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Is Jerry Alagbaoso new Cyprian Ekwensi?

Henry Akubuiro

In 2017, Hon. Jerry Alagbaoso became a major talking point in Nigerian literature as his reissued literary works made it to the UBEC (Universal Basic Education) reading list, and were circulated in twenty-one states across the federation for use by students in Nigerian schools. Since then, curiosity has been set apace what constitutes the selling point of this silent writer. The answer is farfetched: Alagbaoso is gradually fitting into the shoes of Cyprian Ekwensi.

In generational classification, late Ekwensi could be located in the first generation Nigerian writers, which included greats like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Elechi Amadi, Chukwuemeka Ike, Maebel Segun, to mention a few, though Ekwensi started writing before most of them. On the other hand, Jerry Alagbaoso is a third generation Nigerian writer, also a contemporary scribbler still in active service of weaving words and creating characters.

A look at the oeuvres of the two writers show that some of their works pander to young people’s interest, which is why they are fancied by Nigerian students and the reading public. While Ekwensi’s writings are mostly novels, novellas, short stories and children’s books, Alagbaoso’s writings are mostly plays and prose fiction.

Ekwensi’s works include When Love Whispers, An African Night’s Entertainment, The Boa Suitor, The Leopard’s Claw, People of the City, The Drummer Boy, The Passport of Mallam Illia, Jagua Nana, Burning Grass, Beautiful Feathers, Rainmakers, Iska, Lokotown, Restless City and Christmas, Divided we Stand, Motherless Baby, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, Behind the Convent Wall, The Great Elephant Bird, Gone to Mecca, Masquerade Time, and Cash and Delivery.

On his part, Alagbaoso has published the novella, Officers and Men, and the plays, Tony Wants to Marry, Specks in Our Eyes, Sorters and Sortees, Ina-Aga, Armchair Parents, The First Day, Mine: An Enduring Heart, Nkem: Obi Na Ali, Signs and Wonders, Oh1 My Rolls Royce, The First Lady, His Excellency and the Siren, and Honourable Gentlemen. But, recently, Alagbaoso collected all his published plays in three volumes with the exception of the masterpiece, Tony Wants to Marry.

Writing for children and young adults, it must be noted, is one of the most difficult things to do as a writer, which is why even the most accomplished of writers globally rarely venture into this creative enterprise. It requires special skills, such as creating a construct, bearing in mind the writer’s cultural responsibility, capable of appealing to their imaginations. Both entertainment and didactic values are fused into one. Even when human foibles are dramatised for the young readers, as these writers do, the essence is to fashion out a heuristic template.

The multiple prizewinning British writer, Jill Paton Walsh, is quoted as saying that “children’s books present a technically more interesting problem (than writing for adults) –that of making a fully serious adult statement, as a good novel of any kind does, and making it utterly simple and transparent… The need for comprehensibility imposes an emotional obliqueness, and indirection of approach, which like elision and partial statements in poetry, is often a source of aesthetic power.”

Historically, it wasn’t until Cyprian Ekwensi published The Drummer Boy and Chinua Achebe Chike and the River that Nigerian juvenilia became popular. These works were to become classics, still studied in schools. Alagbaoso has been around for over two decades as a writer. Though he is not widely known as Eknwensi –part of the reasons being that he is self-effacing –he is beginning to hog the limelight as his readership base begins to grow.

Departures and thematic congruity: Comparative reading of Ekwensi and Alagbaoso

No doubt, Ekwensi’s early writings draw from the pool of traditional African society, especially folktales and oral literature, which made an instant impact on the young readers brought up with colonial texts. Ernest Emenyonu argues that Ekwensi’s juvenile writings “were an attempt to bring contemporary African writing to Nigerian child. They provided for him a new kind of literature –local in setting and content and written in a style which resembles the art of the African folktale” (1974: 47).

