Amadi, Elechi 1934–
Elechi Amadi 1934–
Nigerian writer Elechi Amadi achieved international literary acclaim during the 1960s and 1970s for his novels depicting rural village life in West Africa and its subsequent disintegration due to post-colonial political strife. His debut work, written in English, was The Concubine, and its 1966 publication brought him critical plaudits. An essay by Emmanuel Obiechina in the Dictionary of Literary Biography noted, “In his novels African villagers come alive in the immense variety of their individual and group activities, which are deeply informed by a shared sense of religion, ethics, social etiquette, and culture.”
Born on May 12, 1934, Amadi grew up in a village in the southeastern Nigerian rainforest. He married a midwife, Dorah Nwonne Ohale, in 1957, while still studying physics and mathematics at the University College of Ibadan, located in Nigeria’s second-largest city. After earning his degree in 1959, he worked as a surveyor for a year, and then became a science teacher. From 1963 to 1966 he served in the Nigerian Army, and upon his discharge took a job as headmaster of the Asa Grammar School. The Concubine was published at about this time, and the book solidified his reputation as a writer, both in his country and abroad. He was hailed as the successor to fellow University of Ibadan alumnus Chinua Achebe, whose 1958 novel Things Fall Apart broke new ground for African writers. Research in African Literatures critic Clara A. B. Joseph wrote: “Although not to the same extent as with Achebe’s works, [Amadi’s] works are peppered with witty translations of proverbs and numerous references to age-old customs. His narratives highlight the importance of tradition (more than language) in the creation of a political community.”
The Concubine is the tale of a young woman, Ihuoma, who belongs to Nigeria’s Igbo ethnic group. Her plight involves her past life, when she was said to be the wife of the mythical Sea King deity. This gives her great status in the present, but portends doom for any mortal man who seeks to marry her. As the novel progresses, Ihuoma is wed and widowed three times, as a result of the wrath of the Sea King toward those who would usurp his bride. Though it seems a traditional cautionary tale on the surface, Obiechina asserted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay that “the strength of The Concubine rests on the fact that it is not folklore but realistic-style fiction, in spite of its strong penetration by the super-natural.”
Amadi’s writing career was disrupted by civil war in Nigeria in 1967. That year, an armed uprising and establishment of secessionist state by Nigeria’s Igbo group resulted in the breakaway nation of Biafra. Amadi was stranded there and had to escape, rejoining the Nigerian Army in 1968 and serving with a Marine commandos unit. The war raged on for three years until Biafra’s surrender in 1970, and it was a disastrous episode in modern Nigerian history. Biafra was unable to feed its people, and a million inhabitants within its dwindling borders were estimated to have perished from starvation and malnutrition during the war.
Amadi’s next work seemed to be a metaphor for the conflict. The Great Ponds is set in the years before World War I, but its plot centers around a long struggle
Born on May 12, 1934, in Aluu, Nigeria; son of Daniel Wonuchuku and Enwere (Weke) Amadi; married Dorah Nwonne Ohale (a midwife), 1957; children: seven daughters, one son. Education: University College of Ibadan, BSc, 1959. Military Service: Nigerian Federal Army, 1963-66, captain, rejoined 1968, served with Marine Commandos during the Civil War. Religion: Protestant.
Career: Government assistant, Calabar, Nigeria, 1953-55; surveyor in Enugu, Nigeria, 1959-60; science teacher in Oba and Ahoada, 1960-63; Asa Grammar School, headmaster, 1966-67; author, 1966-85; administrative office, Port Harcourt, government divisional officer, Ahoada, 1968-69, various other offices held from 1969-90, including commissioner of lands and housing, 1989-90; Rivers State College of Education, various positions, 1984-87, head, department of literature, 1991–.
Awards: International Writers Program grant, Univ. of Iowa, 1973; Rivers State Silver Jubilee Merit Award, 1992; Ikwerre Ethnic Nationality Merit Award for Literature, 1995.
for control of a part of the Niger River delta. Two villages battle one another over communal fishing rights at the Wagaba pond. The main figures are the warrior Olumba from the Chiolu village, and Wago, a famed leopard-killer from neighboring Aliakoro. “In the tradition of heroic contests,” wrote Obiechina, “the possession of the pond becomes a challenge and a channel through which the warriors on each side celebrate their bravery, martial sagacity, and magical prowess.”
