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Nwapa, Flora (1931–1993)

Nwapa, Flora (1931–1993)

Nigerian novelist and publisher, the first African woman to write and publish a novel in English, who changed African literary traditions regarding the portrayal of women. Name variations: Flora Nwakuche-Nwapa. Pronunciation: N-WOP-pa. Born Flora Nwanzuruahu Nwapa on January 13, 1931, in Oguta, Nigeria; died at University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu, Nigeria, on October 16, 1993; oldest of six children of Christopher Ijoma Nwapa (a landowner and managing director of a British palm oil exporting company) and Martha Onyenma Onumonu Nwapa (a schoolteacher); attended Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls School, C.M.S. Central School, and Queens College, Lagos; University College, Ibadan, B.A., 1957; University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Diploma in Education, 1958; married Chief Gogo Nwakuche, in 1967; children: daughter Ejine (b. 1959); son Uzoma (b. 1969); daughter Amede.

Published first book (1966); received citations for Officer of the Niger (Oon, 1982); granted University of Ife merit award for authorship and publishing (1985); served on Commonwealth Writers Awards Committee, African Studies Association, Children's Literature Association of Nigeria, African Literature Association, Association of Nigerian Authors.

Selected writings:

Efuru (1966); Idu (1971); This Is Lagos, and Other Stories (1971); Never Again (1975); Wives at War, and Other Stories (1980); One Is Enough (1981); Women Are Different (1986); Cassava Song and Rice Song (1986).

Children's books:

Emeka: The Driver's Guard (1972); Mammywater (1979); My Tana Colouring Book (1979); My Animal Number Book (1979); The Miracle Kittens (1980); Journey to Space (1980); The Adventures of Deke (1980).

From the exalted griots, the human repositories of history, to the 1986 Nobel Laureate in Literature Wole Soyinka, the literature of Africa has been dominated by male writers. Nigeria's Chinua Achebe, South Africa's Bloke Modisone, Mark Mathabane, K. Kgostisile and others have all eloquently shared their stories of African life and culture. The woman, however, was usually depicted as somewhat irrelevant and relegated to subordinate roles behind the man. As these writers gained more prominence in literary circles around the world, the female African writer was curiously absent. During the "literary '60s," and with a growing interest in the events on the African continent, a reappraisal of women in African life and literature was in order. This male dominance in literature was now ripe for challenge, and Flora Nwapa stepped up. "The male writers have disappointed us a great deal by not painting the female character as they should paint them," said Nwapa. "When I write about women in Nigeria, in Africa, I try to paint a positive picture."

Born on January 13, 1931, Nwapa would one day tell Dr. Marie Umeh in one of her last interviews: "There was nothing in me when I was in school that made me feel that I was going to be a writer. It was one of those things just happened. … I write because I want to write. I write because I have a story to tell." As a child growing up in Oguta, she was encouraged by the examples of the Igbo women around her who were intelligent, creative and industrious—"leaders in trade and commerce." They benefited the community spiritually, educationally, economically, and emotionally. At no time were these women expected to subordinate their skills and talents to the men. "In Oguta, women have certain rights that women elsewhere, and in other parts of the country, do not have," Nwapa added. Certainly, such early exposure to strong women was to impact Nwapa's development as a person and as an author. Reading and listening to stories were important parts of her life as a youngster.

Nwapa gave African women an authentic identity in literature by introducing a female literary tradition at a time when little or nothing of a realistic nature had been written.

—Marie Umeh

She was born into two prominent Nigerian families—Nwapa Nduka and the Onumonu Uzaru—and her parents were an early influence, especially her mother Martha Onyenma Nwapa who was one of the most prominent women in Oguta. Martha was the first woman to obtain the "customary standard six examinations" from St. Monica's, a missionary school in the town. A studious woman, she went on to teach school in Oguta and encouraged all her children to develop a love for reading. Flora's father, Christopher Ijoma Nwapa, was an important landowner and managing director of one of Britain's largest exporting companies; his primary business was the foreign sale of palm oil, a major commodity used by the British to manufacture soap and other products. Later known as Chief Nwapa, he had acquired a vast amount of land in Oguta and on some of his property palm trees were plentiful. He was also a strong Nigerian nationalist.

