From Popular Literature To Nollywood – Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Before Nigeria’s Independence in 1960, diverse literatures had thrived in the local languages.

Pita Nwana, the author of Omenuko, blazed the trail in the publishing of fiction in Igbo. D.O. Fagunwa, author of Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, was the trailblazer in the writing and publishing of Yoruba literature. Abubakar Imam, author of Magana Jari Ce, was the pathfinder in the North. The many Nigerian languages were well represented in literature before the almost overwhelming adoption of English by the emergent writers.

Amos Tutuola astounded the literary world with the publication of his novel The Palmwine Drinkard in 1954, some six years before Nigeria’s winning of self-rule. The book, written in quaint English, won the praise of the Irish poet Dylan Thomas and set Tutuola on the path of a redoubtable literary career.

Cyprian Ekwensi is arguably the grandfather of popular literature in Nigeria. He had trained as a forester and pharmacist but quickly won his plaudits as a story writer and novelist. From 1947 onwards, he published such titles as Ikolo the Wrestler and When Love Whispers which helped to launch forth the legendary Onitsha Market Literature chapbooks. Ekwensi would in the years ahead prove to be Africa’s most prolific popular writer with the publication of books such as People of the City, Burning Grass, The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Jagua Nana, An African Night’s Entertainment, Drummer Boy, Divided We Stand, Survive the Peace etc. Ekwensi died in 2007.

In publishing Things Fall Apart in 1958 Chinua Achebe initiated a trend in serious critically-acclaimed literature by looking into the history and the past to “understand where the rain started beating us”. The success of Things Fall Apart led to the initiation of the African Writers Series (AWS) that saw many African writers getting into print.

The many feats of Nigerian writing of course received the crowning glory in 1986 when Wole Soyinka won the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka in accepting the prize said it was due honour for all the labour of his fellow writers across the African continent. Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in literature happens to be an all-rounder who is at once a playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, translator etc.

The poet and playwright JP Clark and the poet Christopher Okigbo are are among internationally acclaimed masters of serious Nigerian literature.  

Flora Nwapa was at the vanguard of the emergence of female explorers of the lore that included distinguished writers such as Adaora Lily Ulasi, author of Many Thing Begin for Change, Many Thing You No Understand, The Man From Shagamu etc.

 Buchi Emecheta, based in London, earned her lofty placing in the annals of Nigerian literature with novels like Second Class Citizen, The Joys of Motherhood, Destination Biafra etc.

Popular literature in Nigeria as an entertainment fare owes a lot to the pioneering works of Cyprian Ekwensi who helped to initiate the Onitsha Market Literature phenomenon, as had been stated earlier.  

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 book – 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 so-called Great 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 a couple of thousand copies per title to 100,000 copies for bestsellers such as Ogali A. Ogali’s play, Veronica My Daughter.

A quick excerpt from Ogali’s Veronica My Daughter, goes thus:

Bomber Billy: “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!”

The literature works to the comic formula of having a supposedly educated character speaking bombastic English for the amusement of the audience.

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 – 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.

The humorous titles somewhat tell the stories in the Marshall McLuhan sense of the medium being the message. Popular literature combines pure entertainment and slapstick didacticism.

It is crucial to highlight the publishing of popular fiction in the Pacesetters Series that did a lot to uplift the reading culture in Nigeria. The Pacesetters Series was conceived by Macmillan Publishers for young adults and teenage readers.

Agbo Areo who was then an editor with Macmillan Nigeria somewhat convinced his bosses in Britain that there was a vast market for thrillers, romances and adventure stories.

Macmillan UK was an educational publisher with hardly any stomach for publishing novels, but Agbo Areo pressed on with his pet idea. He was then asked to write the model book, and he wrote the 30,000-odd-word novel entitled Director!

It would have been odd to start the series with only one title. The Macmillan editors had to look into their slush file and selected two other titles: The Smugglers by Kalu Okpi and The Undesirable Element by Mohammed Sule.

The manuscript of The Smugglers had too many American slangs that needed to be cut off. The Undesirable Element was too long and had to be considerably shortened through drastic editing. The initial 5,000 copies of each of the three titles were published in 1977 and all three sold out in three months at the cost price of N1 per book!

And thus the bestselling Pacesetters Series was born!

Three other titles were published next, and sold off fast too. Then came a deluge, and some 130 titles were published by 1984 when the collapse of the Nigerian economy all but killed off the series!

The parent company in the UK could no longer recoup its sales from the Nigerian subsidiary.

The most prolific Pacesetter author Kalu Okpi served as a chief scriptwriter of the NTA. He was born in 1947 and fought in the Biafra War. Kalu Okpi regarded members of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) as just “university types.” He said of himself: “I guess I was a born writer. “I only went to school to learn where to put the commas.” He died in 1993.

Mohammed Sule, born in Kano in 1957, was reportedly the most bestselling author with The Undesirable Element which he said he wrote while a student of Government College, Kano. The General Sani Abacha regime detained Mohammed Sule for 17 months while he was making a documentary. The author died in his sleep on February 12, 2007, at the young age of 50.

Some notable Nigerian authors who featured in the Pacesetters Series include: Buchi Emecheta (Naira Power), Rosina Umelo (Felicia), Chuma Nwokolo (The Extortionist), Helen Ovbiagele (Evbu My Love), Bode Osanyin (Rich Girl, Poor Boy), Valentine Alily (Mark of the Cobra) etc.

The Pacesetters Series was meant for all of Africa but Nigeria was obviously the cash cow. 

The foreign dimension of popular literature as entertainment in Nigeria is best advertised by the bandwagon liking of James Hadley Chase by Nigerian secondary school students of yore.

