A freelance writer in Nigeria is a writer who writes for free.
Ken Saro-Wiwa said this to me many moons before his sordid hanging.
There is no escaping the fact that Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, famously known as Ken Saro-Wiwa, packed too many lifetimes into one life.
His hanging by the General Sani Abacha regime on November 10, 1995 was a universal cause célèbre.
It can be all too easy for many to give Ogoni activism the greater parameter in any discussion of Ken Saro-Wiwa, but make no mistake about it: it was literature that offered Ken Saro-Wiwa the needed pedestal to bestride the globe as an activist.
Ken Saro-Wiwa understood the power of the written word from very early in his educational attainments.
By the time he got admitted to the famous Government College, Umuahia, his embrace of the liberal arts was total.
At the University of Ibadan, he upped the ante with service as the President of the Dramatic Society, and he equally weighed in as a redoubtable performer with the University Travelling Theatre.
It was indeed a problematic world that Ken Saro-Wiwa grew up into, needing to break from Biafra during the civil war into the larger Nigerian nation.
The politics of the time is not my forte here. It suffices to stress that beyond the politics of the war and the aftermath, Ken Saro-Wiwa was poised on a literary upswing when he was among the over six hundred wannabes who entered for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), London playwriting competition in October 1971 tagged “Write A Play For Africa”.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s entry entitled “The Transistor Radio” won the “Joint Fourth Prize” alongside the fellow Nigerian Charles C. Umeh’s “Double Attack” and the Ghanaian Derlene Clems’ “Scholarship Woman”. The First Prize was won by the South African Richard Rive for his two-actor play “Make Like Slaves”. The three judges for the contest were Wole Soyinka, Martin Esslin and Lewis Nkosi.
Soyinka’s statement on “The Transistor Radio” reads thus: “It is really well shaped. We get a sense of literally the whole city being fake and phoney, and in the end you wonder if such a town exists. But in spite of that the characters are there, their vitality, their will to live. Their means are discreditable but the author achieves this difficult task of arousing condemnation and at the same time admiration for the individuals.”
According to Lewis Nkosi, “Transistor Radio really captured my heart. The quality of the dialogue really gave me the feeling of real people talking. I’m very partial to comedy when it is well done, and really one must prize comedy because these problems are so crucial that often there is a tendency to be very weighty, morally weighty, about them.”
It is indeed interesting that the celebrated Jimi Solanke played the lead role of Basi in the BBC recording of the play on July 23, 1972.
“The Transistor Radio” is a very funny comedy about a young unemployed Lagos man, Basi, who devises many tricks for not paying his rent to the landlady while generally surviving on the edge in the big city with bright lights.
It can be argued that the entire theatrical output of Ken Saro-Wiwa via the television series “Basi and Company” emanated from the 30-minute radio play, “The Transistor Radio.”
Back then Ken Saro-Wiwa spelt his name as Ken Tsaro-Wiwa.
Writing also as Ken Tsaro-Wiwa, he was first published in 1973 by the Lagos-based Longmans Publishers with two children’s books: Tambari and Tambari in Dukana.
Nothing much issued from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s pen after the initial promise of the early 1970s. He had to wait till 1985 to publish a collection of poems, Songs in a Time of War, through his newly-established publishing company, Saros, based in Port Harcourt.
Ken Saro-Wiwa raised not a little controversy upon the publishing in 1985 of Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English. The novel can be said to be Ken Saro-Wiwa’s magnum opus.
His use of language, which he called “rotten English” has been acclaimed by some critics. The title character, Sozaboy, is a naïve young recruit in the war who lacks any understanding of what he is in the war for and ends up broken.
The critic Pita Okute, writing in Vanguard newspaper, dismissed Sozaboy as having a “silly plot”.
This criticism drew the ire of Ken Saro-Wiwa who had to depict the freelance writer as Pita Dumbrok in his novel-in-progress being published in the Nigerian newspapers.
The novel was eventually published as Prisoners of Jebs with Pita Dumbrok mouthing “silly plot” at every turn.
Ken Saro-Wiwa first wrote about the novel-in-progress in his 1977 column in The Punch newspaper. The column eventually resurrected in Vanguard newspaper in 1985.
Ken Saro-Wiwa penned a sequel to the novel entitled Pita Dumbrok’s Prison.
Talk of being inspired to write two books by the “silly plot” charge of a freelance writer, that is, a writer who writes for free!