Map of Southern Nigeria
Located in Anambra State, south-eastern Nigeria, Onitsha is home to the largest open air market on the African continent, the Onitsha Main Market. From the 1940s through to the 1960s, the Onitsha market was the centre of a thriving industry where pamphlets that catered to a growing literate populace were cheaply printed and sold. This collection of publications, now referred to as "Onitsha Market Literature" have become collectors' items. Because they were written by the common man and woman, and reflected local cares, concerns and anxieties, they have also become a means by which social conditions of the time can be examined. Possibly a genre onto itself, Onitsha Market Literature offers a wide variety of topics ranging from romantic advice, to dramas, plays, history and racy stories.
Recently the University of Kansas digitised twenty-one pamphlets from Onitsha Market, making them available for the general public to read and download. The twenty-one pamphlets are part of a larger collection of 101 pamphlets from Onitsha that are held at the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, and were selected as examples of the themes that are ubiquitous in Onitsha Market Literature.
Photo of Onitsha Market taken by Thomas R. Buckman
Common themes were/are sex, love, marriage and money. The driving forces behind the genre were the newly literate Nigerians who were hungry to read books that were specific to their experiences and lives. When the local publishing industry was in its heyday, pamphlets were bought and widely exchanged among readers who, by all accounts, enjoyed them thoroughly. A fascinating observation that stands out while perusing the twenty-one digitised pamphlets is that a lot of the subjects covered by the available Onitsha Market Literature are still hot topics in Nigeria today, more than fifty years later.
The dangers of loose living and how to make money quick
Titles such as "A Woman's Pride is Her Husband" and "The Way to Make Friends with Girls" reflect the universal enduring theme of love and marriage. On the other hand, "Beware of Women" presents Nigerian (and African) women, as gold-digging Jezebels, a portrayal that has stood the test of time. Moving past the titles and deeper into the pamphlets reveals further surprises. When Mrs Chinwe Akaosa, the writer of "A Woman's Pride is Her Husband", advices women to be obedient and mentions that some women use “charms” on their husbands, it seems like Mrs Akaosa's words were not published in the 1960s but in the 2000s. Countless Nollywood movies today show women using black magic to secure their husbands and offer morals on the importance of (women's) obedience in married life.
When young men are cautioned to be careful in choosing the means through which to make money, the popular song “Jankoliko” comes to mind, especially the bit where Sound Sultan raps “no need to rush, no jars, no medi, take it slow and steady”, advice to young people trying to earn riches. The emphasis placed on marrying someone you love in "A Woman's Pride is Her Husband" can be seen in the countless Nollywood movies staring Ghanaian actor Van Vicker.
In "The African Bachelor's Guide and Lady's Guide (to be read before marriage and after it)" by Cy Diala there are chapters dedicated to “the importance of prayers in searching for a girl to marry” and to warning men of “siren spinsters”. Nigerians today should be familiar with the often repeated advice on the importance of prayers in finding someone to marry, although the term “siren spinster” will probably be new to most these days. In the early 1960s it was an accepted fact that young unmarried, sexually uninhibited women in Lagos preferred married men as boyfriends. Today, movies such as "Blackberry Babes", "White Hunters" and "Fazebook Babes" depict women as “siren spinsters”.
The “siren spinsters” become “cocktail ladies” in Marius U.E Nkwoh's “Cocktail Ladies” (from the series – "Facing the facts around us"). "Cocktail Ladies" derides feminism for encouraging women to do everything that men do and to rival men. Furthermore, the bad behaviour of these “cocktail ladies” who do not live respectable lives, are listed as drinking, smoking, partying and making men pay for it, as well as driving their own cars, working in various fields and wearing makeup. Marius, we can safely assume, was a very worried man.
Other Ontisha market pamphlets such as "Elekere Agwo: The Quack Doctor" by D. Nkem Akuneme, originally published in July 1964, provide the type of exploitative entertainment that Western pulp fiction is known for. "The Quack Doctor" is the tale of the honest and law-abiding Okondu who is pushed into “the hands of mercenary quacks” and the world of illicit drug deals due to a set of unfortunate circumstances.
Pan-Africanism and Idealism
Not all Ontisha market literature dished out advice and moral epithets or was exploitative. Despite the disdain shown towards traditional religious practices, "The Ibo Native Law and Custom", which was meant for students and those interested in Igbo history and culture, provides useful information about the Igbo people. A surprising find for me was a play called "The Last days of Lumumba (the late lion of the Congo)" by Thomas Orlando Iguh, which suggests the popularity of pan-Africanism during that time, i.e., it wasn't just an idea for the intellectual class.
In comparing Onitsha market literature from the 1960s with Nigerian popular media in the present time, the general lack of media that dissects politics today is jarring. It is easy and perhaps expected that love, marriage and moral cautioning will remain as relevant topics, yet, with the exception of the odd song lamenting the failures of the Nigerian government, political commentary in popular culture now tends to be almost non-existent.
Considering that in the 1960s, Nigeria (along with several other African countries) had just become independent from British colonial rule, it does make sense that idealism was widespread. A lot of Nigerians today may not be familiar with Patrice Lumumba or his legacy, yet the fact that a play aboutn this “lion of the Congo” was published in Onitsha back then hints at the celebrity of African revolutionary figures of the time.
A recent discussion with a friend of mine, Antoinette Obiogbolu, lead us to speculate on idealism, or the lack of it, in Nigeria today. Antoinette believes that idealism in Nigeria died with the failure of Biafra's attempt at secession. Works on political figures in popular culture are not replete in Nigeria today as the death of idealism means that Nigerians do not imagine a better state for the country itself, and so seek to improve their daily lives while dealing only with trivial issues. In this way, concerns about money, women, love and marriage can continue to overshadow all else, even as the imperatives of idealism remain.
The more things change...
Onitsha market literature thrived until the market was heavily damaged in 1968 during the Biafran War. Today, a large majority of Nollywood movies come out of Onitsha, and in some ways the current Nigerian movie industry has replaced the Onitsha market literature of the past. Nollywood is lauded foremost as a local initiative that was driven by Nigerians and catered to local realities by telling stories that are relevant to the lives of Nigerians and Africans. But while Nigeria's local movie industry has grown exponentially, the publishing industry is in a sad state. These days, a visit to a bookshop in a Nigerian market is more likely to yield books by Western authors such Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel or Jeffrey Archer, as opposed to locally printed books. (However is not the case in parts of Northern Nigeria, where locally printed books in Hausa, otherwise known as Hausa market literature, remain popular today (see also "Hausa popular literature and video film: the rapid rise of cultural production in times of economic decline")).
Reading through the twenty-one digitised Onitsha market pamphlets, it is obvious that while some things have changed most remain the same. The harsh criticism and shaming targeted at Nigerian women is ongoing, while political dramatisations have ebbed. While on one hand it is amazing that the ideas present in the earlier Onitsha market literature seems to held strong through time, it would be more impressive if healthier cultural attitudes thrived, as well a bit of idealism.