For a recent unit on Anglophone African literature in “English 316K: Survey of World Literature,” we explored the University of Kansas Libraries digital collection, “Onitsha Market Literature: From the Bookstalls of a Nigerian Market.” This fantastic collection includes 21 digitized versions of once pulpy, now priceless pamphlets printed by enterprising Nigerian publishers on British presses discarded following World War II. The pamphlets circulated among a popular readership at the Onitsha Market in Nigeria during the 1960s. Onitsha, a port city and trade center on the Niger River in Igboland in southeastern Nigeria, has a history strongly determined by the British slave trade that operated in the region from the 16th through the 19th centuries, and by the British colonialism that followed. The pamphlets in the digital collection are a legacy of this history in that they’re generally printed in the lingua franca of the region, a Nigerian pidgin that blends regional vernaculars with English. The pamphlets thus represent the culturally-textured crossroads of British colonial influence and the laying down in print of a traditionally oral regional narrative tradition.
Together in class, we survey the content and striking cover art of a selection of pamphlets available in the digital collection, with an eye to how they reflect both Western and local influences. Compare the visuals of these covers:
with the visuals of these covers:
The first two covers feature rubber-block-cut prints that connect them with the local Igbo folk-art tradition, while the second two covers feature images cribbed from Western cinema magazines, newspapers, or advertising. Read comparatively, these visuals strongly indicate the geographic and historical context of Onitsha as a point of cultural confluence and international trade.
For useful history and background on Onitsha Market literature, see Kurt Thometz’s anthology Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English.
All images sourced from the University of Kansas Libraries digital collection, “Onitsha Market Literature: From the Bookstalls of a Nigerian Market.”