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Remembering James Ene Henshaw


Shortly after retiring to his bed from his desk where he was translating Shakespeare’s classic, Julius Caesar, into his native Efik language, on August 16, 2007, James Ene Henshaw passed on. Last Wednesday marked the tenth anniversary of his death. Looking at his life type in retrospect, we can’t but marvel at how a medical doctor strove to etch his name in gold as foremost African playwright.

Given his medical background, Henshaw did not set out to be a writer, he admitted.  It was fortuitous stray into the scribal art that resonated in the literary world, becoming one of the first set of African writers to be published outside the continent.

His beginning wasn’t particularly eventful as he lost his father at a tender age. Sequel to that, the young James was raised by his elder brother, Lawrence Ekeng Richard Henshaw, and was encouraged to continue his schooling at the Sacred Heart Primary School Calabar. He subsequently went to Christ the King College, Onitsha, for his post-primary education.

Upon graduation from Christ the King College, in 1943, Henshaw travelled to Ireland same year, enrolled as a medical student at the National University of Ireland, Dublin. He took Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Medicine degrees and, in 1949, qualified as a physician. In 1954, Henshaw had the opportunity to pursue a course for specialised training in Cardio-Vascular diseases, and was awarded the TDD degree by the University of Wales.

He had an illustrious career in medicine serving as Senior Consultant-in-charge, Tuberculosis Control, Eastern Nigeria (1955-68), and, finally, as Director of Medical Services in the former South Eastern State of Nigeria. He also served in various professional and public service positions and earned several honours, including Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) and Knight of the Order of St. Gregory (KSG) by his Holiness Pope Paul V1.

His first collection of plays, This is Our Chance: Plays from West Africa, announced him as an emergent voice in African literature in 1956, while his second, Children of the Goddess and Other Plays (1964), upped the ante of his dramaturgy.

One of his plays, Medicine for Love: A Comedy in Three Acts (1964), is a satire with political overtones, x-raying attempts by a politician to bribe his way into power and his difficulties with the three prospective wives sent to him by his relatives.

Dinner For Promotion (1967) is a comedy that centres on an ambitious young man, a newly rich business man and a quarrelsome sister in-law. His later plays include Enough is Enough: A Play of The Nigerian Civil War (1975) and A Song To Mary Charles –the Irish Sister of Charity (1974).

Undoubtedly, This is Our Chance remains his most popular play, especially in Africa. It has undergone many reprints since its first production by the Association of African Students in Dublin in 1948. It has also been staged by professional companies, as well as schools and amateur groups.

A trailblazer of a sort, Henshaw is valorised by the literary establishment for creating authentic African drama performed by African people. Speaking on the genesis of the play, Henshaw recounted that, consciously, he was determined to write drama set in Africa and, hence, familiar with the ordinary African.

“These plays, I hope, will be of interest to the general public and may help in a small way to give the true impression that various West African communities have many problems, feelings and interests in common,” he said in his introductory notes of the first published collection.

The social relevance of Henshaw’s dramaturgy derives from the fact that it captures the pulse and moments of his West African society, emphasising on the conflict between tradition and modernity, the declining morality of a newly independent society, and the failure of becoming, in political and ethical terms, among the evolving elite in society, etcetera.

A man of many firsts, This is Our Chance is described by some critics as the first full-length play by an African author in English language. It has since been canonised as one of the classics of African literature, read widely and performed in schools and colleges across the English-speaking Commonwealth.

Most of the analyses and debate on Henshaw’s plays have often revolved around the themes of socio-cultural realities of pre-colonial times, the tug between tradition and modernity, and the evolving post-colonial societies. Therein his plays have often been described as simple, in terms of plot and content, but on closer inspection, like an onion, they do reveal several sub-strata of themes and ideas. Henshaw’s plays therefore deserve to be looked at again in the light of prevailing circumstances of our times.

This is Our Chance is often seen a play dealing with inter-tribal enmity. Here, Henshaw tackles the challenges of leadership – how far can a leader step ahead of his people to effect change without falling foul of the existing power structures of the state? King Damba, against traditional mores, sends his daughter, Princess Kudaro, to school far away in a modern city, and then has to deal with the ensuring fallout. This question is also revisited in Children of the Goddess.

Enough Is Enough, one of a handful of plays written about the Nigerian Civil War, examines the issues of conscience against the horrors of the war and how the players choose to, or not to, adapt and survive in the prevailing circumstances. This play will prove informative to the current generation of students and young people about a very significant event in the history of the nation.

His last play, Eteyin Caesar, written in his native language, Efik, is a study of the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism, and friendship. Shakespeare’s tragic play, Julius Caesar, written in 1599, portrays the conspiracy and assassination against the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar.

The play was a reflection of the general anxiety of England due to worries over succession of leadership. At the time of its writing and first performance, Queen Elizabeth, a strong ruler, was elderly and had refused to name a successor, leading to worries that a civil war similar to that which erupted after Caesar assignation might break out after her death.

