I’m fond of reading Nigerian Literature. Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri, Helon Habila are amongst my favorite authors… and now, I include Ken Saro-Wiwa. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of having grown up in Lagos (as an infant to the end of my teens) that echoes the setting in the back of my mind while I read these authors’ literary works. Whether it’s the traditions of the ethnic peoples, the woes and struggles of daily life under oppression (by brutal military dictatorships), corruption, black magic, the civil war (Biafra) or even colonialism, Nigeria can offer a story on any of these fronts. And these authors don’t shy away from revealing these truths through the medium of the written word.
Making sense of it all
Ken Saro-wiwa’s novel Sozaboy, however, encompasses all these facets of Nigeria into one compact story. In about 180 pages, Saro-wiwa’s protagonist, Sozaboy (Nigerian Pidgin English meaning soldier-boy) experiences first hand the confusion and chaos that took place when the eastern states of Nigeria declared secession in 1967, under the banner of Biafra.
Sozaboy is dreaming of manhood, which in his village, is associated with marriage and starting a family, having a job and having status. He begins to plan his future to pursue both his dreams and the woman he meets (and falls in love with) in a brothel, all the while hearing stories from an ex-soldier in his village about how he had fought Hitler in Burma. The solider’s stories parallel the hard choices Sozaboy will have to make when the war arrives to his village.
Sozaboy is more a follower of the big events happening around him, being thrown from one unexpected situation to another. Yet in no way is this ‘fate-driven’ character detracting, since this is the reality of war to a person who’s world exists of one village and a nearby trading town. Sozaboy looses his mother and wife after joining the army and later begins a futile search for them. When he eventually runs into the displaced villagers, he’s seen as a ghost because everyone thinks him dead. And since the Nigerian culture is rich in its roots with spiritual beliefs and the dread of black magic, this situation makes for an enlightening exchange between characters.
A novel in rotten English
…Saro-wiwa’s own words. He devised a consistent and logical non-standard variety of English and termed it rotten English, which is an amalgamation of Standard Nigerian English, Nigerian Pidgin English, broken English and idiomatic English. A brilliantly conceived concept that puts this story on a whole different plain of literature.
Most of the ‘rotten English’ was accessible to me and I required the use of the 3 page glossary for only about 20% of the novel. It would be likely , however, that other readers unfamiliar with Pidgin English and/or broken English might struggle with the book. But the effort is well worth it and once the reader reads a few pages, he/she will develop a feel for the language and its unusual grammatical structure. It’s a rewarding experience to ‘hear’ (at times verbatim) the Nigerian Pidgin dialect as well.
A silenced talent
Sadly enough, like many great talents, Ken Saro-wiwa was taken from this Earth before his time. In 1995, he was executed by the Nigerian military by hanging for his outspoken criticism of the military authority and the military dictator General Sani Abacha, who was a ruthless leader and one of the most corrupt men in the world.
I believe this novel serves as a reminder of the oppression and fear that militaries can instill into generations of a people. And the horrors they can inflict to their civilian population.
(For more on Saro-Wiwa by Samir, check: Genocide in Nigeria)