In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand his Father's Legacyby Ken Wiwa
At the heart of the public campaign
In late 1995, the little-known Ogoni region in Nigeria became a fable for our times. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a renowned poet and environmentalist, was campaigning to protect his Ogoni people against the encroachments of Shell Oil and a brutal dictatorship. He was imprisoned, tortured, brought to trial on trumped-up charges, and executed.
At the heart of the public campaign to save Ken Saro-Wiwa was another Ken Wiwa—the author's son—who travelled the world lobbying world leaders and mobilizing public opinion, so that his father was recognized as a hero and a symbol of the struggle for environmental justice. The Saro-Wiwa name became global currency for righteousness.
Ken Wiwa has embarked on a book that tells the story—from a human, anecdotal perspective—of what it means to grow up as a child in the shadow of such extraordinary men and women. In the end, it's about Ken's attempts to make peace with himself and his father—following his journey as he reaches toward a final rendezvous with the father who was snatched by the hangman.
- Steerforth Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st U.S. Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.75(w) x 8.69(h) x 0.99(d)
Read an Excerpt
* * *
Just because he [Ken Wiwa] speaks the Queen's
English everyone applauds, but he's just a spoilt child
who wouldn't know the way to his own village.
Lt. Col. Dauda Komo
I ran into him one afternoon two years after he was murdered.He was in his house in the village, sitting in a chair at the farend of a long rectangular room. He was smoking his pipe andlistening to a group of elders who were animatedly discussingMOSOP business.
I was five thousand kilometres away, in London, trying tofind a way into this story. As soon as that picture of him poppedup in my head, I decided to retrace my steps to find out why thatparticular image, out of all the ones I have of him, had becomemy abiding memory of my father.
The story begins in March 1992, when he came over to Londonand gave me an ultimatum.
I had graduated from university two years earlier, and hadbeen drifting in and out of temporary jobs in London. I wasunsure of what I wanted to do with my life and was trying tobreak into journalism, though deep down all I really wanted todo was play professional sports. I was good at games football,cricket, rugby but I had never dedicated myself to any ofthem because I knew my father would never approve. Althoughhe loved sports, he felt they were a part of the "entertainmentindustry," andas he later told me in one of his letters fromdetention, the best black minds had no business playing sportsfor a living.
Although I wanted to pursue my own ambitions, that was easierthought than done, especially as he had given me the kind ofopportunities that few people, let alone Ogonis, even dream of. Icould never shake the feeling that I owed him, that he hadworked so hard to give me a head start in life and I had an obligationto repay the faith he had invested in me. Whenever I thoughtof going my own way, a little voice would pull me back, remindingme that I'd been given, as he used to say, "the best educationthat money could buy ... the best opportunities in life."
He wanted me to return to Nigeria. That was why he hadsent five of his children to private schools in England. He hoped,he expected, that we would all return to Nigeria at the end of ourstudies and apply our expensively educated minds to the resolutionof the problems facing our people.
But if there was one thing I was sure of in March 1992, it wasthat I didn't want to return to Nigeria. There were all kinds ofcomplicated reasons for this but the only one I could articulateat the time was that it was what my father wanted me to do. Iwanted to make my own choices, and I needed time to workthings out for myself. But he was impatient. He couldn't see thepoint of me "loitering around the fringes of British society"when there was so much to do at home. He wanted me to helphim run the business, or better still, to apply my skills to thecause that was just starting to fire our people's imagination.
But what, I argued, was the point of going back to a placethat most people were desperate to leave? There was nothingto entice me back there. Nigeria was a frustrating place to live the constant power shortages, the oppressive heat, themosquitoes, the sandflies. The prospect of working for myfather was hardly a selling point, and since I was firmly apoliticalI didn't want to sign up for the struggle. (When you growup in a political home you either toe the party line or you wantto get as far away from politics as possible.)
If there was one thing my father hated it was procrastination.You had to have a positive reason for not wanting to do something.And since I couldn't find a decent excuse for remaining inEngland, I tended to avoid him whenever he came to London.
Facing my father was like taking a hard look at myself in anunforgiving mirror. Each time I stood before him, I saw the manI was meant to become. I saw the man I would always be comparedto. He was ambitious and worked hard. He relished andsought out challenges. He was careful with his money. He wasmeticulous and religious in his attention to detail. He was confidentin himself, and he was successful. He was, I was certain,everything I wasn't.
It was hard to avoid him, though, and even if I only saw himthree times a year, he was never far from my mind. I could nevercompletely relax and live my life on my own terms. Even if Imanaged to convince myself that most of my peers in Nigeriawere looking to leave the country, or that the struggle to makethe country a better place was a thankless task, I could nevershake the thought that it was a thankless task to which my fatherhad dedicated his life. I could argue the toss, convince myselfthat I would rather be a black man in a white man's country thanendure the daily aggravations and frustrations of living in Nigeria.I could argue that I just wanted to live in a place where Icould get a job that paid a decent wage, where I had a roof overmy head, with running water and a constant supply of electricity.But just as I was getting comfortable with my decision togive up on Nigeria, just when I had satisfied myself that thecountry could never offer me a reasonable life, and just when Ihad forgotten about Nigeria that was when he usually cameback to remind me of my obligations.
