There’s the analysis of Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road not Taken” that argues that we tend to look back at the choices we made in the past with romanticized lenses. So the authors I chose to read and adore in my childhood were the best even though I didn’t have much say in the matter. I know, I know, Robert Frost was probably talking about far more important decisions than deciding on which author to read.
Reading stories by Cyprian Ekwensi feels like opening a time capsule, a snapshot of another time, but of a place I know. Maybe stories like his are supposed to take you to a place in time, a connection between the past and the present. Many called Ekwensi the chronicler of Nigerian city life. You do feel like you’re immersing yourself into a Nigerian city as it was decades ago when he wrote his stories. There is a feeling I get with an Ekwensi story that I just don’t get reading Alexandre Dumars even though I can walk the Champ-Élysées if I want to (for the record, I love The Count of Monte Cristo). It is not just what you know, it is what you feel. It might probably just be nostalgia, or maybe not.
It does soften your heart a bit when you find slangs you thought you coined with your friends in a book published before you were even born. Even finding slangs you used to hear your dad use with his friends will make you pause while a wry smile moves across your face.
The Story: Spoiler Alert!!!
People of The City was first published in 1954. It is set in a city the author refuses to name but which I think is most likely Lagos, sometime before independence. The other city that features prominently is the Eastern Greens which I think is Enugu or maybe just Eastern Nigeria in general. He also calls the Eastern Greens the Coal City so it’s most likely Enugu.
A lot of the Nigerian movies that were made in the 90s share a common theme with this novel (or maybe they just copied it). Young men and women leaving their villages, traveling to the city (usually Lagos) with a few possessions, hoping to become rich, or someone who commands respect because power and authority is important.
The protagonist of the story is Amusa Sango, a struggling crime journalist and musician. He has also moved to the city in search of his big break.
I found this story difficult to summarize as it is a bit fast paced with the major plot line being Sango trying to make it in Lagos while being hit by one calamity or the other.
Sango is handsome and has women falling over for him. Being the lead singer of a band surely helps. The first woman in his life we get introduced to is Aina. She’s has also come to Lagos in search of her fortunes. She gets sent to prison for a couple of months after almost getting lynched by a mob for stealing some yards of cloth. Sango had lied to her that he loved her and that he would spend the rest of his life with her either before or after making love to her for the first time. She holds this against him for the rest of the story even as she hopes he will change his mind and get married to her.
Aina also blackmails Sango for money by accusing him of being the father of her unborn child. On one such occasion when she comes to ask for more money, Sango loses his temper and lashes at her. She goes into a coma and ends up losing her baby.
The health of Sango’s mother has been declining steadily for the past two years since his father passed away. She wants Sango to get married to Elina, “a decent girl from a good family” and had seen to their engagement while Elina was still in a convent.
Then there is Beatrice who several “big men” want her to either be their wife or mistress. She’s also from the Eastern Greens and has come to Lagos in search of the better things in life. She’s is the Nigerian wife to a British man named Grunnings, for whom she has two kids. Nigerian wife as in his wife when he is in Nigeria. Grunnings also has a wife in the UK.
Although Sango falls in love with her, he later realizes that she is beyond his means.
There is also Beatrice the second. The second lady named Beatrice that Sango falls for. She is engaged to be married to a Nigerian studying in the UK to be a doctor. Her fiancé ends up failing in his studies and tries to take his life but fails. He is brought back to Nigeria where he apparently dies.
When Sango first met Beatrice the second he thought he would not be able to make her his. He changed his mind back and forth before finally deciding to do everything in his power make her his wife.
One of Sango’s friends named Bayo has a penicillin racket going on and decides to meet his mark at Sango’s house. The mark turns out to be Aina’s mother who has a score to settle with Sango. She’s a disappointed when she comes to the house to meet Bayo and doesn’t find Sango at home. She pretends to go out to get something she forgot and while she’s out, Bayo mistakenly spills water on the notes she gave to him, exposing the letters C.I.D. on the notes.
As a result Bayo gets arrested at Sango’s house. The presence of policemen at Sango’s residence annoys his landlord Lajide. Sango comes back the next day to find his property outside his house with the door locks replaced with new locks. He ends up squatting with First Trumpet, one of his band members, for the rest of the story.
Later on Bayo falls in love with a Lebanese beauty named Saud. Against the wishes of her elder brother Zamil, they strike up a relationship. Bayo and Saud have just agreed to elope when her brother Zamil finds them in the garden of his house and tries to shoot Bayo but ends up killing both Bayo and Saud. Zamil then drives off with their bodies and tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head but instead of killing himself he falls into a coma.
Sango is then fired from his job less than a week after he was promised a promotion. The Board of Governors of the West African Sensation newspaper he works for were not happy with his reporting on the murder of his friend Bayo by Zamil. They accuse him of using the paper to fight Zamil. Sango was now without a job or a home to call his own.
I don’t want to give everything about the story away because some readers might be interested in reading the story later. At least I hope they will. So if you have a question just let me know in the comments and I’ll try to provide an answer.