It was a phenomenon in those days, both for the presumed audience who gulped it cover to cover as well as those who pondered on its literary status. The name ‘Onitsha Market Literature’ already signified controversy in a literature qualified by the word market. The market connotes a space of the everyday negotiator or bargainer, not one of literture. So, could a literary genre so named be considered literature? Well, it not only served its audience, it got some literary critics busy on such questions, the outcome of which are books that must be staging their way back in the age in which popular culture – films, internet, popular press and the likes – is the corner stone of academic reflections. The author of this piece originally published in a blog under the title, “Onitsha Market Literature Taught Us How to Toast Babes” might have been serving a hypertextual notice, proclaiming a new entrance into this domain after the generation that savoured Onitsha Market Literature, (OML) seem to have forgotten all about it. Enjoy it – Intervention
The people who are getting excited because of the Pacesetters series should know that before the Pacesetters there was Onitsha Market Literature. Nothing can ever be sweeter than Onitsha market books.
The sweetest words and phrases were made in Onitsha. If you ever wrote to a girl with the help of any of the Onitsha market books, the girl must fall, doxology! Of course, what else could happen after you have read books like “How To Make friends with Girls” or “How to Speak To Girls and Win their Love.”
Of course it needs no re-telling that whenever Onitsha gets into any business, other cities take the back seat. When market literature was in vogue, Onitsha was the leader. Now that home movies have taken over, Onitsha has shot ahead as the centre of the booming trade especially at 51 Iweka Road, Onitsha.
In short, Onitsha is more than too much. Even Lagos, the city by the lagoon, bows to Onitsha, the town on the bank of the River Niger. There was zero publishing output in Onitsha as at 1949 when Lagos could boast of as many as 19 published books. From 1950 to 1954, Lagos accounted for 30 books while Onitsha had only seven titles. Then from 1955 to 1959, Onitsha gained ascendancy with 56 books as against 31 from Lagos. In the boom years of 1960 to 1966, Onitsha published a whopping 411 titles while Lagos had only 65 books. Sadly, the civil war years of 1967 to 1970 dealt a deathblow to the growth of market literature in Onitsha, but that is another story.
Onitsha market literature was made up of inexpensive booklets and pamphlets encompassing genres such as fiction, plays, verses, current affairs, language primers, social etiquette, religious tracts, history, biography, manuals, collections of proverbs, letter-writing, traditional customs and, of course, money-making. There is actually a title “How to get Rich Overnight” by H. O. Ogu.
Colonialism and its education somewhat “opened the eyes” of the authors of the market literature. Some of the soldiers who had travelled to Burma and other sectors of the Second World War came back with exotic ideas.
The economic prosperity that followed the war provided extra income for leisure reading. As large numbers of rural-dwellers trooped to Onitsha, the book market shot up especially as there was massive expansion in primary and secondary education after the white man’s war.
The Onitsha publishers, made up of a close-knit group of families from a few surrounding towns, were in effective control of apprenticeships, sub-contracts and agencies while organising the distribution of their titles to all parts of Nigeria and indeed West Africa. Sales of the booklets ranged from three thousand copies per title to 100,000 copies for bestsellers such as Ogali A. Ogali’s play, Veronica My Daughter.
Scholars and writers like Chinua Achebe, Emmanuel Obiechina, Ulli Beier, Michael Echeruo, Ernest Emenyonu, Ime Ikiddeh, Bernth Lindfors, John Reed, Alain Ricard, Adrian Roscoe etc. have written extensively on the Onitsha market literature phenomenon.
A quotable quote from Ogali’s Veronica My Daughter goes thus: “As I was descending from a declivity yesterday with such an excessive velocity I suddenly lost the centre of my gravity and was precipitated on the macadamised thoroughfare.” The next character then says: “I hope your bones were mercilessly broken.” The reply from bombastic Bomber Billy comes thusly: “Don’t put my mind under perturbation!”
Some of the more prominent Onitsha authors boast of many arresting titles. For instance, J. Abiakam penned the bestselling “How to Speak to Girls and Win their Love.” Cyril Aririguzo put pen to paper to release “Miss Appolo’s Pride Leads her to be Unmarried.”Eze wrote “How to Know when a Girl Loves You or Hates You.” Thomas Iguh penned “£9000,000,000 Man still says No Money.”
Nathan Njoku wrote “My Seven Daughters are after Young Boys.” The illustration shows the seven girls with the caption: “Seven beautiful daughters – good for nothing!” Raphael Obioha’s title goes straight to the point: “Beauty is a Trouble.” Rufus Okonkwo goes to the heart of the matter with his title: “Why Boys Never Trust Money Monger Girls.”
Okenwa Olisah’s “Money Hard to get but Easy to Spend” was the ultimate handbook for all traders, just as his book “Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven” served all drunks very well. Speedy Eric penned the bestseller “Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away” while Felix Stephen consoled the poor with his title “Lack of Money is not Lack of Sense.” Cyprian Ekwensi remarkably began his career through Onitsha Market Literature with “Ikolo the Wrestler and other Ibo Tales,” and “When Love Whispers” which has been celebrated in many circles as the title that initiated the Onitsha market literature phenomenon. Most of the Onitsha market authors were quite prolific, notably Anorue JC and Okenwa Olisah who had many pennames.
The attention that Onitsha Market Literature has earned across the globe is strongly underscored by the treatment of Marius Nkwoh’s “Cocktail Ladies” by the University of Kansas, United States in which Nkwoh dismisses feminists as “cocktail ladies… human parasites, lazy drones, and good for nothings… I am advising those of them that are youthful enough and still marriageable to go now and marry…” Feminists, over to you!