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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

An African Popular Literature

Emmanuel Obiechina

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To purchase An African Popular Literature

Title: An African Popular Literature
Author: Emmanuel Obiechina
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1973
Length: 236 pages
Availability: An African Popular Literature
  • A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets
  • A revised version of Literature for the masses
  • With a Foreword by Chinua Achebe
  • With a Bibliography of Pamphlet Literature
  • With an Appendix: Three Pamphlets in Facsimile
    • Our modern ladies characters towards boys, by Highbred Maxwell
    • Elizabeth my lover, by Okenwa Olisah
    • What women are thinking about men, by J.O. Nnadozie

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Our Assessment:

B : decent introduction to and survey of Onitsha pamphlet literature

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Nigerian city of Onitsha reputedly had the largest and most vibrant market in Africa; it still remains known, primarily, for its market. In the very commercial culture that developed there there also arose a literary culture, as African (and especially Igbo) writers began to write for a local audience, tailoring their works to a society where literacy was only beginning to become widespread and where there was still relatively little wealth. Short pamphlets -- cheap, accessible -- became the predominant form, though the content varied, from entertainments to advice-books to dramas. Between the end of World War II and the Biafran crisis, Onitsha was the center of this thriving literary pamphlet culture. (Popular elsewhere in Africa too, Onitsha is still considered the undisputed center of this activity.)
       Few authors rose from the ranks of pamphlet-littérateurs to authors recognized beyond this genre (Cyprian Ekwensi being the notable exception), but the pamphlets enjoyed enormous popularity and certainly influenced several generations of authors. Emmanuel Obiechina's study is a fine introduction to the pamphlet literature, exploring "its main themes and the major conditioning influences". He considers the conditions that led to the pamphlet literature, as well as the works themselves -- including the influences, subject-matter, themes, and use of language. His commentary is occasionally plodding, but he covers a lot of material, presenting it clearly and efficiently, and neatly arranged.
       "The Onitsha Market literature is concerned with the business of living", Obiechina writes. In a fast-changing society, the pamphlets offered guidance and instruction -- presented in a form that itself was new and representative of much of the change (as there had been little written literature in Africa until that time, and certainly none that reached such large audiences). Obiechina compares this period to Elizabethan and early eighteenth-century England, times of rapid change and societal upheaval where the pamphlet form was also very popular.
       The Onitsha Market literature is rarely high art. Many of the pamphlets read like tracts, Obiechina suggests, "mainly because the times need tracts". Authors were concerned more with instruction and setting examples than producing works that were simply literary. They did, however, also seek to entertain.
       Love and then especially the question of marriage (for love, or as arranged by the family) were major issues that were considered in many of the pamphlets. Obiechina believes that the "concept of romantic love" was new to Africa, introduced by Western influences, and that it is the contrast of this with traditional African attitudes towards love, sex, and marriage that caused many of the tensions between generations and cultures in modernizing Africa -- and that this is reflected in the pamphlet literature. The most important source for this new concept of romantic love was, he writes, "the study of English literature in West African schools and universities." Literature shaped the concept: Shakespeare, especially, but also others. Even Marie Corelli (!) and Bertha Clay are deemed highly influential. Transplanted, in the market literature, to an African setting and often finding itself in conflict with traditional expectations and customs, this often led to unusual results -- and also part of the charm of these small tales and tracts.
       Obiechina also considers stylistic influences. Shakespeare is a major one, as he is one of the few authors that practically all the pamphlet-writers were exposed to -- and because his style is so memorable and impressive-sounding. Obiechina also points out that many writers liked to use particularly highfalutin language -- "bombast" -- while others also satirized the use of such language. Bombastic or not, almost all the authors are very liberal in their handling of language -- but, as Obiechina remarks, this too is part of the charm of the works:

Their works also owe their quality of freshness and sparkle to their authors' audacious handling and mishandling of English idiom.
       Three pamphlets are included in facsimile, giving readers a better idea of these works.
       Our modern ladies characters towards boys, by Highbred Maxwell, is billed (on the cover) as " the most exciting novel, with love letters, drama, telegram and campaigns of Miss Beauty to the teacher asking him to marry her". All in 23 pages. A fairly muddled story of courtship, marriage, and divorce, it is vaguely instructive and has some nice elements of high drama, and seems fairly typical of the genre.
       Elizabeth my lover, by Okenwa Olisah, is a "romantic play" nicely contrasting old and new. Elizabeth loves Mr. Ototofioko, but her father, Chief Cookey, wants to marry her off to Chief Jaja. Ototofioko is a representative of the new society: he works "under the Ministry of Communications and Aviation", and he and Elizabeth are happily in love. He is even willing to pay the official bride price, set by the government at £ 30. Chief Cookey doesn't even want to consider such a marriage: he wants to sell off Elizabeth to Chief Jaja, who is willing to pay him £ 250. Elizabeth is not enthusiastic about "this old, illiterate Chief Jaja with dirty teeth and dirty clothes." Predictably, tradition doesn't stand a chance against modernity.
       There are complications along the way, but everything turns out for the best, more or less, in the end -- modernly set at a "special cooktail party". There is some nice broad humour when the chiefs are on the stage, and some decent drama along the way.
       What women are thinking about men, by J.O. Nnadozie, offers all sorts of advice to readers, presenting a variety of episodes and suggestions. From a brief piece about friendship by the "President -- General, International Friendly Association" (parenthetically identified as "a European") to a "women's conference on men" all sorts of advice and commentary is offered, most of it at least entertainingly presented.
       The three works in facsimile also give an idea of the look of the pamphlets themselves, including the creative use of type and illustrations. There are also some enthusiastic endorsements -- for example editor Okenwa Olisah, assuring readers that: "If Mr. Joe Nnadozie is not yet eligible to be called a scientist or a pysiologist, he shall in no distant time be qualified."

       An African Popular Literature remains an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Onitsha Market literature, offering both a good survey and some interesting examples of it.

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Onitsha market literature: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Emmanuel Obiechina was lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

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