“Africa kills her Sun” by Ken Saro-wiwa
You’ll be surprised, no doubt, to receive this letter. But I couldn’t leave your beautiful world without saying goodbye to you who are condemned to live in it. I know that some might consider my gesture somewhat pathetic, as my colleagues, Sazan and Jimba, do, our finest moments having been achieved two or three weeks ago. However, for me, this letter is a celebration, a final act of love, a quality which, in spite of my career, in spite of tomorrow morning, I do not possess in abundance, and cherish. For, I’ve always treasured the many moments of pleasure we spent together in our youth when the world was new and the fishes flew in golden ponds. In the love we then shared have I found happiness, a true resting place, a shelter from the many storms that have buffeted my brief life. Whenever I’ve been most alone, whenever I’ve been torn by conflict and pain, I’ve turned to that love for the resolution which has sustained and seen me through. This may surprise you, considering that this love was never consummated and that you may possibly have forgotten me, not having seen me these ten years gone. I still remember you, have always remembered you, and it’s logical that on the night before tomorrow, I should write you to ask a small favor of you. But more importantly, the knowledge that I have unburdened myself to you will make tomorrow morning’s events as pleasant and desirable to me as to the thousands of spectators who will witness it.
I know this will get to you because the prison guard’s been heavily bribed to deliver it. He should rightly be with us before the firing squad tomorrow. But he’s condemned, like most others, to live, to play out his assigned role in your hell of a world. I see him burning out his dull, uncomprehending life, doing his menial job for a pittance and a bribe for the next so many years. I pity his ignorance and cannot envy his complacency. Tomorrow morning, with this letter and our bribe in his pocket, he’ll call us out, Sazan, Jimba and I. As usual, he’ll have all our names mixed up: he always calls Sazan ‘Sajim’ and Jimba ‘Samba’. But that won’t matter. We’ll obey him, and as we walk to our death, we’ll laugh at his gaucherie, his plain stupidity. As we laugh at the other thief, the High Court Judge.
You must’ve seen that in the papers too. We saw it thanks to our bribe-taking friend, the prison guard, who sent us a copy of the newspaper in which it was reported. Were it not for the unfeeling nation, among a people inured to evil and taking sadistic pleasure in the loss of life, some questions might have been asked. No doubt, many will ask the questions, but they will do it in the safety and comfort of their homes, over the interminable bottles of beer, uncomprehendingly watching their boring, cheap, television programmes, the rejects of Europe and America, imported to fill their vacuity. They will salve their conscience with more bottles of beer, wash the answers down their gullets and pass questions, conscience and answers out to waste into their open sewers choking with concentrated filth and murk. And they will forget.
I bet, though, the High Court Judge himself will never forget. He must remember it the rest of his life. Because I watched him closely that first morning. And I can’t describe the shock and disbelief which I saw registered in his face. His spectacles fell to his table and it was with difficulty he regained his composure. It must have been the first time in all his experience that he found persons arraigned on a charge for which the punishment upon conviction is death, entering a plea of guilty and demanding that they be sentenced and shot without further delay.
Sazan, Jimba and I had rehearsed it carefully. During the months we’d been remanded in prison custody while the prosecutors prepared their case, we’d agreed we weren’t going to allow a long trial, or any possibility that they might impose differing sentences upon us: freeing one, sentencing another to life imprisonment and the third to death by firing squad.
Nor did we want the lawyers in their funny black funeral robes an opportunity to clown around, making arguments for pleasure, engaging in worthless casuistry. No. We voted for death. After all, we were armed robbers, bandits. We knew it. We didn’t want to give the law a chance to prove itself the proverbial ass. We were being honest to ourselves, to our vocation, to our country and to mankind.
