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Cyprian Ekwensi: Beautiful Feathers

However famous a man is outside, if he is not respected inside his own home, he is like a bird with beautiful feathers, wonderful on the outside but ordinary within.

This is an Igbo proverb which applies to the hero of this novel, Wilson Iyari. He owns a successful pharmacy in Lagos, the Independence Pharmacy. He is head of The Movement for African and Malagasy Solidarity, a Nigerian-based movement set up as the African countries gain their independence, to bring together the post-independence African countries, using non-violent means, on the assumption that they will be more effective together than separate. He is clearly well respected in the community, as we see at the beginning, when he is recognised and admired by various people. At home, however, the situation is very different. He is married to the very glamorous Yaniya and they have three children, all named after a well-known nationalist, Lumumba, Pandhit and Jomo. Lumumba, in particular, is very devoted to his father but is also very spoilt. However, Wilson and Yaniya barely speak and, when they do, it is bitter. She does not perform what he considers to be her wifely duties. For example, when he comes home, she does not cook for him. She also spends a lot of money on clothes and various accessories.

When they first met, he was very attracted to her. She was glamorous and much sought-after. She had had one child (who died) and one abortion. She was originally from Benin (the city in Nigeria, not the country, which was stil Dahomey at that time). Wilson, like the other men, had planned to have her as a glamorous girlfriend and no more. However, at the time he was working as a government pharmacist and was to be transferred. She could not get leave of absence from her job and, moreover, she was pregnant, so the couple married. He subsequently set up his own pharmacy and was involved in politics, leading to the foundation of The Movement for African and Malagasy Solidarity.

Initially, things went well but he was often absent, both occupied with his pharmacy and the movement. He also had girlfriends. Her particular concern was that he did not help her family enough, who seemed to see him as a source of income. This was particularly the case with Brother Jacob, Yaniya’s brother, who always had some fancy scheme to get rich, drove cars (which were not insured or licensed) and had lots of girlfriends. However, he was always trying to borrow money from Wilson which, of course, was never repaid. Brother Jacob is involved in The Movement for African and Malagasy Solidarity.

Early in the novel, the Movement is planning a non-violent demonstration to promote African solidarity, to coincide with Nigerian Independence Day. He even manages to raise a question with the Prime Minister at a press conference but is treated dismissively. This keeps him very occupied and he has little time for his family. Yaniya is getting increasingly bitter and has started having affairs, which by her own admission, are only to annoy Wilson. He, however, wants to avoid any scandal, so says little. When she seems to neglect the children, particularly with Lumumba getting ill, he hires nannies but has no luck there. The young one spends her time making herself beautiful, while the older one is always ill. However, when Yaniya runs away with the children, he is devastated and searches the city for her in vain. Meanwhile, the demonstration is taking place and, to his surprise, is met with a violent response by the government and things turn out very badly.

Can Wilson manage to maintain equilibrium in his professional life when his private life is in disarray? He tries to think he can. However, He was a hollow man… Yaniya had become the poisoned arrow in the wound. Pull her out and the flesh came away, leave her in and the wound festered and killed. For the rest of the book he struggles with this, the conflict between his public/professional and his private life.

Women’s issues, particularly in Africa, were hardly to the fore in 1963, when this book was published but while Ekwensi sympathises with Wilson, it is clear that he accepts that Yaniha has certain rights, whether it is appropriate tender loving care from her husband, meaning that he pays attention to her, and also the right to live a life beyond that of wife and mother, even though these roles are important. Wilson receives advice from various people, including his friend and deputy on the Solidarity Movement, Kwame, a Ghanaian, Chini his assistant and a woman he is certainly attracted to, his brother-in-law and his father-in-law, and the general advice is that both Wilson and Yaniya have a duty to try to make it up but that is easier said than done. While this certainly is a fine tale, I felt that Ekwensi was somewhat uneasy with the direction it was going, not sure if Wilson’s loyalty was to his wife and family or to his professional life, particularly as regards African solidarity, and how to reconcile the two.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Heinemann