HISTORY: I’m Still Sad & Bitter About How Nigeria Murdered My Father... Ken Wiwa's Son Tells All
Ken Saro-Wiwa jr. is the eldest son of hanged author and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. He talks about the values his father cherished in this interview with Punchng
What do you do at the moment?
I am currently serving as the Senior Special Assistant on International Media to the President.
You are a writer. Did your late dad influence your interest in writing being a writer himself?
Yes he did. Just as sons of doctors or lawyers often end up as doctors or lawyers, so writers beget writers. I am sure he passed down his love of books and words and storytelling – in fact, almost all my siblings are fantastic storytellers. We are all creative, so it must be in the DNA.
Did he also encourage your other siblings on their career choice?
You have to ask them about that but as I said before, we are all creative in one way or another.
What memory of your growing up years with him can you recall?
There are so many. They are narrated in my book, In the Shadow of a Saint. His influence is in almost everything I do. My memories of him change with time but my earliest and strongest memory in life is of my father.
Considering his busy schedule then, how did he create time for his family?
Looking back, I realise that he made a lot of time for us. We did quite a lot together, considering how busy he was. I realise this now because I have children and I have similar kinds of pressures. I now appreciate the time he was able to give us.
How often did he take his family out for picnics?
We never went on picnics. We played football once or twice and table tennis but he drove me all around Europe one summer in 1980 – we went from London to Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Cologne, Amsterdam and back to London.
He drove all the way in his car for two weeks. I remember that holiday so well – he taught us about the United Nations in Geneva.
We went up the Eiffel Tower. We travelled. Two years later, we travelled all over the States – New York, Washington, LA, Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, San Francisco. He gave me a love of travel and wonder about the world.
How did he relax when he was at home?
My father read and wrote. He always seemed to be writing one book or newspaper article. I used to hear his typewriter clapping away till late at night and early in the morning.
He liked to listen to the radio and he watched television or he would have friends come around. He liked sports but he was obsessed with politics and literature. He was always writing.
What are the values you have imbibed from him?
One of the values I imbibed from him is a reverence for the importance of ideas. Also, his appreciation of the things that really matter in the world. If I have a strong political conscience, then he was and still my moral compass. From him too, I eventually imbibed the value of hard work and the practicalities of sacrifice to a higher cause.
How has his name helped you when people know you are his child?
Of course his name helps me but sometimes it doesn’t. On the whole, it opens doors but such is Nigeria and human nature that I sometimes feel I am knocking on an open door. He used to reassure me that I wouldn’t inherit his enemies. But I’m not so sure about that.
What are the values he cherished?
He believed in equity and equal opportunity. It is not about who you are or where you come from – it is about what you have to offer and whether you are prepared to work hard for the collective good.
How did he handle misunderstandings with your mother?
The relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife is a complex one and it is not easy to characterise in a few well-chosen words. My father was a product of his generation, of his circumstance and upbringing. He was not perfect but he tried. In the end, the only opinion that is valid is that of Mrs. Maria Saro-Wiwa — my mother.
How did you feel each time he expressed his displeasure about the state of the Ogoni people?
Sometimes I felt guilty, sometimes I felt angry and sometimes I even felt ashamed. In the end, it was his choice to dedicate his life to a better Nigeria and I am proud of him for doing that. Who wouldn’t want to have a father like Ken Saro-Wiwa?
What impression of him do you have reading about his literary works?
Strangely enough, I have an impression of someone who might have felt a little sadness that he missed his true vocation and calling as a writer. But then again when I evaluate his output as a writer – it is not the beauty of his words or the number of books he sold – it is that his words, his life, his story continues to be told. As such he has been posthumously fulfilled because that is the true test of the value of a writer.
Who were your father’s friends?
My father had friends from all walks of life in Nigeria and beyond. I always meet all kinds of people who remember him fondly and they always say to me: ‘‘Your father was my friend.’’
How did he enforce discipline on any of his children who did something wrong?
I never did anything wrong. Seriously though, he drew a hard line in the sand – as long as you worked hard at your studies and produced results — he was happy. He was strict in some ways but very liberal in others. He was not very effective at disciplining me though. Maybe he should have used the cane.
How do you feel being a son to him?
That is so complicated that I had to write a book about it. I will write more books about it still but like I say, his influence remains in everything I do especially in my relationships with my children.
