Cyprian Ekwensi and the Banana Paradox

Banana or plantain (which some refer to as Dodo when it is fried) is a favorite staple food in Africa and beyond, and also the subject of a musical racial parody by Afro beat King Fela Kuti in the song, “Monkey Give me Banana.”

It is however noteworthy that Cyprian Ekwensi, one of Africa’s most prolific writers, took the banana metaphor one step further in one of his most popular books written early on in his career.

I became enamored with the works of this prolific novelist after meeting him at the 1982 Calabar International Conference of African Literature and English Language (ICALEL) hosted by the University of Calabar, and also attended by top writers in the African Writers Series (AWS).

Ekwensi, a pioneer of urban West African literature, through the Onitsha Market Literature series, lived well into his 90’s before his death a few years ago.

But his pioneering work for African Literature right from his first novella “Banana Peel” and through other works such as “People of the City”, “Burning Grass” and “Iska” is an indisputable evidence of the man’s towering stature in African literature.

One of the better synopsis that I have seen of Ekwensi’s use of imagery, in telling his stories, is provided here by Professor Ernest Nneji Emenyonu, my former Head of Department at the English Department of the University of Calabar.

Emenyonu presents a poignant description of Ekwensi’s protagonist, Nugo in his first novella where banana is used as a metaphor for harassment and torture. “Nugo, the protagonist and victim of the story, is robbed of his Master’s money, by a hit-and-run assailant on the way to the bank. Nugo pursues him, is about to overtake him when he steps on a banana peel dropped deliberately by the robber. He falls headlong into the bush. He is haunted the rest of his life by banana peels.

“As if to play upon his fear, the author makes him trip and fall repeatedly over banana skins in courtyards, inside buildings, along the roads and in moving boats. The tripping and falling becomes the ladder on which the plot of the story is built …The reader is unable to see ‘banana’ as other than an ordinary fruit. Despite the qualities of awe and unpredictability which the author ascribes to it, the banana peel fails as a convincing vehicle of tragedy in the story,” he said.

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Ben Edokpayi

Ben Edokpayi is a strategic communications consultant with more than 25 years experience in the USA and Nigeria. His most recent corporate assignment was as Media Relations Officer with the California State Compensation Insurance Fund.

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