MARKET LITERATURES: Kano and Onitsha, Transition from Pamphlets

Also Read


In this unit, we shall examine critically the way the early educated Nigerians were able to write creatively. Most of them had no university education and it is only those who had the opportunity of attending the then University College Ibadan that really turned their creative sketches into full blown literatures. At that time, pamphlets of all types in all literary genres flourished and were sold to interested members of the public for entertainment. The first set of Nigerians that came in contact with European education was excited about the discovery and attempted several experiments through writing. These group of Nigerians were actually not well educated as most of them had little education, especially the type that allows them write and work as civil servants. They had middle level of education equivalent to the present secondary education. We will study the historical development of pamphlets and how they contributed immensely to the development of Nigerian literature. Most of the writers were civil servants and traders. They were concerned with expressing themselves in pamphlets as means to counselling, guiding or entertaining the people. However, some intellectuals like Cyprian Ekwensi among others started writing through pamphlets. The pamphlets were not really published but were printed without ISBN numbers.

3.1 General Overview

A pamphlet is an unbound booklet (that is, without a hard cover or binding). It may consist of a single sheet of paper that is printed on both sides and folded in half, in thirds, or in fourths (called a leaflet), or it may consist of a few pages that are folded in half and stapled at the crease to make a simple book. In order to count as a pamphlet, UNESCO requires a publication (other than a periodical) to have 'at least 5 but not more than 48 pages exclusive of the cover pages'; a longer item is a book. Pamphlets can contain anything from information on kitchen appliances to medical information and religious treatises. Pamphlets are very important in marketing as they are cheap to produce and can be distributed easily to customers. Pamphlets have also long been an important tool of political protest and political campaigning for similar reasons. The storage of individual pamphlets requires special consideration because they can be easily crushed or torn when shelved alongside hardcover books. For this reason, they should either be kept in file folders in a file cabinet, or kept in boxes that have approximately the dimensions of a hardcover book and placed vertically on a shelf. The word pamphlet means a small work issued without covers. Pamphlet coined from ‘Pamphilus’ was derived from Greek, meaning "loved by all". It has the modern connotation of a tract concerning a contemporary issue. By the end of the seventeenth century the most effective means of persuasion and communication in the world was the pamphlet, which created influential moral and political communities of readers, and thus formed a ‘public sphere’ of popular, political opinion. In Africa, pamphlets were used for political campaigns and as guides. In Nigeria, the use of pamphlets was popularized through the consistent use of it by market traders. The most popular are the Onitsha and Kano Market Literature which flourished so much before the emergence of regular literatures. They were pamphlets dealing with various issues: some literary, some political, some religious and some pedagogical. Some of them are used as satiric attack on the frailties of man in his society. It is interesting to note however, that People of the City regarded as the first African novel per se published in 1945 was written by one of the Onitsha Market pamphleteers called Cyprian Ekwensi.


Explain thoroughly the major difference between a pamphlet and a book.

3.2 Market Literature

A market literature is a consistent form of writing popularized by traders in a given market place or by people living and working in a given commercial centre. Market literatures are printed as pamphlets. They have no standard form or guiding rules covering the subject matters. Most of the subject matters go from moral to amoral, from sacred to profane, from political to apolitical and from pedagogical to generalities. They are usually written with less commercial intention. The authors have the joy of being read by others and being classified among the circle of writers. The pages are usually very few and written in very simple and transliterated English forms. The language of market literatures is usually entertaining and the lexical selection is usually unconnected but creates fun in the reading. Market literatures are regarded as popular literatures. The Kano Market writers wrote mainly in Hausa with just a handful in English. The critical question has been: was the popular pamphleteering in Nigeria a success or a failure? The obvious answer is that it was a big success. There are several factors which contributed to the success of these market literatures. In 1946, the colonial government of Nigeria sold their used printing presses and shortly after, the local market places were flooded with romantic novelettes and chapbooks. Many traders in Onitsha bought these discarded machines. Cheap production costs also made it possible for large print runs to be produced. There is the fact that the authors had declared that their main concern was not to make money from their writing but that also meant that the publishers had a free hand to fix cheap prices for the pamphlets.


