Historical and Literary Context
The unique Onitsha Collection in the Spencer
Research Library at the University of Kansas (KU) acknowledges and
promotes the important
role of Onitsha Market Literature in detailing what Chinua Achebe
describes as the "social problems of a somewhat mixed-up
but dynamic, even brash, modernizing community."1 Included
in the collection are stories, plays, advice and moral discourses
all published by local presses in the 1960s in the market town of
Onitsha on the Niger River in southeastern Nigeria. The chaos, color
and noise of Africa’s largest market come alive in this vibrant
milieu. Emmanuel Obiechina, a prominent scholar of Onitsha market
literature, argues that this African popular literature is "an
integral, if unique and startling, part of the West African creative
scene."2 These voices from
the bookstalls of an African market enhance our understanding of
other cultural contexts and provide
valuable perspectives on a wide range of themes.
The Onitsha collection at KU consists of
an array of popular literature collected in 1966 by Thomas R. Buckman,
former KU Director of Libraries.
Buckman described the works as representing “a unique form
of popular literature in Africa” that reflected “the
serious concerns and social tensions of many of the people” in
newly-independent Nigeria.3 Many
pamphlets were handbooks offering advice in the face of adversity--grave
or light (Trust No-Body
in Time Because Human Being Is Trickish and Difficult). Much
of the literature focuses on love relationships and illustrates a
as the drama ends in disaster (About the Husband and Wife Who
Hate Themselves). Some of the booklets detail trials and tribulations
that a protagonist must overcome to achieve success in the fast-paced
urban environment of West Africa (No Condition is Permanent).
Buckman noted that the popularity of the works, often for sale at
a copy, was evidence of "the great thirst for general
reading matter among the growing literate population."4
Scholars and librarians in the field cite the University
of Kansas collection of Onitsha market literature as a significant
to resources exemplifying this genre.
In an early bibliographic compilation
from 1967, Bernth Lindfors featured the Spencer Research Library
collection as one of a few such repositories in his preliminary
list of holdings from several collections.5
recently the publication of an extensive checklist compiled by Peter
Hogg and Ilse Sternberg
once again featured the University of Kansas holdings and even reproduced
a fine photograph of the Onitsha market bookstalls taken by Buckman
in 1966, just prior to the outbreak of the Biafran War when the Onitsha
market and its bookstalls were destroyed.6
Photo of Onitsha Market taken by Thomas R. Buckman.
Reproduced with permission.
As an indication of broader interest in the Onitsha
market pamphlets among scholars and students of African studies,
access projects for
two other collections have recently been completed by the Center
for Research Libraries and at the University of Indiana. The
Cooperative Africana Microform Project (CAMP) recently microfilmed
78 pamphlets. 7 Marion
Frank-Wilson, Bibliographer of Africana at University of Indiana
mounted a web list of the 173
of Indiana collection.8 This KU initiative,
however, is the first full-text digitization of the pamphlets, thus
making them available to a worldwide audience via the Internet.
Onitsha market literature is grounded among the
masses, and it is their voices that we hear in this amazing collection.
The works were aimed at the new literate class of Nigerians such
as taxi drivers, mechanics, white-collar clerks, primary school teachers,
small-scale entrepreneurs and traders.9 In
simple English basic concerns about sex, money and style enthralled
a vibrant cross-section of Nigerians.10 Local
publishers supplied creative and enticing reading matter to a public
with a literary appetite that in turn gained confidence in the local
uses of English. Scholars hail this popular literature, in part “conditioned
and compromised by the marketplace,” as a major impetus for
an eager literate public to experiment with more serious and dynamic
works of creative writing.11
Although African literary artists such as Chinua
Achebe, Mariama Bâ, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o
hold well-deserved positions of honor as the creators of beautiful
and exceptional literature, most of the authors of popular market
literature remain unknown and unseen beyond the market. This initiative
introduces these ‘invisible’ authors to the widest audience
possible--the Internet, and provides a context to fully understand
and appreciate this literature for the masses. The style of the market
literature is firmly grounded in African oral traditions with plays,
riddles and jokes as common features.12 Thus,
the Onitsha pamphlets reflect earlier African oral texts and their
rich histories. The digitization of a portion of KU’s Onitsha
collection permits the cultural heritage embedded in these publications
to gain notoriety through contemporary technological channels. Just
as eager readers purchased Nigerian market literature 40-50 years
ago, this initiative makes Onitsha pamphlets accessible once again
to a wide-ranging readership on the Internet.
- Chinua Achebe in the forward to Emmanuel Obiechina, An
African Popular Literature: A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets (Cambridge,
- Emmanuel Obiechina, An African Popular Literature:
A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets (Cambridge, 1973), 1.
- Nigeria gained its independence from the British
in 1960 during the first wave of decolonization. Thomas R. Buckman, “Bookstalls
in an African Market: Onitsha,
- Eastern Nigeria,” Books and Libraries
at the University of Kansas, 4, 2 (November 1966), 2.
These are 1966 prices. Ibid., 2.
- Bernth Lindfors, “A Preliminary checklist
of Nigerian drama in English,” Afro-Asian theatre bulletin,
II, no. 2 (Feb. 1967), 16-21.
- Peter Hogg and Ilse Sternberg, Market literature
from Nigeria : a checklist (London : The British Library,
- For a guide to these holdings, see CRL Web site
at: http://wwwcrl.uchicago.edu/info/camp/onitsha.htm (seen
Dec. 19, 2002).
- See http://www.indiana.edu/~libsalc/african/onitsha.html (seen
Dec. 19, 2002).
- “Popular Culture:
Popular Literature” in Encyclopedia of Africa South of
the Sahara (Scribner’s Sons, 1997) v. III, 452.
- Kurt Thometz, comp. Life
Turns Man Up and Down: high life, useful advice, and mad English:
African market literature (Pantheon, 2001), xviii.
- Encyclopedia of
Africa, v. III, 444-445, 452, 538.
- Cavan M. McCarthy, “Printing
in Onitsha: some personal observations on the production of Nigerian
Market Literature,” African Research and Documentation,
35 (August 1984), 22.
Map of Onitsha Publishers
The KU Onitsha Collection
Credits & Contacts
Copyrights & Permissions