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Flora Nwapa (1931-1993)

 

Nigerian writer, teacher, and administrator, a forerunner of a whole generation of African women writers. Flora Nwapa is best-known for re-creating Igbo (Ibo) life and traditions from a woman's viewpoint. With Efuru (1966) Nwapa became black Africa's first internationally published female novelist in the English language. She has been called the mother of modern African literature

"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." (from an interview with Marie Umeh, 1995)

Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa was born in Oguta, eastern Nigeria, which was then a British colony. Both of her parents, Christopher Ijeoma and Martha Nwapa, were teachers. She was educated at the University of Idaban, receiving her B.A. in 1957. Nwapa continued her studies in England, earning in 1958 a degree in education from the University of Edinburgh.

After returnig to Nigeria in 1959 Nwapa worked as an education officer in Calabar for a short time, and then she taught geography and English at Queen's School in Enugu. From 1962 to 1964 Nwapa was an assistant registrar at the University of Lagos. During the Nigerian Civil war, which broke out in 1967, she left Lagos with her family. Like many members of the Igbo elite, they were forced to to return to the eastern region after the end of the conflict. Nwapa served as Minister for Health and Social Welfare for the East Central State (1970-1971). Her tasks included finding homes for 2000 war orphans. Later on she worked for Commissioner for Lands, Survey, and Urban Development (1971-1974). In 1982 the Nigerian government bestowed on her one of the country's highest honors, the OON (Order of Niger). By her own town, Oguta, she was awarded the highest chieftaincy title, Ogbuefi, which is usually reserved for men of achievement.

Besides writing books, Nwapa established Tana Press, which published adult fiction. It was the first indigenous publishing house owned by a black African woman in West Africa. Between 1979 and 1981 she produced eight volumes of adult fiction. Nwapa set up also another publishing company, Flora Nwapa and Co., which specialized in children's fiction. In these books she combined Nigerian elements with general moral and ethical teachings. As a business woman, she also encouraged with her own exaple to break the traditional female roles of wife/mother and strive for equality in society. However, Nwapa did not call herself a feminist but a "womanist," a term coined by the American writer Alice Walker in her collection of essays, In Search of My Mother's Garden: Womanist Prose (1983).

As a novelist Nwapa made her debut with Efuru, based on an old folktale of a woman chosen by gods, but challenged the traditional portrayal of women. Efuru, which Nwapa started to write in 1962, was the first novel published by a Nigerian woman in English. The Promised Land by the Kenyan Grace Ogot appeared also in 1966; both works were pathbreakers. Nwapa sent to manuscript to her good friend Chinua Achebe in Lagos and after some editorial suggestions, Achebe sent it to Heineman Educational Books for publication in the African Writers Series (No. 56). The story was set in a rural community. Efuru, the heroine, is a strong and beautiful woman. She loses her child and has two unhappy marriages, but struggless against all obstacles to become a successful businesswoman. At the end she goes to the lake goddess, Uhamiri, who is like a mirror of herself, but she can also be regarded as Nwapa's own alter ego, her mother and daughter. Uhamiri gives her worshipers wealth and beauty but few children. Locally the river goddess was known as Ogbuide. At a conferense, "Queens, Queen Mothers, Priestesses and Power" Nwapa revealed that she has thought of writing a sequel to Efuru, to be titled Efuru in Her Glory.

Nwapa's second novel, Idu (1970), was also a story about a woman, whose life is bound up with that of her husband. When he dies, she choices to seek him out in the land of dead rather than live without him or prefer motherhood to anything else. The critical reception was mainly hostile. Eustace Palmer in African Literature Today and Eldred Jones in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature compared it with Elechi Amadi's The Concubine (1966), also published in the African Writersn series (No. 25), but not in Nwapa's favour. The war novel, Never Again (1975), drew its material from the Nigerian Civil War (see also Chinua Achebe's Beware, Soul Brother, 1971, a collection of poems, and Elechi Amadi's Sunset in Biafra, 1979). The protagonist, Kate, who starts as a supporter of the Biafran cause, ends struggling simply to survive. Wives at War, and Other Stories (1980) dealt with the Biafran conflict.

