Onuora Nzekwu lived a life that was magical in terms of his many cherished accomplishments. It’s as though he was blessed with a magic wand; little wonder his first novel published in 1961, that is a year after Nigeria’s independence, was entitled Wand of Noble Wood. It’s cool by me to recall an incident in this groundbreaking novel in the annals of African literature.
The protagonist of the novel, Peter, who incidentally is a journalist, as Onuora Nzekwu then was, goes to the hospital where an elderly Onitsha friend of his, Mr. Agbata, lay dying. The horrified nurse informs Peter and Agbata’s son and daughter that the dying man cannot stop talking of the number of people he had killed. The man on his deathbed speaks on thusly: “Didn’t Emena say he was strong and wise? Did he not say he was powerful? Yet he could not survive the simple test to which I put him. He could neither stop my magic arrow from entering his side nor wrestle with it for long. Or is it Ikebundu, that man who was so proud after taking the Ozo title? He only breathed the air, which I set in motion with my leathern fan … and that sent him to his death two days later…” The man who everybody thought was a good man pointedly tells his daughter Miriam that he killed Oduanu because he beat her, stressing: “Yes, it was you, Miriam… it was you he beat. In revenge I touched him with my fan and that alone sent him to his grave.” The bad man refuses to die in the hospital and is taken back to his Lagos home where some strange discoveries are made at his bed: “The space was empty, but at a point underneath his pillow, hanging from the spring of the bed, was a string of black, red and yellow threads. At the other end of it was the fresh bleeding heart of a goat. Surprisingly the heart was contracting and expanding. It was suspended over a hole dug in the floor.” The man only dies after asking them to cut the thread, stressing that he must be taken to his hometown of Ado, to wit Onitsha, for burial thus: “As the heart fell into the hole, two things happened: the dying man breathed his last. The old goat bleated urgently, ‘Kpaa! Kpaa!’ and became silent.”
Literary scholars talk of magical realism mostly in relation to Latin American literature without, for instance, taking cognizance that Onuora Nzekwu published Wand of Noble Wood in 1961 while Gabriel Garcia Marquez released One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. Nzekwu had been weaving magic with the wand of words before the coming of the Latin American so-called masters.
In his second novel, Blade Among the Boys published in 1962, the tragic hero Patrick who was brought up in a Christian home aspires to be a Catholic priest but perforce relocates to the rural village when his father dies. He discovers that he has a call to the traditional divinity but this doesn’t deter him from going to the seminary until the charms of the femme fatale Nkiru leads to pregnancy and Patrick’s signal ruination.
Onuora Nzekwu is most famous as the co-author of the juvenile novella Eze Goes to School which he co-authored with the historian Michael Crowder, author of the historical book The Story of Nigeria. According to Nzekwu, “The reason I wrote Eze Goes to School was because a few books had been written for Nigerians by Nigerian writers, but there was nothing about Nigerian children or for them to read. All the books that we had, when I was in school and when I came out, were books about European children. So I thought I should write something about our own children and how they live. And I wrote it based on our surroundings so that the child who is reading it will understand and appreciate that this is something that is familiar.” The overwhelming success of Eze Goes to School led to the writing of the sequel Eze Goes to College.
After many decades of silence on the literary front, Nzekwu in 2012 published his novel Troubled Dust based on the Biafra war. The book made the 11-book penultimate shortlist of the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature. At the Annual Book Party organized by the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) which held at Freedom Park on Broad Street, Lagos Island, an interactive forum between the media and the writers on the list, Nzekwu explained his release of the novel 42 years after the end of the war: “The question should not be why I wrote the book now. It should be why is it being published now? I have been working on the book since the civil war ended, but one of the problems that I met is the question of getting a publisher who will accept it the way it is. I didn’t write the book now. I published it when I got a publisher who took it the way it is and did a good job for me and for himself…”
Nzekwu international standing is highlighted by his receiving of the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1961. The coveted fellowship enabled him to study “American Methods of Magazine Production” at Crafts Horizons in New York. He forged further ahead in 1964 with the award of the UNESCO Fellowship with which he studied Copyright Administration for three months in Geneva, Prague, Paris, London, New York and Washington.
Born in Kafanchan in the then Northern Region on February 19, 1928 to Onitsha parents, Mr. Obiese Nzekwu and Mrs. Mary Ogugua Nzekwu (née Aghadiuno), the young Joseph Onuora Nzekwu began his primary school education in Kafanchan but had to go back to his native Onitsha in 1939 while at Primary Four when his father who worked in the railways died. An uncle who equally worked with the railways took him to Zaria for three months and eventually to Kano where he completed his primary education. He came back to Onitsha and was made to repeat Elementary Six before getting enrolled into the teacher training college, first at St Anthony’s and then to the prestigious St Charles. He earned the Higher Education Certificate in 1946.
He served as a teacher for nine years before joining the Federal Ministry of Information in Lagos in January 1956 as an editorial assistant of the esteemed Nigeria magazine. He became the editor-in-chief of the magazine in 1958. He had to leave his post in Lagos when the Nigerian crisis began in 1966. He worked in information and cultural divisions in Biafra, and returned to Lagos at the end of the war in 1970. He served as a senior information officer from May 1970 before being appointed the protem General Manager of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN). He became the first General Manager of NAN on July 1, 1979. He retired in 1985 after nearly 40 years of meritorious service and was on August 8, 2006, at NAN’s 30th Anniversary in Abuja, presented with the “Maker of NAN” plaque. He was conferred the National Honour of the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in 2008.
He got married to Ononenyi Justina Ogbenyeanu Mbanefo, the daughter of the legendary Chief Isaac Aniegboka Mbanefo, Odu II of Onitsha, in June 1960. A traditional being of high culture, Nzekwu was inducted into the distinguished ancient Agbalanze Society of Onitsha in May 1991. He held dear the renowned customs and traditions of Onitsha whence his publishing in 1977 the book The Chima Dynasty in Onitsha, which traces the monarchical history of Onitsha. He authored in 2003 Faith of Our Fathers, a well-researched “compendium of the arts, beliefs, social institutions and code of values that characterize the Onitsha traditional community”. He was also the author of Ahmad Daggash – Story of the True published in 2016.
Odinigwe Joseph Onuora Nzekwu died on April 21, 2017, at the age of 89, and Onitsha his much-beloved hometown is agog with the theme: “Eze Goes Home”.