In contrast, Alagbaoso’s writings are of more recent, and pay witness to post-colonial social conditions with little or no resort to the past. In order words, Alagbaoso’s writings are more of realistic literature. But, when it comes to writing for the young audience, both writers are found under the same scribal umbrella. Just like Ekwensi, a number of Alagbaoso’s works interrogate the school system and its failure to equip the youth with the right foundation to seamlessly fit into the society. If a youngster is found wanting, the blame either goes to the school he attends or has attended, or his parents, who, however, may not have enough stime to tutor him well, especially if they are the working class type.

Some of Ekwensi’s fiction for young people are, thus, set in schools in which he examines the role of formal education on his young heroes. The Drummer, one of his early works with this preoccupation, x-rays how the school can redirect young adolescents caught prematurely in adult world. Let’s not pretend, this world is controlled by adults, and their way is divorced from that of the little ones. But, how prepared are these young people to live in an adult work? By creating characters coexisting alongside older ones, these writers strive to allow the former to make mistakes –a kind of a benefit of doubt –for some of these juvenile mistakes could prove costly in real-life situations if left unchecked.
Ekwensi, in particular, is apparently concerned with the internal outlook of the school in shaping the future of young students. In his novellas, we often see the rebellious student pitted against the institution and those within it. Hence, the idea of the school as the custodian of the child in his transition to adulthood is seriously compromised.

For instance, in Ekwensi’s Juju Rock, two boarding students of Ilekan College, Lagos, embark on an adventure and absconds from school. For them, it is another form of self-education, which doesn’t obtain in the formal school system. But this also comes with a big price. Like in William Golding’s allegorical novel, Lord of the Flies, when a group of children are isolated in an uninhabited island, the repercussions are unimaginable as they attempt to govern themselves, with a bloody line drawn between littluns and biguns, who seek to undo each other.

However, in Ekwensi’s novel, Juju Rock, when two secondary school students find themselves in a remote area around the Juju Rock, Rikku falls back on his Fulani adventurous instinct to triumph at the end by discovering the missing Treasure Quest and the location of the lost Goldmine, while the people of Koma are set free from the machinations of secret, evil men. The boyish curiosity to learn fast, is thus, valorised. But this is only made possible by Rikku’s disloyalty to constituted authority. Rikku admits: “I felt like a truant, a delinquent, out of step with the kindly college routine” (p.101).

The problem of the school also recurs in Ekwensi’s Trouble in Form Six. Here, another boy character, Akin Tayo, is the hero of the narrative. He is described as “the cantankerous boy in Form Six” (5). Like Rikku, Akin Tayo is a rebellious young boy. Ekwensi presents a little daredevil whose way of life is at variance with constituted authority, flaunting all rules and regulations. Even when his school, Ilubi College, has a chance to win a sporting competition, he brings Bingo to the scene and get it suppered. The buffoon even has the temerity to report himself to the school principal for his conduct unbecoming: “And here I am –the scapegoat” (p.14). Yet Akin Tayo comes across as a hero of a sort to the lads.

It is, however, surprising that as Akin Tayo’s ignominious behaviours snowball, the school authority becomes helpless to handle his excesses. Despite that he refused to apologise for his indecorum, the rascal evades the usual sanctions meted to Form Six boys. Again, the bully, for all his plot in harassing the Housemaster, Mr Adebayo, and ruining his relationship with his fiancée in a wicked prank, gets no sanctions. He willingly walks away from the school and engages the school authority in a media war with the assistance of the gullible press. Hence, the school is afraid to dismiss Akin Tayo in order to avoid a backlash from the outside world. Akin Tayo eventually triumphs in the school’s intermediate exam. This is similar to what obtains in Juju Rock where Rikku, who deserts the school, is rewarded for his delinquency. No doubt, these examples are an indictment on the school system. The school principal declares with Akin Tayo’s return: “We are extremely proud of you. Settle down. Be yourself” (p.76).

