Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s daughter remembers her father

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Noo Saro-Wiwa

Noo Saro-Wiwa

To most of us, Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian activist and a martyr, a brave and inspiring campaigner who led his Ogoni people’s struggle against the decades-long defilement of their land by Big Oil, and ended up paying for it with his life.

To Noo Saro-Wiwa, he was Dad. Rather a distant dad, though; for most of her childhood, she saw him only three or four times a year, on his regular visits to England (where she lived with her mother, brothers and twin sister), and during the long summer holidays at the family home in Port Harcourt, where her father lived.

Also, he wasn’t always the perfect dad. Certainly not that day in 1990, when the 14 year-old Noo received a phone call from her uncle out of the blue. He revealed that when Noo was to visit to Nigeria that summer, she and her siblings would have two new friends to play with: their half-sisters.

“He got his brother to tell us about them,” she says. “About this whole ‘other family’ he had. They were eight and six by the time we learned they even existed. We were shocked, angry. We felt betrayed. Less valued. Now I see it differently. But at the time …”

Poised and perceptive, Noo, 35, has written a book – as funny and affectionate as it is honest and, frankly, alarming – about her first prolonged visit to her homeland since that summer 20 years ago. At that point, she says, she and her siblings had rebelled: “For years, we’d been dragged back there for two months every summer. We just said, enough is enough.” And after Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the country’s military dictatorship in November 1995, of course, there was even less of an incentive to return. Nigeria, says Noo, became a repository of all her pain, fears, disappointments and resentments, a place “where nightmares come true”. It took time to go back – as it has taken time for her to reappraise her father.

Before he became a world-renowned activist, Ken was “a true polymath”, she says. “He had an almost manic energy. He saw potential everywhere. He was a writer, he had interests in retail, property, the media …” Noo recalls watching episodes of Basi Co, a satirical TV show her father produced that was for a time the most-watched soap in Africa.

She had moved with her mother and siblings to Britain in 1977, aged barely one. A successful, self-made and by then relatively well-off man, Ken “wanted us to have the best possible start in life. I don’t think there was ever any question of us not going back to Nigeria eventually, but my father wanted his children to do well.”

The family settled in Ewell in Surrey, and the children were sent to boarding schools; Noo went to Roedean. “Apart from that, though, I don’t recall our life being anything special,” she says. “Materially, it felt quite deprived. We really weren’t as well off as all that. We didn’t have separate bedrooms; I wore my brothers’ hand-me-downs.”

Ken shuttled across three or four times a year, and the family spent every summer together in Port Harcourt. “As a young child, you of course have little sense of him,” says Noo. “He was just this great, energetic, moustachioed presence, with fantastic bedside stories and always lots of presents and chocolates. And permanently with his pipe. When I was very young, I used to think every black man I saw with a moustache was him.”

Gradually, though, her parents’ marriage began to show signs of strain, noticeable – if not understandable – even to a child. Noo’s mother, never particularly pleased at her exile to England, where she spent 17 years working at a Job Centre, became increasingly unhappy, sometimes tearful; rows erupted, during Ken’s visits, over clothes bought “for cousins”; her father grew more and more distant.

The summer before Noo, her brothers and sister were belatedly introduced to their father’s “other family”, he made one last effort to woo them with the wonders of Nigeria, taking them on a road trip through the central highlands and further into the interior in the family Peugeot. Noo mainly remembers being subjected to endless recordings of Richard Clayderman’s neo-classical renderings of 70s pop hits on the car stereo.

What she didn’t fully grasp at the time was that her father was by then devoting most of his time and energies to campaigning. Ken was one of the first members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), a non-violent group militating for greater autonomy, a fair share of oil revenues, and repair of the environmental destruction wrought by the oil majors, notably – and notoriously – Shell.

“He was starting to talk about it,” Noo says. “He’d set up the group, published the Ogoni bill of rights. He took us there. He showed us the gas flares burning in the village, the oil spills. He was very passionate about it, I remember that. But we never had any inkling of what it would eventually lead to.”

Ken was arrested for the first time by Nigeria’s military regime in 1992 and spent several months in prison without trial. The following year, after about 300,000 people – around half the Ogoni population – took part in peaceful marches and demonstrations across the region, the military government of General Sani Abacha sent in the troops and Ogoniland was occupied. Ken was promptly arrested once more, but released after a month.

