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From Onitsha market literature to Nollywood

By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
12 May 2019   |   3:30 am
Onitsha, the fabled town on the bank of the River Niger, is a place of wonder and much mystery. The town gained its ascendancy in world literature through the publishing of what became known as the “Onitsha Market Literature” that came into full bloom on Nigeria’s attainment of independence in 1960. It would appear as…

Onitsha, the fabled town on the bank of the River Niger, is a place of wonder and much mystery.

The town gained its ascendancy in world literature through the publishing of what became known as the “Onitsha Market Literature” that came into full bloom on Nigeria’s attainment of independence in 1960. It would appear as if whenever Onitsha gets into any business, other cities take the back seat.

When market literature was in vogue throughout Nigeria, Onitsha was the leader. Now that home movies have taken over, Onitsha has shot ahead as the centre of the booming trade.

According to a study published by the British Library in 1990, “Market Literature from Nigeria: A Checklist”, there was zero publishing output in Onitsha as at 1949 when Lagos could boast of as many as 19 titles.

By 1950-54, Lagos accounted for 30 books while Onitsha had only seven titles. 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. Of course the civil war years of 1967 to 1970 dealt a heavy blow to the growth of market literature in Onitsha, but that is another story.
Onitsha market literature was made up of inexpensive booklets and pamphlets comprising 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 so-called Great War.

The Onitsha publishers, made up of a close-knit group of families from some 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 a couple of 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 one of the titles, to wit, Ogali’s Veronica My Daughter, goes thus: Bomber Billy: “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 Bomber Billy of bombast comes this way: “Don’t put my mind under perturbation!” The literature works to the comic formula of having a supposedly educated character speaking bombastic English for the amusement of the audience.

Some of the more prominent Onitsha authors and their titles include: J. Abiakam – How to Speak to Girls and Win their Love; Cyril Aririguzo – Miss Appolo’s Pride Leads her to be Unmarried; S. Eze – How to know when a Girl Loves You or Hates You; Thomas Iguh – $9000,000,000 Man still says No Money; Highbred Maxwell – Public Opinion on Lovers; Nathan Njoku – Beware of Women and My Seven Daughters are after Young Boys; Marius Nkwoh – Cocktail Ladies and Talking about Love (with Mr Really Fact at St Bottles’ Church); Joseph Nnadozie – Beware of Harlots and Many Friends; Raphael Obioha – Beauty is a Trouble; Ogali A. Ogali – Veronica My Daughter and No Heaven for the Priest; H.O. Ogu – Rose Only Loved My Money and How a Passenger Collector Posed and got a Lady Teacher in Love; Rufus Okonkwo – Why Boys Never Trust Money Monger Girls; Anthony Okwesa – The Strange Death of Israel Njemanze; Okenwa Olisah – Money Hard to get but Easy to Spend and Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven; Speedy Eric – Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away; Felix Stephen – Lack of Money is not Lack of Sense etc.

The humorous titles somewhat tell the stories in the Marshall McLuhan sense of the medium being the message. The Onitsha market authors do not go to the heart of the matter in a roundabout manner. It is an “in-your-face” kind of writing devoid of literary sophistication. Africa’s arguably most-widely known author of popular literature, Cyprian Ekwensi, remarkably began his career through the Onitsha Market Literature. His first title to gain prominence was Ikolo the wrestler and other Ibo tales that was distributed by the Tabansi Press. Ekwensi then followed up with another title, When Love Whispers, which has been celebrated in many circles as the old master’s debut and the most prominent title that initiated the market literature phenomenon.

Most of the Onitsha market authors are quite prolific, and they have many pseudonyms to accommodate the many titles coming from their ever flowing pens. Among the more prolific authors are Anorue JC and Okenwa Olisah. The illustrations in the books are accompanied with full-blown moral instructions to help the reader along.

For instance, an author that goes by the pseudonym of “Strong Man of the Pen” in his 52-page Life, Money and Girls turn Man Up and Down displays the picture of wretched man with the following words: “Life turns man up and down, my brother. Man falls several times before he becomes somebody.

Some times, you will have no chop money and rentage fees and this will make your landlord to insult you every now and then. You will keep on borrowing money from friends and relatives. As you keep on borrowing the money, so will people talk about it in your absence, spoiling your name.

You might have seen a man who owned a private car after some time could not own a common bicycle but later regained his riches after dramatic fall and rise.”

The attention that Onitsha Market Literature has earned across the globe is strongly underscored by the following excerpt from the treatment of Marius Nkwoh’s Cocktail Ladies by the University of Kansas: “This pamphlet is compiled from broadcasts made by Nkwoh over the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation network.

According to the introduction written by V. C. J. Mbah, these broadcasts, a combination of an editorial and a talk show, were deemed fairly controversial. Nkwoh’s positions on these issues, however, were considered to be well informed.

Each chapter is a separate broadcast and the pamphlet’s title comes from the second chapter about ‘cocktail ladies.’

This broadcast discusses a group of women known as cocktail ladies, a class that Nkwoh purports to be career women who have abandoned the idea of marriage and live off of sugar daddies and big men.

Nkwoh describes them as ‘human parasites, lazy drones, and good for nothings.’ (19) Deceived by feminism and the promises of a fleeting beauty, these women ‘infest’ every walk of life they now occupy.

(22) Nkwoh points to feminism as the main culprit, for it misleads ‘cocktail ladies’ into thinking that women can and want to do everything that men do. (18) As a result, these women have become ‘birds of passage or changelings to every big man,’ according to the author.

