Ken Wiwa’s In the Shadow of a Saint
A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy
Random House 2000 – Vintage, 2001.

As much as this book is about its author Ken Wiwa, as much as it is about his father Ken Saro-Wiwa, as much as it is about fathers and sons, as much as it is about parents and children, it is also about the simple task of finding one’s self, one’s place in the wider world.

And of course there is nothing simple about that. But of course it’s something everybody understands.

“Scattered across 1,046 square kilometres of the northeastern [Niger River] Delta are the mud huts of the 128 or so villages of the Ogoni. Although there are an estimated 500,000 Ogoni, we are one of the smallest of the 250 ethnic groups in the Niger Delta. We have lived on a gently sloping, heavily forested and fertile plateau for anything from eternity to four hundred years, depending on whose history — oral or written — you subscribe to.”

This might not be something that every reader coming to this book will understand.

250 ethnic groups? By the time you’ve read this far in the book, you can probably name four of them. (And if you’re relying on headline news from mainstream sources, all four names were likely new to you.)

And each of them has multiple histories. (Ogoni is an oral society, with no written language.)

Nope,  nothing simple about that.

But Ken Wiwa’s volume achieves a solid balance between information and impression.

For instance, in discussing the difficulties the country faced after the British got serious about things there in 1884 (the divides between various regions and conflicting interests, some resisting and others profiting), there are lots of details (dates, documents, names of ethnic groups).

And then there is a joke:

“…an old African joke that says that before the white man came to Africa, we had the land and the white man had the Bible. But now we have the Bible and the white man has the land.”

Ken Wiwa is not trying to tell the story of Nigeria in less than 300 pages (although you can gain a considerable foundation from In the Shadow of a Saint).

His father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, however, did write for political reasons. He did not believe that a writer was “a mere storyteller” or “a mere teacher”; he believed that “he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved in shaping its present and its future.”

Ken Saro-Wiwa was following in the tradition of the Wiayor, who are “ordinary members of society who, when a spirit descends on them, acquire unusual powers of clairvoyance that make people accept their judgement and views”. (If a Wiayor betrays the vision he was sent to tell, he loses his powers.)

He believed that a writer is a Wiayor, “forced to live in the society but yet apart from it; critical of society and himself being critically watched by society”.

It’s hard to imagine anyone having been treated more critically; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in Nigeria on November 10, 1995. “It took five attempts to hang him. His corpse was dumped in an unmarked grave; acid was poured on his remains and soldiers posted outside the cemetery.”

See how that happened? I started by talking about Ken Wiwa, and the bits about his father, Ken Saro-Wiwa took over.

It’s hard not to let that happen: his father was much a larger-than-life figure (as an author, as an activist for the rights of his people, whose lands were/are devastated by the extraction of crude oil), who became even-larger-than-larger-than-life with his execution on the world-stage.

And there is where the personal story of Ken Wiwa, In the Shadow of a Saint, takes root.

How do you know who you are, when who you are not is such a preoccupation.

How do you know what is truly important to you at the personal level, when wider — global, even — concerns are so overwhelmingly present.

How do you separate yourself from a profoundly important influence in your life, when your entire being — even your very name — seems to be indistinguishable.

How do you find yourself as a son, when an entire people sees your father as their father.

“In the end, you can only give your children so much and hope, pray, that they will eventually understand the importance of the values you are trying to sell them because there always comes a time, usually a critical time, when they have to decide which is their true identity.”

Whether you have an interest in Nigeria, in the peoples who call that land home, in international relations, in environmental justice, in the intersection between art and politics, or whether you are a parent or a child, In the Shadow of a Saint is a worthwhile book that will remind you that nothing is simple and that complexity is nothing to fear.

This is timed to coincide with Amy’s event in recognition of Nigerian Independence Day. (Check her site for more details.) It was the perfect reason to finally shift this book from the TBR pile (where it’s been since I heard the author read more than ten years ago now) into my hands. Thanks, Amy!