Across Africa, from The Gambia, the Central African Republic to Uganda, down to Malawi and Zimbabwe, we see the same pattern repeating itself where leaders become autocrats and cling on remorselessly to power. Nelson Mandela described Julius Caesar as the “most African” of Shakespeare’s plays, and that it was one of the plays the African nationalist prisoners read and performed while incarcerated at Robben Island.

Unfortunately, Henshaw has not enjoyed the same prestige as his contemporaries, Wole Soyinka and J.P Clarke. This unfavourable comparison is based on the fact that he was not a career writer or, even in ways, an active arts practitioner. In his productive years as a writer, he doubled as a practicing medical doctor, a consultant and an administrator. Besides, his target audience was basically the young, for he intended his plays to be read and performed in schools and colleges. This may have given his plays a semblance of simplicity and naivety.

A major plus for him is that his plays have become the most widely read and dramatised by schoolchildren, as well as studied in universities and reviewed by literary critics. He was modest in declaring in his interviews, “I never set out to write any great work of art …” His genius, then, was the ability to present adult themes for young people to read and enjoy, and at the same time find his work attracting highbrow critical interventions.

Writing on “Inter-Cultural Diffusion and the Evolution of the ‘West/African’ Identity: The Perspective of James Ene Henshaw”, Nduka Otiono observes that in using his art to portray the debilitating impact of western civilisation on African culture and world view, Henshaw has also highlighted the need for an integration of positivist elements derivable from western civilisation into African culture as a means of elevating the ordinary African above the level of mediocrity and backwardness.

In 1945, Henshaw was the secretary of the Association of African Students in Dublin, Ireland.  In that capacity, he wrote This Is Our Chance for the end-of-year party. He advised that African intellectuals, like him, who were the future leaders of the continent, should pick up the gauntlet and reshape Africa’s worldview. That was not a call for the scrapping of African culture.  Rather, he proposed for its modification to make it relevant for the needs of the average African coming to terms with modernity. 

Though he was an orthodox medical practitioner, he did not frown at alternative medicine inherent in African culture.  Therefore, in This is Our Chance, medicine becomes a healer, healing the afflicted physically, spiritually, psychologically, socially and culturally.

Those who encountered him in his lifetime, spoke of Henshaw as an unassuming man, who guarded his privacy very much. He was also a deeply religious man, a devoted husband and father. He didn’t isolate his writing from his family life. Hence, it was commonplace to find pieces of his writing strewn around the house.

His son, James, told The Sun Literary Review, “In reflection, as an adult now, being aware of the demands being a writer can put on a person – the intense single-mindedness and dedication required –I can’t help feeling that he may have sacrificed an even greater literary career for the wellbeing of his family. This says a lot about the man.”

Upon retirement from medical service in the 1970s, Henshaw led a quiet life in his home town, Calabar, as a senior citizen. His daily routine saw him immersed in the prosaic side of life by spending the early part of the day in his library writing. In the afternoon, a continuous stream of relatives, friends, representatives of various organisations, and students from both local and foreign universities would beat a path to the door for intellectual and humorous discourse. Any surprise that he has been described as one of the most influential cultural thinkers the country ever produced?

Though he ceased to be published after Enough Is Enough in mid-1970s, he was still champing at the bits –“writing for pleasure”, as he called it. Little wonder, he left behind a significant body of unpublished work mostly for young people and children, which, is hoped, would will see the light of day someday.  Henshaw is survived by his wife Caroline, eight children and seventeen grandchildren.

In December, 2013, The James Ene Henshaw Foundation, a none profit-making organisation, was set up primarily to maintain and promote his literary legacy. The idea for the Foundation, said his son, James, stemmed from the playwright’s own concern and desire for the literary works that reflect the experiences of African audiences, as well as encourage the appreciation and participation of young people in the dramatic arts.

The mission of the foundation, The Sun Literary Review learn, is to enhance young lives through creativity and skills development. In furtherance of this vision, the foundation works to inspire people who do not normally engage with the Arts to become active participants, promote emerging African writers, initiate and support projects where young people can engage in creative activities.

Since its inception, it has organised a number of significant projects, including

Plays-To-Schools Programme aimed at opening up and enthusing young people to the wondrous world of literature through play productions in schools and colleges, play productions and theatrical events with emphasis on producing high quality productions of the late playwright, as well as other notable African playwrights.

In addition, the foundation has been committed to the development of new writing talents through its Open Space Creative Mentoring Scheme, supported by the British Council. It seeks to identify and nurture a new cadre of writers who can take the place of the premier generation playwrights. The first round of the scheme concluded in March, 2017, with the production of three socially important plays by the budding writers.

Also, the foundation has been developing skills and the professionalism of local arts practitioners. Thus, it runs regular workshops in acting, directing, technical i.e. sound and lighting, project planning and management.

James Ene Henshaw may have left us, but his memory will remain evermore in the hearts of the literary community as one of the founding fathers of modern African literature and for the remarkable idioms of his dramaturgy.


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