted them eloquently and with compassion.
(Times Literary Supplement p. 197)
Bernard Bergonzi, writing in The Spectator, succinctly concluded, “Mr. Ekwensi tells [Jagua Nana’s] story in a smooth but colorful prose; if this book is anything to judge by, the West African novel is growing up fast” (Bergonzi, p. 416).
African responses to the novel were more mixed. Embarrassed by the subject, and perhaps annoyed by the author’s commercial success (especially when an Italian film company explored the possibilities of turning Jagua Nana into a movie), academic critics either shunned the novel or attacked it as unseemly. Sierra Leonean critic Eustace Palmer led the charge:
Ekwensi hardly manifests a consistent moral attitude, his main preoccupation being the sensationalism created by vice. All these weaknesses are clearly present in his most successful novel Jagua Nana…. [She] is a nymphomaniac with a crazy passion for sex and the bright lights of Lagos ….One would expect a serious novelist to show some signs of disapproval of Jagua’s conduct, but instead Ekwensi seems to try to persuade the reader to share his captivation with her: there is very little criticism, either of her or of the threat which the dangerous Lagos underworld presents to civilized standards Jagua Nana represents Ekwensi at his best, and yet by any standards it is a failure.
(Palmer in Chinweizu, p. 137)
Igbo critics Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike attacked Palmer for prissy Victorian definitions of morality and invoked Shakespeare’s refusal to take a moral stand towards his villains as precedent enough for Ekwensi’s objective portrayal of Nigerian corruption (Chinweizu, pp. 98-146).
Jagua’s final return to Ogabu was also the subject of critical debate. Robert July, accepting the novel as a comment on the urbanized African, found Jagua’s return unconvincing: “In the end, Jagua goes home to her village to live, but this is the weakest part of the book and remains unconvincing” (July, p. 223). July described Jagua’s return as a triumph of “outdated customs and superstitions” over the “meaningful emancipation” and freedom that Lagos offers. Austin Shelton, however, found the opposite meaning in Jagua’s return, discerning in it an archetypal reintegration of the African into natal society, a rejection of acculturation through what he called an “ontological recoil” from the Westernized city to the village in the forest (Shelton, p. xx).
There has been no controversy in the popular reception of the novel. The novel’s popularity has proved so enduring that Ekwensi wrote a sequel, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, in 1986, which inspired a popular Nigerian bumper sticker: “I Love Jagua Nana and her Daughter too.” No other fictional character has ever come close to capturing a similar hold on the Nigerian imagination.
Bergonzi, Bernard. “Despite His Cleverness.” The Spectator, 24 March 1961, p. 416.
Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. Howard University Press, 1983.
Cosentino, Donald. “The Onitsha Heroine.” Ba Shiru 2 (fall 1970-spring 1971): 52-59.
_____ “Jagua Nana: Culture Heroine.” Ba Shiru 8, no. 1 (1977): 11-17.
Ekwensi, Cyprian. Jagua Nana. Panther: London, 1963.
Iguh, Thomas. The Sorrows of Love. Onitsha, n.d.
July, Robert. “The African Personality in the African Novel.” In Introduction to African Literature Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967.
Larson, Charles. The Emergence of African Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.
Maxwell, Highbred. Our Modern Ladies Characters [sic] Towards Boys. Onitsha, n.d.
“A New Regionalism.” The Times Literary Supplement, 31 March 1961, p. 197.
Obiechina, E. N. Onitsha Market Literature. London: Heinemann, 1972.
Shelton, Austin. “Le Retour a la Brouse ou le Recul Ontologique.” Presence Africaine 46 (1963): xxx.