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by Bamber Gascoigne

Elechi Amadi (1934-2016)


Nigerian educator, novelist, dramatist, writing in English. Elechi Amadi interpreted in such novels as The Concubine (1966), The Great Ponds (1969), and The Slave (1978) the life and values of the traditional village society. Unlike other major eastern Nigerian writers, Amadi supported the Federal cause during the Biafran war (1966-70). His stories often dealt with people who try to change their course of life but fail in it.

"It was very easy for him to pick quarrels with Emenike because many events called for a degree of intimacy between the villagers. Take the sharing of meat after a general village hunt. Madume would always argue that Emenike had not been particularly active in the killing of a particular animal and so deserved only a fraction of what the old men actually gave him. But Emenike was not afraid of him. Her knew he could hold his own against him any day given a fair chance. But a man's god may be away on a journey on the day an important fight and that may make all the difference. This was clearly what happened in the last fight between Madume and Emerike." (from The Concubine, 1966)

Elechi Amadi was born in Aluu (near Port Harcourt), in the Delta region of Eastern Nigeria, into an Ibo family, representing a minority nation (tribe), the Ikwere. He studied at the Government College in Umuahia. He was  placed in Niger House, joining there Chinua Achebe. By then Amadi was the sole Umuahian writer in the college. The students used to listen to the BBC, wrote then a report, and pasted it on the school notice board. Later Ken Saro-Wiwa performed this task as a senior boy in the late 1950s. (Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite by Terri Ochiagha, 2015, p. 96)

Like many other major Nigerian writers, Amadi was educated at the University College of Ibadan. Its legendary English department – English was compulsory at the college – and the student magazine The Horn encouraged a number of aspiring writers, including Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo (1932-67), John Pepper Clark, and Cole Omotso. Amadi, however, studied natural sciences. His native language was Ekwerri but he published his writings in English. In 1957 he married Dorah Ohale; they had eight children.

Amadi received his B. Sc. in physics and mathematic in 1959. He worked in 1959-60 as a landsurveyor in Enugu and then as a science teacher in Protestant mission schools in Oba and Ahoada. On his spare time, he visited the famous Mbari Artists' and Writers' Club in Ibadan. Its founding members included Chinua Achebe, Ulli Beier, J.P. Clark, and Ezekiel Mphahlele. The club maintained a library, an open-air theater, and a pioneering Anglophone African publishing house.Upon the insistense of Christopher Okigbo and Clark, the clubhouse was moved from its old place in the district of Ibadan's Dugbe Market to the Central Hotel on Oyo Road. Until 1967, it was not know, that a substantian part of the funding of the Mbari movement came from the CIA through different front organizations.

In 1963 Amadi joined the Federal army with the rank of captain. He was assigned to teach at the military school in Zaria. After resigning, he worked as a teacher at the Anglican Grammar School in Port Harcourt. During the Nigerian civil war (1966-1970) Amadi was twice arrested and detained by the Biafran government – the orders were given by the Igbo leader, General Ojukwu. A former officer of the Nigerian army, Amachi was politically a doubtful person. Moreover, he was a member of the minority Ikwerre tribe; they wished to remain part of Nigeria, fearing that an independent Biafra would not take into consideration the will of its minorities. At the time of Port Harcourt's fall Amachi was released from detention. He joined the Federal army again and helped to revivify the city.

With the war's end Amadi worked for the government of the newly constituted Rivers State, later becoming head of the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Education. From 1984 to 1987 he was writer-in-residence and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at College of Education in Port Harcour. In 1989-90 he served as Commissioner of Lands and Housing. Amadi was awarded in 1973 the International Writers Program grant, and in 1992 he received the Rivers State Silver Jubilee Merit award. In January 2009, Amadi was kidnapped for a period of 23 hours, and then released near his home town, Aluu. A few months earlier Amadi had condemned abductions and militant violence in the Nigeria Delta, the main oil-producing region of the country. Amachi was also known for his anti-corruption stand in his position as the chairman of the Rivers State Scholarship Board. Amadi was twice married and had eight daughters and four sons. He died on June 29, 2016, at the age of 82.

Amadi's early novels were set in his traditional African world, but they dealt with timeless societies which are not poisoned by the effects of colonialism, rationalism, or modern change. His first novel, The Concubine, part of a trilogy, came out six years after Nigerian independence. It was published by Heinemann, and became No. 25 in the groundbreaking African Writers Series. The founding editor of the series was Chinua Achebe. Set in the area near Port Harcourt, the story starts out as a depiction of village life, its conflicts, ancient customs, and gods, but then it proceeds into mythological level. Beautiful and intelligent, Ihuoma is the most desirable woman in Omigwe village whose well-fed look does a great credit her husbands, but they die one after another. Though she wins the heart of the hunter Ekwueme, they deny their love so that Ekwueme can marry another woman, to whom he has been betrothed since birth. At the and Amadi reveals that Ihuoma is actually the wife of the jealous Sea-King, the ruling spirit of the sea, but she had assumed the human form.

