The words of Ken Saro-Wiwa
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Date: 22 May, 2006
In May’s Book of the Month, Charlotte Haines Lyon is moved by the final words of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
It is not often I cry. The odd tear may escape when confronted by a moving scene but it is rare that I really sob. However, when reading the last letters of Ken Saro-Wiwa I wept profusely.
A Month and a Day by way of diaries and letters details the final years of a life dedicated to human rights. Ken Saro-Wiwa fought tirelessly for the rights of his people, the Ogoni, who live in Eastern Nigeria, on the Niger River Delta.
This area gained infamy due to large multi-national corporations mining for oil in the region, and reportedly treating the inhabitants and their environment with contempt.
Burning gas flares at oil plants have made reportedly made the soil too acidic and oil spills have polluted the water. Both are decimating a society based on agriculture and fishing.
The area’s most famous son explains that the word Ogoni covers both the people and the land. This is because for the Ogoni the land and the people are one. So it is easy to see how the continual degradation of the area is so devastating to its population.
Compounding these problems the region, despite providing wealth for the Nigeria, has been left to ruin by the government. It only since the recent election of President Obasanjo that there has been investment in its infrastructure.
This harrowing tale was written by Saro-Wiwa whilst incarcerated for a month and a day in 1993. Whilst writing a prison diary, he uses previous speeches and writings to highlight the plight of his people and shows the process of the Ogoni becoming an activist people.
It makes for a difficult read as these pages often contain inklings of hope, yet the reader knows that the author was executed by a military junta, along with eight other Ogonis on the 10 November 1995.
This was despite proclamations of faith in prevailing justice from world leaders including Nelson Mandela. They had been found guilty of murder by a military tribunal.
They were calling for self-determination for their small ethnic group in the impoverished oil-producing region and they accused the oil company, Shell, of colluding with the military.
As well as providing a history, Saro-Wiwa understandably expresses angry frustration at times. He wonders if skin colour can mask oppression. “White people oppressing blacks in South Africa draws instant condemnation because it is seen to be racial. But black upon black oppression merely makes people shrug and say, “Well, it’s their business, isn’t it?”
Saro-Wiwa also repeatedly exhorts writers to understand their duty to fight for justice. In a letter to his son Ken Wiwa just before his death, he wishes him well in an interview with the Guardian, “I’ll be happy you’ll be getting out of sports. . .our situation is too dire for our best people to merely entertaining others.”
As befits a playwright and poet the book, despite its tragic nature, is eloquently written. The scattered poems both soulful and sorrowful, somehow defiantly light up what seems a dark terrible world.
My tears were not simply caused by the heartbreaking story but by an immense feeling of futility. Was his fight worthless? Do we still standby ignorantly as people starve or are killed? Do corporations still plunder?
It is the son, Ken Wiwa, who gives hope. In letters to his father, in the closing pages of the book, he acknowledges improvements in government and attempts to indict one company in particular over the executions.
Most importantly he tells his father that he placed the Ogoni “on the map of the world and in the world’s conscience. Almost everywhere I travel . . .there are people who tell me that you inspired them.”
And maybe that is the point of the book. It’s just a shame that so often there must be tragedy in order to inspire us.
A Month and a Day and Letters
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