Flora Nwapa - remembered today as Africa’s “literary foremother” - was born on January 13, 1931 in Oguta, located in eastern Nigeria. She was the eldest of six children born to parents, Christopher Ljeoma, an agent for the United Africa Company and Martha Nwapa, a drama teacher. Growing up, Nwapa attended missionary schools in Oguta, Port Harcourt, and Lagos. In her early education, Nwapa read and fell in love with the works of Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and Charles Dickens. In an interview with The Guardian she explains, “My whole life has been a mixture of influences … and at school, we were encouraged to speak in our tribal language and to respect our traditions and heritage” (17). As the eldest child, Nwapa took great care and responsibility in helping her mother with her sewing and mending business. It was while working with her mother that Nwapa’s first inspirations for writing her authentic and compelling stories of African women came. Local women in her Igbo community who would come to have their clothing mended, would tell Nwapa fascinating stories of Igbo history, and mythology, of goddesses, and magic. Despite these captivating traditional tales, Nwapa’s childhood marked a time in Nigerian history when British colonial rule oppressed and subjugated Nigerians. Thus a nationalist movement for independence from Britain emerged. This movement was primarily started by a rising group of Nigerian business elite who wanted to gain economic and political independence - the movement peaked when the Nigerian economy fell into recession because of a collapse in the ratio between average export and import prices. This issue continued to play out well into World War II where Britain's investment, imports, and government spending in Nigeria was largely reduced. Once this “wartime” government gained total control of the economy, it issued trade licenses only to established firms and companies, causing the prices of agricultural commodities to fall well below the world market rate, and causing Nigerian consumers to experience shortages in imported goods. By 1945, Nigerians - angered by this issue of trade and import - began to participate in worker strikes, as well as fight back against large private businesses for more participation in the colonial government. In 1949 elite Nigerian workers were finally consulted by the British as part of a much needed constitutional review. This review allowed Nigerian citizens to begin and actively participate in an ongoing debate over decolonization, independence, and modernization. From 1950 to 1960, a long struggle for independence from Britain grew between major elite political parties. Nigerian political leaders were able to use a variety of controls within the government to create economic security in exchange for loyalty from those who were considered to be impoverished or less privileged Nigerian citizens. These draws of economic stability attracted these so-called socially inferior groups from all across the country until independence was achieved in 1960.
By the time Nwapa attended the University of Ibadan, in 1953, the 22-year-old was living in a country that had been in a long battle for economic stability and independence from Britain. This however, did not stop her from pursuing her own education and initial plans of becoming an educator herself. Despite having witnessed Nigeria’s people divide and unite several times throughout her childhood and early adulthood, she also remained rooted in the culture of her Igbo people and in the Ugwuta society which she eventually used in her writing as her platform to “break the silence” of African women. Although Nwapa would soon come to be considered from a eurocentric perspective a radical feminist, she believed that the stories she wrote were simply literary truths that revealed the authentic lives and roles of African women in their communities.
After graduating from the University of Ibadan in 1957 and earning her BA, Nwapa traveled to Scotland briefly, earning her diploma in education from Edinburgh University in 1959. Immediately thereafter, Nwapa returned to Nigeria and took on a variety of department and teaching jobs; her first being Education Officer in Calabar. She then went on that same year to teach English and Geography at the Queen’s School in Enugu from late 1959 until 1962. While teaching in Enugu the 30-year-old Nwapa wrote her first and most well acclaimed novel, Efuru. The book was officially published in 1966 while she was working as the Assistant Registrar at the University of Lagos. The book was sent to Nwapa’s colleague, Chinua Achebe, the most famous African writer of the modern era, (author of Things Fall Apart), who loved the story so much that he sent it to Heinemann Publishing. Efuru made Nwapa the first published female Nigerian author, and the first book published in English by a female African writer.