The widely acclaimed work was followed by The Great Ponds, centering on a war between two rival villages over fishing rights, and The Slave, in which the protagonist fights against his background, but after a brief career in freedom he eventually accept his hard lot. On one level The Great Ponds can be read as an allegorical comment on the civil war. By using withcraft, Igwu, the preast, unleashes forces which he cannot control. Together the books formed a historical trilogy about traditional life in the rural, precolonial Nigeria.

His own experiences during the civil war Amadi dealt in Sunset in Biafra (1973). The traumatic tragedy divided the country and the writers. The poet Christopher Okigbo died in 1967 fighting for the independence and Chinua Achebe was in the Biafran government service. Achebe later depicted his war experiences in Beware, Soul Brother (1971), a collection of poems. The conflict started when Chukwenmeka Ojukwu, the military governor of Eastern Nigeria, declared in 1967 the eastern region an independent Ibo state, Biafra. Three years later Biafra surrendered to the federal forces. Biafra had been forced into starvation and warfare and famine together took an estimated 1 million lives. Amadi portrayed the January 1966 coup leaders as "rebel officers". Ojukwu's rhetoric he summarized as follows: "This method of of argument – saying yes and no simultaneously – ran through all of his speeches. General Gowon, a straightforward military man, found this type of talk very trying indeed." (Sunset in Biafra: A Civil War Diary by Elechi Amadi, 1973, p. 19)

As a novelist, Amadi avoided the role of an activist, but in his plays he examined topical subjects, among others in Dancer of Johannesburg (performed in 1979). In it a Nigerian diplomat falls in love with a nightclub dancer, who turns out to be a South African spy. His other plays from the 1970s include Isiburu (1973), written in verse and aimed for the high school reader, Peppersoup (1977), a comedy, and The Road to Ibadan (1977), a love story of a Federal Army captain and a nurse. Isiburu was first produced in Port Harcourt in 1969. Compared to his early novels, Amadi's essays, Ethics in Nigerial Culture (1982) and Speking and Singing (2003), which also featured his poetry, and science fiction, When God Came and Song of the Vanquished (2013), received little attention in the West.

Amadi's style is simple and dispassionate, but behind the straightforward stories a reader can discern outlines of a deeper, mythological tale. His view of life had much similarities with the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius – one has a specific role to play in the world plan and there is no escape from it. In an interview Amadi said: "The novelist should depict life as he sees it without consciously attempting to persuade the reader to take a particular viewpoint. Propaganda should be left to journalists." ('Amadi, Elechi,' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby, 1991,  p. 27) Amadi's fourth novel, Estrangement (1986) was about the aftereffects of the Nigerian Civil War. It was not so well-received as his previous works. Amadi also translated Protestant prayers and hymns into Ikwerri.

For further information: 'The Achievement of Elechi Amadi' by A. Niven in Commonwealth, (1971); An Introduction to the African Novel by E. Palmer (1972); Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel by Emmanuel N. Obiechina (1975); Culture and the Nigerian Novel by O. Taiwo (1976); The Concubine: A Critical View by A. Niven (1981); Writers and Politics in Nigeria by J. Booth (1981); The West African Village Novel, with Particular Reference to Elechi Amadi's the Concubine by George Nyamndi (1982); European Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Vol. 2, ed. Albert S. Gérard (1986); Reading the African Novel by Simon Gikandi (1987); Myth, Realism, and the West African Writer by Richard Priebe (1988); 'Amadi, Elechi,' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited byVineta Colby (1991); Elechi Amadi: The Man and His Work by Ebele Eco (1991); Four Fathers of African Fiction by Felix Edjeren (1998); Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite by Terri Ochiagha (2015); Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War, edited by Toyin Falol & Ogechukwu Ezekwem (2016)

Selected works:

  • The Concubine, 1966 (novel)
  • The Great Ponds, 1969 (novel)
  • translator (with Obiajunwo Wali and Greensille Enyinda): Okwukwo Eri, 1969 (hymnbook)
  • translator: Okupkpe, 1969 (prayerbook)
  • Sunset in Biafra: A Civil War Diary, 1973 (essays)
  • Isiburu, 1973 (play)
  • Peppersoup, 1977 (play)
  • Peppersoup, and The Road to Ibadan, 1977 (plays)
  • The Slave, 1978 (novel)
  • Dancer of Johannesburg, 1979 (play)
  • Ethics in Nigerian Culture, 1982 (essays)
  • Estrangement, 1986 (novel)
  • Elechi Amadi at 55: Poems, Short Stories, and Papers, 1989 (ed. W. Feuser and Ebele Eko)
  • The Woman of Calabar, 2001 (play)
  • Speaking and Singing, 2003 (papers and poems)
  • When God Came and Song of the Vanquished, 2013

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