The Literary Lives And Times Of Ken Saro-Wiwa
By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
November 10, 2020 marked the 25th year since writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro Wiwa was “judicially murdered” by General Sani Abacha alongside eight of his kinsmen.
There is no escaping the fact that Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, famously known as Ken Saro-Wiwa, packed too many lifetimes into one life.
His hanging by the General Sani Abacha regime on November 10, 1995 was a universal cause célèbre. It can be all too easy for many to give Ogoni activism the greater parameter in any discussion of the mourned one, but make no mistake about it: it was literature that offered Ken Saro-Wiwa the needed pedestal to bestride the globe.
Ken Saro-Wiwa understood the power of the written word from very early in his educational attainments. By the time he got admitted to the famous Government College, Umuahia, his embrace of the liberal arts was total. At the University of Ibadan, he upped the ante with service as the President of the Dramatic Society, and he equally weighed in as a redoubtable performer with the University Travelling Theatre.
It was indeed a problematic world that Ken Saro-Wiwa grew up into, needing to break from Biafra during the civil war into the larger Nigerian nation. The politics of the time is not my remit here. It suffices to stress that beyond the politics of the war and the aftermath, Ken Saro-Wiwa was poised on a literary upswing when he was among the over six hundred wannabes who entered for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), London playwriting competition in October 1971 tagged “Write A Play For Africa”.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s entry entitled “The Transistor Radio” won the “Joint Fourth Prize” alongside fellow Nigerian Charles C. Umeh’s “Double Attack” and Ghanaian Derlene Clems’ “Scholarship Woman”. The First Prize was won by the South African Richard Rive for his two-actor play “Make Like Slaves”. The three judges for the contest were Wole Soyinka, Martin Esslin and Lewis Nkosi.
Soyinka’s statement on “The Transistor Radio” reads thus: “It is really well shaped. We get a sense of literally the whole city being fake and phoney, and in the end you wonder if such a town exists. But in spite of that the characters are there, their vitality, their will to live. Their means are discreditable but the author achieves this difficult task of arousing condemnation and at the same time admiration for the individuals.”
According to Lewis Nkosi, “Transistor Radio really captured my heart. The quality of the dialogue really gave me the feeling of real people talking. I’m very partial to comedy when it is well done, and really one must prize comedy because these problems are so crucial that often there is a tendency to be very weighty, morally weighty, about them.”
It is indeed interesting that the celebrated Jimi Solanke played the lead role of Basi in the BBC recording of the play on July 23, 1972.
“The Transistor Radio” is a very funny comedy about a young unemployed Lagos man, Basi, who devises many tricks for not paying his rent to the landlady and generally surviving on the edge in the big city with bright lights. It can be argued that the entire theatrical output of Ken Saro-Wiwa via the television series “Basi and Company” emanated from the 30-minute radio play “The Transistor Radio”. Ken Saro-Wiwa spelt his name, back then. as Ken Tsaro-Wiwa.
Writing also as Ken Tsaro-Wiwa, he first got published in 1973 by the Lagos-based Longmans Publishers with two children’s books: “Tambari” and “Tambari in Dukana.” The eponymous hero’s adventures in the rural beach town of Dukana are captured within the ambit of childlike innocence and magic. The half-human, half-fish Mami-water rules the waves. There is the arresting story of the happy-go-lucky man Kaiza who threw his fishing net into the waters and came up with “a bag of money” which he eventually lost. Like Basi in “The Transistor Radio” the thematic thread reads: “Come easy, go easy.”
Nothing much issued from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s pen after the initial promise of the early 1970s. He had to wait till 1985 to publish a collection of poems “Songs in a Time of War” through his newly-established publishing company Saros, which was based in Port Harcourt. The verses are, in the main, a meditation on the Nigeria-Biafra war though the longest piece in the collection, a pidgin poem “Dis Nigeria Sef” was written in 1977, seven years after the war had ended. Poetry, it has to be stated, was not Ken Saro-Wiwa’s strongest suit.
Ken Saro-Wiwa raised not a little controversy upon the publishing in 1985 of “Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English.” The book based on the meaninglessness of war can be said to be Ken Saro-Wiwa’s magnum opus. His use of language, which he calls “rotten English”, has been acclaimed by some critics. The title character Sozaboy is a naïve young recruit in the war who lacks any understanding of what he is in the war for, and ends up broken.
The critic Pita Okute, writing in Vanguard newspaper, dismissed Sozaboy for having a “silly plot”.