In May 1994, four conservative Ogoni elders were murdered. Ken was immediately arrested and charged with incitement. After more than a year in jail, he and eight other senior Mosop leaders appeared before a specially convened military tribunal. Most of the Ogoni Nine’s defence lawyers resigned at what they protested was the outrageous rigging of the trial; a number of prosecution witnesses later admitted they had been bribed to provide incriminating testimony.

If a guilty verdict came as no surprise, the sentence – death by hanging – most certainly did. Few domestic or foreign observers ever expected it to be carried out. But on 10 November, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight co-defendants were duly executed. The resulting wave of international shock and outrage, led by Nelson Mandela, who called the killings “a heinous act”, saw Nigeria suspended from the Commonwealth for three years.

Back in Surrey, Noo says she and her brothers and sister were “shielded from a lot of what went on in the time leading up to the execution. My mother shielded us. We knew he was being locked up, but you know … Nigeria is the kind of place where people do spend time in prison.”

From solitary confinement, Ken wrote to ask how her end-of-term exams had gone, and which universities she was thinking of applying to.

It was 18 months since she had last seen him, when her mother called with the news. It was, says Noo, “a complete surprise. Just so shocking. Nobody had expected that. Nobody thought the regime would actually carry through. And what was almost as shocking, to me as a 19-year-old, was how huge the news was. It was the front page of every newspaper, the top item on the TV news. I had no idea he was such a big figure. That he meant so much.”

In the aftermath she buried herself in her work: a geography degree at King’s College London, early travel writing experience on The Rough Guide to West Africa, a year at Columbia’s journalism school in New York, a stint at ABC News as a researcher, more African travel with Lonely Planet. She returned to Nigeria only twice in the decade after her father’s death: for his official burial in 2000, then for his family burial five years later. That is movingly described in her book. In her father’s home village of Bane, next to her grandfather’s house, Noo and her relatives painstakingly reassembled Ken’s exhumed skeleton, the remains identified and eventually released after lengthy discussions with Nigeria’s new and democratically elected government. With the help of an uncle who was a medical doctor, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s carefully arranged bones were, finally, laid to rest.

“It’s actually surprisingly easy to change one’s perspective,” Noo says now. “I could either have been all western about it and freaked out at the idea of touching his bones, or think: this is still my father. I shouldn’t run away from him or be scared. He needs to be properly buried. So that’s what I did.”

The decision to go back for a lengthy stay, to lay her many and various Nigerian ghosts, and above all to write about it, was down at least in part to Noo’s agent. “Initially I was reluctant; I just wanted to do a straight travel book,” she says. “My agent said I really had to deal with the family thing. She was right, of course. The truth is always more interesting, and you have to embrace it all. You can’t leave stuff out.”

Spending time in Nigeria left her deeply, indelibly impressed by her father’s achievements, she says. “It’s such an incredibly tough country, just to live in. You see how people struggle. The skills you need merely to survive there … It’s just so much more difficult than in the UK. So to truly see what my father achieved, from such a disadvantaged background economically and ethnically, and the challenges he took on over and above that – facing down a massive oil multinational, a military dictatorship. I knew he was brave, but only now do I really understand just how monumental it was, what he did.”

She finds herself ever more drawn, too, to her father’s work. The Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation, with the involvement of her brother and uncle, carries on Ken’s mission. It’s a more complex one now that the oil multinationals, in Noo’s words, “at least feel they have to make an effort” (in 2009, Shell agreed an $15.5m out-of-court settlement with the families of the Ogoni Nine – although without admitting any liability in their deaths).

“I would like to become more involved, now, yes,” says Noo. “My father wanted to improve the lives of the Ogoni people. I don’t have to get involved in the oil stuff to do that; there’s education, childcare, other issues. And I certainly want to write about Ogoniland. But I don’t want to do it just as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s daughter. I want to establish myself as a writer first. Then when I write about what he fought for, it may mean more.”

What, though, about Ken Saro-Wiwa as a father – that whole “other family”? Have her feelings changed since she learned, 20 years ago, that she had two sisters she never knew existed? “Human beings are flawed,” Noo says. “When you’re young, you don’t fully understand that your parents are the product of their upbringing. Polygamy complicates things …

“Look, my grandfather, my father’s father, had six wives. I’ve no idea how many children he had. So my father was already a massive improvement; a step on the road to normality. I’m grateful to him.”

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa is published by Granta, £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK pp, go to or call 0330 333 6846

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