Cyprian Ekwensi (1973): 'Well, if you look at the North, you find that it actually is wild west country'



So, I've spent the second half of what passed for summer this year and the first half of autumn focused on my own health (and even though the mother of all colds still hangs on), that of my dad (thank God for the German health care system and the gifted surgeons at the hospital in Potsdam) and the (re-) construction of my parent's kitchen (yes, cowboy builders do exist in Germany as well!). That's not all I've done. Something had to give though – and as always it’s my personal writing including the blog that does give first. So, dear reader, forgive me for another period of neglect.
Nevertheless, I've still been reading (not as much as I usually do, but hey) and I've come across some quotes and references that I thought worth sharing with you, even with some delay. So, here goes one.

I'm still playing around with ideas about cowboy films and serials, cowboy clubs, gangs and societies and lorry decorations in Nigeria. Anyway, here's a lovely little quote that I should have included somewhere already. But such is research, I guess.
This one is from an interview that Bernth Lindfors conducted with author Cyprian Ekwensi in Enugu in February 1973. In it, Lindfors touches upon the influence of (American) frontier mythology and Westerns on Ekwensi's fiction. This is the response.

Ekwensi: Well, if you look at the North, you find that it actually is wild west country. There is cactus in the North; there is rock. It's like Texas. And, the Northerner is a horse rider herding cattle. There is this same fever for grass, although the herdsmen don't have ranches. The difference between pasturing cattle in the North and pasturing cattle in Texas is that the American cowboy has defined a territory, but the Fulani herdsman has the whole of West Africa. Wherever the grass is green he moves his cattle rather than remain in one spot. So this is what makes for the similarities. Also, you have a lot of action. Northern Nigeria is action country. Wide open spaces, prairies, the savannah – it's like the prairies of America.
Lindfors: But in shaping these stories, were you at all influenced by your reading of wild west stories.
Ekwensi: Not only by my reading but by films – I'm a great cinema fan. I used to know all the actors by name – people like Robert Taylor, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper and Bill Boyd – you know, all those stories about Wyoming and the ranches and the trails and so on. I loved that kind of thing, just for the joy of it. It's not meant to be anything serious. Nobody takes it seriously or really believes that one cowboy holding a revolver with a range of fifty yards can kill a whole tribe of Indians. It's not true.
Lindfors: But were there a lot of western films available at the time? It seems like there are mainly Indian films in Nigeria today.
Ekwensi: The Indian films are a post-independence innovation. In those days there were really serious films – Humphrey Bogart and so forth, mainly American films – but at independence the film distributors suddenly discovered that they didn't need to work their brains going through lists of best films in different countries – they didn't need to make the effort. Provided they got an Indian film full of fantasy, this was enough to earn them their money, so why work, why worry? …
(Lindfors, 2002: Africa Talks Back: Interviews with Anglophone African Authors. Trenton, NJ et al: Africa World Press. 121-22)

That I rather love these little snippets of Ekwensi's conversation with Lindfors shouldn't come as a surprise to you, dear reader. They provide further evidence of the impact of Hollywood – and probably, later, Italian – Westerns on the imagination of some in colonial Nigeria, including as influential a writer as Ekwensi. Personally, I think that the influence of the Western genre in, say, Ekwensi's Burning Grass (1962) is rather palpable, but it's useful to have the author confirm it here. It's also great that somebody else felt that there are indeed similarities between the landscapes of (parts of) northern Nigeria and some movies' American West. Personally, I think that is particularly true for the later Italian Westerns that were filmed around Almeria, Spain, which reminded me of the landscapes of the Jos plateau.
That said, there is something else going on in the interview that interests me, vis-à-vis imported movies and Westerns in particular: I have read a lot of commentary from the 1950s and 1960s in which Nigerian elites criticise the members of Nigerian cowboy clubs, gangs and societies for fashioning themselves after the Cowboy and attributing incidences of delinquency and criminal activities by Nigerian cowboys to the influence of Westerns. Ekwensi, here, does seem to implicitly distance himself from such views – only to continue to make a similar argument about the social impact of more recent films, including The Godfather (1972). Thus, he argued, that Westerns were not intended to be taken seriously – and, indeed, nobody did take them seriously – but he considered The Godfather 'corrupting film.' Ekwensi continued,

We live now in an age of violence, and I don't think that there should be this dramatization of the techniques of violence. There are incidents in that film (and I know the censor must have cut a lot) which are suggestive of killing, which would make one try to kill. If I were the censor, I wouldn't have passed that film.
(Lindfors, 2002: 122)

Ekwensi's different views on the cowboy movies of his youth – which, in turn, had been heavily criticised by an elder generation – and the more recently imported gangster films including The Godfather suggest that these discourses are steeped in intergenerational tensions - one generation of youths growing up, joining the ranks of the establishment it once may have despised and in the process, possibly inevitably, growing ever more estranged to contemporary youth culture and youthful rebellion against the status quo.
Obviously, I will have to think that through more thoroughly before I can convincingly make that argument – or abandon it. But, let me leave it at that for today and return to the things I really need to be doing.

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