Cavan McCarthy, Ph.D.
Prof. McCarthy

Printing in Onitsha: some personal obversations on the production of Onitsha Market Literature

This text was originally published in:
African Research and Documentation,
London, n. 35, p. 22-25, Aug. 1984.*

I have always been very interested in “fringe” or “non-standard” publications. I was active in the “little magazine” movement in England in the sixties, publishing and collecting poetry from small presses. I later lived in Brazil, where I avidly purchased the popular poetry pamphlets which are still sold on market stalls. It was natural, therefore, that when I was a lecturer in the Department of Library Science, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, in 1974-5, that I should become interested in Onitsha market literature. I went to Onitsha twice, and visited publishers and printshops (I have had experience in setting type and working printing presses). I drafted a brief article on Onitsha publications, but other pressures prevented me from preparing it for the press. In 1983 I showed the draft to Miss Ilse Sternberg, responsible for African acquisitions in the British Library, Reference Division, She suggested that much of the information on Onitsha printshops did not seem to be available from any other source, and was worthwhile publishing.

About a hundred titles of Onitsha market literature were available in 1974-5; many titles listed on the back covers of pamphlets were not in fact obtainable, and much of what was on sale consisted of reprints of old favorites(1). This must have been mainly due to competition from international publishers such as Longman and Macmillan, whose books took up almost all the display space in Onitsha's many bookshops at that time. Bookshops and printshops specializing in Onitsha publications were few, and relatively simple; the bookshops were cavernous, and cluttered with tall piles of packages(2); the printshops were small and similar to backstreet jobbing printers in England at the same time, except that they had more employees. All type was set by hand from traditional wooden typecases; pamphlets were always printed on newsprint, stapled into a card wrapper.

Onitsha publications were always pamphlets, consisting of a single “gathering”. (A gathering is a group of sheets folded together along the spine and stapled or sewn. Books produced in Europe or North America usually consist of several gatherings, of 16, 32, or 64 pages each, sewn together). Each sheet in an Onitsha pamphlet passed the press twice: two pages were printed on the front of the sheet, two on the back, and the sheet was folded once. (In Europe or North America, for a sixteen page gathering, eight pages would be printed simultaneously on the front of the sheet, eight on the back, and the paper would be folded several times). This means that in an Onitsha pamphlet of fifty pages, pages 1 and 50 were printed simultaneously on one side of the sheet, pages 2 and 49 on the other side, etc. This does not cause problems in well-equipped printshops, with plenty of type; the entire text is set up in type, then divided into pages, and the appropriate pages printed as required. But Onitsha printshops did not have type for more than about half-a-dozen pages at a time. Therefore they had to divide up the author's text so that they would know which part of the text would fall on specific pages; printers call this “casting off”. The manuscript would be received by the author in handwritten form and was sent out to a typewriting agency; casting off was much easier with a typed text.

It is also important to note that Onitsha pamphlets are firmly based on African oral traditions and frequently publish plays, riddles and jokes. These texts, unlike prose, are full of natural breaks, and therefore facilitate casting off. (This is yet another example of the way in which traditional culture, far from being destroyed by technology, discovers technological channels which permit it to become more widely known. In Europe and North America “Private Press” printers frequently publish poetry; this is relatively easy to print, because the right-hand margin does not need to be justified, and it is simple to cast off).

Pamphlets could either be printed from the inside outwards (starting from the middle page and working towards the wrapper), or vice-versa; printers had no particular preference over this. It was normal, however, to start, the text of the pamphlet on page 5; the first four pages were printed independently and would contain such material as title-page, preface, list of other books available and contents list for the pamphlet. This method ensured that the list of other books was up-to-date. Above all, the page numbers given in the contents list were correct, because they were printed after the body of the pamphlet. This meant, of course, that the last four pages of the pamphlet could also be treated as an independent unit; in fact it was not uncommon to find pamphlets in which this had happened. I have seen two different books on wars between the Arabs and Israel, with identical “Trials of Hitler”, totally irrelevant to the main text, on the final pages(3),(4).

If the printer made mistakes casting off, the text would either be squeezed up to fit more in, or spread out to take up more space. Squeezing up was done by reducing space between lines, or even by printing a couple of lines in a smaller type. Spreading out seems to have been commoner (as it is easier than squeezing up, printers would tend to err in this direction when casting off). The text could be made to occupy more space by putting extra space between lines, words or letters, or by simply completing a line with dots. For obvious reasons, such modifications were usually found at the foot of the page, and were more frequently incorporated in prose texts.

