The Passport of Mallam Illia by Cyprian Ekwensi

The Passport of Mallam Illia

The Passport of Mallam Illia by Cyprian Ekwensi

The Passport of Mallam Illia is a 1961 novella by a Nigerian novelist, Cyprian Ekwensi.

The Passport of Mallam Illia

Themes in The Passport of Mallam Illia by Cyprian Ekwensi

The story is set around the 1940s in mostly Kano, Northern Nigeria. The narrator in one of his journeys in retaliation against his wronger, Mallam Usman, stormed Mecca. The story’s plot unfolds on a train in Kano about to head to Bauchi. In the novella, Ekwensi tried to explore the themes of love, betrayal, and religion, which were ubiquitous in colonial Northern Nigeria.


Summary The Passport of Mallam Illia by Cyprian Ekwensi

It is 1947. On a train heading towards Bauchi-Plateau from Kano in today’s Northern innermost Nigeria, a young man gasping to reunite with his mother, Dije, and his father, whose identity is hidden at this point, gets to meet a frail old man, with everything present about him pitiable, ranging from his physical appearance to his dressing and turban.

The old man is Mallam Illia, whose name portrays a Muslim. Going with the description of the young man beside him on the train, Mallam Illia is dressed in tattered clothes, and his skin is dull and suffers from the wrath of the end-of-year harmattan. Mallam Illia goes on to become the novella’s eponymous protagonist and narrator.

The story starts with Mallam Illia gluing his weak eyes to his passport, perhaps in bewilderment. Soon, tears began to run down his cheeks in a torrent, making the young man bothered about what the problem might be. Except for the crying Mallam, no one else on the train, not even the young man, knows the source of Mallam’s grief.

Mallam, in his prime, was a good-looking, courageous, and venturesome man who carved out a large portion of his time for traveling. To achieve his objectives as a traveler and merchant who traveled through the Sahara, he shunned women even in the face of pressure to marry one by his parents. His parents frequently recommended him the most beautiful girls in the famous town of Hausa land for marriage, but he never weighed them up before turning them down for being unattractive. He desired to marry an angel-like wife and never gave a second thought about it till that opportunity came.

One evening, Mallam sat amidst friends, talking politics. The Arab merchants soon came forth, alighted from their donkeys, and challenged him and others present to a Shanchi game.

The game of Shanchi is a deadly game that sees players fight to kill each other, and the winner is promised marriage to the adorable princess of Tuareg— Zara.

Opportunity presents itself, and Mallam Illia grabs it tightly and taunts anyone who was not brave enough to rise for the challenge to leave their mist. Indeed, Zaza is gorgeous and worth dying for. Her beauty cannot be matched by that of girls Mallam Illia has encountered or recommended for by his parents. 

Although the Shanchi game is deadly, Mallam is confident of eliminating his opponents and marrying Zara, the only girl he has seen possessing the features of his dream wife.

Several courageous men took up the challenge; fortunately, Mallam Illia defeated all his opponents in a sober fight that almost saw his end. Consequently, the Princess of Tuareg, Zara, is handed over to him for marriage as a prize for winning the Shanchi game.

Mallam Usman, an Influential, powerful, and envious man who survived the game, swore to cut through Mallam Illia. He imprisoned Mallam Illia and tried to persuade Zara into marrying him but to no avail. He killed her for her stubbornness and refusal to marry him.

Being aware of the consequences of his evil action, Mallam Usman flees to unknown land after gutting Mallam Illia’s life, making Mallam Illia desperately seek revenge, whatever the cost. Soon after he secured his freedom, the French West African Colony issued him a passport attached to its troops.

Mallam Illia, in his quest for revenge against Usman, got crippled. When he learns Mallam Usman is hiding in Mecca, he tracks him to the Muslim Holy Land in the hope to catch him alive and wreak his wrath on him.

In Mecca, Mallam Usman is also powerful. Even though Mallam Illia succeeded in tracking him to Mecca’s hiding, he still exerts his crushing power on him for the umpteenth time. He incarcerated Mallam Illia again, only to be rescued by a nice woman named Dije, who learned about Mallam Illia’s background and picked interest in him. Dije accommodated Illia after learning that he was taught by the famous Mallam Gobir.

Soon after, Mallam Illia falls in love with Dije and marries her. Eventually, he left her with a talisman to give to her unborn child.

On the train, the young man jots the story down as Mallam narrates his ordeal to him. Mallam Illia’s life is seemingly shattered but seems complete as he did succeed in wreaking revenge on the brutal Mallam Usman. As if telling the story is the pillar of his life, Mallam, immediately after he had finished telling his revenge story to the young man on the train, began to lose consciousness slowly. He poisoned himself, maybe due to the pain from the fresh wounds beneath his shoulder or the pain of the death of his loved Zara. Who knows? 

The character is narrowly developed to fit into the genre of the story. In the end, we learn the young man who had been with Mallam Illia on the train is his son from Dije.



The novel is set in colonial Muslim-dominated Northern Nigeria, about the time the British colonizers had to penetrate the region. The story unfolded in Kano on a train heading to Bauchi-Plateau in 1947.


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