James Hadley Chase happens to be the penname of Rene Brabazon Raymond. He was born on December 24, 1906 and died on February 6, 1985. He was an Englishman who used to work as a bookseller. After reading many celebrated thrillers written by American authors the wannabe Englishman felt he could write better than the lot, and thus penned his own thriller which he entitled No Orchids for Miss Blandish. He used maps and an American slang dictionary to write the book, that is, without visiting the United States!

No Orchids for Miss Blandish was published in 1939, at about the beginning of the Second World War, and sold a staggering half a million copies quickly! James Hadley Chase published 11 thrillers before the end of the war in 1945! This astonishing marketability enabled James Hadley Chase to write about 90 thrillers in his lifetime bearing such titles as The Vulture is a Patient Bird, Believed Violent, The Way the Cookie Crumbles, An Ear to the Ground, Miss Shumway Waves A Wand etc.

The number of James Hadley Chase’s books sold in Nigeria cannot be counted!

Popular literature is not well-served in Nigeria because of the dearth of publishing. Back in time, there were publishers like Onibonoje Press and Olaiya Fagbamigbe that issued popular writing regularly. An established author such as Kole Omotoso even tried his hands at thriller writing by publishing Fella’s Choice.

In all cultures of the world, there can be no discountenancing of the pleasure of leisure reading. It’s entertainment per excellence. Even books that border on the pornographic enjoy vast readership. There used to be the book of prurience entitled Lagos Na Waa I Swear by Edia Appolo that sold vastly. It was much later that the real author put his name to the book: Naiwu Osahon!

The lame excuse is that Nigeria has a poor reading culture. I beg to disagree. If more entertaining and popular books are published in Nigeria, readership is guaranteed.

Incidentally, now is the audio-visual age. The popular stories are now being told via television, movies, youtube and social media as entertainment writ large.

The advent of the home movies revolution in Nigeria known as Nollywood provided a vast audience for the stories. The entertainment industry literally exploded as Nigeria’s Nollywood rubbed shoulders with America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywwod as the three leading movie producers in the world.

Nollywood started so inauspiciously in 1992 with the making of the breakthrough Igbo language movie Living in Bondage.

Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, popularly known as Paulo, after the character he played in Living in Bondage, lost an opportunity to study law in the university through an unfortunate road accident. He had to settle for studying at the Nigerian Television (NTA) College in Jos where he came under the tutelage of the celebrated NTA Director/Producer Chris Obi-Rapu.

On completion of the course Okechukwu could not get regular employment and had to make do hawking video cassettes at National Theatre in Lagos.

Okechukwu had the story of Living in Bondage in his head – a young man gets lured into the get-rich-quick cult and sacrifices his doting wife only to suffer disastrous consequences. 

The theatre artistes rehearsing at the theatre could not understand why Okey should be hawking, and one of them, Ruth Osu, gave Okechukwu a note to meet Kenneth Nnebue who was into the marketing of Yoruba movies on VHS.

On meeting Kenneth Nnebue who would eventually provide the funding for Living in Bondage, Okechukwu said he needed N150,000 to be able to make the film. Kenneth told him that the amount was enough to make three Yoruba movies.

As Okechukwu had said he was not willing to shoot on VHS, Kenneth told him he was about to make a trip to Japan to procure cameras.

Kenneth then asked Okechukwu to put the story together while he made the trip to Japan. It was then that Okechukwu made the momentous contact with his former instructor Chris Obi-Rapu to direct the landmark movie.

Since Obi-Rapu was still in the employ of the NTA he could not append his real name to the project and settled for a pseudonym, Vic Mordi, from his maternal side.

Obi-Rapu then went to work “to turn what would ordinarily pass for a concert play into a pioneering movie.” 

According to Obi-Rapu, “What made the Nigeria home video industry to take off was the input from Okey Ogunjiofor and my direction. Nobody had wanted to do anything in Igbo or Yoruba among television producers around then because they felt it was degrading. There had been some shootings of Yoruba and Igbo videos. Mike Orihedimma recorded Igbo home videos in Onitsha, while NEK (Kenneth Nnebue) was recording and marketing Yoruba videos in Lagos. They were poorly produced and hardly ever directed. It is a known fact in filmmaking that it is the director that makes the film. If I had not shot Living in Bondage and Taboo there could not have been any Nollywood. This film business really took off because Living in Bondage was well shot as at that time. If I had not stood my grounds the financier could have influenced the production and direction in a negative way. I resisted him because I knew that he lacked the knowledge of filmmaking. It was a deliberate directorial effort that brought about the home video revolution. It was not accidental.”

On his part, Okechukwu informs that the making of Living in Bondage marked “the first time some people were paid in thousands of naira to act on a film. I got N500 because I had not made a film then. People like Bob-Manuel (Udokwu) and Francis Agu were paid a thousand naira each. As a producer and an actor, what I got was only N500.”

As the director, Obi-Rapu got the flat fee of N10,000. 

Okechukwu’s formula for his Nollywood success runs thusly: “Unlike the Yorubas, the Eastern part of this country does not have cinema culture, and all of them are rich enough to have video machines in their homes, why don’t I take the film to their homes so that they can watch it?”

Obi-Rapu who was popularly hailed as Skippo in his NTA days took up the challenge by setting up camp in Badagry as the director.

And, as if by magic, Nollywood is now here, a worldwide miracle…

The town of Onitsha that was popular for market literature has caught the Nollywood bug with the most popular address on any movie jacket being 51 Iweka Road, Onitsha.

The cinema master Tunde Kelani is now turning popular texts like Femi Osofisan’s Maami into movies, attracting huge audiences. Through the movies, the writers have at last found the audience they had been searching for.

The blending of popular literature with movies and social media at large has done people’s socialization and the field of entertainment a world of good.  

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