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The Killing Swamp of the Niger Delta

By DENJA ABDULLAHI

The month of November is a very bad month for the people of the Niger Delta States of Nigeria. It was the month in which in 1995 that vibrant writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro Wiwa was murdered by the dictators of the Nigerian State. Since after that primitive wasting of a creative voice, the Nigerian literary community has decided to honour the month of November as some kind of memorial in honour of the departed writer.

In continuation with that tradition, the Committee of Relevant Arts CORA as part of its 2010 Lagos Book and Arts Fair decided to stage Ojo Onukaba’s play, The Killing Swamp, a dramatic recreation of the struggle, which Saro Wiwa represented. Onukaba’s, The Killing Swamp was among the three short listed plays for the 2010 LNG $ 50,000 Literature Prize. The play will continue to stage every Sunday at the Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos till the end of November.

Ken Saro Wiwa saga is an archetypal story that has been re_enacted in various forms ever since it ended. Poets have written volumes about it, including my very self in a poem I titled Africa Kills Her Son ,after a prophetic short story of the same title byKen Saro Wiwa himself. A young friend of mine, Ford Manuel,  also did a very lengthy poetic piece, long enough to make a poetic volume, which he titled Songs of Saro Wiwa.

Playwrights have equally done their bits on it. Helon Habila has ashort dramatic piece published in Camouflage:The Best of Contemporary Nigerian Writings edited by Nduka Otiono and Diego Okenyodo. Dr Uwemedimo Atakpo of the University of Uyo also has a play called The Trials of Ken Saro Wiwa and there may be many more by other writers which we may not be aware of presently. The story of Ken Saro Wiwa and his environmental rights activism has encouraged a lot of writings about the Niger Delta in prose, poetry and drama. We can even conclude that the NLNG literature Prize for the year 2010 for which the play we are reviewing, The Killing Swamp, has been shortlisted came by default as one of the legacies of the Ken Saro Wiwa saga.

Sadly, the Saro Wiwa’s struggle which was intellectual in orientation was brutally suppressed by the Nigerian State and the consequence was the militarization of the struggle and the enthronement of miscreants at the forefront of it. The Nigerian nation, which refused to dialogue with Saro Wiwa, was later to treat these band of ill_educated militants like royalty, granting them amnesty and other perks. That reminds us all of the famous quote that those who make peace change impossible make violent change inevitable.

Another lesson from the Ken Saro Wiwa story is the ethnicisation of popular heroism. After Isaac Adaka Boro,Ken Saro Wiwa should by now have taken his rightful place in the pantheon of the heroes of the Niger Delta but I suspect this is not the case. I wonder is it because Ken was not an Ijaw when even his struggle leading towards the declaration of Ogoni Bill of Rights may have inspired the famous Ijaws’ Kiama Declaration. We should remember that Ken started his struggle as an ethnic minority rights activists before veering into  environmental rights activism.

Now to the play. The Killing Swamp fulfills all the requirements of a classical tragic play as it has the unity of time, space and action. It is simply a re_enactment of the exchange between Ken Saro Wiwa and his executioners just as he is about to be hanged. The unilineal trajectory of the play’s action does not detract in any way from its artistic profundity. The play is another creative attempt at unraveling the motive behind Ken’s struggle and what may be playing out in his mind as he pays the ultimate price. Expectedly, the reader is not disappointed at the playwright’s portrayal of the final moments of  Kenule as some facts that were salvaged from that gory and unfortunate end pointed out that he paid the price with uncommon dignity.

Notwithstanding the play’s fidelity to the dignified stance of Saro Wiwa before his persecutors, captors and eventual murderers ,the playwright injected some humour and clearly fictive enactments to show the bohemian humanity of Saro Wiwa  even in the face of death(the encounter with Asabe, a female friend and their feigning lovemaking in the shadow of the gallows and other such actions in the play espouse this). In the final analysis, the play leaves us with all what we had long suspected on the realistic plane, that the Federal government of Nigeria did not kill the Ogoni 9 because they love the Ogoni 4,they only used the internal dissension within the Ogoni to murder their arrowhead in the struggle whose influence has to be curtailed in order to guarantee the continue plunder of their environment in the guise of oil exploration.

The play with its minimal character of four has the right suspense and conflict introduced at the very beginning which sustained the actions of the play till the very end. The dialogue is witty, assured and shorn of the clutter that may slow down the pace of such a play tackling verifiable history. The play is a  director’s delight and the near absurdist style used with some few ‘plays’ within the play will be very malleable in the hands of a good director. The Killing Swamp is highly entertaining piece with plenty of gallows humour which in reality we may not put beyond the real Ken saro Wiwa going by his writings and personality.

The man wrote somewhere in one of his  books that the tiger said “to cry is to show my teeth and to laugh too is to show my teeth so I prefer to laugh rather than cry”. The strength of The Killing Swamp , a finalist in the 2010 NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize, is its contemporary subject, highly dramatic language and a very humanizing story.

How ironic that those who spearheaded the official judicial murder of Ken Saro Wiwa are themselves today nowhere to be found.Their own stories will never be dignified with any kind of telling like that of Saro Wiwa. If at all it is told it will be in the form of a satirical lampooning of their buffoonery in the tradition of Wole Soyinka’s Play of Giants and King Baabu or in a worst form as that of the Nigerian Nollywood home video movie The Stubborn Grasshopper. All hangmen indeed will die one day!


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