But, if Rikku and Akin Tayo are miscreants, Samankwe in Ekwensi’s Samankwe in Strange Forest is a super miscreant. In the book, Samankwe isn’t happy with one of his schoolteachers, Miss Bridget, who delights in flogging pupils at San Pedro Primary School with whip made of raw hide. Be that as it may, Samankwe’s toiling mother would like him to make her proud: “Study hard. You will become somebody. A poor man’s son can become somebody if he gains enough knowledge… You must work hard to succeed in life” (p.2). But that piece of advice falls on deaf ears. One day, he seizes the whip from Miss Bridget and flings it through the windows, throwing her off balance, and sending her wobbling to the floor.

Samankwe doesn’t stop there. He escapes from school out of fear, and joins Nicodemus and his criminal gang. Samankwe, soon, finds himself in a self-styled Palm Wine School, which teaches alternative form of education. Outside the formal school, life becomes horrifying for Samankwe. When he returns to the school, the authority is unable to sanction him. In fact, the School Principal forgives him even before he shows any remorse, and, worse still, Miss Bridget is disengaged from school. Azubuike Iloeje is apt in Ekwensi handling of the problem of juvenile rebellion in school:

…Ekwensi apparently strives to capture the conflict between formal learning at school and the outdoor learning through direct experiencing, which is a major part of growing up in the traditional Nigerian society. He seems disposed to accord formal schooling a secondary place in the education of the young (p.134).

This is where Jerry Alagbaoso slightly differs. The latter is mostly concerned with the external outlook of the school, the behaviours of the rebellious students and the youth as divorced from school authorities’ highhandedness, which fans the rebellion. Thus, most of Alagbaoso’s young characters are either university undergraduates or graduates, unlike Ekwensi’s characters who are still in their formative years in primary and post-primary school. As far as moral rectitude goes, Alagbaoso’s young characters have learnt nothing –they have not been influence positively by the school, neither their parents.

Like Ekwensi’s Rikku, Akin Tayo and Samankwe, Alagbaoso creates young characters whose rebellious streak are a major headache but mainly to the society, but this isn’t supposed to be so, for they ought to know better, having attained a higher level of education. It is very easy to pass the buck of Tony’s misdemeanors in the play, Tony Wants to Marry, on his compromising parents, especially his mother, Mrs Agnes; but what of Tony himself? Isn’t he a product of formal education?

Alagbaoso’s Tony is probably one of the most idiotic, young, fictional character ever created in Nigerian literature in recent times. Tony, the only son of his parents becomes randy and highly materialist. Like Rikku and Akin Tayo, Tony, the unemployed graduate, finds sexual fulfilment but in most bizarre fashion –“testing” different girls for marriage! Tony’s bedroom, hence, becomes a testing laboratory with a screaming advert on a cardboard paper, “Tony Wants to Marry”. He blames unemployment for his randy lifestyle, which is farther from the truth.

Tony tells his parents: “I am sorry if I have upset you, my parents and sisters, in any way or form in the recent past. Henceforth, you will be seeing respectable, cheering, caring and beautiful girls around from whom my wife cometh” (p.22). He makes good his promise right under the nose of his parents. At the end, his moral laxity boomerangs when he meets Tonia, a disciplined, religious young girl, and the over pampered rascal suddenly turns a new leaf. “I hereby regret my past unbecoming actions,” he declares to Tonia (p.70) as the plot winds up.

But, in Alagbaoso’s novella, Officers and Men, we come across a young, female university graduate, Miriam, using her bottom power to run things at the National Caring Service paramilitary where Alhaji Stapha holds sway as the new Commander-General on a mission to right the wrongs. Right from her first day job-hunting at the agency, Miriam shows that she hasn’t imbibed common courtesy in school. While other candidates respond “Sir” when their names are called to appear before the interview panel, Miriam answers, “Yes, Love” (p.17) to the commander of the NCs training school, Timmy Jimmy, who pretends to be angry at her, yet charmed by her beauty. Though Miriam performance is nothing to write home about in the interview, she is employed based on favouritism.