‘Sentence us to death immediately and send us before the firing squad without further delay,’ we yelled in unison. The judge, after he had recovered from his initial shock, asked us to be taken away that day, ‘for disturbing my court’. I suppose he wanted to see if we’d sleep things over and change our plea. We didn’t. When they brought us back the next day, we said the same thing in louder voice. We said we had robbed and killed. We were guilty. Cool. The judge was bound hand and foot and did what he had to. We had forced him to be honest with his vocation, to the laws of the country and to the course of justice. It was no mean achievement. The court hall was stunned; our guards were utterly amazed as we walked out the court, smiling. ‘Hardened criminals.’ ‘Bandits,’ I heard them say as we trooped out of the court. One spectator actually spat at us as we walked into the waiting Black Maria!
And now that I’ve confessed to banditry, you’ll ask why I did it. I’ll answer that question by retelling the story of the young, beautiful prostitute I met in St Pauli in Hamburg when our ship berthed there years back. I’ve told my friends the story several times. I did ask her, after the event, why she was in that place. She replied that some girls chose to be secretaries in offices, others to be nurses. She had chosen prostitution as a career. Cool. I was struck by her candour. And she set me thinking. Was I in the Merchant Navy by choice or it was because it was the first job that presented itself to me when I left school? When we returned home, I skipped ship, thanks to the prostitute of St Pauli, and took a situation as a clerk in the Ministry of Defence.
It was there that I came face-to-face with the open looting of the national treasury, the manner of which I cannot describe without arousing in myself the deepest, basest emotions. Everyone was busy with it and there was no one to complain to. Everyone to whom I complained said to me: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ I was not about to join anyone; I wanted to beat them and took it upon myself to wage a war against them. In no time they had gotten rid of me. Dismissed me. I had no option but to join them then. I had to make a choice. I became an armed robber, a bandit. It was my choice, my answer. And I don’t regret it.
Did I know it was dangerous? Some girls are secretaries, others choose to be prostitutes. Some men choose to be soldiers and policemen, others doctors and lawyers; I chose to be a robber. Every occupation has its hazards. A taxi driver may meet his death on the road; a businessman may die in an air crash; a robber dies before a firing squad. It’s no big deal. If you ask me, the death I’ve chosen is possibly more dramatic, more qualitative, more eloquent than dying in bed of a ruptured liver from overindulgence in alcohol. Yes? But robbery is antisocial, you say? A proven determination to break the law. I don’t want to provide an alibi. But you just think of the many men and women who are busy breaking or bending the law in all coasts and climes. Look for a copy of The Guardian of 19 September. That is the edition in which our plea to the judge was reported. You’ll find there the story of the Government official who stole over seven million naira. Seven million. Cool. He was antisocial, right? How many of his type do you know? And how many more go undetected? I say, if my avocation was antisocial, I’m in good company. And that company consists of Presidents of countries, transnational organizations, public servants high and low, men and women. The only difference is that while I am prepared to pay the price for it all, the others are not. See?
I am not asking for your understanding or sympathy. I need neither, not now nor hereafter. I’m saying it as it is. Right? Cool. I expect you’ll say that armed robbery should be a special preserve for the scum of society. That no man of my education has any business being a bandit. To that I’ll answer that
it’s about time well-endowed and well-trained people took to it. They will bring to the profession a romantic quality, a proficiency which will ultimately conduce to the benefit of society. No, I’m not mad. Truly. Time was when the running of ruining of African nations was in the hands of half-literate politicians. Today, well-endowed and better-trained people have taken over the task. And look how well they are doing it. So that even upon that score, my conscience sleeps easy. Understand?
