BY ADA DIKE
This year’s Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) organised by the Committee For Relevant Art (CORA), created a positive spirit in the minds of the audience after listening to discussants talked about the life and works of a writer and environmental activist, Kenule Beeson Saro- Wiwa.
On November 13, 2015, people from all walks of life converged at Kongi’s Harvest Art Gallery, Freedom Park, Lagos and listened with keen interest when notable speakers at a panel discussion with theme: “Ken Saro-Wiwa & Nation Building” unmasked the great literary legend. And all the reviews were around Saro-Wiwa’s major non-fiction narratives focusing on the theme of self-determination and nation building. The activist’s books discussed were: “On a Dark Plain”, “Similia”, “Peter Dumbrock’s Prison”, “A Month and A Day & Letters” and so on.
Anchored by Ayotunde Olofintuade, notable writers who shared their views on the Nigerian literary icon are by Toni Kan, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu and others.
Describing who his friend and fellow literary icon is, Uzoatu in a writer-up said 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 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 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 forte here. It suffices to stress that beyond the politics of the war and the aftermath, Ken was poised on a literary upswing when he was among the over 600 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 the 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 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’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, based in Port Harcourt. The verses are in fine 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, is not Ken’s strongest forte. Ken 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’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 who had to depict the critic Pita Okute as ‘Pita Dumbrok’ in his novel-in-progress being published in the 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 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 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 Ken in the selfsame 1987 published Basi and Company: Four Television Plays. Ken’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 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.” Culled from http://www.cityvoiceng.com/the-literary lives-and times of ken saro-wiwaAccording to Wikipaedia, in 1990, Saro-Wiwa began devoting most of his time to human rights and environmental causes, particularly in Ogoniland. He was one of the earliest members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which advocated for the rights of the Ogoni people. The Ogoni Bill of Rights, written by MOSOP, set out the movement's demands, including increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, and remediation of environmental damage to Ogoni lands. In particular, MOSOP struggled against the degradation of Ogoni lands by Royal Dutch Shell.
In 1992, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned for several months, without trial, by the Nigerian military government. In January 1993, MOSOP organised peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people – more than half of the Ogoni population – through four Ogoni urban centres, drawing international attention to their people's plight. The same year the Nigerian government occupied the region militarily.
Saro-Wiwa was arrested again and detained by Nigerian authorities in June 1993 but was released after a month. On 21 May 1994 four Ogoni chiefs (all on the conservative side of a schism within MOSOP over strategy) were brutally murdered. Saro-Wiwa had been denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of the murders, but he was arrested and accused of incitement to them. He denied the charges but was imprisoned for over a year. On November 10, 1995, Nigeria executed the human rights activists despite worldwide appeals for mercy, the Nigeria’s military rulers under late Sanni Abacha administration executed Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni people.Guests left Freedom Park sad at the 17th LABAF after viewing a 45-minute-film titled, “Power, Oil and the Execution –Ken Saro-Wiwa” by Thomas Giefer. The literary giant, though have left the earth still lives and will continue to live.