Efuru is a fictionalized, strong and beautiful female heroine growing up in a rural Igbo community, the daughter of a well-respected and celebrated man in the community. However, she falls in love with a poor farmer, Adizua, with whom she elopes. Efuru is able to support her husband financially by rejecting his idea of having her work on their farm and instead becoming a woman of trade. Her success in trading causes Adizua to stop farming and join her in the business. Eventually, Adizua and Efuru have a daughter, but she is suddenly taken by a fever. Upon the death of the baby, Adizua abandons Efuru and she comes to learn that he has left her for another woman he also had a child with towards the end of their marriage. Because Efuru grew close to her in-laws while she was married to Adizua, they suggest she stay with them; but she refuses and decides to look for Adizua instead. Unable to find him, Efuru decides to return to her Father’s home and to her surprise he receives her with joy - grateful that she has returned to him. Efuru then meets another man back in her community named Gilbert. Eventually they marry and this time instead of eloping, follow the marriage traditions and customs of the Igbo culture. Efuru and Gilbert work together as equal business partners proving their marriage to be a much happier one than Efuru’s first marriage. Yet, when Efuru is unable to have children the marriage grows bitter and inharmonious. She decides to leave Gilbert and his other two wives to instead dedicate herself to the goddess of the lake, Uhamiri, whom she believes she has been chosen to serve. Efuru eventually realizes that Uhamiri is also incapable of having children, but rather, possesses the qualities of beauty, wealth, and wisdom, similar to Efuru herself. This gives her the confidence to live as an independent woman in her community.
When Efuru was first released, it was poorly received by Western critics, who accused it of having weak writing and being an inauthentic story. Nwapa, however, was not discouraged by her Western peers. She argued with confidence that her stories were completely authentic and her writing was strong. Westerners, however, had read nothing like Efuru before – Achebe’s Things Fall Apart being the first African novel Westerners had read in 1958 -- and their stereotypical way of looking at African literature was silenced by Nwapa’s new way of truth-telling. In time Efuru earned Nwapa a large readership and critical acclaim, even earning an official spot on the English curriculum for Nigerian schools. The story sets itself apart from traditional Western novels, particularly in its unique use of dialogue amongst the women in the narrative. According to French Guadeloupean author and critic, Maryse Conde, in “Three Female Writers in Modern Africa,” Nwapa’s dialogue creates a “disturbing picture of narrow mindedness, superstition, malevolence, greed, and fear” (12). Nwapa’s narrative in fact shows that no matter what each individual woman in Efuru’s community thinks, they are all still a collective unit and support each other. Nwapa clarifies that these conversations show “Igbo social values and how women themselves accept, reject, or revise these mores in pursuit of their own goals” (Parekh 1998, 339). The social values that Nwapa brings to light in her novel, challenge the insignificance of African women in their communities, a Western stereotype for centuries, and rather reveal these women’s true ideals and identities. This seemingly radical perspective earned Nwapa the title of “feminist” in the eyes of her Western audience, a title she would come to deny.
In 1967, Nwapa married industrialist, Gogo Nwakuche, who supported her efforts as an author. Meanwhile, Nigeria had entered into The Biafran civil war which Nwapa believed was, to a certain extent, actually liberating for women. Although Nwapa’s Igbo heritage forced her to leave her job in Lagos and return to Eastern Nigeria during the war, it allowed her to witness the strength of the women in her community. She states, “the women would dress as Yorubas and go into the enemy villages to trade. It was us who found food for the men and kept the family going. We were the backbone of the war. And, for some women, this was the start of a highly successful career in trading” (Cavendish, 1992, 17).
The year 1970 marked the end of the Civil War, and, a year later, Nwapa published her second major adult novel titled Idu. Idu dealt with similar issues and themes as Efuru such as independent and empowering female heroines in Igbo society - similar to those Nwapa witnessed during the war. Nwapa was by now a mother of three and an author of two as she went on to accept a variety of significant government positions in her community such as: minister for Health and Social Welfare, and later minister for Lands, Survey, and Urban Development in the Igbo area – positions which earned her much praise. One of her greatest projects as minister for Lands, Survey, and Urban Development was the Oguta Lake project which opened the lake up to tourists, bringing income to local communities.
In 1976, at age 45, Nwapa decided to write full time and founded Tana Press Ltd., later Flora Nwapa Books Ltd. This allowed her to focus on two goals: easily write and publish both children’s picture books and adult novels that would influence girls and women to value themselves, their culture, and to write and share their own stories. Her first self-published adult novels were This is Lagos and Other Stores (1971), Never Again (1975), Wives at War and Other Stories (1980), and One is Enough (1981). Nwapa also self-published two lengthy poems called: Cassava Song and Rice Song (1986), and a number of children’s books. Her books dealt with a variety of issues such as the dangers of Nigerian city life, the Civil War and the practice of polygamy. Her novel, Women Are Different (1986), showed the vigor and spirit of Nigerian women in various challenges they faced in their daily lives. If one thing is concrete, it is that all of Nwapa’s novels presented a consistent theme, the elevation of African Women. Nwapa exercised her “power of the pen” by opening what is called “women’s space,” (Gibson, 2002) in literature, not only for African women writers, but for all African women by informing her readers of the lives of African women that Westerners had neither heard of nor seen.