Differentiate between a market literature and a real literature

3.3 Onitsha Market Literature

Onitsha Market Literature is a term used to designate the popular pamphlets that were sold at the large market in Onitsha, Nigeria, in the middle decades of the 20th century. Written by and intended for the "common" or "uneducated" people, this literature covered a range of genres including fiction, current events, plays, social advice and language study. Starting in the 1960s, European and American scholars began to take an interest in this form of popular literature, especially insofar as it reflected African social conditions. It is not known whether any individual or group of people ever came together, sat down, planned and worked out the details of what they wanted to do in advance before they started publishing and selling pamphlets in the Onitsha market literature series to the public. However, what is known is that, according to Emmanuel Obiechina, the first pamphlets in the series were published in 1947. It could be said that the first publications in the Onitsha market literature were written by Cyprian Ekwensi, who later became a famous Nigerian novelist. The titles of the pamphlets written by Ekwensi were "When love whispers" and a collection of Igbo folktales called "Ikolo the wrestler and other Igbo tales". All these were published in 1947. Another factor which spurred people on to writing the chapbooks was the end of the Second World War. The Nigerian soldiers, who fought in India and the Far East, came back with copies of Indian and Victorian drugstore pulp magazines which served as models for the pamphlet literature.

It has been said above that a good number of young people with the minimum educational qualification of standard six found their ways to Onitsha either to trade or to work as apprentices in various trades and professions. It was this group of new literates, school leavers, school teachers, low-level clerks, artisans, provincial correspondents of daily newspapers who now devoted their time to writing the Onitsha market pamphlets. Most of the authors of the Onitsha chapbooks were amateurs rather than professionals. Another group of people who wrote the Onitsha market pamphlets were local printing press owners, booksellers, journalists, railway men, traders, and farmers. Some of the pamphlets were written by grammar school boys who wrote under pseudo names so that their school authorities would not identify and then punish them. Most of the pamphlet authors maintained that financial gain was not their reason for writing the pamphlets. The authors already had full-time employment from which they earned their living and they merely took up writing as part-time and for the joy of it. Consequently, even if they earned little money from their writing, that was regarded as a supplementary family income. A good number of the authors wrote a preface to the finished work in which they gave biographical details of their lives. Usually such a preface gave the details as to how and why the authors came to be personally involved in pamphlet writing.

The strategic position of the city of Onitsha on the eastern bank of the River Niger also contributed to the success of the market literature. Onitsha is easily accessible from all parts of Nigeria and people come from all parts of the Federation and also from other countries in West Africa either to buy or sell their commodities at Onitsha. The pamphlets were sold in various bookshops in Onitsha as well as in the open markets. Roadside hawkers as well as peripatetic booksellers helped to sell thousands of copies of the pamphlets. Travellers passing through Onitsha boasted of buying copies of the cheap chapbooks to show to their relatives and friends at home. Onitsha town has a large home-based market and many educational institutions. There are thousands of traders in the Onitsha market and also thousands of grammar school boys and girls in Onitsha who bought copies of the pamphlets.

The publication and distribution of the pamphlets coincided with the period when many people were becoming educated in Eastern Nigeria. Even the Onitsha traders who were not educated decided to go to the night schools to learn how to read and write. By so doing, they were able to read the stories by themselves. Some illiterate traders who bought the pamphlets but decided not to go to the night schools, availed themselves of the services of the Onitsha public scribes. These were educated people who had it as their full-time job to read or write letters as well as read stories from books to illiterates and charge them for the service.

There were still other factors which helped the success of the market literature. By the time the first set of pamphlets was published in 1947, public libraries did not exist in Eastern Nigeria. The market booksellers concentrated their efforts in selling prescribed school textbooks and not popular fiction and general trade books. The people had nowhere to go when they wanted to read some light materials. This meant that for many years, Nigerians were suffering from book hunger. Consequently, when the Onitsha market pamphlets were issued, the people were happy and the cheapness of the retail price enabled them to buy the copies in large numbers. As already stated, the 5-year period, 1958 to 1962 may be described as the heyday of the Onitsha market literature pamphlets. During that period, one could easily go to a bookshop and select up to 200 titles. The popularity of the chapbooks quickly spread from Onitsha to Enugu, Aba, Owerri, Port Harcourt, Calabar and other cities and towns in Eastern Nigeria. From the East, it spread to the West, Northern Nigeria and to Lagos, to Cameroons, Ghana and other countries in West Africa. As Onitsha could no longer cope with the popular demand, the printing and production were now contracted to companies based in Aba, Port Harcourt, Yaba in Lagos, Enugu and Owerri. The average Onitsha market pamphlet sold 3000-4000 copies per title. There were two titles which sold over 30,000 copies each.


Trace the historical development of Onitsha Market Literature and the factors responsible for its growth.

3.4 Kano Market Literature

Due to historical peculiarities, the Hausa-Fulani comprising all the tribes that speak Hausa language as a first or second language, were less enthusiastic in the pursuit of western Education right from the colonial periods up to the present time. Consequently, several methods that can appeal to their understanding and comprehension were devised to enlighten them on government policies and programs. This gave rise to a medium of mass communication like Town Criers and Drama Series which became very popular as a result of its acceptability among the generality of the people. In that golden period, monetary consideration was never a factor in gauging the success or otherwise of the actors/actress, it was more or less voluntary. The main objectives were simply to enlighten the public, with strict adherence to the rules and regulations which guard against anything that will torch our sensibilities. This ensured the protection of our cultural norms and values jealously over the years. The thespians were just happy and contented to partake in a venture that will lead to the general understanding of government aims and objectives on several issues.