After the training, Dr Jimmy ensures she gets a lucrative posting to Apapa seaport because of their amorous relationship, doubling as the PA, secretary and even orderly to the Area Commander. Arrogance, corruption and seduction, soon, become her hallmark. For all her troubles, she is reposted to her former position following an indictment by a panel set to investigate her conduct unbecoming. This is similar to the reward for delinquency extended to Samakwe, Akin Tayo and Rikku in Ekwensi’s books mentioned earlier. Worse still, she eventually becomes Dr. Jimmy second wife.

There are other plays of Alagbaoso that deal with problematic students. These can be found in Collected Plays 1, which contains the plays, Specks in Our Eyes, Sorters & Sorters, Ina-Aga, Armchair Parents, and The First Lady. Of major interest in this discourse are Sorters and Sortees, Ina-Aga, and The First Day, where student misdemeanors teem in school environment like in Ekwensi’s Juju Rock, and Trouble in Form Six, and Samankwe in the Strange Forest.

In Sorters and Sortees and Ina-Aga, there are remarkable cases of miseducation of university undergrads. While “sorting” is presented as a dangerous aspect of exam malpractice in the Nigerian university system in the former, the materialist desires of female students and the criminal collaborations with their male counterparts are emblematic of the latter play. Dr. Clemento Wise, who teaches General and Philosophical Studies in a university become a major fall guy when a female student, who scored a low mark in his paper, lures him to sleep with her in order to reverse her pitiable fate: “She begins to touch him, gradually moving him into romantic confusion. He is seen in the office holding the half-naked Becky tenderly” (Collected Plays 1, p.86). This, no doubt, disquiets as well as repulses.

Likewise, in Ina-Aga, the store owner-turned commercial motorcyclist is reduced to a nervous wreck when his desire for the mini skirt makes him an easy prey to female undergraduates of “a university in the capital”, like Roseline, Edna and Fat Girl, who milk him dry and set him up with cultists led by Jackie 2000 in a bid to steal his motorcycle.

In contrast, The First Day, Alagbaoso’s first play, conceived in 1978 and performed in 1979 at Iroko Community Grammar School along Ibadan-Oyo Road as a youth corps member, has a wholesale school setting. The short play draws attention to secondary school bullying. The bullying antics of Taiwo and against junior students approximate to those of is Akin Tayo in Ekwensi’s Trouble in Form Six.

See how Taiwo talks down on Junior: “Idiot! Look, do you know what it means to be somebody’s senior by three years? …Foolish boy, try it next time and see what happens to you! (p.191). And Philip’s address of a fresher: “And who is that idiot walking majestically? (p.194) Undue punishments on junior students by these bullies run through this short play, even on innocent female students. But the good news is that we have a fresher who is undaunted by the distractions, and pledges before Senior Moses to make the most of the opportunity provided by the school: “All I know is that someday, somehow, the young ones must grow. And I believe I shall grow” (p.203).

If the young should grow, Alagbaoso suggests that they must not toe the line of Miriam or Tony upon graduation from the university, for there may not be a second chance to turn a new leaf. It is at the level of the development of a Rukki, an Akin Tayo and a Samankwe that the children must be thoroughly guided. Alagbaoso works fully demonstrate a compelling narrative continuity from the repository of the icon.

Works cited
Alagbaoso, Jerry. (2016). Officers and Men. Ibadan: Kraftbooks.

(2016). Tony Wants to Marry. Ibadan: Kraftbooks.

(2016). Collected Play 1. Ibadan: Kraftbooks.

Ekwensi, Cyprian (1966). Trouble in Form six. London: Oxford University Press

(1971). Juju Rock. Lagos: African University Press.

(1973). Samankwe in the Strange Forest. Ikeja: Longman.

Emenyonu, Ernest (1987). The Essential Ekwensi. Ibadan: Heinemann.

Goldin, William (1954). Lord of the Flies. London: Faber and Faber.

Iloeje, Azubuike. (1997) “The School and the Problem of Order and Education in Three Juvenile Novels by Cyprian Ekwensi”. CALEL. Vol 1 No. 1.

Calabar: University of Calabar Press.

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