The sonnet may not have been invented in Africa, but our poets write beautiful sonnets everyday. Novels may not have been invented in Africa, but our novels are some of the most beautiful ever written.
We do have inventions of our own, though. African writers have always played with form and style and content in a bid to create new ways of writing and new objects for the literary market.
Here is the fourth post in a series showcasing literary forms that emerged out of the African context—literary inventions that could not have appeared anywhere else.
It all started in the 1960s in Onitsha, a city built around a large market in the Igbo-speaking part of Nigeria.
While Wole Soyinka and Achebe were busy impressing the world with fancy stories about Lagos aristocrats, traders, schoolboys, shopkeepers, and owners of print shops were churning out racy stories about pretty girls lurking in seedy bars. Lurid tales of man-eating girls on the prowl for naive bachelors offered cheap thrills and escape to city dwellers.
Like notorious Nollywood marketers of today, these writers were in it solely for the money. Their goal was to satisfy the popular craving for dark and sensational tales inspired by the crowded confusion of everyday city life.
The stories are written in non-standard English, peppered with pidgin-English words and a good bit of spelling mistakes. The text and accompanying illustrations were set on cheap paper using old, sloppy printers. Still, people couldn’t get enough.
Melodramatic tales of sex and femme fatales are common with titles such as Beautiful Maria in the act of true love and They died in the game of love. My favorite is Miss Cordelia in the Romance of Destiny: the Most Sensational Love Intricacy That Has Ever Happened in West Africa.
In They Died in the Game of Love, Kate and Tony (misspelled as Cathe and Thony) do the unthinkable. They have sexual intercourse. Kate’s abortion leads not only to her death but also to her mother’s death. After Kate’s death, Tony meets Agnes who also dies from attempted abortion, but this time in the hut of a witch doctor. The lesson? Sex or what the author calls “corner-corner love” kills.
The sex scenes are not x-rated or even graphic, but they are lurid enough to have titillated the largely male audience of these stories and afford them a voyeuristic access to the bodies of women they had no chance of having.
Onitsha pamphlets were very much in sync with other pop-cultural phenomena of the 60s. High-life, the classic pop music of the times found its way into these stories. The same people grooving to Cardinal Red Lawson or Celestine Ukwu were the ones writing these tales.
Hi-life music featured in these stories as the height of carefree fun and helped the authors mark out bars or wherever high-life music was played as spaces of debauchery where naive bachelors lost their souls and their fortunes to bad girls.
Sadly, these writings did not make it through the Nigerian civil war. In the post-war Onitsha, a few people tried to resurrect the pamphlet, but they’d had ceased to be a thing.
But while they lasted, there were indeed stories by the city for the city.
Click HERE to download digital versions of the stories for free.
Image by via Magic Transistor
Read other posts in the series.