Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa
January 13, 1931 – October 16, 1993
Florence Nwapa was born in Oguta, Nigeria one of six children produced by a marriage between Martha Onyenma and Christopher Ijoma Nwapa. Her parents were both descended from prominent families of wealth and influence. Nwapa’s father was the managing director of a British exporting company that traded in palm oil. In addition to land that was likely inherited he also acquired large amounts of land. Nwapa’s mother worked as a schoolteacher and instilled an appreciation for learning in all of her children.
Nwapa attended a local school and later missionary schools in Port Harcourt and Lagos. As a child, she was exposed to literature by British authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But her schools also allowed students to embrace and preserve their culture by speaking the language of their tribe and upholding their traditions.
For university, Nwapa enrolled at what is now the University of Ibadan to study English, History, and Geography. In 1957, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree and next enrolled at Scotland’s Edinburgh University from which she obtained a Diploma in Education. Returning to Nigeria, Nwapa found work as an education officer in Calabar. But she soon moved on to teaching English and geography at the Queen’s School in Enugu where she would remain for about three years. In 1959, Nwapa gave birth to her first child, a daughter she named Ejine.
Growing up as her parents’ oldest child Nwapa had helped her mother who ran a sewing and mending business. In addition to her mother, this environment also exposed her to other women who were creative, entrepreneurial, and smart. Some of her mother’s customers would tell Nwapa Igbo folklore and old wives tales. By the time Nwapa had returned to Nigeria and given birth to her daughter, she had a burning passion to write.
Beginning in the 1940s, Nigeria had begun a focused push to establish economic stability and achieve independence from the British. This continued until Nigeria proclaimed its independence in October of 1960. In the years leading up to and following independence there was much discussion about the best path forward for Nigeria. Nwapa came of age during this period of solidifying nationalism. In response to colonial powers, Nigeria had united as a nation but still consisted of various ethnic groups. These realities would also play a role in Nwapa’s writing.
In 1962, Nwapa left the Queen’s School for an Assistant Registrar position at the University of Lagos. It was around this time that she also began working on what would become her first and most popular novel, Efuru. When the novel was complete Nwapa sent the book to Chinua Achebe, the father of modern African literature who also happened to be a colleague. Achebe forwarded the book with his fervent approval to Heinemann Publishing which released the book in 1966 as part of its African Writers Series. The publication of Efuru was notable because it marked the first time a female African novelist had published a book in English.
Initially, the release of Efuru was overshadowed by the brewing Nigerian Civil War and panned by some Western critics. In 1967, Nigeria descended into a state of chaos that would last for three years as the war ramped up and the government collapsed. Within the country, people were likely preoccupied with ensuring their survival and thus the book was not widely promoted so it received little attention. Slowly word of this novel with a fresh perspective and voice began to make its way to other African nations and the West.
Efuru was significant for reasons beyond Nwapa being the first African woman to release such a book. It would become a cornerstone of African literature in part because it was the first to center on a female character. Efuru, the book’s protagonist, did not fit stereotypical portrayals of African women. And the story showed her finding happiness and fulfillment outside of the marital and motherly cultural expectations for women. Efuru was a fictionalized but realistic reflection of many of the characteristics Nwapa had seen in the women of her childhood. The character was intelligent, ambitious, and independent. She served as the driving force in her life and an important part of her community rather than merely living in the shadow of a husband, father, or other male relatives.
Some Western critics took issue with Nwapa’s writing style and stated disbelief at her portrayal of the character and lives of African women. Nwapa brushed aside these criticisms and cited her experience with such women as proof and her right to tell these stories as she saw fit. These themes would carry over into Nwapa’s second book, Idu (1970). In time Nwapa and her writing would be viewed as “feminist” in the Western sense but Nwapa rejected this label as she viewed her message as being common sense.
Leaving Lagos in search of safety during the civil war, Nwapa and her family joined many other Igbos in returning to Nigeria’s Eastern Region. Shortly after the move, Nwapa married a wealthy businessman, Chief Gogo Nwakuche, with whom she would have two more children. Nwakuche supported and shared Nwapa’s belief that women had as much right as men to recognize and utilize their talents and abilities. Amid these major life changes, Nwapa held two consecutive positions in the government where she addressed social issues and brought resources and tourism to the Igbo area.
Unfortunately, further political unrest in the form of a coup resulted in Nwapa leaving the government at which point she fully focused on writing. With a mission of inspiring more women to write and teaching children pride in their culture, Nwapa established Tana Press, Ltd. and Flora Nwapa Books, Ltd. She would use these entities to self-publish several novels for adults as well as poems and children’s books. As knowledge of her writing made its way around the world, Nwapa was invited to attend events that brought her more international fame which boosted her profile at home.
Flora Nwapa died of pneumonia on October 16, 1993, in Enugu, Nigeria. From 1976 through the early 1990s, Nwapa had traveled the world for literary events, lectures, and to serve as a visiting professor at several colleges and universities. She had become an international literary icon and her decades as a writer inspired future generations of African female writers.
- 2017. Biography of Flora Nwapa by Emily Coolidge. South African History Online. 2017. https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/biography-flora-nwapa-emily-coolidge.
- Akinbode, Ayomide. 2019. “Flora Nwapa: Mother of Modern African Literature.” HistoryVille. January 13, 2019. https://www.thehistoryville.com/flora-nwapa/.
- “Nwapa, Flora (1931–1993).” 2021. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com. December 28, 2021. https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nwapa-flora-1931-1993.
- Olukoya, Sam. 2020. “Flora Nwapa: Mother of Modern African Literature.” DW.com. May 15, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/flora-nwapa-nigeria-mother-of-modern-african-literature-african-roots-a-53197517/a-53197517.
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