At an early age, Flora attended the C.M.S. Central School and the Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls School. In 1950, she took post secondary courses at Queens College, Lagos. After completing her studies, Nwapa taught briefly at Priscilla Memorial Grammar School in Oguta, a school founded by her uncle, Chief Richard Nzimiro, the first mayor of Port Harcourt, and her illustrious aunt Mary Nzimiro . Nwapa was soon in pursuit of another diploma at Edinburgh University in Scotland. She received her Diploma in Education in 1958 and then visited Europe, observing the various cultures.

On her return to Nigeria that same year, she worked with the Ministry of Education, Calabar; she also taught briefly at the Queen's School in Enugu in 1959, the year that her first child, daughter Ejine, was born. During this busy time, when Nwapa was undertaking motherhood and a new position at the University of Lagos as an administrator, she honored a quiet urge within herself and began her first novel. Efuru, with a female protagonist new to Nigerian literature, was published in 1966 by Heinemann Educational Books in London.

The stories of Nwapa's youth influenced the narrative in Efuru. She recalled that as a child she would call on anybody who promised to tell her a story. "I would sit down and listen," she said, "and when I went to high school, I had read practically everything that I could find. I am sure that contributed to my writing." She had always enjoyed sitting with the elders and listening: "I read a lot of books. I listened to a lot of stories, moonlight stories told by women in Oguta." The stories of the Lake Goddess were especially memorable to her. The popular belief among the Igbos was that the Lake Goddess had super power, and through it she could guarantee prominence, peace and power to both men and women.

Published in 1966, Efuru appeared just before the Nigerian civil war (1967–70) and received little notice in a Nigeria embroiled in chaos. With the government broken down, Nwapa was among the many Igbos who left Lagos and returned to Eastern Nigeria. While the war raged on, she remained in Enugu. Africa's first published female novelist was not then celebrated or promoted in her own country. However, the ravages of war could not stifle the significance of her pioneer voice, and word of Efuru began to seep outside of Nigeria's borders.

Nwapa became a name in international literary circles. Because of her work, African women would no longer be seen through the prism of male writers and depicted as their ancillary appendages. Said Dr. Ernest N. Emenyonu, provost, Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri:

The significance of Efuru … was more than the historical fact of a pioneer work. Flora Nwapa created in it, female characters that were at once unique, unconventional. The typical female characters created by male writers before then were docile, subservient and mindless women. … They existed only for the services they provide inside their home for their children and husbands.

In Nwapa's Efuru, the heroine was uncharacteristic of the perceived role of the traditionally viewed African woman. Intelligent, independent, creative, and industrious, Efuru made her own decisions. In short, she destroyed the myth of the female's insignificance in African life. Nwapa herself would have been considered atypical, especially for her time. She shared the qualities of her heroine and had a keen sense of social responsibility.

While she was living in Oguta during the war, her personal life took a new turn. In 1967, she married, and her second child, a son Uzoma, followed in 1969. As a wife and mother, Nwapa believed in the integrity of the family. Her husband, wealthy industrialist Chief Gogo Nwakuche, encouraged and supported her efforts, agreeing with her that African women needed to be aware that their "self-actualization is an inalienable right, not a male preserve." Nwapa's second book, Idu, was published in 1971. Later that year, she had her third child, a daughter Amede, and she also accepted an important government position. As minister for Health and Social Welfare, and later minister for Lands, Survey and Urban Development, Nwapa worked in the Igbo area, earning high praise. Chief among her accomplishments was the Oguta Lake project. In Imo State, she is remembered as "the lady who opened up Oguta Lake for tourism and made the government build an ultra modern facility with a golf course at Oguta." A hospital was also built during her term of office. When a coup d'état ended her government career, she decided to write full time.