While Nwapa continued to run her successful publishing business, her following grew rapidly among overseas audiences and she began to receive invitations for lecture appearances from all over the United States, Europe, and parts of Africa. In Nigeria in 1976 she was a visiting lecturer at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education in Owerri in Nigeria. In 1981 she attended the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and later in 1983 presented a paper in Sierra Leone titled: “Writing and Publishing for Children.” 1984 was when Nwapa finally accepted many of her lecture invitations to the United States. That same year, she attended the first International Feminist Book Fair in London; a book fair where major women writers and publishers gathered to devise book launches and feminist drivel discussions and talks. Nwapa attended every International Feminist Book Fair thereafter. In the United States, Nwapa lectured about her own, as well as other types of African literature at a number of universities including Ames, Austin, Lincoln, and Northwestern. The following year in 1985, Nwapa attended an international conference at Michigan State University, East Lansing, and then traveled to Nairobi Kenya to present a paper called, “The Black Woman Writer and the Diaspora.”
After having traveled all over the world to speak on her ideals about African women as well as the context of her own literature, Nwapa’s popularity at home grew abundantly. In 1989 she was appointed visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Maiduguri and became a member of the University of Harin Governing Council. Between 1991 and 1993 Nwapa was invited back to the United States on a lecture tour of Universities including Loyola, Trinity, Rutgers, and New York University. Nwapa’s ability to capture an audience - particularly an American audience, being the independent African woman she was, was considered extraordinary. Towards the end of her life in 1993, she still traveled to lecture and present in the United States, as well as to serve as a guest professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Nwapa’s arrivals were always greeted with anxious students and faculty, all eagerly anticipating her lectures.
The “female literary tradition” (Umeh 1995, 23) that ran through Nwapa’s writings and speeches was “rooted in resistance,” (Umeh 1995, 23) and was a “protest against the one-dimensional images of African and Nigerian women either as wives, mothers, or rebel girls” (Umeh 1995, 23). Because of this content, it is understandable that Western audiences viewed her - by their definition - as a feminist. However, according to Nwapa, this was a label that was placed on her during her Western interviews and lectures, and she constantly denied it. The definition of feminism according to Western audiences - in her eyes - was different than what feminism meant to Africans. (Nnaemeka 1995, 82). “The Western feminist constructs on texts that speak to different cultural contexts and realities” (Adeleke 2017). On the other hand, when Nwapa was among fellow female African scholars and authors, she declared herself a feminist with a capital “F.” In a conference she attended with other influential African women, Nwapa commented, “Years back, when I go on my tours to America and Europe, I’m usually asked, “Are you a feminist?” I deny that I am a feminist. Please I am not a feminist, oh please. But they say, all your works and everything is about feminism. And I say, “No I am not a feminist.” But having heard Obioma (a fellow author) on Monday, having heard Ama today, I think that I will go all out and say that I am a feminist with a big ‘f’ because Obioma said on Monday that feminism is about possibilities; there are possibilities, there are choices. Let us not be afraid to say that we are feminists. We need one another, we really need one another. Globally, we need one another” (Nnaemeka 1995, 83). Nwapa was an African feminist to the core, using her stories to “negotiate with patriarchal society to gain a new scope for women.” Nwapa recognized feminism as being about possibilities and choices, “about giving women in her country the right and freedom to choose their path without the menacing burden of social limitations” found particularly in Nigeria and in Igbo culture. Nwapa’s stories about strong and empowering women who sometimes chose the more difficult path in life to prove their independence, reveal the authentic lives and mindsets of African women. Mindsets that still run deeply through the veins of Nigerian and other African women to this today, thanks to the truth and honesty of Flora Nwapa’s storytelling.
On October 16, 1993, Flora Nwapa passed away from pneumonia at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Enugu. Her three children, two daughters and one son, went on to be attorneys and to this day, speak fondly and respectfully of their mother who is widely remembered as Africa’s “literary foremother.” In an interview with the Daily Independent in Nigeria, Nwapa’s son, Uzoma, said of his mother, “Being a public figure, she never failed in her role as a mother. She imbibed in us a great sense of respect for women. I admire her way of dealing with people and things. We will surely promote her legacy.”
This article forms part of the South African History Online and Principia College Partnership Project
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