The many prominent personalities that took part in the drama series of this early phase include the following: Kassimu Yero, Kar-Kuzu, Late Alhaji Buguzun, Dan Hajiya, Dan-Magori, Hajiya Tambaya, Me Ayah, Late Mallam Mamman, Golobo, Samanja Mazan Fama, Late Karo-da- Goma, Barmo and several others too numerous to mention. They used their God given talent effectively in mass mobilization and enlightenment and for that, we are very grateful indeed. What is now known as Kannywood, evolved partly out of the booming Kano Market Literature (KML), which made some of the writers instantly famous. The success recorded, made some exuberant youth to begin the conversion of the content of their ‘soyayya’ books into films. Subsequently, what started as a small private affair suddenly metamorphosed into a full-blown money spinning venture and the rest is now history.

With the government’s inability to cater for its citizens’ needs, coupled with the opulent life style of these writers, in addition to endemic poverty; film making readily become a veritable source of employment and instant fame and wealth. This induced mass exodus of all characters from every part of the North and even neighboring countries to Kano, to the ready embrace of the stakeholders in the industry. Many boys and girls in their teens therefore migrated to Kano, leading to the resurgence of divorce cases in many parts of the north.


What are the major thrusts of Kano Market Literature?

3.5 Transition from Pamphlets into Full Literatures

The first book in the Onitsha market literature series was published in 1947. This was quickly followed by other titles some of which were so slim that they numbered less than 20 pages each. In a relatively short time, these chapbooks and novelettes became popular in Eastern Nigeria especially among secondary school boys and girls and among thousands of traders in Onitsha market. From the Eastern Region the popularity spread to the Cameroon, Ghana and other West African countries. The 5-year period, 1958 to 1962 may be described as the heyday when the total number of books published each year was near the 50 titles mark. The language used in the books was suitable for most of the people in the society because not many of them were educated to primary and secondary school levels. By the time the Biafran war ended in January 1970, the publication and selling of the Onitsha market pamphlets and chapbooks was dying a natural death.

The same period in history also marked the transition from writing novelettes with semi-literate population in mind to writing serious trade- books, both fiction and non-fiction, for highly educated people. By general trade books we mean those books written for the general public, mainly the adult population, and published by a commercial publisher. Such books are written for the non-specialist reading public, such as biography, novels, literature, belles letters, etc. Incidentally, these are the kind of books which people usually buy for their intrinsic merits, and they read them for their own sake.

Despite the popularity which the Onitsha market literature enjoyed for nearly a generation, by the year 1975, that literary phenomenon had ceased to exist. To many people, especially those who enjoyed comfortable living as a result of this special book trade, the demise came rather too quickly and too unexpectedly. Why was this the case? One obvious answer is that the Biafran war of July 1967 to January 1970 had abruptly halted the progress of the pamphlet business. At the end of the war, when people came back to Onitsha, what they saw was a city which had been systematically destroyed. It was like a ghost town. There was little or nothing left for them to use in starting a new life. This state of affairs led to frustration, hopelessness and despair. People even turned round and started blaming their fellow Onitsha inhabitants for being the cause of their woes. The spirit of comradeship, for which the inhabitants of Onitsha were known, had gone. People did not trust one another any more. Rather they started being cagey and secretive. The informality and the openness of life in the Onitsha market had gone. People were no longer prepared to tell their fellow traders the truth.

However, there were people who loved the Onitsha market literature so much that they were determined to reactivate their business. Before long, they discovered that they were facing many odds. Their printing presses and other production equipment had either been stolen or destroyed beyond repair. Buying new machines would obviously cost them more money. Moreover, the resumption of the production of new pamphlets was capital-intensive. The cover price for each new title produced would be increased considerably. Some of the well-known pamphlet authors had disappeared from Onitsha, and some even lost their lives. Obiechina stated clearly that one of the famous pamphlet authors, Chike Okonyia, the author of Tragic Niger Tales was killed during the war.

The whole fabric of society and the special characteristics which distinguished Onitsha from other cities in Igboland had gone. Thousands of people decided to leave Onitsha for good and set up new lines of business in other cities like Enugu, Aba and Port Harcourt. Before the war, some traders were prepared to buy every new pamphlet title published. After the war, the same traders decided not to purchase the publications any more, partly because they had no money, and partly because the new retail prices were too high for them. Few years after the war, even those who thrived on the pamphleteering business had no alternative than to give up the trade. Consequently, it can be said that by the year 1975, the Onitsha market literature had ceased to exist. The people of Eastern Nigeria had to look elsewhere for their reading materials. The disappearance of this literary genre was a loss not only to the Igbos and to Eastern Nigerians but also to the whole of Nigeria and to some West Africans. The Biafran war had changed the philosophy of life of the Igbo people of Nigeria.

