July 23, 2022

Toasting Babes with Onitsha Market Literature

Onitsha Market

Onitsha market deserted as Biafrans mark Day


By Maxim Uzoatu

Onitsha Market Literature has just struck my medulla oblongata. 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 those good old days with the help of any of the Onitsha market books, the girl must fall – Doxology! 

Of course, it needs no retelling that whenever Onitsha gets into any business, other cities take a 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.

In short, Onitsha is much too much. Even Lagos, the city by the lagoon, bows to Onitsha, the town on the banks 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.

Sadly, the civil war of 1967 to 1970 dealt a deathblow to the growth of market literature but that is another story. 

Onitsha market literature was made up of inexpensive booklets and pamphlets comprising genres such as fiction, drama, poetry, 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. 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 an extra income for leisure reading. As large numbers of rural-dwellers trooped to Onitsha, the book market shot up, especially as there was a 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 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 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 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.

S. 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 consoles the poor with his title Lack of Money is not Lack of Sense.

Cyprian Ekwensi remarkably began his career 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 authors were prolific, notably Anorue JC and Okenwa Olisah who have 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!