Ken Saro-Wiwa : Activating an Archive

 

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Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a Nigerian writer and activist, who spoke out forcefully against the Nigerian military regime and the Anglo-Dutch petroleum company Royal Dutch/Shell for causing environmental damage to the land of the Ogoni people in his native Rivers state. Because of his action, he was executed by hanging with eight fellow activists in November 1995. Over a number of years, one of his supporters  Sr Majella McCarron OLA, conducted a correspondence with him, and in this article she tells how the correspondence, from being a box in her wardrobe, ended up as an archive in Maynooth College. She believes that  archives can be activated, so that they are not just dead records of the past, hidden away in a basement room, but something alive and active that speak to us today. This is what she wrote:

 

My correspondence with Ken Saro-Wiva, after lying in a box in my wardrobe for sixteen years, I thought the Department of Sociology, in what I now know as Maynooth University (MU), might have a place and a use for them.  That occurred to me as I sat in a field in Erris overlooking the ocean and chatting to a member of the Rossport Solidarity Camp, John O Shea, about his research project on multinationals being undertaken in MU. He was in Erris to support Shell to Sea and I was part of the Table Observers reporting on human rights protection during the protests. He was discussing the actions of Shell in the Niger Delta and my experience in Ogoni. I tasked him to find out if his Department had any interest in my box.

When John O’Shea went with the query to his Sociology Department it was vacation time and no one was really in a position to answer him. Undaunted, he decided to go on to the library. Before sundown that day I had a phone call from the deputy librarian, Helen Fallon, looking for my box. Fallon describes her response to the offer: “The value of the Ken Saro-Wiwa collection was immediately obvious.  MU has programmes and course modules relating to social justice, community studies, and post-colonial studies and is home to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for Conflict Resolution”.   One undergraduate student  taken to the Special Collections Reading Room responded:  “The opportunity to actually see, hold and read original letters written by Ken Saro-Wiwa allowed for a real sense of his beliefs and passion to social and economic inequalities, most significantly his commitment to bring the plight of the Ogoni people to the world’s attention”.

That was in 2010 - 2011 and this is 2019 and we are still finding not just papers but inspiration in what was the box in the wardrobe. My vision had been somewhat different: The Archives would be a hidden room, very quiet, dark mahogany and only one or two people about. It was to be final resting place for Ogoni matters in Ireland to which the lone researcher with the plastic gloves might be admitted through gates and observed from cameras. Much in the sense of a vault, a gravestone where every year I might visit to reflect on an extraordinary painful reality that had been part of my justice ministry when I responded to the call of the Africa - Europe Faith and Justice Network ( AEFJN) in March 1993.

Visiting the library, on a lovely summer morning I found myself greeting a bunch of lively children from a neighbouring town whose mothers, mostly of Nigerian background, had decided that a worthwhile holiday activity would be a visit to MU. Helen Fallon invited them to the Library where I found them spread out comfortably on beanbags to hear the Ogoni story from the Archives suitably adapted to their age. Their parents took to the chairs. That is where I encountered the “Activation of an Archive ”.  There were snacks and different child-friendly activities, and then up in the lift went groups of children right into the Special Collections Reading Room where a suitably adapted presentation of Ken Saro-Wiwa work and  of my correspondence  with him  was laid out. (They did not to need to hear that the Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive was launched in 2013 in the presence of Dr Owens Wiwa who came from Nigeria and joined Baroness O’Loan along with the President of MU and the library staff, plus my family from Fermanagh.  All in all, the summer activity went without a hitch: as did a more recent event in 2018, a related poetry competition for 80 transition year students from Maynooth Education Campus. I had been invited to a preparatory brainstorming session where I offered as theme ‘Ken Saro - Wiwa, eco-hero’.  The students came in groups and each had the wonderful opportunity of a short workshop on writing poetry. I took part and was impressed when my group of ten was asked to describe what made them angry. The teenagers were encouraged to rant and then transmit their feelings into what might make a poem.  Six weeks later those poems were judged, and we had five winners to receive prizes at what is now the annual Ken Saro - Wiwa Memorial Seminar.  The winning poem described an immediate personal delight on the discovery of oil, and the consequent pain of becoming aware of the potential destruction it might inflict.