When he came over, he was rarely in the same place for verylong. He was always rushing around, hustling for business, cultivatinghis contacts, dropping in on old friends and looking uphis girlfriends. You never knew when he would turn up. Youwould be lounging in the house watching television, enjoyingyour holiday, and he would suddenly burst through the door.Once you recovered from the shock, the games would begin. Iwould hide in my room, trying to figure out how long he wasgoing to stay. I would listen for clues as he boomed down thetelephone, barking orders to his offices in Nigeria. If he didn'treveal his travel plans, I would bide my time and wait until hehad left the house before going downstairs to rummage throughthe papers scattered on the dining room table.
In my father's house, there was never any clear distinctionbetween home and office at least not at our London home. Hetreated the place like a warehouse. Cartons of unsold copies of hisbooks were piled in the corridors and crammed on the bookshelvesin his bedroom and in the garage. A big, red, ugly filingcabinet filled with letters and documents, all meticulously cataloged,sat in the middle of the house. He kept strict records oneverything, including detailed accounts of how much he had spenton my education. There was nothing lavish about the house. It wasan unremarkable, modest, four-bedroom home in a lower-middle-classsuburb of London. If anything, it was a relatively smallhouse for a family of seven, especially as half of it was commandeeredas a warehouse. Home comforts were not high on myfather's list of priorities especially in England. As far as he wasconcerned, his children were in England to get an education. Hisattitude to the house was probably meant to reinforce that message.
If I didn't find his plane ticket among his papers, I wouldsearch through his notebooks, where he scribbled his plans andthoughts. I often came across outlines for novels, screenplays andrough drafts of poems jostling with reminders to pay bills andobscure calculations and estimates of his fortune. If I didn't getan idea from the notebooks of when he was due to fly back, Iwould second-guess him anyway he rarely spent more than amonth away from Nigeria.
He always returned home, though I could not understandwhy. He was forever moaning about the situation in Nigeria, andI would wonder why, when he had the means, he didn't just walkaway and leave it all behind. But all he ever did was complain andthen go back. It was almost as if he actually relished the challengesof living there. Most reasonable men had long since given up orbeen forced to compromise their principles out of the sheer frustrationof trying to survive in a society that "rewarded theft andpenalized hard work," as he used to say with a perverse grin.
I would usually wait until the night before he was due to flyback to Nigeria, when he was too tired or too busy tying up theloose ends of his trip to pin me down, to raise the issue of myfuture. My timing always aggravated him. "Why do you alwayswait until I am just about to leave before you come and troubleme with your problems?" he would groan.
When we found a mutually inconvenient moment to talk, hewould sit on the edge of the large sofa opposite the fireplace in thelounge, filling his pipe with tobacco. He would pack the tobaccotightly with his thumbs. It always took him two or three attemptsto light it, but once he got it going, he would ease back into thesofa and puff away, popping his lips contentedly. He always had apuzzled frown on his face as the smoke curled out of his pipe, fillingthe room with a thick cloud of a rich, woody aroma. I usuallysat in an armchair next to the fireplace, staring ahead in nervoussilence, conscious of the intense expression on his face.
Once he'd collected his thoughts, he would take three shortpuffs, yank the pipe out of his mouth, lick his lips, and swallowloudly.
"How are your studies going?" he would bark at me.
"Fine," I would reply tersely.
He usually took the hint and switched to a less sensitivetopic. I would still bat his questions back at him, respondingwith monosyllabic, guarded answers. Whenever we attemptedto talk about anything other than poetics or school, the conversationusually ended in an awkward, embarrassed silence, butonce we gave up the pretence that we could manage anything ascomplicated as small talk, and reverted to the familiar parametersof our relationship, the conversation would flow. He usuallyopened the proceedings, droning on about his politics, trying todrill his values into me, sprinkling the lecture with his favouritephrases: "Hard work doesn't kill"; "To whom much is given,much is expected"; "In Nigeria, the only wrongdoers are thosewho do no wrong"; "To live a day in Nigeria is to die manytimes." He usually ended with the clincher that the ball was inmy court, or with the reminder that he had given me the bestopportunities in life.
