By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
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.
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 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 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 one of the titles, from the recently deceased 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 Bomber Billy of bombast comes this way: “Don’t put my mind under perturbation!”
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.
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.