Imagine that you spent your entire child-hood in the relatively idyllic surroundings of a Nigerian village. Idyllic at least, in the sense of no street crime, no military thugs shoving their gun barrels down your throat, a warm, loving extended family and a deep sense of the mysterious divine reinforced by a constant calendar of ritual filled with cosmic meaning. Sort of like Hillary's book It Takes a Village, but with a ew major differences: the village is poor, the average calorie intake is dropping somewhere below World Heath Organization standards, and there are enough tanatalizing hints of the world outside (clips of High Life Music on the radio, patterened cloths from Mandingo traders that make all your local garb look stale, and the occasional returned expatriate telling you stories of wonderful places that make your heart explode with envy). As stands to reason, when you become an adult, you will leave your village, jump on the first passing vehicle, and go to The Big City.
There's only one problem. Your plan of making it in the Metropolis has already occured to others. If you were born in the Ibo region of Nigeria, then you probably arrived in Oneisha, where you join hundreds of thousands of similary uprooted young men and women about to discover the joys of the unemployment line, tenement housing, veneral diseases, street gangs, addictive drugs, and constant gang war. The cities are filled with young men, as clueless as you are, all of whom are trying to find one of the scarce, non-existant jobs, female company, a place in the world, respect. The cities are also filled with young women, who quickly learn the iron clad rule for women in modern Nigeria: Open your legs or starve.
Now, if you were a rural emigrant to Jakarta, Sao Paolo, Guangdong, Mumbia, or one of the other countless urban agglomerations essentially people by an established, wealthy merchant, professional and bureaucrat class on the one hand, and teeming masses of unemployed hicks on the other, you might have to learn how to make it in the Big City in a number of different ways; but if you arrived in Oneisha, you're lucky, because Oneisha has market literature.
Essentially, commercial life in Oneisha centers around a big produce and consumer goods market in the center city, destroyed and rebuilt after innumerable wars. The young men who have made it in life generally help out the newcomers through a phenomenon unique to Nigeria: cheap Xeroxed pamphlets, filled with advice, imprecations to live a better life, short stories to make the newcomers feel less homesick, and pretty much anything else which flitters into the pamphleteers head that he may find useful.
Nigeria being Nigeria, however, many of these pamphlets are written in an especially idiosyncratic style. For example, one I saw, "Guide On Surival in the Metropolis Written by a Former Small Man Who Became Big" contains the following Gem: "Friend, don't ever be upset because you are so poor you are eating off the floor. Who knows, tomorrow you might have a plate!" Another gives you some simple advice: "If you just met someone ten minutes ago then never ask them for money. It might scare them away.".
In order to really explain the style of these pamphlets, however, I need to use a bit of a longer quote. This is from "How to Prevent Yourself From Being Carried Away With The Trash In the Morning or Worse, Becoming an Evil Demon, Sneaking Through the City Like a Bad Man, Looking For Victims to Rob." It contains the following sage advice:
"You are walking down the street and you see a strange woman. She is quite pretty and she smiles at you. You go to her place. She offers you from her pleasure. You like her very much. Only soon after there is a problem.
"Boy, she says, I am hungry and want to eat fine food. It is not my fault you have no money. Go to the market and steal it for me.
"You are afraid of being beaten by the market women, but you remember how fine you made love and you go steal from her. Now she smiles, and sends you to steal again.
"Soon you are an accomplished thief. Finally she says to you, 'Boy, go back to your village and kill your mother. Polish her skull and bring it back here for me to use as a footstool.'.
"Young man, I have been in a similar situation! Let me warn you: THIS WOMAN IS NO GOOD! If she asks you to do such a thing, you must LEAVE HER RIGHT AWAY!. She may not only be a LOOSE WOMAN who has sent you to rob she may even be a DEMON. If you KILL YOUR MOTHER you will clearly be in her power!"
In the West, authentic market literature is almost impossible to find as cultural importers from Africa are often embarassed at the low-life quality of a lot of these pamphlets, and people with private collections are hard to come by. A couple of African studies department have collections of these pamphlets. (CUNY in NY is one). Reading them is not only surreal, and enjoyable, but leaves you with a glimpse of a way of thinking that could not be more foreign to anyone raised to believe that Demons aren't real, or at least not real enough to ask you for a light in the back alley of the local pub.
A number of Nigeria's greatest writers stem from the Market Literature tradition. One of them was good enough to be included in Bloom's Canon - Amos Tutuola, writer of The Dead Palm Wine Drinkard and His Dead Tapster in the Deads Town, which contains all the elements of a good Market Literaure tale: an impossibly surrealistic story line, which is at the same time both deeply allegorical, and which yet leaves you with the sneaking suspicion that the author actually believes everything he's writing about really happened.