Talking about sleep, you should see Sazan and Jimba on the cold, hard prison floor, snoring away as if life itself depends on a good snore. It’s impossible, seeing them this way, to believe that they’ll be facing the firing squad tomorrow. They’re men of courage. Worthy lieutenants. It’s a pity their abilities will be lost to society forever, come tomorrow morning. Sazan would have made a good Army General any day, possibly a President of our country in the mould of Idi Amin or Bokassa. The Europeans and Americans would have found in him a useful ally in the progressive degradation of Africa. Jimba’d have made an excellent Inspector-General of Police, so versed is he in the ways of the Police! You know, of course, that Sazan is a dismissed Sergent of our nation’s proud army. And Jimba was once a Corporal in the Police Force. When we met, we had similar reasons for pooling our talents. And a great team we did make. Now here we all are in the death cell of a maximum security prison and they snore away the last hours of their lives on the cold, smelly floor. It’s exhilarating to find them so disdainful of life. Their style is the stuff of which history is made. In another time and in another country, they’d be Sir Francis Drake, Courtes or Sir Walter Raleigh. They’d have made empires and earned national honors. But here, our life is one big disaster, an endless tragedy. Heroism is not in our star. We are millipedes crawling on the floor of a dank, wet forest. So Sazan and Jimba will die unsung. See?
One thing, though. We swore never to kill. And we never did. Indeed, we didn’t take part in the particular ‘operation’ for which we are held, Sazan, Jimba and I. The operation would’ve gone quite well if the Superintendent of Police had fulfilled his part of the bargain. Because he was in it with us. The Police are involved in every single robbery that happens. They know the entire gang, the gangs. We’d not succeed if we didn’t collaborate with them. Sazan, Jimba and I were the bosses. We didn’t go out on ‘operations’. The boys normally did. And they were out on that occasion. The Superintendent of Police was supposed to keep away the Police escorts from the vehicle carrying the worker’s salaries that day. For some reason, he failed to do so. And the policeman shot at our boys. The boys responded and shot and killed him and the Security Company guards. The boys got the money all right. But the killing was contrary to our agreement with the Police. We had to pay. The Police won’t stand for any of their men being killed. They took all the money from us and then they went after the boys. We said no. The boys had acted on orders. We volunteered to take their place. The Police took us in and made a lot of public noises about it. The boys, I know, will make their decisions later. I don’t know what will happen to the Superintendent of Police. But he’ll have to look to himself.
So, if that is any comfort to you, you may rest in the knowledge that I spilt no blood. No, I wouldn’t. Nor have I kept the loot. Somehow, whatever we took from people — the rich ones — always was shared by the gang, who were almost always on the bread line. Sazan, Jimba and I are not wealthy. Many will therefore accuse us of recklessness, or of being careless with our lives. And well they might. I think I speak for my sleeping comrades when I say we went into our career because we didn’t see any basic difference between what we were doing and what most others are doing throughout the land today. In every facet of our lives — in politics, in commerce and in the professions — robbery is the base line. And it’s been so from time. In the early days, our forebears sold their kinsmen into slavery for minor items such as beads, mirrors, alcohol and tobacco. These days, the tune is the same, only articles have changed into cars, transistor radios and bank accounts. Nothing else has changed, and nothing will change in the foreseeable future. But that’s the problem of those who will live beyond tomorrow, Zole.
The cock crows now and I know dawn is about to break. I’m not speaking figuratively. In the cell here, the darkness is still all-pervasive, except for the flickering light of the candle by which I write.
Sazan and Jimba remain fast asleep. So is the prison guard. He sleeps all night and is no trouble to us. We could, if we wanted, escape from here, so lax are the guards. But we consider that unnecessary, as what is going to happen later this morning is welcome relief from burdens too heavy to bear. It’s the guard and you the living who are in prison, the ultimate prison from which you cannot escape because you do not know that you are incarcerated. Your happiness is the happiness of ignorance and your ignorance is it that keeps you in the prison, which is your life. As this night dissolves into day, Sazan,
Jimba and I shall be free. Sazan and Jimba will have left nothing behind. I shall leave at least this letter, which, please, keep for posterity.
Zole, do I rant? Do I pour out myself to you in bitter tones? Do not lay it to the fact that I’m about to be shot by the firing squad. On second thoughts, you could, you know. After all, seeing death so clearly before me might possibly have made me more perspicacious? And yet I’ve always seen these things clearly in my mind’s eye. I never did speak about them, never discussed them. I prefer to let them weigh me down, see?