What was his favourite meal?
I really do not know. What I do know is that he always used a knife and fork to eat pounded yam. I do the same. He liked fruit in the morning and smoked fish. I do too. He liked fried plantain and pepper soup. Actually, if I study my eating habits and preferences, I’m sure I’d find we have similar tastes.
Did he have any special mode of dressing?
He is well known for wearing a simple adire and was always with his pipe. That was his signature attire later in life. He was a simple man who valued books and good company. I have pictures of him from earlier years when he used to dress in crisp, white flannel Italian suits. I like the pictures of that guy – he looked really sharp, handsome.
What was his schedule like?
He travelled a lot, always on the move. He was never in the same place or country for very long, maybe three weeks at a time.
How close were you to him?
As a child, we were very close. He was my mother and father really for the first three years of my life because my mother was away at boarding school finishing the education that the Civil War had interrupted.
As I got older and especially when I went to school in England, we grew apart. But I am much closer to him now, if that makes sense. In a way that’s how it should be with fathers and sons – I had to get away from him to become my own man and once I had done that, it was easier to appreciate him as a man and a father but of course by then, he was late.
How often did he call or visit his children who were then studying abroad?
Making phone calls was not easy in those days. We didn’t have GSM. He wrote letters though – plenty of them. I still have a few.
How sociable was he?
I’m told he was very sociable. He was a likeable guy with a booming laugh. I heard that laughter a few times. He would throw his head back and show his teeth. He had a keen sense of humour – many people have very fond memories of him.
Where were you the day he was hanged along with eight other Ogoni environmentalists?
I was in Auckland, New Zealand where I had gone to lobby the Commonwealth and Nelson Mandela to put pressure on General Sani Abacha to spare the lives of the Ogoni nine.
When was your last moment with him?
I think it was in England in July 1993. He had just been released from detention and he came over to see his family and deal with the administrative details of burying my brother who had passed away a few months before.
It was a really difficult and complex time for all of us but I didn’t know I would never see him again. Two years later, he was dead.
Would you have wished he was not involved in activism?
Sometimes I think about that but then he was involved in activism and one cannot change that now. That is the reality and my history, so I have to live with it. He left me with a good name and as my grandfather used to say, a good name is better than riches.
What do you miss most about him?
I miss the fact that he was a wise, gentleman who was much loved, who knew so much about the world and so much about this country. I don’t have a father figure or mentor to guide me through life now and he would have been available to me to confide in, especially in these challenging times.
Most of all, I miss the fact that he is not around to be a grandfather to my children.
It is 18 years since his death, how has the family been coping without him?
If truth be told, the family has really struggled. We lost a great man, father, husband, brother and son. He was a father to so many people. He encouraged a downtrodden community to stand up for their rights, he gave people hope, he mentored and sponsored so many people.
Many people have given up their lives for Nigeria but few had the impact that Ken Saro-Wiwa had on the history of this country. He gave more than he had, more than he ever received.
What pains me now is the condition of the Ogoni people. It is as if the struggles we have had as a family is a metaphor for the Ogoni people. We contributed to the struggle to end military rule but we have not benefited from democracy. It is a shame on Nigeria.
My family was financially penalized by his murder and many of us have been psychologically traumatised by his hanging. Most people have so many wrong assumptions about Ken Saro-Wiwa and his family.
People just assume they know what we have been through and are going through. I remember the day I buried my father.
I stood in his grave arranging his bones in his coffin as my siblings and my children looked on. I cradled his skull and arranged what was left of his remains in that coffin. At one point, I looked up from the grave to wipe the sweat and tears from my face and I could barely look at my kids who were watching me with a look on their faces that I can’t even begin to describe or imagine.
I hate to think what was going through their young minds but I’m pretty sure they would never forget that day as long as they live. This was 10 years after my father’s execution. Ten years after Nigeria killed my father.
I feel very bitter about it – especially as so many people who never lifted a finger to defend the integrity of Nigeria and the Niger Delta have become beneficiaries of his sacrifice and yet have done nothing to honour his name, his memory, his people or his family.
We have had to struggle to survive, and I’m sure that if Ken Saro-Wiwa had known that this is how Nigeria’s leaders would treat his family and his people after his death, he would have thought long and hard about giving up everything he loved to try to make this country a better place.
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