Novels are often an excellent window into the history of a nation, especially for individuals who come from different cultural backgrounds than the nation in question. The novel “Jagua Nana” by Cyprian Ekwensi is a study of modern Nigerian life–the tension between modernity and tradition, the decisions of one woman to seek her fortune through a modern “wicked” lifestyle, and the disaster that emerges from the corruption of Lagos politicians.
Jagua Nana—or Jagwa after the sleek British car—is a high-class “kept” woman, at times working the streets just for enough money to keep herself in the kind of luxury she desires. Ultimately, though, her lifestyle leads her into the company of political men, and she becomes irrevocably intertwined in their intrigues, to the detriment of her identity as a woman and her ability to negotiate the complexities of modern city life in Nigeria.
At 45, Jagua lives with a man twenty years younger than her, a lover who wants to study in England and manages to do so with her financial help, money she earns by streetwalking. In the meantime, however, Freddie falls in love with a younger woman and Jagua is unable to hold onto him, despite her sex appeal or the wealth she lavishes on him.
When he leaves for England, she begins to keep company with an older man, “Uncle Taiwo,” who pays for her house, her clothing, her lifestyle, and her visits to the Tropicana, her favorite bar. Uncle Taiwo is a politician. And that is bad news for Jagua and for Freddie, though she doesn’t know it yet.
When Freddie returns from England, married to the younger woman who was Jagua’s competition, he decides to become a politician because he wants money and he wants it fast. At this point, though the story remains focused on Jagua, we are reminded of how corrupt the political system is in Nigeria. Uncle Taiwo’s campaign platform is simple (and typical): spread a lot of money around (bribes); make a lot of promises you don’t intend to keep; and ultimately, have your opponent beaten up until he dies.
Uncle Taiwo follows his political plan, but despite Freddie’s death, he still loses the election and he must flee for his life. Before he departs, he gives Jagua a sack of “papers” that he says she must keep hidden even if the President himself shows up at her doorstep asking for it. When Jagua is also forced to leave her house behind because “thugs” seeking revenge come looking for her, she takes the “papers” with her. It is only much, much later—back in her home village—that she discovers that the “paper” inside the sack is a great deal of money bundled together.
Jagua returns to her village when her father dies. At this point she is poor and lonely, having left behind everything when she fled her house for her life. She feels shame over her poverty but even more, she feels remorse that she has spent the last ten years of her life in Lagos, forgetting her family—the people who are really important and will stand by you when you’ve lost everything.
She stays in the village with her mother during the mourning period and that is when we see Jagua change. An unexpected pregnancy at age 47 or 48 softens her, and we begin to wonder if her unfruitful womb has been the source of Jagua’s restlessness and desire for a glitzy life. The thought of being a mother calms her, serves as balm for some wound in her spirit. Though the child does not live, Jagua realizes that her home village—or nearby—is where she belongs, and she decides to make a life for herself, opening a business with the money Uncle Taiwo left with her.
So the moral of the story is that when everything goes to hell because you’ve kept company with corrupt politicians, you’ll still be taken care of financially in the end because those same corrupt politicians will have saved some (dirty) money for just such a rainy day….OK, I’m kidding. Seriously, though, Ekwensi is easier on his heroine than other Nigerian writers are on their protagonists, for example, Buchi Emecheta. Emecheta’s virtuous, righteous heroines usually die young in childbirth or suffer poverty and unhappiness for an entire lifetime before dying cold and alone. Equally, Chinua Achebe’s heroes lose their honor, their glory, their wealth through foolishness or rigidity or, sometimes, lack of virtue.
But Ekwensi’s heroine, who throws virtue to the winds, becomes a rich woman in the end, at the expense of others. Though we see, as we see in other African novels, the tension between modernity and tradition, Ekwensi refuses to dwell on the issue of colonialism or how it has disrupted African culture. Rather, he simply presents a picture of life the way it is in modern Lagos and leaves the reader to decipher how city life and British culture emerged in Nigeria. Further, Ekwensi doesn’t judge the lifestyle of his character, or suggest that the “traditional” lifestyle is better than the glitzy, glamorous life Jagua leads in Lagos. Nevertheless, Jagua ultimately finds that a more traditional life in the village of her birth is preferable because it leads to less spiritual, emotional, and physical destruction.