I would listen patiently, waiting to sneak my own items ontohis agenda. I rarely questioned his politicsthey had a seductivelogic that was hard to deny. If I offered any thoughts of myown, it was usually to placate him so that he would be moremalleable when it was time to extract some money out of him.Getting money out of my father was a tricky business. The manhad deep pockets but very short arms. If the money was for furtheringyour education, he would gladly cough up. If not, youhad to be circumspect, pick your moment. If you allowed himto get too far ahead of himself, he would talk you into a corner;you had to dance around him, wait for a gap in his sermon, forthat moment when it was okay to ask for money without feelingthat you had to mortgage your future to him.
He was quite indulgent, given how I must have taxed hispatience. Although he had an extremely short fuse, he rarely losthis temper with me. He could be caustic and brusque, but hewas quite philosophical whenever we discussed my future. I wasalways wary of his temper, though. Underneath the calm, themercury was bubbling.
Anything could set him off, from the thought of how muchhe was paying for my school fees or the incoherence of my latestcareer plans to the state of my hair. If I showed up in dreadlockshe would stare at them, trying to figure out what was going onunder that "load of hair." Stuffing his pipe between gritted teethhe would puff away, popping his lips loudly, trying to stern therising red mist.
We tiptoed around each other for years, avoiding the questionof when I was going to go back to Nigeria. Neither of uswas prepared to compromise, and we had a tacit agreement notto talk about it.
"You know you have to return home once you've finishedyour studies," he once snapped at me.
We were facing each other, sitting in the armchairs on eitherside of the fireplace. There was an uncomfortable silence as thesignificance of what he had just said sank in. His face froze inanticipation of my answer; the eyebrows arched, as if caughtbetween making a statement and asking a question. He knew hehad strayed into the no-man's land between us, and he must haveread my murderous thoughts, because his face suddenly collapsedinto a pained look.
"You have no choice," he muttered weakly.
I sidestepped the question with my usual claim that I wantedto "concentrate on my studies before making up my mind," andwatched him choke back his disappointment. He didn't bring itup again until I had finished those studies.
After I graduated from university, it became harder to avoidthe issue. I did my worst, drifting in confused circles until hispatience snapped. That was when he came over to London andcut to the chase. "What are you going to do with your life?When are you going to start living?" he demanded.
I started telling him about my plans to go to journalismschool. As he listened to what must have sounded like yetanother one of my elaborate schemes to avoid having to go backhome, he glowered at me. Whenever he gave you that look eyesblazing, mouth open and lips quivering you knew it wasbetter to save the cock-and-bull stories for another time. Suitablyintimidated, I clammed up and stared at him plaintively.
"If you don't know what to do with yourself, why don't youjust come home and make yourself useful? There's plenty foryou to do there."
It was the tone that threw me. It was restrained, almost pleading.Even more devastating was the logic behind the suggestion. Iwas vaguely aware that MOSOP had begun to restore the individualand collective pride of our people. Women were beingempowered. Everyone was getting involved in the movement-professionals,traditional rulers and priests, even unemployed andunemployable youths. Every Ogoni was in MOSOP becauseMOSOP was in every Ogoni, as the saying went. No one could optout. The struggle was defining our people, giving Ogoni arenewed sense of purpose.
I could hardly resist. I owed it to myself, to him, and to ourpeople to return home and lend my weight to the cause. Hetook my silence as a tacit acknowledgement that I had finallycome round to his side of our struggle. He rose up from the sofaand walked over to the dining table. He opened his briefcase,pulled out an airline ticket, and tossed it onto the table.
"There's a ticket to Lagos for you there," he said, nodding inthe direction of the ticket.
I got up from my seat and examined it.
"Nobody will know if it is for you or me" he snapped, closingmy last loophole.
Not for the first time, I cursed my luck at having the samename as my father. I made a mental note that it was time I didsomething about changing it. Meanwhile, he snapped his briefcaseshut and gave me a brief pep talk. He left for the airport the nextday and I flew out to join him a week later, traveling, once again,on my father's name.
* * *
The first thing you notice, even before you leave the aircraft, isthe heat. It is humid in Lagos, even at six in the evening. It's likestepping into a sauna. A film of air wraps around your skin likecellophane. It has that unmistakably tropical, musty smell, and ittastes so thick that when you take your first breath you panic,thinking you're going to suffocate. While you're busy gaspingfor air, the mosquitoes and sandflies home in to extract theirdues. I was born and raised in Nigeria, but England made me.England softened my skin and thickened my blood, which wasgood for keeping out the cold but made me an easy target forevery parasite in Nigeria.
As I emerged into the arrival hall, I was met by a sea of faces.The glazed, cold expressions always unnerved me, stripping meof my pretensions. I shuffled along, anxiously scanning thecrowd for a friendly face.
I'd been dreading that moment as the aircraft started its finaldescent into Lagos. As soon as the city's streetlights appearedbelow, I began to fret, wondering if someone would be at theairport to meet me. I had missed my flight, and when I phonedmy father's office in Lagos to explain that I would be on a laterone, he exploded. "Look, my friend," he bellowed down thephone, "you better buck up your ideas and pull yourselftogether. Just make sure you're on the next flight down here,because if you miss that one, there won't be anyone to meet youat the airport."