Amadi spent the next several years of his life as a provincial government official in Port Harcourt, the city in Nigeria’s Rivers State province that was once a part of Biafra. He turned to playwriting in his spare time, producing Isiburu, a drama about a wrestler which enjoyed a run at the National Arts Theatre in the Nigerian capital of Lagos in 1973. Peppersoup delved into the topic of interracial marriage, while another play from 1977, The Road to Ibadan, took place during the civil strife in Biafra. A 1978 work for the stage, Dancer of Johannesburg, was an espionage thriller set in South Africa and ended, presciently, with the dismantling of that country’s apartheid system.
Amadi also wrote a diary of his civil-war experiences, Sunset in Biafra, published in 1973 by Heinemann, the esteemed London publishing house. He wrote no new novels until 1979, when The Slave appeared. Its story, again set in a rural West African village, concerns the fate of Olumati, who is the last in his family line. His parents were ostracized long ago and had to flee their home village, and have since been forced to serve as slaves to a god at a cult shrine in another village. Olumati is expected to take over this duty. He tries to restore his family’s standing, but forces conspire against this plan. “Whatever social obstacles lie in the way of Olumati’s efforts to restore his family’s place and reputation are not as formidable as the state of deep unease and insufficiency within himself,” wrote Obiechina in the Dictionary of Literary Biography profile. “In the end his failure becomes inevitable because he has suffered psychological damage from which he cannot recover.”
Estrangement was both the last of Amadi’s novels and the first to be set in Port Harcourt. The 1985 work recounts the tale of a woman named Alekiri and the traumas she experiences during the Biafran civil war. Her marriage ends, she becomes romantically involved with an army officer, and struggles to regain her footing after the hostilities end. “Every one of the major characters bears the scar of the war. … but the end of the war also finds them gathering together the pieces of their shattered lives,” Obiechina wrote.
Over the years, Amadi held a number of government posts in the Rivers State government, including commissioner of education and commissioner of lands and housing. He has also had a long involvement with the Rivers State College of Education, and was named head of its department of literature in 1991. That same year, he discussed his literary career in a brief essay for Contemporary Novelists. “I like to think of myself as a painter or composer using words in the place of pictures and musical symbols,” he reflected. “I consider commitment in fiction a prostitution of literature. The novelist should depict life as he sees it without consciously attempting to persuade the reader to take a particular viewpoint. Propaganda should be left to journalists.”
The Concubine (novel), Humanities, 1966.
The Great Ponds (novel), Humanities, 1969.
Okpukpe (prayerbook in Ikwerre), C.S.S. Printers, 1969.
(With Obiajunwo Wali and Greensille Enyinda) Okwukwo Eri (hymnbook in Ikwerre), C.S.S. Printers, 1969.
Isiburu (play; produced in Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Aiyetoro, and at the National Arts Theatre, Lagos), Heinemann, 1973.
Sunset in Biafra (Civil War diary), Heinemann, 1973.
Peppersoup [and] The Road to Ibadan (plays), Onibonoje, 1977.
Dancer of Johannesburg (play), Onibonoje, 1977.
The Slave (novel), Heinemann, 1979.
Ethics in Nigerian Culture (philosophy), Heinemann, 1982.
Estrangement (novel), Heinemann, 1985.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale, 1992, pp. 49-53.
Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 119-29.
Research in African Literatures, Fall 2001, p. 57.
“Elechi (Emmanuel) Amadi,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 30, 2003).
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Aluu, 12 May 1934. Education: University College, Ibadan, 1955-59, B.Sc. in mathematics and physics 1959. Military Service: Served in the Nigerian Federal Army, 1963-66, 1968-69. Family: Married Dorah Ohale in 1957; eight children. Career: Government survey assistant, Calabar, 1953-55, and surveyor, Enugu, 1959-60; science teacher in mission schools, Oba and Ahoada, 1960-63; principal, Asa Grammar School, 1967; administrative officer, 1970-74, and permanent secretary, 1975-83, Government of Rivers State, Port Harcourt; writer-in-residence and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, College of Education, Port Harcourt, 1984-87; Commissioner of Education, 1987-89, and Commissioner of Lands and Housing, 1989-90, Rivers State. Awards: International Writers Program grant, University of Iowa, 1973; Rivers State Silver Jubilee Merit award, 1992. Address: Box 331, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
The Concubine. London, Heinemann, 1966.
The Great Ponds. London, Heinemann, 1969; New York, Day, 1973.
The Slave. London, Heinemann, 1978.
Estrangement. London, Heinemann, 1986.
Isiburu (in verse: produced Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1969). London, Heinemann, 1973.
Peppersoup (produced Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1977). Included inPeppersoup, and The Road to Ibadan, 1977.
The Road to Ibadan (produced Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1977). Included in Peppersoup, and The Road to Ibadan, 1977.
Peppersoup, and The Road to Ibadan. Ibadan, Onibonoje Press, 1977.
