Flora Nwapa and the house that Onyeka Nwelue built for her
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
It is hard not to fall in love with The House of Nwapa, Onyeka Nwelue’s free-wheeling documentary on Flora Nwapa, the enigmatic writer who died in 1993. Reader, be warned, Onyeka Nwelue courts controversies and lives and breathes by them, and this documentary is no exception. Nwelue has strong views on just about anything and he offers them freely and loudly. He recently gained more notoriety for his disparaging remarks about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (in this Premium Times interview):
“I think Things Fall Apart should be buried and never made to resurrect. Yes, Anthills of the Savannah is a very beautiful book; it’s well written. But I don’t agree with Things Fall Apart being called the great African novel by everybody. There are better books. If you’ve read Things Fall Apart and have read what young people write these days – people like Helen Oyeyemi, Diekoye Oyeyinka and Chigozie Obioma – you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.”
So, who is Flora Nwapa? In the same interview, Nwelue offers this rather colorful description of the enigma that was Nwapa:
“I have a documentary, which would be premiering at the Image Women Film Festival at Harare at the end of August. It is called The House of Nwapa on Flora Nwapa whose story has been completely erased from the literary consciousness of Nigeria. Most people have forgotten who she was, but this was the most powerful woman in the South-East in the 70s. She married two men and also married another woman for her second husband. Her uncle was the first Minister of Commerce in Nigeria, J.C Nwapa. She was Mabel Segun’s close friend but people don’t know. They were very strong women. Mabel represented Nigeria at the Olympics, while Flora engaged in her own bid as the Commissioner of Survey in the old South-Eastern region.
“Young people of my age have no idea who Flora Nwapa was, so they need to be told her story. The story is very interesting, as most of the Igbo who ran to the US during the Civil War did so through her help. She helped them through Cameroon and Portugal. Nwapa was the Registrar at the University of Lagos when the war broke out but ran back to the East to work with the refugees. Flora was the most powerful woman; I didn’t say one of the most powerful woman but the most powerful woman. Buchi Emecheta even lived with her at a point, and got the title of her book Joys of Motherhood from Flora’s first work, Efuru. Flora never called herself a feminist but she was a symbol of women’s liberation in Nigeria.”
Wikipedia also has a good biography of here (here). As documentaries go, this is an unusual production, certainly far from a perfect production, rough around all the edges, sloppy and sometimes baffling in its incoherence (not all the parts jell). Still its flaws give it a rustic charm and in a counter-intuitive sense, make it a documentary to watch. There is a trailer of the movie here on YouTube. The House of Nwapa is more than what it appears, it is not merely a collection of old footage cobbled together to make a story; in a real sense, it is more than the story of the coolly cerebral and mysterious Nwapa.
This is an important documentary, despite its myriad technical flaws. Nwelue deserves kudos for this film, it is clearly done on a shoestring budget, but he did not wait for everything to be perfect before completing this project. He comes across as a thinker and a doer, albeit a sloppy worker. He could have used professional help and more resources. It is a crying shame that a nation like Nigeria where politicians routinely give away millions to their lovers cannot fund such a worthy initiative. Until recently, Nwapa’s significant contributions to literature, women empowerment and service to Nigeria have suffered benign neglect. This is a shame; Flora Nwapa is an incredibly important marker of African literature. It is great that of recent her name is becoming common on the lips of lovers of literature. Nwapa is best known for the epic novel Efuru which turns 50 this year (there are quite a few plans by fans to celebrate the event).
It bears repeating: The House of Nwapa is best described as a work in progress, not quite ready for prime time but what he has done, you must watch. Kudos to Nwelue’s boundless energy, passion and persistence. He clearly did the research and traveled thousands of miles and quite a few continents to bring together many fascinating people willing to talk about Nwapa. Watching the documentary, one gets a sense that this is really more than Nwapa, but about the world that she lived in. The viewer will love the historical black and white video clips from the archives that Nwelue inserted in the documentary beginning with a clip about Biafra that starts the movie. In it, a young unbroken and defiant Biafran lady intones, “Biafra is going to emerge as a nation. We shall never go back to Nigeria again!” Her dream is still, well, a dream.
The voice over is done by Onyeka Nwelue the producer of the documentary who tries hard to tee up controversies by setting up rivalries and binary arguments: Yakubu Gowon versus Odumegwu Ojukwu, Chinua Achebe versus Wole Soyinka, Nwapa versus Mabel Segun, etc. Ona Nwelue, Nwelue’s mother, a distant relative of Nwapa plays a cameo role, and there is the flamboyant Charles Oputa aka Charly Boy along with a host of her relatives offering salacious if not gossipy tidbits about Nwapa. To be honest, some of the footage can be baffling, it is either not clear why this is about Nwapa or why this is about literature. It all makes for fun viewing though. There is a particularly charming section where young Nwelue is interviewing Professor Wole Soyinka. One comes face to face with Soyinka’s mortality, he looks a bit frail and hard of hearing. He clearly needed his hearing aid. And you want to hug Kongi, awesome lion luxuriating in the winter of his life’s journey.
