Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1941-1995

Jonathan R. Greenberg (EL32 1990)

"What Paris is to Balzac, and Dublin is to James Joyce, Dukana is to Ken Saro-Wiwa." Dukana is the all-important semi-mythical town of the Khana people of the Niger Delta, whose governmental administration is called BOLGA (Bori Local Government Area of Rivers State of Nigeria). Ken Saro-Wiwa--born Kenule Benson Tsaro-Wiwa--was born at Bori on 10 October, 1941. Whether a student of the Government College Umuahia (which also produced, in addition to Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi, his classmate I.N.C. Aniebo), or at University College Ibadan (which became a full-fledged university only after his second year), he was always proud of his cultural roots, drawing a direct line of descent from ancient Ghana to semi-modern Khana. Although he only emerged as a major writer in his mid-forties with his first three major works--Songs in a Time of War (1985), Sozaboy (1985), and A Forest of Flowers, short stories (1986)--his literary style began to develop over twenty years earlier when he was editor of the Obadan English Department's student magazine The Horizon and the president of its dramatic society.

Though his early goals were for an academic career in drama, his very first publications were in fiction (eg. the short sketch "High Life," which appeared in The Horizon). By the time "High Life" was published (in the the anthology Africa in Prose, editied by O.R. Dathorne and Willfried Feuser), history placed itself in the immediate path of Saro-Wiwa's purely academic pursuits and placed him in the midst of the Biafran War, first as the Federal Administrator for Bonny and then as Civil Commisioner in the Rivers State Government (1968-1973).
Ken Saro-Wiwa then abandoned academia but not his love for the arts. He took part in the Second BBC African Service Competition in October, 1971 and the jury (consisting of Martin Esslin, Lewis Nkosi and Wole Soyinka) awarded him joint fourth place.

Even from the start, language and its use emerged as the heart of Saro-Wiwa's concern. In private accounts, he expressed his censure of some of the best known African novelists and short-story writers. According to him, "their narritive proficiency and their plot construction are rarely matched by an appropriate style." A look at his own prose style reveals the almost total absence of what Femi Osofisan has quite derogatorily called "proverbialization: the excessive larding of the English narritive whith more or less felicitously translated proverbs that reduces the writer's world view to the trado-mythical level and his linguistic universe to the proportions of a museum, if not a prison, thus tying him to the apron strings of his linguistic substratum." Even though other modern African writers (namely Obi Wali, a friend of Saro-Wiwa's) have begun to write in an African language, Saro-Wiwa does not have the resources of a major Nigerian language to fall back upon (apart from a translation of the Bible, there is no other noteworthy literary work written in his native Khana). Therefore, he may tinker with proper name in his own language, for example, "Dukana, " a "market in Khana," but that is as far as his connection to linguistics goes. The rest is an "intense dedication to the medium of English." Ken Saro-Wiwa continues to write, operating on two distinct levels: that of pure English and that of which he calls "rotten English," a local, pidginized Nigerian variety of limited communication.

This biography, which Greenberg wrote twelve years ago, covers none of the political activities that led to Saro-Wiwa's imprisonment and execution by the military dictatorship in Nigeria. Readers are advised to use WWW search tools to locate material on the internet and elsewhere about Saro-Wiwa's protests against the destruction of his tribe's lands by Western oil companies. As a start see one of Saro-Wiwa's prison letters. See also The Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and The Persistence of Colonialisms

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Last modified 2 April 2004;
Thanks to Joe Grossman for correcting the year of Saro-Wiwa's death.