Poems of Protest from Prison: Nigeria, 1995

Shell Oil in Ogoniland Nigeria_Image courtesy of BBCX365 Johnny Selman

Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995)
. . .
The Call
Hear the call of the ravaged land
The raucous cry of famished earth
The dull dirge of the poisoned air
The piteous wail of sludged streams
Hear, oh, hear!
Stunted crops fast decay
Fishes die and float away
Butterflies lose wing and fall
Nature succumbs to th’ecological war.
. . .
Keep Out Of Prison
“Keep out of prison,” he wrote
“Don’t get arrested anymore.”
But while the land is ravaged
And our pure air poisoned
When streams choke with pollution
Silence would be treason
Punishable by a term in prison.
. . .
Ogoni Hymn
Creator of Ogoni
Land of glory and wealth
Grant us thy peace and lasting love
Plant justice over the land
Give us thy wisdom and the strength
To shame our enemies.
Creator of Ogoni
Land of glory and wealth
Grant everlasting blessings, Lord
To people of Gokana
Khana, Eleme, Tai and Babbe
Glorious Ogoniland.
. . .
Take these cuffs from my legs
And set me free
Pick the lies from your teeth
And let me be
Town-crier, proud gong
Calling the lame and deaf
To defend their blasted land.
. . .
Stone Deaf
of the questions
by the din
of the lone voice
to ears hearing
the sounds of their choice.
. . .
For Zina
I have raised the questions, daughter
Which you and your kids must ponder
I feel guilty I did not sooner
In my lifetime urge them stronger
And now, ere I answers provide
I may in cold blood lie buried
Have I your futures compromised?
. . .
Night Time
The beep of insects
The hoo-hoo of bullfrogs
And the croak of toads
Companion of a night
When nightmares burgle our sleep.
. . .
Morning Song
This morning is sheer poetry
as from my detention cell
my heart sings with the red
freshness of hibiscus flowers
the vivid colour of the ixoras
shooting out of the green abundance
of a heart which resists surrender
to a garden of rank weed and mush.
. . .
I Lie Alone At Night
I lie alone at night
And think all of one year’s gone
Since I held you in my arms
In the bed we know so well.
I lie alone at night
And see the callous bandits
Break into our hallowed bedroom
Cruelly knife our togetherness.
I lie alone at night
And think of you lying lonely
Dreaming of my return
To the home we love so well.
I lie alone at night
And think of the thick boots
Which stalk the halls of tyranny
And crush us underfoot.
I lie alone at night
And wonder why you wait
And endure the gripping pain
Which is my lot to bear.
I lie alone at night
And think of the stranger moon
The stars beyond my gaze
Your beauty like moons and stars.
I lie alone at night
And pray the day will come
To mend your broken heart
And steel my breaking soul.
I lie alone at night
And dream a great new dawn
Without boots and knives
Broken hearts, breaking souls
Empty dreams and lonely beds
Stranger moons and searing pain
When you and I and all of us
Can hold hands and sing our love
Into a night captured by peace.
. . .
There is a fire in me
Burns all night and day
Flares at injustice
Leaps at oppression
Glows warmly in beauty.
. . .
Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995) was a Nigerian writer and environmental activist, of Ogoni ethnicity. Ogoniland, situated in the Niger Delta, was exploited for crude oil extraction from the mid-1950s onward by the Dutch giant, Shell Oil. Ogoniland suffered extreme environmental degradation – from oil spills, flares, and waste dumping. Saro-Wiwa, from 1990 to 1995, with MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), led a non-violent campaign of resistance against Shell and the complicitness of Nigeria’s government, under the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. The writer/activist’s execution (along with eight others) provoked international outrage, resulting in Nigeria’s suspension for several years from the Commonwealth of Nations.
. . .
Nnimmo Bassey, co-ordinator of Oilwatch International and director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation – from his introduction to The Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa (published 2013):

Reading through the treasure trove of letters and poems compiled here evoked such intense memories of Ken’s resolute struggles against an oil behemoth and a deaf autocratic government. His crusade frames one of the most tumultuous periods in Nigeria’s history; his tragic story evokes anger and demands action to resolve the crises that first led the Ogoni people to demand that Shell clean up Ogoniland or clear out of the territory. It was Ken’s leadership, in great part, that forced Shell out of Ogoniland in 1993…..His pioneering work in building a virile environmental justice movement as well as that for the rights of minorities in Nigeria remains outstanding – and continues to inspire campaigners around the world.

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