In 1976, she founded Tana Press, Ltd., followed by Flora Nwapa Books, Ltd. Her aim was twofold: to publish children's books which would teach children "to value their own rich culture, and to encourage more women to write books." Her first self-published adult books were This Is Lagos, and Other Stories, Never Again, Wives at War, and Other Stories, and One Is Enough. Tana Press also published her two lengthy poems, Cassava Song and Rice Song, as well as her children's books.

Nwapa's work showed her versatility as a writer. This is Lagos (1971) cautioned about the dangers of city life; Never Again (1975) dealt with the civil war; One Is Enough (1981) addressed the practice of polygamy; and Women Are Different (1986) concerned the "dynamism of Nigerian womanhood in the face of challenge." In all her writings, the theme is consistent—the elevation of women in Africa and a heightening of their sense of self-worth in a society of male dominance. With both her work and life, Nwapa is regarded as having "opened up what we might call women's space for African women and African women writers."

While running her successful businesses, Nwapa made a name for herself in international circles. Her books were distributed abroad, and she received invitations for lecture appearances from as far away as Louisiana in the United States. In 1976, Nwapa was a visiting lecturer at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri. She was Nigeria's representative at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair in 1981 and presented a paper in Sierra Leone, "Writing and Publishing for Children," in 1983. In 1984, she attended the First Feminist Book Fair in London. Later that same year, she lectured on African Literature at several universities in the United States, including Ames, Austin, Lincoln and Northwestern. In 1985, Nwapa attended an international conference at Michigan State University, East Lansing, and presented a paper, "The Black Woman Writer and the Diaspora," in Nairobi, Kenya. Among the other papers she presented at conferences both in Africa and abroad were "Nwanyibu: Womanbeing and African Literature," "Priestesses and Power Among the Riverine Igbos," "The Image of the New Woman," and "Women and Creative Writing in Africa." Invited to the Zimbabwe Book Fair, she spoke on "An African Woman as Publisher." Nwapa received a special citation from the University of Ife, the "Ife Merit Award on Authorship and Publishing." Her first novel, Efuru, was translated into French and Dutch.

With all of the invitations, Nwapa's popularity rose at home. In 1989, she was appointed a visiting professor in creative writing at the University of Maidururi and became a member of the University of Harin Governing Council. In 1990, she was appointed to the Commission on the Review of Higher Education. Two years later, Nwapa was appointed a member of the Committee for the Ziks Center in Zugeru.

Between 1991 and 1993, she was again invited on a lecture tour of several major American colleges and universities, including Loyola, Trinity, Sarah Lawrence, Rutgers, New York University, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While on this tour, she was offered a one-year visiting professorship at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, during the 1993–94 academic year. Her arrival was anxiously anticipated by students and faculty who had heard her speak there the year before. As well, the popularity of her books captured the attention of an American publisher, Africa World Press in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. With their release of Never Again, One Is Enough, Women Are Different, This Is Lagos, and Wives at War, Nwapa's readership vastly increased in the United States.

On October 16, 1993, Flora Nwapa died of pneumonia at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Enugu. She was survived by her mother, husband, two daughters (both attorneys), and one son (also an attorney). Respected by African writers of both sexes, she is remembered as Africa's "literary foremother." Many woman, especially writers, are grateful for the road she paved during her 30 years as Africa's premier woman of letters.

sources:

Eulogy of family members. Enugu, Nigeria, 1993.

Umeh, Marie. "Signifying the Griottes: Flora Nwapa's Legacy of (Re)Vision and Voice," in Research In Africa Literature. Vol. 26. Summer 1995, p. 114.

suggested reading:

Chukere, Gloria. Gender, Voices and Choices. Enugu, Nigeria: Dimension, 1995.

Umeh, Marie. "The Poetics of Economic Independence for Female Empowerment: An Interview with Flora Nwapa," in Research in African Literature. Vol 26, no. 2. Summer 1995, p. 22.

Wilentz, Gay. Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Kathryn E.I. Gibson , Assistant Professor of English-Speech, City University of New York, New York

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