In spite of the Gun: Remembering Ken Saro-wiwa, Nigerian Writer and Activist
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Happy to find
In spite of the gun.
He was still a man.
It lit the dark
that gentle laugh
In the pith of night…
But it was only the low laugh
Of one who was soon to die.
Ken Saro-wiwa, Songs in a Time of War, 1985
The 2009 PEN World Voices event on writer and activist Ken Saro-wiwa’s life and legacy opened with a reading from his play, The Transistor Radio. Candor, humor, and conscientiousness leaped from the pages—and along with them, a dark glimpse into the despair and desperation in the lives of Saro-wiwa’s Nigerian characters. An unrelenting grind is revealed, one that is probably unfathomable to many of us. Imagine a day, or three, without enough food—or with just a cup of tea.
Almost fifteen years have passed since writer-activist Ken Saro-wiwa was executed by the Nigerian military government over trumped-up murder charges. But not much has improved for those in the oil-rich Delta region of Nigeria, Saro-wiwa’s homeland. In fact, it has gotten bleaker.
As one of the most vocal critics of the actions of government and oil companies in the region, Saro-wiwa was compelled as writer and activist to “speak for the little people,” said his son, Ken Saro-wiwa, Jr., a panelist at the PEN event. Poised and articulate, Saro-wiwa, Jr., spoke fondly of his father as a renaissance man, who “always carried a book and pipe…and within whose life ran a sense of injustice that often produced sadness.”
For Saro-wiwa, this sense and this emotion collided powerfully within, resulting in a remarkable legacy that involved, as second panelist and writer Richard North Patterson said, a passionate, nonviolent struggle against “a terrible reality of economy and indifference.”
During the event, a brief documentary by PEN spelled out what many of us already know about this reality: the environmental devastation wrought upon the Delta by reckless oil spills and flares, and the painfully inadequate infrastructures in the region, despite the large sums of money procured by the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell.
Sadly, this reality continues to grip the region, immorally perpetuated by those caught up in an unending cycle of corruption and greed. Patterson, whose novel Eclipse is loosely based on the life of Ken Saro-wiwa, also marveled at the scant US response to this travesty, calling it, essentially, a “failure of empathy and imagination.”
But the arc of the moral universe, as we know it, might actually begin to bend toward justice.
Perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. was indeed right about that moral trajectory.
(Editor’s Note: On Monday, June 8, Royal Dutch Shell paid a $15.5 million out-of-court settlement in a lawsuit organized on behalf Saro-wiwa’s family and others in the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta. The case against Shell is one of the few brought under United States Alien Tort Statute that have been resolved in favor of the plaintiffs. The settlement also includes establishment of a 5 million trust to benefit local communities in Ogoni.)
Angela Ajayi spent over ten years in publishing, mainly as a book editor, until she became a freelance writer. She holds a BA from Calvin College and an MA from Columbia University. Her essays and author interviews have appeared in the Star Tribune and Afroeuropa: Journal of Afro-European Studies. She currently writes book reviews for The Common Online. Her first short story, “Galina,” will be published by Fifth Wednesday Journal this fall. She likes to think she defies easy categorization, identifying through birth and citizenship as a Nigerian-Ukrainian-American writer. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.
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