Between 1950 and 1970, a period of 20 years, some classic novels written by Nigerian authors were published. The same period coincided with the time when the Onitsha market literature was in vogue from 1947 to 1975. Some of these novels were The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (1952); People of the City, by Cyprian Ekwensi (1954); Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (1958), and One Man One Wife by Timothy Aluko (1959). These represent what Oyekan Owomoyela called the First Wave Writers of West Africa. Their works also represent a transitional period from the novelettes and chapbooks of the Onitsha market literature, to serious fiction written by intellectual authors. One Nigerian novelist who may be said to have spearheaded the transition was C.O.D. Ekwensi. He wrote for the Onitsha market literature as well as serious novels for the more sophisticated readers. As Obiechina has rightly observed, both the pamphlet writers and the intellectual West African writers used their writing as media to provide insights into the contemporary West African life. The pamphlet writers concerned themselves with surface appearances, while the intellectual writers tried to dig deep into underlying causes and explanations.

We have already seen how serious fiction was being published almost side by side with the pamphlets of the Onitsha market literature. Those novels were written by first wave intellectual writers from Nigeria. During the Second wave, we had Wole Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters (1965) and Gabriel Okara’s novel, The Voice (1964). It was during the Second Wave that Chinua Achebe published his two next novels – No Longer at Ease (1960) and Man of the People, (1966). Elechi Amadi’s novel, The Concubine, was published in 1966. Achebe’s A Man of the People dealt with corruption, and ended with violence and a coup. It was during this Second Wave that some of the novels of the pioneer Igbo women writers were published. The first was Efuru, by Flora Nwapa (1966), and Idu (1969). The other female novelist, Buchi Emecheta, published her autobiographical novels, In the Ditch (1972) and Second Class Citizen, (1974).

The writers of the Third Wave were young people writing for an African audience and not for the Euro-Americans as was the case with the first Wave authors. These new Third Wave authors sought not only to entertain like the Onitsha chapbooks, but also to edify and instruct, as well as to forge a common cause with ordinary people. Some of the novels of the Third Wave are One is Enough, by Flora Nwapa (1981); Kalu Okpi’s The Smugglers (1978), Zaynab Alkali’s The Stillborn (1986) and Abubakar Gimba’s Trail of Sacrifice (1989).


Explain thoroughly the factors that led to the demise of pamphleteering


No doubt, pamphleteering constitutes a very important aspect of the development of the African novel. From the above excursions into the development of pamphleteering and the emergence of market literatures, Onitsha and Kano, it is clear that they represent one of the first attempts at writing and publishing what is real literature. This development process is not an African thing. Early literature writers in Europe and America started through pamphleteering. American literature began as pamphlets which still represent an important aspect of their literary heritage. The works of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were mainly in pamphlets and they are one of the most revered documents in American literature today. However, the pamphlets of Africa unlike the revolutionary aspects of Europe and America constitute attempts by the half literate Africans at expressing them in the printed words. It represents a beginning that actually saw literature beyond the ordinariness of the spoken words. It elevated the orality of literature to the status of the printed matter. It brings African novels to the realm of the printed words.


Pamphleteering developed into market literature in Nigeria. This is because most of the pamphlets were written by traders and people living in the two most commercial areas in Nigeria: Onitsha and Kano. They are middle educated members of the society that for fun and belongingness to the circle of writers. The quantity of works produced is enormous and represent many aspects of man’s developmental needs from the physical to the spiritual. The quality reveals beginners with no clear-cut genres, themes and functionality. The works reveal the budding desire of young half educated Africans who wrote to bring African orality into the print. The market literatures marked a real phase in the development of printing in Africa. Thus, pamphlets led directly to the real publishing of African novels and other genres.


Answer these questions:

1. What factors led to the emergence of pamphleteering in Africa?

2. Differentiate critically the thematic differences between Onitsha and Kano Market Literatures

3. Explain the basic contribution of pamphlets to the development of the African novel.


Furniss, George (1996). Poetry, Prose and Popular Culture in Hausa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Obiechina, Emmanuel (1971). Literature for the Masses: An Analytical Study of Popular Pamphleteering in Nigeria. Enugu, Nigeria: Nwankwo-Ifejika Publishers.

Obiechina, Emmanuel (1975). Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel. London: Cambridge University Press.

Post a Comment


Leave a comment behind

Post a Comment (0)

#buttons=(Ok, Go it!) #days=(20)

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. Learn more
Ok, Go it!