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Sabbath Day – Nigeria

May 15, 2015

The first half of my sabbath day was not sabbath at all, but time in my office to meet with a member of the congregation I serve, and then a hospital visit with another member. It was well spent time, but meant that hiking and climbing will have to take place on another day.

My discipline of  reading national literature took me this past week to Nigeria. With Boko Haram dominating the news out of Nigeria today, it was refreshing to visit the hopes and struggle of another time.

Chinua Achebe is without question the premier African author of the twentieth century, and the foremost Nigerian writer. His first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958) is the most widely read work in African literature; together with No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), it comprises The Africa Trilogy, published in a one volume Everyman’s Library edition.


I had read Things Fall Apart before. Published 1959, on the eve of Nigerian independence in 1960, it depicts the violent encounter between traditional society and early Christian missionaries in the 1890s. In the main character, Okonkwo, it also portrays the coming conflicts between the individual and the community. No Longer at Ease picks up the story two generations later in the life of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi, the first from his community to study abroad in England and return to take up a life in civil administration. Early in the novel Obi Okonkwo holds a “bookish” debate about what makes a story tragic, and Achebe then unfolds a truly tragic story of a young man trying to live into a future that is not yet.

I did not have time this week to read the third novel in the trilogy, but it is on my short list for summer reading.

In 1986, Wole Soyinka was the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Poet, novelist, political activist, Soyinka helped shape modern Nigeria. The Rt. Rev Mathew Kukah (Bishop of Sokoto Diocese) has described Soyinka’s life as “80 years of genius and prophetic outrage.” The bishop goes on to say that the first time he read Soyinka he did not understand – and thought he should go back to “easier” authors like Achebe. I love drama, so I picked up his early collected plays (2 volumes) at my local library. I only found time to read one play, and a few pages of another, but they haunted the rest of my week, entering my thoughts at surprising times. (I find this is what good drama does). Dozens of Soyinka’s poems can be easily found online although I, like the the good bishop, found them difficult on first reading.


Finally, I had to read something by Ken Waro-Siwa, the author and environmental activist who dedicated his life to a nonviolent campaign challenging the utter destruction of his people and the devastation of the land by the Dutch Royal Shell corporation. In 1995 he was arrested on trumped up charges and hung. From his last words:

We all stand before history. I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization, I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated. I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Neither imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory.

Ken tried to live into a future that is not yet, but which is coming. It IS coming.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of nine Ogoni community activists executed after a grossly unfair trial in 1995.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of nine Ogoni community activists executed after a grossly unfair trial in 1995.

May you use your sabbath well.

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