Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder: The Iconic Duo Who Gave Us Classical Childhood Stories

“With Moral Lessons” was the unique tagline of the children’s books co-authored by Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder. These books, Eze Goes to School and Eze Goes to College, taught young minds the importance of education and unwavering determination to succeed. The stories are centred on Eze Adi and his quest for education, narrating his travails, resilience and eventual success in pursuits of his dreams. Eze’s father, Okonkwo, was a farmer and hunter, who was illiterate but believed that Eze would benefit from an education, and so he ensured that he went to school. Okonkwo would, however, meet an untimely death. He had led five other men to the farm to get food, armed with spears and machetes because there was a leopard on the prowl. The scene in which Eze’s father, Okonkwo, fought with the leopard, as his companions ran away in fear under the guise of getting help, was most chilling. Okonkwo died two days later, and a cloud of uncertainty settled on both Eze and real-life readers. Eze’s mother struggled to fulfill her late husband’s wishes for Eze’s education, even as her plans were sabotaged by Okonkwo’s relations, who used the forty pounds Okonkwo left behind for a befitting burial rather than his son’s education. His mother soon fell ill, and Eze began cracking and selling palm-kernels as a means of sustenance. He also set traps in the bush for animals, which he would sell as bushmeat. Eze’s teacher, Mr Okafor, came to their rescue when all hopes seemed lost, and shouldered the responsibly of Eze’s fees.

Just as this responsibility seemed to overwhelm Mr Okafor, the soldier, Wilberforce Ezeilo would come back home from the Second World War. Through him, Eze’s hometown, Ohia, established a scholarship fund which enabled him to continue his schooling up to college. One of the most popular children’s novellas in Nigeria, this collaboration by Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder was published in 1966. The sequel, Eze Goes to College, follows Eze’s sojourn to Prince of Peace College in Onitsha. Nzekwu and Crowder had painted a vivid tale that immersed readers in the idyllic life in Eze’s village and introduced them to the cultures and traditions of the Igbo people in Eastern Nigeria. The book creatively fuses the need for education with cultural significance and the ripple effects of colonialism on indigenous communities. Nzekwu, before his death, shared that the books were born out of a dire need to write a children’s book focused on the essence of education. Nzekwu and Crowder believed in a society positively enhanced by education. The impact of this classical read ensured that the federal ministry of education incorporated them into Nigeria’s Junior Secondary School Reader Boosters. 

Onuora Nzekwu was born in Kafanchan on the 19th of February 1928 to Mr Obiese Nzekwu and Mrs Mary Ogugua Nzekwu. He joined the Civil Service in 1956 as an editorial assistant at the Nigeria Magazine Division of the Federal Ministry of Information, eventually getting promoted to editor-in-chief in 1958. Migrating to Eastern Nigeria in 1966 because of the Nigerian civil war, he transferred his services to the Eastern Nigeria Public Service, working as a senior information officer. This post combined the roles of Information Ministry and Cultural officer. In 1968, he became the deputy director of the newly created Cultural Division. When the Biafra war ended in January 1970, he returned to the Federal Ministry of Information in May 1970, as a senior information officer at the information division. He also worked as general manager of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) from the 1st of July 1979, retiring from service in 1985. Nzekwu received the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1961 and a UNESCO Fellowship in 1964. In 1997, he published a non-fiction work titled The Chima Dynasty in Onitsha where he recounted the history of his hometown, Onitsha. In 2006, the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) presented him with a plaque, with the engraving “Maker of NAN”. In December 2008, he was also conferred with the Nigerian national honour of officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). Nzekwu died on Friday, the 21st of April 2017 in Onitsha, at the age of 89. He is survived by his wife, Mrs Justina Nzekwu, and six children.

The Cambridge Press described Michael Crowder as having a lifelong love affair with Africa. Collaborating frequently with African professors and creatives like Nzekwu; Professor Crowder, a distinguished historian, teacher and administrator, contributed immensely to journals and edited volumes on African Studies. He also set up or headed institutes dedicated to African Studies including the Institute or Centre of African Studies at Ibadan, Fourah Bay, Ife and Amherst (USA); the Centre for Cultural Studies at Zaria and Lagos; the Department of History at Bayero University, Kano, and the University of Botswana. He died in London on the 14th of August 1988 at the age of fifty-four.

Contrasting Eze Goes to School with the reality of contemporary Nigerian lived experiences, the moral lesson facilitated by Nzekwu and Crowder seems to evade the society at large and governments of West Africa. Many children like Eze still face the obstacles to education. Many children in lower-income communities walk several miles to school in poor condition, while many struggles to pay for their education. The case of Success Adegor, a Warri-born child who angrily retorted that her teachers sent her home due to unpaid fees is one of this. Success had cried that she preferred to be beaten for not paying rather than sent home where there was nothing to do. Sixty years after Nzekwu and Crowder wrote this story, Success and many other children like her are real-life Ezes, struggling against the odds to get an education.  

Re-reading Eze goes to school would also reveal representations of gender imbalance, that might initially seem like reflections of the authors’ anti-egalitarian beliefs. Eze’s sister, Ulu, was exempted from school simply because she was a girl. Ulu would later be married off to a soldier to help with the family expenses after Okonkwo’s death. Okonkwo had also told his son, “You must beat all the boys in any examination you take. You must take first place always. And if you are stupid enough to let a boy beat you, never, my son, never let the girl, Chinwe beat you.” Nzekwu and Crowder, however, proved that their book’s moral lessons were also on deconstructing narratives that privilege masculinity and downgrade femininity. Eze’s pride was curtailed when Chinwe, the girl whom his father had warned never to beat him, came first in the Standard VI examination. This understated approach to girl empowerment and equality revealed to readers that excellence was not singularly masculine. The stories Nzekwu and Crowder created will forever be on the lips of Nigerians across generations as one of the unforgettable books of their childhood that taught them many indispensable lessons.

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