Transit from echo to original

The Shadow of a Saint

December 21, 2000

Most of us spend our adolescence fighting to escape the shadow of our parents. But for some, their parents can cast such a shadow that it totally absorbs them. Ken Saro Wiwa - writer, human rights activist, father of a nation - was such a figure. How can you outdo someone who has led and died for a cause that has won acclaim across the world? This book is Ken Wiwa's attempt, if not to escape the shadow, then at least to come to terms with it and, although it is ostensibly about his search to discover who his often distant - literally and emotionally - father was, it is more to do with forging his own identity.

The irony is that, even in writing, he is following in his father's footsteps and, like him, he has a lively writing style that combines the political and the personal. But where his father erred more to the political and was sometimes perhaps too outspoken, with Wiwa there is more of the personal and a heavy sense of trying to do the right thing - to tell his story, but not to destroy his father's image in the telling; to explain the tortured politics of the Ogoni situation without bias; to fight the backlash against his father but not to be too partisan. This sense of responsibility was visible the moment he decided to take up and lead the doomed campaign for his father's release from his final term in jail. He typically plays down his role in trying to save his father (he admits he enjoyed the sense of importance it gave him) and says that it was not true activism, compared with dying for your beliefs. But for other activists - most of whom would also admit to getting a feeling of importance out of campaigning, if they were honest - it was impressive all the same.

Wiwa traces his early childhood in Nigeria - a Nigeria you can almost taste in his descriptions - when he held his father in huge esteem, and moves on to his long rebellious period, where his anger at his father's distance from the family and immersion in the world of politics is palpable in every encounter he describes. He felt constantly caught between his mother and father, but was left disempowered because he could not stand up to his father. Although his rage is clear, so too is a sense that he is still in awe of his father's achievements and does not feel equal to the fight. It is only when his father was in prison for the last time that the son had the upper hand. He withheld contact. After months without a letter, his father wrote simply: "Dear Junior, I have not heard from you in months, Your father." The hurt is clear - so too is the importance of the father-son relationship to Saro Wiwa but it is unsaid: only then, at this ultimate stage, do the two began to speak more honestly about their feelings. Wiwa, who changed his name to distinguish himself from his father, vented some anger, and Saro Wiwa's mixed feelings of guilt about his immediate family and responsibility for his extended family, the Ogoni, came out.

In fact, although Wiwa claims to be distant from his father, the book also conveys the feeling that the two men are perhaps too close. Wiwa feels his father wanted him to take over where he left off, although his father denied this. He notes that he shares a lot in common with Saro Wiwa, including the way he types and the books he gathers around him in his study; and the two men were clearly fascinated by each other. Wiwa once caught his father reading his diary, trying to find out about his son's life. He says in a posthumous letter to his father: "Someone once told me that when your father dies, he takes a little bit of you with him and leaves a little bit of himself in you. I've been trying to work out what you took and what you left, trying to establish where you end and where I begin."

To understand his mixed emotions, including his jealousy of the Ogoni struggle, which occupied so much of his father's time and energy, to the detriment of his family, Wiwa met up with three children of three famous fathers: Zindzi Mandela, Nathi Biko and Aung San Suu Kyi. From the three he has learnt something of how to cope under the weight of the expectations created by having a famous and respected father, but from Suu Kyi came perhaps the most important lesson - that she does not expect her sons to take up the Burmese cause.

At the end of the book, Wiwa admits his father's death has left him with much unresolved. But far from the rage of before, he does not resent his father so much and says he is determined to keep his memory alive, although he has to keep reminding himself that he has a life of his own. He has, as he says, lost a friend and "a wise old man to confide in".

The grieving continues, but, although he will never escape his father's shadow, he has at least confronted it and provided a response to both those who have sought to deify or damn Saro Wiwa. It is an honest portrait of a flawed, but remarkable person who, in politics at least, tried to do what few politicians have the guts to do: to live, and die, according to his conscience.

Mandy Garner is features editor, The THES .

The Shadow of a Saint

Author - Ken Wiwa
ISBN - 0 38560 185 9
Publisher - Doubleday
Price - £16.99
Pages - 261

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