Pita Nwana, Omenuko and the Carpenter’s Blood

(Dulue Mbachu writes on a conversation with Mrs Nwaobiara Chukwurah, 86, the only surviving child of Pita Nwana, on life as the daughter of the author of Omenuko, the first novel published in Igbo language.)

When the novel Omenuko, by Pita Nwana, was published in 1933, it broke the records as the first printed work of fiction written in Igbo language. What was hardly known by most, even today, is that the author was self taught and never had any formal education, according to his now only surviving child, Mrs Nwaobiara Chukwurah.

Now 86, the novel preceded her birth by four years. She was the last of five children and the only girl. But growing up, Nwaobiara (the later Mrs Chukwurah) felt the impact of the book her father had written all around her.

During her school years, she said, a question that often came up in history and civic lessons was: “Who wrote Omenuko? And the answer would be: Pita Nwana. And I would raise my hand and say: ‘That’s my father.’ I was very proud of him, because my father was an author of a very popular book.”

Born in Arondizuogu in southeast Nigeria in the last quarter of the 19th century, the author, originally named Nwosu, was an early convert to Christianity whence he took the name Peter (often written Pita in Igbo rendition). As a lad he was known for his energy and creativity that saw him excel as a wrestler and a hunter.

Nwana afterward picked up a trade as a carpenter and later joined his younger brother in the town of Uzuakoli (in present day Abia state), where he was with Methodist missionaries, in search of better fortunes.

There he became the school carpenter at the renowned Methodist College, Uzuakoli, subsequently rising to become the manager of the school’s works department. By now Nwana had taught himself to read and write, adding writing to his other passions.

“My father never attended school, not one day,” said Mrs Chukwurah. “But he was so smart, taught himself to read and made it possible for him to write a book.”

Omenuko, which roughly translates as “the one who provides in times of scarcity”) was written by Nwana in response to a writing competition. It came tops and was spotted by the U.K. publisher, Longman, which eventually released the book to acclaim in 1933.

It’s the story of Igwegbe Odum, a rich trader from Arondizuogu, one of the many colonies set up by the slave-dealing  Arochukwu people as their hegemonic power, derived from trade alliance with Europe, spread across vast areas of the interior starting from the 15th century. Igwegbe had suffered significant losses after a bridge collapsed and porters carrying his prized goods fell into the water.

To recoup some of his losses, he sold the surviving porters into slavery. Back in his community, this was considered an unacceptable moral breach and he was forced to go into exile. In exile, Omenuko prospered and became the leader of the community where he settled. Yet, home always beckoned, and when his exile was up, he decided to return to reconnect with his roots.

“It was a story that was very familiar to him that’s why he wrote a book and it was so authentic,”said Chukwurah.”The man he wrote about, one Igwegbe, we were told, was a very powerful man. Everybody feared him. When my father was writing Omenuko, he didn’t want to get him involved because he was afraid. But after my father wrote that book, he later contacted Igwegbe. Igwegbe said: ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve given you more information.’ “

Not only was the book popular, it became a significant source of income for the family.

“From the time it was published, royalties started flowing in to the family,” Chukwurah said. “We got a lot of money from the proceeds, but it’s not read that much these days. The royalties have died off..” The book doesn’t get recommended for schools as much as before as new Igbo texts and writers have come on the scene, she said.

Nwana, who passed on in 1968, though famous in literary circles for his book, is remembered more by those who knew him for his hunting prowess. One incident often recalled was that of a leopard caught in a trap set for a smaller animal and it was trampling the forest undergrowth in rage. No one was willing to go near, but Nwana approached with his loaded double-barreled gun. He fired the first shot and the leopard leaped up to charge. Then he followed with a second shot that floored the dreaded beast.

A crowd marched through Uzuakoli on that day carrying aloft the dead leopard as they celebrated the hunter that killed it,  according to Chukwurah.

Chukwurah, who majored in secretarial studies in the U.k. in the 1960s, worked for decades in the civil service as a career bureaucrat. She is an author in her own right, having collaborated with another famous Nigerian author, Anezi Okoro, who wrote ‘Eze Goes to School’ and is now in his 90s, to produce an Igbo text titled: Akuko Ufodu Shakespeare Koro” (Some Tales Told by Shakespeare), published in  2018. Both authors are cousins.

“Part of what I inherited from him is that I like writing, I like writing more than talking,”said Chukurah. ” Because my father was a carpenter, each time a carpenter comes to work for me, as soon as he hits the first nail, I would say: ‘Stop! You haven’t done it right. My father was a carpenter. I have a carpenter’s blood running in me. If you make any mistake, I would know.’”