This criticism drew the ire of Ken Saro-Wiwa who had to depict the critic Pita Okute as Pita Dumbrok in his novel-in-progress which was being published in Nigerian newspapers. The novel was eventually published as Prisoners of Jebs with Pita Dumbrok mouthing “silly plot” at every turn.
He first wrote about the novel-in-progress in his 1977 column in The Punch newspaper. The column eventually resurrected in Vanguard newspaper in 1985. Jebs Prison was set up by the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on an artificial island in the Atlantic Ocean off the Nigerian coast. Ken Saro-Wiwa penned a sequel to the novel entitled Pita Dumbrok’s Prison.
Building on the early gravitas of “The Transistor Radio” and the hit television series he created, Ken Saro-Wiwa published Basi and Company: A Modern African Folktale in 1987. Basi deploys the trickster motif of the tortoise in African fables to survive all obstacles. It is within this domain that Saro-Wiwa in the selfsame 1987 published Basi and Company: Four Television Plays.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s collection of short stories, “A Forest of Flowers”, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1987. Graham Hough, writing in London Review of Books, stressed: “Ken Saro-Wiwa’s extremely accomplished collection of short stories stands to Nigeria in something of the same relation as Joyce’s Dubliners to Ireland… There is great variety… and immense satisfaction for the reader in the adroitness and variety of the presentation.”
In 1989 Ken Saro-Wiwa published another collection of short stories “Adaku & Other Stories” via his overseas publishing company, Saros International, London. The 176-page-book contains 18 short stories. Twelve of the stories deal subtly with man-woman relations in a manner ahead of its time.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s memoirs based on the civil war, “On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War”, was published in 1989 and was launched in Lagos to much controversy. Critics from the Biafran side of the war divide argued that Saro-Wiwa was pandering to federalist apologetics especially as he made bold to stress in the book that rebel leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu deserved death. The author decried the marginalization of the minority tribes especially his native Ogoni by the majority Igbo in the war drive for Biafra.
There was a dramatic turn to fighting for Ogoni minority rights at the turn of 1990 by Ken Saro-Wiwa. He published “Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy in 1992”. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s struggle would eventually lead to his judicial murder on November 10, 1995. His detention diaries were released posthumously in 1995 through the book “A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary”. It was published in New York by Penguin Books. His other book “Lemona’s Tale” was published in 1996 by Penguin in London.
Many books by other authors have been put out on the Ken Saro-Wiwa cause after his death, notably “Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays” by Adewale Maja-Pearce. Controversy dogged the book like Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life.
Becky Clarke of Ayebia Clarke Literary Agency & Publishing Ltd had all but agreed terms with Adewale Maja-Pearce to have the book released in 2005 until controversy supervened. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, author of In the “Shadow of a Saint”, asked for the book to be censored because Adewale had in a newspaper interview averred that Ken Saro-Wiwa was a former friend of General Sani Abacha.
Publisher Clarke who was almost poised to release the book had to go back to “re-editing” it in order to stay in line with the liberal establishment that had always held Ken Saro-Wiwa up as a saint. Adewale on his part argued that he would only remove a word if a qualified libel lawyer found anything libelous in the essay.
Incidentally Adewale stresses that Ken Wiwa helped him with some of his sources for the essay, notably Richard Boele who in his 1995 Report of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) Mission to Investigate the Situation of the Ogonis of Nigeria wrote: “In Nigeria, there is a clear patronage system that usually runs along family, tribal, or friendship lines. Large sums of money are simply given through the granting of government or company contracts for road building, electrification and so on… Many of the Ogoni leaders… benefited from this patronage system – securing either government or oil company contracts… Ken Saro-Wiwa also received such government contracts in the 70s and 80s but ceded this practice in the 1990s so as not to compromise him once he became actively involved in the political struggle…”
In the end, Adewale Maja-Pearce published the book through the Lagos-based New Gong Collective.
Ken Saro-Wiwa lived, indeed, a charmed life as the leader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) but it was his work as a writer that gave him the international cachet that propelled the cause.
He is not any critic’s idea of the sophisticated writer. He deals with the well-told story rendered without any affectation whatsoever. His corpus of works can be read without much difficulty by the average general reader. He carved his own niche in popular literature, thus adding his own unique dimension to the distinguished literary alumni of Government College, Umuahia and University College, Ibadan, a formidable cast made up of Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, Chukwuemeka Ike etc.
Ken Saro-Wiwa can never truly die despite the hangman’s noose because he wrote himself into eternity on the bookshelves of history