Dancer of Johannesburg (produced Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1979).
Sunset in Biafra: A Civil War Diary. London, Heinemann, 1973.
Ethics in Nigerian Culture. Ibadan and London, Heinemann, 1982.
Translator, with Obiajunwo Wali and Greensille Enyinda, Okwukwo Eri (hymnbook). Port Harcourt, Nigeria, CSS Printers, 1969.
Translator, Okupkpe (prayerbook). Port Harcourt, Nigeria, CSS Printers, 1969.*
The Concubine: A Critical View by Alastair Niven, London, Collings, 1981; Elechi Amadi: The Man and His Work by Ebele Eko, Ibadan, Kraft, 1991; Elechi Amadi at 55 (Poems, Short Stories and Papers) edited by W. Feuser and Ebele Eko, Ibadan, Heinemann, 1994; Four Fathers of African Fiction: A Critique of Artistic Flares and Flaws in the Major Works of Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, and Elechi Amadi by Felix Edjeren, Eregha, Nigeria, Ughelli, 1998.
Elechi Amadi comments:
(1991) I like to think of myself as a painter or composer using words in the place of pictures and musical symbols. I consider commitment in fiction a prostitution of literature. The novelist should depict life as he sees it without consciously attempting to persuade the reader to take a particular viewpoint. Propaganda should be left to journalists.
In my ideal novel the reader should feel a sense of aesthetic satisfaction that he cannot quite explain—the same feeling he gets when he listens to a beautiful symphony. For those readers who insist on being taught, there are always things to learn from a faithful portrayal of life in a well-written novel.* * *
From his first appearance as a novelist, with The Concubine in 1966, Elechi Amadi established himself as a unique figure in African fiction. He was not alone in attempting to convey the day-to-day texture of traditional, pre-colonial life in an African village: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart had already done this, at least to an extent. But he distinguished himself by not offering any explicit contrasts between that traditional world and the one that replaced it. Whereas Things Fall Apart and many other African novels are concerned, in part at least, with the coming of the white man and the effect of that event, Amadi's novels have never emphasized alien influences at all. The action of any of his three novels could have taken place either five years or a century before the colonial intrusion upon the area. Likewise the dilemmas that confront and finally destroy his heroes or heroines derive entirely from the beliefs, practices, and events of their indigenous culture.
The Concubine was followed by The Great Ponds and The Slave. Although not thematically related, all three novels take place in what is recognizably the same Ikweore environment. The action of all three appears to turn upon the working out of a fate that falls on the characters from outside; yet it would be meaningless, in the eyes of this traditional and god-fearing community, to call such a fate unjust. Iheoma, heroine of The Concubine, is powerless to avert her spiritual marriage to the sea-king, a union that prevents her having any successful human relationships. Her attraction thus becomes a fatal one, resulting in the deaths of all those who seek to free her from her condition. Likewise, the hero of The Slave leaves the shrine of Amadioha to which his late father was bound as an osu (cult-slave), and appears to have right on his side in arguing for his emancipation, since he was not actually conceived there. Nevertheless, his brief career in freedom has an obstinately circular form, curving through initial success to a series of disasters that bring him, friendless and alone, back to the shrine he had so hopefully deserted.
Amadi has maintained a nicely judged ambiguity about the meaning of these events, leaving the reader to determine that meaning instead. The society of which he writes would have rejected—and perhaps still rejects—any clear distinction between the natural and spiritual orders of existence. These interpenetrate to such an extent that man cannot demand the mastery of his fate through will alone. The highest he can aspire to is to know his fate and tune his soul to its acceptance. Tragedy springs as much from failure to do this, as from the nature of that fate itself.
AMADI, Elechi. Nigerian, b. 1934. Genres: Novels, Plays/Screenplays, Ethics, Autobiography/Memoirs. Career: Science teacher, 1960-63, and army officer, 1963-67; government divisional officer, and sr. assistant secretary, Ahoada and Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1968-; permanent secretary, 1973; Rivers State College of Education, dean of arts, 1985-86, commissioner for education, 1988-89. Nigerian Academy of Education, fellow, 2003. Publications: The Concubine, 1966; The Great Ponds, 1969; Sunset in Biafra, 1974; The Slave, 1978; Ethics in Nigerian Culture, 1982; Estrangement (novel), 1986; Speaking and Singing (essays and poems), 2003. PLAYS: Peppersoup, and The Road to Ibadan, 1977; Isiburu, 1973; Dancer of Johannesburg, 1979; The Woman of Calabar, 2003. Address: c/o Heinemann Educational Books, Inc., Hanover St, Portsmouth, NH 03802-3959, U.S.A.