It is not necessary to take my word for it that Onitsha printers only had enough type for half-a-dozen pages or so; anybody with patience and good eyesight can verify this. Take an Onitsha pamphlet and look for a broken or distorted letter (it is much easier to do this with capital letters or numerals). Examine the rest of the text carefully and see if you can find the same piece of type; it is possible to find the same letter used three or four times in one pamphlet. This technique is used to examine the work of early printers, but it functions with anything printed by traditional means.

All Onitsha pamphlets were printed on vertical-platen printing presses; i.e. the type was held vertically, rather than horizontally. Presses were not only motorized, but in fact quite modern. I noted two Heidelbergs in Apollo, and a Grapho press, which looked and operated just like a Heidelberg, in Sagu. The printed sheets were, of course, piled on the floor, as is traditional in small printers throughout the world, (One difference was that the Onitsha printshops used both men and women to set and distribute type; normally traditional printing was a strictly masculine operation. It was difficult to determine the exact reasons for this. I thought that it was probably a result of the recent war, but the printers themselves denied that this was the cause. Onitsha pamphlets were normally written by men, for men. Perhaps women in Onitsha were somewhat more liberated than those in other parts of Nigeria). After printing, the pages went to the make-up department, a table with a long-arm stapler, where they were put in order, combined with the cover, and stapled.

Covers were always of colored card; printers liked to use several different colors for one impression of the same pamphlet. Early pamphlets had formal covers, consisting of author, title, etc., enclosed in a decorative border. At the time of my visit it was normal to use an illustration, and print the cover in black and a color. The rough illustrative blocks found in some pamphlets look like woodcuts, but it appears that wood was never used. The blocks were in fact cut from thick sheets of rubber, used for flooring, etc., which were gummed to wood blocks to bring them to type height. The design was cut out with a razor blade. (A similar process is used today in North East Brazil, where rubber has to a large extent replaced the true woodcuts found in traditional popular poetry chapbooks). At that time it was quite difficult to use photo-engraved blocks, of the kind found in newspapers; the only machine in Onitsha capable of producing them had broken down, and the photographs had to be sent to Ibadan or Lagos for processing. It was quite easy to find pamphlets which used, as a cover design, illustrations which had originally been made for another purpose, perhaps for an article on fashion, or for a knitting pattern.

I have had little or no contact with Onitsha since that time, but I received the impression that the printshops had solid potential. They were installing new equipment, and were diversifying into the production of diaries and Christmas cards, products with a massive potential market. They were, therefore, very different from the printshops which produced popular poetry in North-East Brazil; the latter did not have capital to invest in new equipment, and produced only poetry, for which there is a limited market. Culturally, however, the Brazilian pamphlets have firmer prospects; several official organizations try to preserve Brazilian popular poetry, because it is a part of the cultural heritage of that country. I cannot, personally, be sure how Africans will finally evaluate Onitsha literature. Perhaps it will be seen as as a peripheral and temporary phenomenon, typical of colonialism. Let us hope, however, that it will be seen as an authentic reflection of African cultural vitality, and one of the more interesting attempts to produce a typically African form of the English language.


(1) I no longer retain a significant number of pamphlets; most of my collection has been dispersed to libraries. Some typical pamphlets have been scanned to accompany this version of the text; follow this link for the graphic images.

(2) There is a photograph of the interior of a typical Onitsha bookshop on the cover of:
Oji, Gordian, Raimi A. Salami, and Mallam P. Umoru. Learn to speak English, Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba languages. Onitsha: Gebo & Bros., 1972? 48p. Follow this link to see an image.
The photograph has been captioned, humorously: “Learners of the four Nigerian main languages”.

(3) Onwuka, C. C. The story of Arab-Israeli war and other war stories. [Onitsha]: Sept. 1973.

(4) Eze, Kingsley C. The great war between Israel and Arab and other war stories. Onitsha: Njuko, April 1974. 40p.
Onwuka deals with the 1967 war, and Eze the 1973 war, with totally different texts. The author of the "Trial of Hitler", on the final leaves of both texts, is not specified; the style is reminiscent of that of Thomas Iguh, author of "The last days of Lumumba", and other Onitsha pamphlets containing dramatic trial scenes.


* Some minor updates have been made to this HTML version.


For illustrative materials to accompany this text, see:

Sample Images of Onitsha Market Literature

Prof. McCarthy
All Rights Reserved