So, then, in a few hours we shall be called out. We shall clamber with others into the miserable lorry which they still call the Black Maria. Notice how everything miserable is associated with us. Black sheep. Black Maria. Black Death. Black Leg. The Black Hole of Calcutta. The Black Maria will take us to the beach or to the stadium. I bet it will be the Stadium. I prefer the Beach. So at least to see the ocean once more. For I’ve still this fond regard for the sea which dates from my time in the Merchant Navy. I love its wide expanse, its anonymity, its strength, its unfathomable depth. And maybe after shooting us, they might decide to throw our bodies into the ocean. We’d then be eaten up by sharks which would be in turn caught by Japanese and Russian fishermen, be refrigerated, packed into cartons and sold to Indian merchants and then for a handsome profit to our people. That way, I’d have helped keep people alive a bit longer. But they won’t do us that favor. I’m sure they will take us to the Stadium. To provide a true spectacle for the fun-loving unemployed. To keep them out of trouble. To keep them from thinking. To keep them laughing. And dancing.
We’ll be there in the dirty clothes which we now wear. We’ve not had any of our things washed this past month. They will tie us to the stakes, as though that were necessary. For even if we were minded to escape, where’d we run to? I expect they’ll also want to blindfold us. Sazan and Jimba have said they’ll not allow themselves to be blindfolded. I agree with them. I should want to see my executors, stare the nozzles of their guns bravely in the face, see the open sky, the sun, daylight. See and hear my countrymen as they cheer us to our death. To liberation and freedom.
The Stadium will fill to capacity. And many will not find a place. They will climb trees and hang about the balconies of surrounding houses to get a clear view of us. To enjoy the free show. Cool.
And then the priest will come to us, either to pray or to ask if we have any last wishes. Sazan says he will ask for a cigarette. I’m sure they’ll give it to him. I can see him puffing hard at it before the bullet cut him down. He says he’s going to enjoy that cigarette more than anything he’s had in life. Jimba
says he’ll maintain a sullen silence as a mark of his contempt. I’m going to yell at the priest. I will say, ‘Go to hell, you hypocrite, fornicator and adulterer.’ I will yell at the top of my voice in the hope that the spectators will hear me. How I wish there is a microphone that will reverberate through the Stadium, nay, through the country as a whole! Then the laugh would be on the priest and those who sent him!
The priest will pray for our souls. But it’s not us he should be praying for. He should pray for the living, for those whose lives are a daily torment. Between his prayers and when the shots ring out, there will be dead silence. The silence of the graveyard. The transition between life and death. And it shall be seen that the distinction between them both is narrow as the neck of a calabash. The divide between us breathing like everyone else in the Stadium and us as meat for worms is, oh, so slim, it makes life a walking death! But I should be glad to be rid of the world, of a meaningless existence that grows more dreary by the day. I should miss Sazan and Jimba, though. It’ll be a shame to see these elegant gentlemen cut down and destroyed. And I’ll miss you, too, my dear girl. But that will be of no consequence to the spectators.
They will troop out of the Stadium, clamber down trees and the balconies of the houses, as though they’d just returned from another football match. They will match to their ratholes on empty stomachs, with tales enough to fill a Saturday evening. Miserable wretches!
The men who shall have eased us out of life will then untie our bodies and dump them into a lorry and thence to some open general grave. That must be a most distasteful task. I’d not do it for a million dollars. Yet some miserable fellows will do it for a miserable salary at the end of the month. A salary which they will augment with a bribe, if they are to keep body and soul together. I say, I do feel sorry for them. See?
The newspapers will faithfully record the fact of our shooting. If they have space, they’ll probably carry a photograph of us to garnish your breakfast.