Books

The annual seminar is held in the MUL during an afternoon in November, the anniversary of the hanging of the Ogoni Nine in 1995, and always includes a visit to see  the Ken Saro -Wiwa Special Collection.  In 2018 the guest was Firoze Manji  of Daraja Press working out of Senegal.The first important outcome of the Archives was the publication of the book Silence would be Treason:  Last writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa. I. Corley, H. Fallon, & L. Cox (Eds.). Senegal: Daraja/CODERSRIA.  This pleased me greatly as did the invitation to choose the title, a line from a KSW poem, one of the 28 unpublished elsewhere and sent to me by Ken. They had been in the box all these years and came to be counted with the letters as the ‘last writings of a prolific author’. This fact is noted in the title of a second edition launched by MUL Chief Librarian, Cathal Mc Cauley, in 2018.   Both editions have impressive contributions and explanations - all the way from sociology to post colonial literature, to explanations of the Archives with a description of the ongoing compilation of the Ken Saro – Wiwa Audio Archive (Maynooth and Kairos Communications: http://soundcloud.com/nui-maynooth-library) developed alongside the main Archive. It includes interviews, not just with me but with guests to related events such as Noo Saro-Wiwa, daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa.  The MU Ken Saro -Wiwa Audio Archive has: “been accessed over 1,500 times.” The first and second editions and, in between, an e-book (http;//eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/10161/) were published to honour Ken.  With a limited print run they still made available a Ken Saro - Wiwa Post Graduate Bursary. Graham Kay is a Phd history major working on the role of oil politics in World War One and was enabled to spend time in an related  archive in Germany. He was a guest lecturer at one of the annual seminars. I was invited to launch the e-edition, and now all the publications are on Open Access. This means that the material is easily available in Nigeria, in the Delta, in Ogoni  and among other impacted communities, free but dependent, of course, on internet access. This facility responds to the wish of Trócaire which assisted with the project financially.  Ken would be impressed as he encouraged photocopying important newspaper articles where the cost of daily newspapers was but a dream for many of his people.

The Archives move about, or at least part of it does. It was loaned to Quinnipac University in the US. This university is recognised as a valuable repositiory for Irish Famine content in the US and yet the Ogoni material was selected from MU. The journey continues. The first invitation came from a local public library in Athy, Co Kildare, where I was invited to be part of its launch in recent weeks. It is hosting for several weeks the Ogoni story in four large exhibition panels. I drew attention to the place of Kildare in this story: that it was during the  Action from Ireland (AFRI) human rights conference during  the Féile Bríde festival (February 1995}  in the town that I was to tell on a public platform in Ireland for the first time the plight of the Ogoni 9. I had arrived back from Nigeria and Ogoni in August 1994 almost six months before that. The Ogoni 9 were hanged in November of that year in spite of the pleading of Ogoni Solidarity Ireland set up at the Kildare conference after my input, and in concert with a strong national and international plea. So Kildare town, Maynooth and Athy thread a part of the tragic account. 

Bells

Fallon continues to record every public and research activity related to both collections in academic papers, at conferences and through the media. MUL has assumed responsibility for continuing to ring Ogoni bells, a task laid on me by Saro -Wiwa in one of his letters: “Seems like ages since I last heard from you. I have seen your work & your pictures in the Irish Times though and I think you yourself might be surprised how far those Ogoni bells are ringing now, and how you have become the bellman?  I thank God for your presence among us”. (Silence Would Be Treason, Letter. March 21, 1995, p. 121).

Indeed the activities also reflect Saro-Wiwa  the novelist, political satirist, children’s author, dramatist, TV producer, poet, Uhta! The Last Part of the Night, was  written and produced by Trinity theatre studies Justin Mc Gregor in 2015. Mc Gregor, a Canadian, had met and promised Owens Wiwa in 2000 that he would one day respond to his brother Ken’s final statement suppressed in Nigeria. A copy of this statement has recently been offered to the MUL Special Collection.  An unexpected visit of Sam Adegoke on his way back to the US from the Cannes film festival in 2018 has activated the Archives once again as he plans a production and is negotiating rights with MUL and the Wiwa family.  Ibadan-born and raised in the US, Adegoke is currently in a number of films there.

Mission Archives

Preparing this paper for the SMA Bulletin in 2019 caused me to reflect on the value of OLA and SMA Archives in Cork and Rome, such as, for example, the wonderful missionary history books of Edward Hogan. Indeed Hogan’s narrative history in Berengario Cermenati Among the Ebira of Nigeria has a moving passage. Hogan writes : “Berengario Cermenati was an inveterate notetaker, letter writer, and, most of all for our purpose, diarist...he used his diary as a companion to whom he poured out his frustrations, fears and inner most thoughts... the miracle is that these diaries survived over 30 years in the tropics... probably in Berengario’s metal mass box”. Another box! This so reflects the thrust of shared thoughts which I understood so well, when from military detention in Port Harcourt, letters from Saro -Wiwa followed me to Dublin from August 1994 to his hanging in November 1995. I was a ‘companion’ for inveterate letter writer Ken Saro -Wiwa (1941- 1995) in the last two years of his life.  Both people are carefully protected in Archives for the enrichment of future generations. MUL has gone further to make activation of the material a noble act.

M.M.Mc Carron OLA

(First published in the SMA Bulletin 2019)