‘People of the City’ Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

People of the City
Cyprian Ekwensi
New York Review of Books Classics
June 2020

Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi‘s (1921-2007) debut, People of the City was shepherded into the literary spotlight by novelist Chinua Achebe (1930-2013). Achebe chose Ekwensi’s novel as the pioneering selection for the Heinemann African Writers Series, securing the text’s position as a seminal example of African literature.

First published in 1963, People of the City is an illuminating account of individuals’ lives in an unnamed West African city. A coming-of-age story overlapping with a vibrant portrait of a titular cityscape, People of the City is a recognizable narrative of how identity construction is often jeopardized by the specters of colonialism. With a foreword by author Emmanuel Iduma, the 2020 reprint concretizes Ekwensi’s position as an influential literary voice.

Ekwensi’s primary protagonist is Amusa Sango, a young man drawn to the city to fulfill his romantic and professional ambitions. He is also an avid musician, often receiving aplomb for his performances at the All Language Club. Despite the opportunity the city holds for Sango, he struggles: he loses his job, is evicted from his residence, and is plagued by spurned lovers.

Sango is a symbol of the African middle-class. He is hyper-aware of the city’s poverty but finds the wealth of the upper classes unobtainable. Sango is incapable of recognizing his affinities with the impoverished. He staunchly believes his perseverance will eventually reward him with affluent prominence. This is Ekwensi’s portrayl of false-consciousness: a clear warning to remain vigilant to the blinding promises supported by materialism. As made clear by Sango, and especially apparent in contemporary society, it is easier to plummet down the social class ladder than it is to ascend.

Sango is a flawed character. He often internally battles the push between his traditional upbringing and modernity’s seduction. Whereas his drive is laudable, his vices render his complexity. For instance, he is a shameless womanizer, frequently discarding lovers for new infatuations. He demonstrates undeniable cruelty in his relationships with women. After he brutally beats Aina, a convicted thief and former lover, she miscarries.

Unrepentant, Sango uses the assault and Aina’s subsequent hospitalization as an opportunity to wed Beatrice. It is Beatrice’s class status that fuels Sango’s desire for upward mobility. His rejection of Aina is likewise the repudiation of his own lower-class status. For Sango, women are trophies of class.

Even with the horrific violence envisioned in these passages, it is essential to place the novel in an accurate context. Set in the 1950s, misogyny was not an articulated common conception and a long way from gaining global recognition. More so, reading the novel with a Western lens diminishes People of the City‘s historical center while reiterating colonizing narratives.

People of the City is an unrelenting critique of colonial ideology and praxis. The city, often considered to be Lagos, is emblematic of the struggle for African independence from British colonial rule. Elections promising authentic political, cultural, and individual representation are a constant influence on Sango’s standpoint. In one pivotal scene, a city councilor states: “we want our own Government. They will decide what money you may have, what food you may eat…what films you may see” (52). In this way, Ekwensi foreshadows Gayatri C. Spivak‘s call for subjectivity as a means to reclaim identity from colonialism’s grasp.

There are moments when Ekwensi channels his frustration with the entrenched oppression stemming from colonialism. For example, Sango, a crime reporter, covers a coal crisis where “twenty-one miners who had been shot down by policemen under orders from the imperialists…how frequently labour disputes arose, and how the mine boss — an overbearing white man — would not listen” (72-73). Without naming it, Ekwensi adroitly establishes the insidious connection between colonialism and capitalism. People of the City, recognizes the commodification of the African peoples and the country’s resources as instruments for European domination.

From the novel’s depiction of exploitation and sociocultural marginalization, readers witness the subjugation of colonial identity, echoing Frantz Fanon‘s 1961’s The Wretched of The Earth. Fanon understood colonialism as a total project, a dehumanizing practice detrimental to mental and physical well-being.

Similarly, as People of the City closes, Ekwensi kills most of the central characters one-by-one. Their deaths are signifiers of the dehumanization brought onto them by colonialism. Whereas the novel ends with Sango relishing his happiness, his restored self-respect is an individual’s account. Ekwensi clearly sees a disconnect between individualism and cultural subjectivity. He writes, “they were all—each and every one of them—members of one family, and what concerned one concerned all the others” (152). Here the author is unequivocally stating Sango’s individualism is incongruous to this city’s, and by extension, the nation’s struggle with colonial severity.

Throughout the novel, Ekwensi critiques are electric, his narrative is mesmerizing. As such, People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism’s reign.

RATING 7 / 10