Nwapa wrote short stories, poetry and children's books, such as Mummywater (1979), which brought to life a water deity - the water goddess Ogbuide or Uhamiri appeared also in her adult fiction; Mummywata was her westernized Igbo counterpart. A central theme in her fiction was childlessness, from her early novels to Women Are Different (1986), in which her four major female characters choose between such options as self actualization in their career and the marriage institution, life in the town and in the country. "Her generation was telling the men, that there are different ways of living one's life fully and fruitfully," one of the women concludes. "They have a choice, a choice to marry and have children, a choice to marry or divorce their husband. Marriage is not THE only way." Noteworthy, spinsterhood without children is not a positive option and Nwapa never had the interest to deal with the theme of lesbianism.

Flora Nwapa died on October 16, 1993 in Enugu, Nigeria. Until her death she was a visiting professor and lecturer at numerous colleges in the U.S. and Nigeria. Nwapa was married to Chief Gogo Nwakuche, a business man; they had three children. She remained Nwakuche's first wife, although he took other wives. Because she wanted her children to have a father, she did not leave or divorce him. At the time of her death, Nwapa had completed The Lake Goddess, her final novel, entrusting the manuscript to the Jamaican Chester Mills. This work 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.

For further reading: Love, Motherhood and the African Heritage: The Legacy of Flora Nwapa by Feml Nzegwu (2003); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Postcolonial African Writers, ed. by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa, ed. Marie Umeh (1997); Africa Wo/Man Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women by Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (1996); 'These Days [III] - A Letter to Flora Nwapa' by Ama Ata Aidoo, in Research in African Literatures, ed. Marie Umeh and Ogunyemi Chicwenye Okonjo (1995); Motherlands, ed. Susheila Nasta (1992); Nigerian Female Writers, ed. Henrietta Otokunefor and Obiageli Nwodo (1989); Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (1986); Women Writers in Black Africa by Lloyd W. Brown (1981) - Note: Flora Nwapa's date of birth is in some sources 18 Jan. 1931; in this calendar: 13. Jan., 1931

Selected works:

  • Efuru, 1966
    - Efuru (suom. Paula Herranen, 1989)
  • Idu, 1970
  • This is Lagos and Other Stories, 1971
  • 'The Campaigner,' 1971 (in The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria, ed. Chinua Achebe; rpt in African Rhythms: Selected Stories and Poems, ed. Charlotte Brooks, 1974)
  • Emeka - Driver's Guard, 1972
  • Never Again, 1975
  • Ada, 1976 (in Black Orpheus)
  • Mammywater, 1979 (Flora Nwapa Books; illustrated by Obiora Udechukwu)
  • My Animal Colouring Book, 1979 (Flora Nwapa Books)
  • The Adventures of Deke, 1980 (Flora Nwapa Books)
  • Golden Wedding Jubilee of Chief and Mrs. C. I. Nwapa, April 20, 1930-April 20, 1980 1980 (Flora Nwapa & Co.)
  • The Miracle Kittens, 1980 (Flora Nwapa Books)
  • Journey to Space, 1980
  • Wives at War and Other Stories , 1980
  • One is Enough, 1981
  • My Tana Alphavet Book, 1981 (Flora Nwapa & Co.)
  • My Animal Number Book, 1981 (Flora Nwapa & Co.)
  • 'This Is Lagos,' 1983 (in Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa, ed. Charlotte Bruner; rpt. in Daughters of Africa, ed. Margaret Busby, 1992)
  • 'Nigeria - The Woman as a Writer,' 1985 (in Realities)
  • Cassava Song & Rice Song, 1986
  • Women are Different, 1986
  • The Lake Goddess, 1995


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