Onitsha Home Movies

Adewale Maja-Pearce

The last decade has seen the emergence of a new kind of film industry in Nigeria. The results are known as ‘home movies’ – they are shot straight onto video and sold direct to the public. One of the new, independent television stations, MBI, was the first to air a home movie every evening. The slot was so popular that the Government-owned Nigerian Television Authority quickly followed suit.

The main market for home movies is Lagos, the commercial capital and home to the majority of the independent stations, although the half-dozen leading production companies – Nek Video Link, O.J. Productions, Infinity Merchant, Contec, Andy Best and Amaco – are all based in Onitsha, the market town on the banks of the River Niger that spawned the equally popular phenomenon known as ‘Onitsha market literature’, which flourished from the late 1940s until the outbreak of the civil war in 1967. These were chapbooks inspired by the Indian pamphlets brought back by Nigerian soldiers who had fought in Burma and the Far East. They had titles like Beware of women, My seven daughters are after young boys, and Money hard to get but easy to spend. Like the home movies, which are in many ways their successors, they had no artistic pretensions, but were concerned only to reach the widest possible audience. They were churned out at high speed and quickly went out of print. Topicality was everything, which was why many of them weren’t even dated. Most sold between three and four thousand copies, although the two most popular, Veronica My Daughter (1957) by Ogali A. Ogali and the Nigerian Bachelor’s Guide (n.d.) by A.O. Ude, sold 60,000 and 40,000 copies respectively.

The chapbooks were soon eclipsed by the novels of a new generation of university graduates – among them, Achebe, Soyinka and J.P. Clark-Bekederemo. Their work was snapped up by London publishing houses, although Cyprian Ekwensi, whose People of the City (1952) was the first Nigerian novel published abroad, had already cut his teeth as a pamphleteer with two titles, When Love Whispers and Ikolo the Wrestler and other Ibo Tales (both published in 1947). Unfortunately, neither is available – an indication of how low Ekwensi’s stock has fallen in recent years – yet in his best novel, Jagua Nana (1961), the story of an ageing prostitute (‘they called her Jagua because of her good looks and stunning fashions. They said she was Jag-wa, after the famous British prestige car’), he caught the underside of modern urban life in Nigeria with a racy realism which clearly influenced the liveliest of the market literature, notably Adventures of Four Stars by J.A. Okeke Anyichie and Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away by Speedy Eric.

Adventures of Four Stars is a first-person narrative by ‘a real tough, cranky, swell, level-headed kind of guy’ at large among the ‘backroom types’ in downtown Lagos:

Take a stroll right down the Idi-Oro bus stop. Directly opposite the station is a dilapidated 18th-century storey building. Walk straight in and you will be confronted with what it means to be an addict or dope peddler. The eyes of those mushroom or back-room type of guys is blazing like hell fire. ‘Yes, Gehenna.’ The only supposed hell fire visible on earth and it is situated on the South-Eastern part of Jerusalem. What happens to these fellers in the den or jungle of oblivion where the black becomes white, the white becomes the red is nobody’s business.

The story itself is rather aimless and mostly intended to demonstrate the author’s hipness. Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away, by contrast, is the sad tale of a young woman who, at the age of 11, is already possessed of the ‘terrible desire to taste a young man’, especially after she has witnessed the ecstasies of an older friend who ‘had a special way of shaking her waist’. At 17, she is seduced by a man with ‘a wild passion, a flaming desire that rendered him strong and blind and cruel’ as he ‘carried his meat into his room’, although the author, mindful of ‘my mother and father who may come across this book’, tells us that what transpired would be ‘better experienced than heard’. The pair get married but Mabel, having tasted her first man, must taste others because ‘I don’t get what I want out of life by tying myself down.’ By and by, she is caught cheating by her husband, who repudiates her. She flees to the bright lights of Port Harcourt, where she is in steady demand, and before long discovers she is pregnant. She overdoses on the prescribed medicine and ‘our 17 years old sweet honey’ poured away while ‘the rest of the outside world went on moving without even feeling that something had missed.’

Such directness and lack of inhibition are rare among the Onitsha pamphleteers, who generally favour dazzling frocks and delicate sensibilities. The heroine of Rosemary and the Taxi-Driver by Miller O. Albert has both in abundance:

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