The House of Nwapa: Untold Story of an African Female Writer

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Filmmaker, author, academician and cultural entrepreneur Onyeka Nwelue studied scriptwriting at the Asian School of Media Studies in Noida, India. He also taught film directing at Center for Research in Art of Film & TV (CRAFT). His best-selling novel The Abyssinian Boy published when he was just 21, partly captures his experiences as a black man living in India and secured the 2009 TM Aluko Prize for Fiction.

Nwelue is the founder of Blues & Hills Consultancy, and has created the Italian-Nigerian Festival of Cultures. He is also the president of La Cave Musik, a record label based in Paris, specializing in music from Africa and the Caribbean. In addition, he co-wrote the film Namaste Naija, directed by Teco Benson and at age 27, became the youngest jury member of the Woodpecker International Film Festival in India.

On August 28, 2016, his documentary film The House of Nwapa based on literary icon Flora Nwapa premiered at the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) in Harare, Zimbabwe. The House of Nwapa was also screened at the Havard Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa (YALDA) (October 2016), the Lights Camera Africa (LCA) festival (September 2016), the Lagos Book & Art Festival (LABAF) (November 2016) and the iREPRESENT INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (iREP) (March 2017).

The film was nominated in the Best Documentary category at the 2017 African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA).

What inspired your documentary film The House of Nwapa and what can you tell us about it?

Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa was born in Oguta on January 13, 1931 and died of pneumonia on October 16, 1993 in Enugu. She was better known as Flora Nwapa. When she died, I was 5 years old but I was paying attention to the goings-on. She was my aunt so my mother kept her funeral brochure, which she told me she knew I would use someday. She eventually gave me in 2014. It was useful because I got curious about the enigma Nwapa and was determined to do a film about her. I consider myself a feminist and had read her book Efuru, the first to be published by Heinemann Educational Books in English by an African woman in 1966. She later went on to become the first African woman publisher of novels when she founded Tata Press, and is recognised as the mother of modern African literature. She was a strong woman but It seems she was intentionally forgotten because men were cowered by her achievements. While never considering herself a feminist, she is best known for recreating life and traditions from a woman’s viewpoint. In an interview with Contemporary Authors, she mentions, “I have been writing for nearly thirty years. My interest has been in both the rural and the urban woman in her quest for survival in a fast-changing world dominated by men.”

Nwapa was an educationist and is also known for her governmental work in reconstruction after the Biafran War. In particular, she worked with orphans and refugees that were displaced during the war. The film took me a year to complete and I also had no funds. The kind of story I wanted to tell about her family and career compelled me to travel within and outside Nigeria, conducting interviews with persons relevant to her story. I had a spinal injury during the course of events and in a trip to Nigeria, came in a wheelchair, as well as moved about painfully with a walking stick. My plan was to do all I could so that if I died in the process, the crew I worked with would have material to continue and probably finish the film. Everyone who worked on the film did it for free. Someone also gave me some money, which I used to buy beer for all the crew at different stages of the film. 2016 was the 50th anniversary of Efuru and my plan was to celebrate my aunt and the book. Even her family had even forgotten all about it.

Did you have any special choice of her interview subjects?

I wanted to do a rich story within my capacity so I interviewed her siblings, children, relatives, friends, professional colleagues within and outside Nigeria like Mabel Segun, as well as publishers along with people in her locale, protégé and other writers. It was heartwarming to have Prof. Wole Soyinka say that it is one of the documentaries he is proud of. “I feel really stimulated by the work you’ve been doing on Flora Nwapa, a ‘missing’ figure in the overall consciousness of our younger literary generation, so a documentary on her is long overdue.”

Onyeka Nwelue and Prof. Wole Soyinka on the set of House of Nwapa

How well has the film been received?

First and foremost, there is no perfect film and anyone who feels the work I have done is below standard is welcome to do theirs. Of course, the film has flaws but I am happy to do my bit in bringing part of Flora Nwapa’s story to light. I have already blazed a trail for others to follow. The film premiered in August 2016 at the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) in Harare, Zimbabwe and it was well received. It is a film festival dedicated to women-centred narratives and the celebration of the best in women cinema. The founder of the festival, Tsitsi Dangarembga, invited me. The second screening was in September 2016 in the United States, at The Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa, Harvard (YALDA). Interestingly, some students in attendance were doing a course on Flora Nwapa so the film was useful as it exposed them to Africa’s rich, but often overlooked, literary past. It was also screened at LCA and LABAF in 2016 and iREPRESENT International Documentary Film in 2017. It will continue screening at festivals that request for it.

How do you plan to distribute the film?

The film cannot be distributed for sale due to the nature of some of the materials I used. I took it to Ethiopian Airlines and told them they could use it for their in-flight entertainment and just asked to be able to use their airline to travel for free on some trips. I uploaded the full video for free on YouTube but took it down when a certain Nigerian film critic said that there was nothing good about the film. I might upload it again because people are asking for it.

What were some memorable moments for you while filming?

Interviewing literary icons like Wole Soyinka, Mabel Segun, Nwapa’s family especially her siblings and children were some of the memorable moments. It was a revelation to know that when Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia visited Enugu, she took her little son and infant daughter to an event she was invited to. Her son recalls the emperor carrying his baby sister and there was a photograph to show for it. Nwapa exposed her children to world culture and history and took them with her several times on her travels. She was also a graceful and fashionable woman.

Onyeka Nwelue talking about his film before fielding questions from the audience at iREP

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Image credits: Onyeka Nwelue

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Adebimpe Adebambo is the Business Development Officer at Revilo, an art and culture publishing company. She studied Painting at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. Adebambo is also a fashion and accessories designer, and her work is concerned with environmental sustainability and recycling. She debuted as a costume designer on Tunde Kelani's award-winning film Dazzling Mirage, garnering for her efforts, 2 nominations in 2015 for an Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Award and an African Movie Academy Award for Best Costume Designer and Achievement in Costume Design, respectively. Adebimpe Adebambo loves to write and is presently working on a storybook.

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