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Cyprian Ekwensi: Jagua Nana

Jagua Nana is so-called because she is like a Jaguar car – slick and fashionable. At the start of this novel, she is forty-five years old with a boyfriend, Freddie, who is twenty-five, the same age as her son would have been had he lived. Jagua is elegant, sophisticated and sexy. Freddie cannot get enough of her. Freddie is ambitious. He is studying to be a teacher and he wants to do law. He would really like to go to England to study, but he knows that that is unlikely to happen without some influence, which he does not have. However, despite his relationship with Jagua, he wants to maintain a semblance of respectability. He takes her to a talk on imperialism which she does not really understand. However, what she likes to do is to go to the Tropicana Club and dance and, after the lecture, that is just what they do. She loves listening and dancing to Highlife music. Freddie leaves and goes home, while she stays dancing. He is contacted during the night because Jagua has been arrested for fighting. Initially, he does nothing and goes to bed but soon realises that he had better do something and goes and bails her out. She had been fighting Ma Nancy, a rival for a rich man.

Jagua had made money from selling cloth, at which she had been very successful but, for some reason, she is not doing that so much now and seems to make some money from high class prostitution, as rich men – black and white – are very much attracted to her, despite her age. Indeed, fidelity is not a key feature of this book, as we soon find Freddie very much attracted to Nancy, daughter of Ma Nancy, and seducing her. Worried that Freddie might leave her for a younger woman, Jagua promises to finance his trip to England and help him get the necessary documentation, as she knows many important officials. Meanwhile, Freddie, though happy to take her money, is seeing more and more of Nancy but cannot get Jagua out of his mind. Indeed, he feels that she must be using black magic to charm him. However he is convinced that she is selling her body and tricks her to find out the truth. When she goes to visit him and apologise, she finds that he has moved. When she does find him, she tears up his passport which she managed to get him by bribery and corruption.

Freddie is now stuck in Nigeria as he cannot get a passport without bribery and has no money to do so. However, he works hard and finally gets a scholarship. Jagua manages to find out when he is leaving and gets a lift from a man, known as Uncle Taiwo, in order to see Freddie off. She now decides that it is time to leave Lagos, at least for a while, and sets off to her parents’ village. Her parents are getting old. Her father is a minister and, when she get there, she finds that he is travelling and that her brother has moved into town, where he has married. So she decides to set off for Bagana, Freddie;s home town, to meet his family. To her surprise and horror, when she gets there, she finds Nancy, mother and daughter. Freddie’s parents are also absent. She finds out that Freddie’s father is a chieftain but has had a falling out with a relative and that the relative has moved to a neighbouring location and the two tribes are at war. Almost inevitably, it is Jagua that brings them together and who gets a marriage proposal from the other chief. But she does not want to marry anyone but Freddie, so she is off again.

She tries a varied life, working as a merchant princes in the town where her brother lives, then going back to prostitution, before returning to Lagos and the attractions of the Tropicana. There, Uncle Taiwo looks after her, but not before she gets involved with a thief and acts as a fence for him. Uncle Taiwo is a politician and is standing for election so Jagua becomes a politician, giving speeches in favour of Taiwo, particularly when she finds out that his opponent is Freddie. Unknown to her, Freddie has married Nancy and they have two children. He has returned from London and thinks politics is the best way to make money. He finds out the hard way how totally corrupt and violent Nigerian politics are. Despite their opposition, Jagua still loves him.But, of course, that goes wrong, too.

This novel was hailed as an early example of the urban novel in Nigeria and we get to see Lagos in all its glory – high life music, prostitution, corruption, violence but lively and colourful. It is hard for a woman and harder for an older woman but Jagua just about pulls through, against many obstacles. She can be dishonest and immoral but she clearly loves Freddie, even if the good life is her priority. Ekwensi tells a good tale of life in Nigeria at that period but the book will be remembered more for the character of Jagua than for the story.

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Heinemann