Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Onitsha Market Literature

Numbers in parentheses refer to page number in the University of Kansas pdf, not page numbers in the original text. I have followed this practice to more clearly refer to introductory, unnumbered pages in Umunnah’s booklet. Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes. This essay is meant only to provide a descriptive overview of Onitsha market literature. Non-standard spelling and usage in Nigerian texts is all in the original.


Onitsha is a Nigerian city of Igbo-speaking people in Anambra State. The city had been a center of commerce before Europeans arrived and, in the mid-nineteenth century, was a major trading port of the Royal Niger Company . More recently, the city has been celebrated for one of the grandest traditional markets in West Africa. The Igbos were the target of considerable missionary activity, particularly by the Roman Catholic Church and, as a result, a high percentage of the Nigerians who early acquired a Western education were Igbo. Chinua Achebe is perhaps the most widely-known Igbo intellectual and his Things Fall Apart is an exposition of Igbo culture and its collision with European influence. After the discovery of oil, the Igbo were the dominant ethnic group in the attempted secession that resulted in the Nigerian Civil War.

Doubtless because of the unusually high level of Igbo literacy, during the 1950s and 60s a vigorous local industry in Onitsha produced books, many little longer than pamphlets, written in a vigorous vernacular, neither standard English nor pidgin. These works have come to be known as Onitsha market literature. I searched for examples when I visited Onitsha in 1979 but they seem to have vanished by that time.

Fortunately, a selection of texts is available online from the University of Kansas. [1] Of the twenty-one examples in their collection twelve concern romantic and sexual relations with titles such as Nathan O. Njoku’s Why boys don’t trust their girlfriends and Felix N. Stephen’s Beautiful Maria in the act of true love. Five engage social themes, including Marius U. E. Nkwoh’s Bribery and corruption: (bane of our society), a play on Lumumba (Thomas Orlando Iguh’s The Last days of Lumumba [the late lion of the Congo]) and one on the Biafran War (Nonye Eneanya’s In our time). Two are practical letter-writing guides (Wilfred Onwuka’s How to study and write good letters, applications, compositions, telegrams, agreements, better sentences, important letters, speaking in public and teach yourself good English and J.C.Abiakam’s How to write and reply letters for marriage, engagement letters, love letters, and how to know a girl to marry.)

The origins of the genre in a generation of Nigerians in the process of partially assimilating to Western culture is implied by two of the texts which present African traditional lore which had earlier always been transmitted orally: “Strong Man of the Pen” Sunday Okenwa Olisah’s Ibo native law and custom and C. N. Eze’s Learn to speak 360 interesting proverbs and know your true brother.

The introduction to Motulumanya J. Okafo’s Struggle for money, says it was written for “the reading pleasure of the simple-minded.” The author ridicules the obsession with love and with what an American might call Horatio Alger success stories in “the numerous pamphlets which over flood our markets,” saying, “Struggle for money is tired of love making and left it out entirely.” (2) The text should, perhaps be counted as a social tract since it attacks both tribalism on the one hand and the single-minded pursuit of wealth associated with modernity.

Like other works of popular (and traditional) literature, these books privilege received ideas. Their values are sentimental and patriotic and pious. Like the audience for the old broadside ballads in Britain, the audience for Onitsha market literature appreciated a lurid story that concluded with a satisfying moral allowing the reader vicarious transgression while maintaining behavior untainted. These works capture in particular a moment in post-colonial consciousness. Most are oriented toward mission-school values in culture as well as in ethics even to the extent of using white people in illustrations.

Onitsha market books were written in a unique sort of English that must surely compound elements of Igbo, British English, and Nigerian pidgin. The standard English component is likely to include highly formal conventions: a boy writes his father “Yours of the 10th ultimo was got with delightfulness.” (Ummunah, 35). The British usage is mixed with lively colloquialisms and heightened by showy figures of speech. [2] The very first Anglophone African author to achieve popularity, Amos Tutuola, who had attended school only through the primary grades, won his audience with a similar mixture of learned and oral usage. After Dylan Thomas praised The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town and it became a great success though Nigerian intellectuals were chagrined at having a semi-literate writer thought their greatest literary artist. Tutuola’s career was made as he continued producing work in the same vein though never surpassing his first effort.[3]

A survey of one of the texts in the Kansas collection Cyril Umunnah’s They died in the game of love [4] (which is called on the University of Kansas site a “quintessential” exemplar of Onitsha Market Literature) will indicate the thematic and stylistic characteristics of the genre. The cover depicts a European couple, he in a suit, she in pearls. He has apparently just presented her with roses, and she modestly turns her head away. The caption reads “Thony and his mother, Cathe and Agnes died for the sake of Love making” (1)making it clear that this image is meant to represent the characters of the story though their names and circumstances mark them clearly as African. In the “FORWARD” and then in the conclusion, Tennyson is quoted in another gesture toward English education. (6 and 41)

The preface (attributed to Robinson Dibua, identified also as “Daddy Robisco” and as SENIOR TUTOR in Salesmanship at the Collins Institutional Centre) identifies the novel as a “lesson” for “some of our boys and girls who feel that there is another heaven in the game of love.” (5) The plot involves romantic attachments between promising youth which result not simply in unwanted pregnancy but in four deaths.