I remember once long ago reading in a newspaper of a man whose one request to the priest was that he be buried along with his walking stick — his faithful companion over the years. He was pictured slumping in death, devotedly clutching his beloved walking stick. True friendship, that. Well, Zole, if ever you see such a photograph of me, make a cutting. Give it to a sculptor and ask him to make a stone sculpture of me as I appear in the photograph. He must make as faithful a representation of me as possible. I must be hard of feature and relentless in aspect. I have a small sum of money in the bank and have already instructed the bank to pay it to you for the purpose of the sculpture I have spoken about…
Time is running out, Zole. Sazan and Jimba are awake now. And they’re surprised I haven’t slept all night. Sazan says I ought at least to have done myself a favor of sound sleep on my last night on earth. I ask him if I’m not going to sleep soundly, eternally, in a few hours? This, I argue, should be our most wakeful night. Sazan doesn’t appreciate that. Nor does Jimba. They stand up, yawn, stretch and rub their eyes. Then they sit down crowding round me. They ask me to read out to them what I’ve written. I can’t do that, I tell them. It’s a love letter! And at the point of death! Sazan says I’m gone crazy. Jimba says he’s sure I’m afraid of death and looks hard and long at me to justify his suspicion. I say I’m neither crazy nor afraid of death. I’m just telling my childhood girlfriend how I feel this special night. And sending her on an important errand. Jimba says I never told them I had a girlfriend. I say that she was not important before this moment.
I haven’t even seen her in ten years, I repeat. The really compelling need to write her is that on this very special night I have felt the need to be close to a living being, someone who can relate to others why we did what we did in and out of court.
Sazan says he agrees completely with me. He says that he too would like to write his thoughts down. Do I have some paper to lend him? I say no. Besides, time is up. Day has dawned and I haven’t even finished my letter. Do they mind leaving me to myself for a few minutes? I’d very much like to end
the letter, envelope it and pass it on to the prison guard before he rouses himself fully from sleep and remembers to assume his official, harsh role.
They’re nice chaps, Jimba and Sazan. Sazan says to tell my girl not to bear any children because it’s pointless bringing new life into the harsh life of her world. Jimba says to ask my girl to shed him a tear if she can so honor a complete stranger. They both chuckle and withdraw to a corner of the cell and I’m left alone to end my letter.
Now, I was telling you about my statue. My corpse will not be available to you. You will make a grave for me nonetheless. And place the statue on the gravestone. And now I come to what I consider the most important part of this letter. My epitaph.
I have thought about it, you know. Really. What do you say about a robber shot in a stadium before a cheering crowd? That he was a good man who strayed? That he deserved his end? That he was a scallywag? A ragamuffin? A murderer whose punishment was not heavy enough? ‘Here lies X, who was shot in public by firing squad for robbing a van and shooting the guards in broad daylight. He serves as an example to all thieves and would-be thieves!’
Who’d care for such an epitaph? They’d probably think it was a joke. No. That wouldn’t carry. I’ll settle for something different. Something plain and commonsensical. Or something truly cryptic and worthy of a man shot by choice in public by firing squad.
Not that I care. To die the way I’m going to die in the next hour or two is really nothing to worry about. I’m in excellent company. I should find myself recorded in the annals of our history. A history of violence, of murder, of disregard for life. Pleasure in inflicting pain — sadism. Is that the word for it? It’s a world I should be pleased to leave. But not without an epitaph.
I recall, many years ago as a young child, reading in a newspaper of an African leader who stood on the grave of a dead lieutenant and through his tears said: ‘Africa kills her sons.’ I don’t know what he meant by that, and though I’ve thought about it long enough, I’ve not been able to unravel the full mystery of those words. Now, today, this moment, they come flooding back to me. And I want to borrow from him. I’d like you to put this on my gravestone as an epitaph: ‘Africa Kills Her Sun.’ A good epitaph, eh? Cryptic. Definite. A stroke of genius, I should say. I’m sure you’ll agree with me.
‘Africa Kills Her Sun!’ That’s why she’d been described as the Dark Continent? Yes?
So, now, dear girl, I’m done. My heart is light as the daylight which seeps stealthily into our dark cell. I hear the prison guard jangle his keys, put them into the keyhole. Soon he’ll turn it and call us out. Our time is up. My time expires and I must send you all my love. Goodbye.