Nwelue did back-breaking research for this documentary. Sadly, one wonders if many of those Nigerians interviewed ever read any of Nwapa’s books. If they did, they had a poor way of showing it. Many of the responses were vague anecdotes, syrupy panegyrics with little substance. Many who ordinarily would know about Nwapa are old and having trouble recalling much of substance. The legendary James Currey, editorial editor (1967-1984) of Heinemann’s African Writers Series struggled mightily to recall Nwapa or anything profound she had said when he allegedly knew her in the sixties. I would not have used that interview. The interviews with Nwapa’s children (Ejine Nzeribe, Amede Obiora, and Uzoma Nwakuche) were charming but if you were looking for literary insights from them, you would be disappointed. The son Uzoma Nwakuche remembers a lot about his mother but not much about her books. If he read them, it doesn’t show. He remembers that his sister met the late Haile Selassie of Ethipoia and he offers that: “I knew my mom more as a mother than as a writer!”
Nwelue trots out several younger writers who offer opinions ranging from profound to the banal to the baffling. It was great to see Wale Okediran and Tess Onwueme., however, many clearly had not read a page of what Nwapa ever wrote but felt obliged to humor Nwelue. The most charming – and head-scratching is Nwelue’s interview with the young writer Mitterand Okorie. There is no mention of Nwapa in the interview, just a benign plug about his new book, All That is Bright and Ugly. I am not sure why the footage is there, it looks like something from a failed project that was thrown in as a filler. We do learn a lot about Okorie who shyly brags about “an accomplished dating life but full of turbulence” that involved up to ten girls over a ten-year dating period and who offers that he loves sex if “it is methodical, if you don’t just want to lie down and do mama and papa style, you will enjoy the act.” Too funny. But why was it here? Ask Nwelue, his demons are many.
The interview with the eighty-six year old writer Mabel Segun is worth the cost of watching the documentary. She is feisty and funny as hell. She literally took over the interview and over a lengthy period of time, with Nwelue watching amused, she set out to debunk the notion that Nwapa was the pioneer of women’s literature in Nigeria, she loudly and effectively situated herself in a rung in the ladder above Nwapa and trotted out documentary evidence of other women writers. She reminds us of other female writers like Zulu Sofola, Zainab Alkali, Adaora Lily Ulasi, etc. You must watch that part, Segun does not take prisoners. She is colorful, kai, she has kind and unkind things to say about many writers living and dead and you fall on the floor laughing as she ridicules her ex-husband and his philandering ways. The title of the documentary should be changed to The House of Flora Nwapa and Mabel Segun, Her thesis? Women were not silent before Nwapa! She has interesting things to say about the NLNG Prize and Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo with whom she shared the then $30,000 prize in 2007. Talk about feisty, lol.
I enjoyed Nwelue’s trip to Oguta Lake in Imo State, Nwapa’s ancestral land, in his search of the connection between Ogbuide the water goddess of Oguta Lake and Nwapa. There are rumors that the water goddess was Nwapa’s guiding spirit or demiurge just as Ogun is Soyinka’s. The research is at best inconclusive but gives us some of the best scenes of the movie.
Polygamy is treated well here. Nwelue’s interviews of several of the writers included an interrogation of Nwapa’s conflicted views about feminism. This part I found interesting as I listened to many writers like Jahman Anikulapo who asserted that Nwapa’s generation did not need to raise their voices; they simply had a deeper understanding of the concept of feminism. He seemed dismissive of what he termed the “cyberspace feminism” of the current generation. Similarly the writer Chinyere Obi Obasi saw Nwapa as a pragmatic feminist. These and many other views including that of Nwelue who served as a highly opinionated voice over are bound to extend the debate on feminism into fiery territory. Ainehi Edoro has an insightful piece on Nwapa’s ambivalence towards feminism, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of her epic book, Efuru. There are other interesting anecdotes offered by established Nigerian writers like Adimora-Ezeigbo and Denja Abdullahi, the current president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). They and an army of Nwapa’s relatives provided interesting anecdotes about her life.
Nwapa, ever enigmatic and mysterious features as herself in a couple of video clips where she is interviewed and where she is dancing. They are lovely scenes, she is pretty, graceful, cerebral and purposeful. And she dances and dances and dances like someone with no care in the world. Thanks to Nwelue, we can now say that her personal life is well documented. She was sensual, coolly bold and ahead of her times. In the video narrative was rumored to have had many relationships with many men. She was in a polygamous marriage with Gogo Nwakuche and the second wife, Maudline Nwakuche. It all makes up for a very enigmatic character and the best work Nwelue does in the documentary is to pretty much establish that there is a biographical slant to Efuru. All very interesting.
In a supreme irony, the better prepared interviewees were foreign experts. There is Margaret Busby (good interview of her here) whose response to patriarchy and literature was to produce The Daughters of Africa, an anthology of poetry by 200 female poets. In the documentary she mentions that Soyinka’s poetry anthology did not feature a female and in a sense her collection was a response to that omission. Professor Sabine Jell Bahlsen anthropologist, and author Water Goddess was similarly insightful. Watch this footage of her on Nwapa and Efuru at the 2016 conference in London. Professor Mani M Meitei, Dean of Humanities, Manipur University in India who translated Things Fall Apart into Manipuri seemed to have done his homework. Soyinka by contrast, merely offered that Nwapa was “one of us.” In general, I would say that Nwelue had great access to several important actors, he was however not disciplined enough to take full advantage of the opportunity.
The House of Nwapa is a labor of love and you end up grinning through it all, there is never a dull moment and sometimes for reasons other than the literary. We need more of this. Inspiring is the list of funders, most of them private individuals on Facebook, who helped a dreamer execute a worthy project. I love that Nwelue gave them all credit at the end of the documentary. We need more patrons of the arts like these folks. Go watch the documentary and see the names for yourselves. Where should you watch it? I don’t know, you would have to ask Nwelue himself. You know where to find him. On social media.