Dibua’s remarks conclude with the line “HERE IS THE NEWSREEL,” (6) but, instead of the main narration, the didactic point is reinforced by a “SHORT POEM ON CORNER CORNER LOVE.” (One might suspect that one motive in the next features is padding. Perhaps the thirty page “novel” proved too short to stand alone and a certain number of extra pages of material had been concocted to make up the standard sixty-four. The generous spaces between sections might support this hypothesis.) St any rate the “poem” seems to make a distinction between sexual (“corner corner”) love and “natural love.” The reader is warned : “Boys and Girls bear in mind that sweet things burn lifes easily. So where there is good there must be bad. Nothing comes from nothing and Nothing goes for nothing. A WORD IS ENOUGH FOR THE WISE.” (7)

The reader is pointedly addressed: “Dearly Boys and Girls of nowadays Do you play zig-zag with your lovers?” and politely advised “IF SO KINDLY CHANGE FROM NOW.” (8) The point is illustrated by an advice column-style letter and response under the title The STORY READS. A Miss Comfort Ochonwa finds herself “in a family way,” but unsure as to which of her three lovers is the father. Oddly, she asks what she might do to “get one of them to confirm that he is really the father of the child” (8) as though the father might know what she does not. In response, the author calls her “a fool at fourty,” (9) suggesting that, once born, the issue of paternity might be clarified by the child’s appearance. Morality is unmentioned; the implication is that this young woman has foolishly wasted her potential by ignoring what must have been the guidance of her elders and community.
This is followed by a series of “QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FOR BOYS AND GIRLS” describing the qualities of good and bad children and the fates (prison or prostitution) of those who disregard their elders’ advice. (9) A rather lengthy section, the last before the main narrative provides “ADVICE FOR BOYS AND GIRLS ON LOVE MAKING.”

This begins with a provocative mention of the differing kinds of love. The first is more-or-less normative, even universal, love between the sexes, “to unite two together to benefit themselves,” here called “natural love.” The second definition, though, gives one pause: “to snatch food from one’s mouth.” The third sort of love in this reckoning is “to betray one for evil or killing” and the fourth is “to get something otherwise from one’s way.” We are told that there are many other kinds of love as well, and might feel relieved to learn that the present work will deal with the first variety “which unties [sic] two people together for something very beneficial.” (10-11)

There follows a wandering miscellany of observations on love, many to the effect that true love is not based wholly on physical qualities. Among the other likely factors Umunnah mentions as appealing are excellence as a dancer, or as a boxer, and a neat, well-kept appearance. Observing that even young students will sometimes pursue “love” attachments, Ummanah adds some puzzling comments. According to him, such children “have note the idea, which induced them to such order of nature’s principle. You should note,” he goes on, “that nature knows no law.”

Off-balance perhaps already, the reader then encounters the following fascinating cul de sac:

“A reverend (priest) or a highly developed occultist claimed to denied completely this particular law of nature, mark him, he has a private and complete and secret method (application) through which he fulfils this order. It is really true I say, he fulfils it thought what is known imagination. Anyway I am not here to discuss that matter. No one can deny the fact, except through something-otherways-otherwise.” (13)

From that (to me) inscrutable pronouncement Umunnah goes to a shocking story of a boy brought to a convent who “within 20 minutes” dies due to “overusuage of the power within” when he, as “sugar baby” feels obliged to sexually satisfy the entire school of girls. In the wake of this tragedy, the reader learns, “some of the girls adopt the use of candle sticks.” (14)
The main story of Thony finally follows (15-45) working out its melodramatic pattern of retributive justice. From a youth “full of educational desire and out doors games” (15) whose parents advise him to “finish up his carrear successfully,”(25) his lack of sexual control beings him to suicide (for which a physician readily provides him the poison). An Author’s Advice underlines the theme should it have escaped anyone. [5]

I was reminded of the principal of Unity School, Agbarho, who would, wearing a woolen three-piece suit under the broiling tropical sun and speaking in a thunderous voice, warn the students that, if they violated school rules by eating Geisha (a brand of canned sardines)they would inevitably “end up before the firing squad.” This dismal end made it difficult for him to depict even direr consequences for anyone even more profoundly wicked such as those who might venture to smoke “Indian hemp.” Daily canings were conducted before school began for the day while in the society at large public executions in sports stadia attracted large crowds and were televised for those unable to attend.

From the few preceding quotations, the reader may already have a sense of the unique eloquence of Onitsha market literature. Sometimes these expressions are similar to English ones, though often somewhat altered such as when Cathe is called “apple of my life” (23)or “the queen-moon that shone upon his heart.” (24) They seem at times wholly original such as when the author notes that the love of Thony and Cathe was “like the ‘iced-blocks,’ which they thought should not be melted.” (28-29) Elaborate rhetorical structures are sometimes constructed as when Dibua in his “FORWARD” says, “I offer no apology either for the style or the style of word which will not alter fact that night is the day without the sun just as a crime is discovered wrong.” (6) This figure identifies the day with the “discovered wrong” and night with a hidden crime, implying all moral order through which all things come out in the end.

Though I would hardly argue for the greatness of any one of the works of Onitsha market literature, as a body of work, they capture an era in Nigerian post-colonial history. The work produced by local authors during the brief efflorescence of the genre provides as well a good representation of the prudential morality of the country’s small middle class and exemplifies the character of popular literature as a whole. The particular charm of these works is their level of verbal inventiveness, replacing the strong reliance of convention which most often extends from theme to style as well. For a contemporary American their home-made quality, unpredictable in locutions, but highly determined in themes and values, has considerable charm.


1. The site is http://onitsha.diglib.ku.edu/tdc/.

2. The booklet by Nnamdi Azikiwe Nigeria’s last Governor General under the British and first President of Nigeria, titled Respect for human dignity, is a stylistic exception, written in standard English.

3. I recall Tutuola in Iowa City as a participant in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program as a thoroughly amiable man who found himself quite at a loss when placed on a panel discussing post-colonial literature.

4. See http://onitsha.diglib.ku.edu/pdf/ksrl.c3264.pdf.

5. Unfortunately, this page is reproduced imperfectly rendering it in part illegible.

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