(21) In pursuing their ‘radical’ lifestyle, cocktail ladies contract diseases, lose husbands, serious boyfriends and jobs, and fail to play their true and proper role in society as dutiful assistants. Nkwoh explains, ‘Women are made to help and not to nag, sap or impoverish men. They should not be a burden, nor nuisance, nor articles of commerce.

There is still plenty of time for our women to think twice.’ (24) However, he continues ‘they should now face the facts around them and consider their life past, now and to come […] Nobody can ever cheat nature . . . I am advising those of them that are youthful enough and still marriageable to go now and marry.’ (26) Other chapters include broadcasts about night marauders, hypocrites ‘in our midst,’ road accidents and superstitions.”

Marius Nkwoh incidentally was among the early graduates of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. It is crucial to point out that some of the writers who started out as market literatures beginners ended up having distinguished careers in the civil service and sundry professions.

In the audio-visual age of today, what Onitsha has lost in market literature it has more than gained in the production and marketing of home movies especially at the celebrated 51 Iweka Road.

The most famous address in Nollywood resonates across Africa and indeed the world. It is as though no home video comes out of Nigeria without the ubiquitous address on its jacket: 51 Iweka Road, Onitsha. Owned by the famous Modebe family, it used to be a house meant for the selling of electronics.

Not anymore, for the rise of the Nigerian movie industry has meant a shift of focus by the importers of the electronics. The business these days is the production and marketing of home videos.

The building is some 60 metres long and three storeys high, with more than a thousand shops, mini-shops and sheds scattered across its entire length and crannies. Makeshift staircases lead to some of the shops in the backyard.

Crowded, almost bursting at the seams and stuffy, the house is definitely not an architectural masterpiece.

A major tenant in the building, Ugo Emmanuel, a proprietor of Emmalex Associates Ltd comes to the building’s defence by stressing that “the oyster that produces the beautiful pearl happens to be very ugly”.

Emmalex was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission as a limited liability company in 1994, a year in which it also got its certificate from the National Film and Video Censors Board.

The company started out as a movie distribution and marketing outfit before embracing core moviemaking in 1996 with the production of Compromise, starring Bob-Manuel Udokwu, Kate Henshaw and Sandra Achums.

Emmalex has since produced about 40 movies, scoring its first major hit with the 1998 production of Confusion, starring Liz Benson, Kanayo O. Kanayo and Sandra Achums, which sold 150,000 copies in a matter of weeks.

Impossibility is quite absent in the lexicon of the Onitsha entrepreneur. A wannabe Onitsha movie producer once breezed into Lagos with a briefcase filled to brim with money, insisting that he wanted to produce an urgent movie in which Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), arguably the then most sought-after leading man in Nollywood, would star.

I was in the company of my about-to-be-wedded bride when I ran into RMD, who incidentally is an old friend of mine, late in the morning in front of the Surulere, Lagos office of the movie producer Zeb Ejiro.

We exchanged cursory pleasantries but I became curious when I still saw him hanging around the one-storey house late in the evening as my intended and I were walking back home. It was then RMD told me the story of how the Onitsha man came with cash to make an instant movie named Scores to Settle, starring RMD and Regina Askia with the prolific Chico Ejiro as director.

The man had chosen the cast and director all by himself before setting foot out of Onitsha. He knew who and what he wanted! No beating about the bush…

The director, actors, actresses, technical crew etc. had to drop other jobs they had at hand to do the movie of the Onitsha man who paid upfront! When I travelled to Onitsha barely a week after to distribute my wedding invitation cards I saw the now deceased ace Nollywood marketer Azubuike Udensi at 51 Iweka Road holding a movie sleeve bearing the title Scores to Settle.

“But that’s the movie RMD told me they were shooting just the other day in Lagos?” I wondered aloud.

“The film has sold out already,” Azubuike said. “There’s not a single copy left in Onitsha. This one I have here had to be borrowed from somebody…”

In the manner of Onitsha Market Literature and Nollywood movies, stories out of Onitsha trump fiction in strangeness.

For instance, many in Onitsha believe that the Niger Bridge constructed in 1965 was proving impossible to build on account of the evil forces of the River Niger mermaid known as Mammywater until the first President of Nigeria, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, easily the most famous man from Onitsha, magically corked the mermaid inside a bottle and threw her deep into the river! Curiously a recent President of Nigeria led a huge delegation to award a contract for the construction of a Second Niger Bridge across the river only for it to turn out a scam in the manner of the 419 Advance Fee Fraud for which Nigeria is ever so notorious!

Like the late maverick musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who boasted of his own Kalakuta Republic in Lagos, Onitsha can be likened to a republic where anything goes.

The Onitsha Main Market, reputed to be the largest market in West Africa, stocks everything from fake drugs and guns to the most sophisticated of modern technological gizmos.

Piracy of films and books are the rule such that the many pirated Onitsha versions of Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country, for instance, may have sold more than the original copies published in the United States and Britain put together! The Onitsha Markets Amalgamated Traders Association (OMATA) rules the roost and remarkably in 1978 ignited the “Boys O Ye” riots, a day of blood and fire for the burning to death of all alleged armed robbers and criminals in the town together with their homes, hideouts and brothels even as the law enforcement agents deigned to look the other way! In my bid to recreate the Onitsha Market Literature phenomenon, I wrote the thriller Day of Blood and Fire published in 1990.

The commercial city on the bank of the River Niger forever captures the imagination of the world.

Onitsha has been rated amongst the five fastest growing cities in the world by the United Nations (UN) Habitat alongside four other cities in Morocco, China, Malaysia and Brazil.

For a city that is already way past bursting, the fear remains that the fast growth of Onitsha may lead to an implosion. No, make that explosion, not unlike the Onitsha Market Literature revolution.

Uzoatu, the 2008 Caine Prize nominee, is the author of God of Poetry