I wasn't sure that he was joking; he was always trying to findout whether I could stand on my own two feet in Nigeria.Although I was born in Lagos and had passed through it manytimes on my way to and from England, I always felt out of placethere. I have never known how to get around the vast, intimidatingsprawl of the city.
I stopped and peered into the crowd. The faces blurred untilI saw Sonny, my father's driver, with his reassuringly familiargap-toothed smile beaming back at me. He was as relieved to seeme as I was to see him. I imagine he wouldn't have relished theprospect of having to tell my father that I hadn't arrived.
As I waited for Sonny to fetch the car, I watched the crowdsmilling around me in the arrival hall. Languid Muslims in whiteflowing robes ghosted across the concourse like tall ships in acrowded harbor. Soldiers swaggered back and forth, wavingtheir guns around with a casualness that was disconcerting.Expensively dressed and haughty-looking women struttedaround, avoiding predatory eyes and catcalls with practicedindifference. Large families with children trailing in convoycrabbed across the terminal, dragging the entire contents of theirhomes behind them. Hustlers worked the rich seam: middlemen,pickpockets, officials, and unofficial officials. Beggars harassedtravelers; clerics and priests swished past in starched robes whilepasty-faced white men in sweat-stained khaki shirts scuttled toand from gleaming new cars.
The hustle at Murtala Muhammad is a good barometer of thestate of the country. But that's the paradox of Nigeria: it mightlook chaotic but there is method to the madness. You just have tothink on your feetbe smart, as they say in Nigeria. You have toknow the unwritten rules. And even if you do know the rules youstill have to assume that your friend is your enemy and that the viceis versa, because in Nigeria the only wrongdoers are those who dono wrong. Our Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, once declared thatwhat Nigeria needed was therapy, not democracy. If that was thetrouble with the country, then Murtala Muhammad InternationalAirport was, in March 1992, the waiting room to the madhouse.
When Sonny returned with the car, we headed for myfather's office, where he was waiting. Once you hit the ground,the order that you see from the aircraft turns out to be an ad hoc,unplanned mess; Lagos is a sprawling, hectic, overcrowded,overpopulated, disorganized city. As you drive past its busyevening markets, you can just about make out the shadows ofpeople flickering in and out of the night. The atmosphere isthick with the smell of petrol fumes and the heavy bass line ofmusic blasting from huge roadside speakers. Something aboutbeing in Lagos always gets my heart pumping a little faster,bringing on an anxiety that is strangely reassuring. Going homeis always a troubling reminder that I do and don't belong there.
Somewhere in the middle of the liquid heat of a Lagos nightis a district called Surulere, where my father had an office.Surulere wasn't the kind of place where you would expect tofind the country's most famous satirist, a man who wasrumoured to be one of Nigeria's super-rich. That was one of theparadoxes of my father: he lived "a peripatetic life," but once hesettled somewhere he rarely moved house. When I once askedwhy he chose to have an office in Surulere, why he didn't moveto somewhere a little more salubrious, his face lit up. We weresitting in his private office, a cool, windowless back roomsparsely furnished with a large desk and filing cabinets. The onlyextravagance was the chair, an expensive, high-backed leatheraffair. He leaned back and pointed in the direction of the street."Look out there," he said, "you only have to stand on thosestreets to find all the stories a writer needs."
It was late by the time Sonny and I reached my father's officeand he had already left. He had been summoned to Abuja to meetthe president. There was a message for me. I was instructed tomeet him at the office first thing in the morning so that we couldtravel to the airport and catch the first flight to Port Harcourt.
I left the office and took a taxi to my uncle's house, where Ialways stayed when I was in Lagos. When I returned to theoffice the next morning, however, my father had already left forthe airport. I found my own way to the airport and caught aflight to Port Harcourt. I was happy to fly on my own because Inever enjoyed traveling with my father: I was too nervous andself-conscious around him.
When I arrived at Simaseng Place, the family home in PortHarcourt, the night watchman informed me that my father hadbeen expecting me but had just left for the village. I gave mytaxi driver a large tip and told him to drive as fast as he could tothe village. I wanted to give my father a little surprise.
Excerpted from in the shadow of a saint by ken wiwa. Copyright © 2001 by Ken Wiwa. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Born in Nigeria and educated in England, Ken Wiwa now contributes to newpapers, including The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, Sunday Telegraph, the Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the Observer. Internationally his journalism has appeared in South Africa, Holland, Germany and Spain and in a weekly column for Vanguard in Nigeria. Ken was also Internet editor for The Guardian for nearly two years. He now lives in Canada with his family and is Senior Resident Writer at Massey College in the University of Toronto.
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