NUI MAYNOOTH RECEIVES EXCLUSIVE
SARO-WIWA PRIVATE PRISON LETTERS
Humanitarian activist’s correspondence with Irish nun paints intimate portrait of life on death row
Archive received on 16th anniversary of execution
NUI Maynooth today received a unique gift with the donation of private correspondence from renowned Nigerian writer and social activist Ken Saro-Wiwa written while he awaited execution in Port Harcourt detention centre from 1993 – 1995. The letters were donated by Irish missionary nun Sister Majella McCarron who had supported Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people in their struggle to protect their homeland for many years. The donation was made on the 16th anniversary of his execution, which took place on 10th November 1995.
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Saro-Wiwa handwrote 30 letters to Sister Majella while he was on death row. The correspondence was smuggled out of the Port Harcourt detention centre in bread baskets between October 1993 and September 1995. The letters detail the harsh realities of life as a political prisoner and the hardships and deprivations he suffered. The letters also speak of the increasing political turmoil in Nigeria and of Saro-Wiwa’s hopes for a peaceful future in that country and in Northern Ireland. In addition to the letters the archive collection includes 27 poems and seven video cassettes.
Sister Majella, a native of Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh first met Ken Saro-Wiwa during the 1990s when she worked as a missionary in Nigeria for the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles. She taught in the University of Lagos and became interested in the struggle of the Ogoni people, whose homeland in the Niger Delta was being destroyed by the foreign petroleum companies.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was the author of poetry, short stories, novels, children’s books and various pieces of journalism. He produced work for radio and wrote a topical television series that satirized the get-rich-quick mentality of his countrymen and women. Much of his fiction addressed current Nigerian socio-political and economic issues. He was a member of the small ethnic group, the Ogoni, numbering over half a million who inhabit a small region in the South East of the Niger Delta. Over 100 oil wells, a petrochemical complex and two oil refineries were located in the area.
Saro-Wiwa was leading a non-violent campaign against the environmental destruction of his homeland and was seeking to secure basic rights for the Ogoni people. He was an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government.
Professor Philip Nolan, President of NUI Maynooth, said the collection cast a very human eye on what was one of the late 20th Century’s most troubling geopolitical issues.
“It is through first-hand account that academics and the public gain real perspective on contemporaneous matters. We are extremely grateful to Sr. Majella for this gift to the University and the Irish people. NUI Maynooth has developed particular expertise in the area of global conflict resolution and this collection will add weight to our worth through the Edward M Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention. It is particularly poignant to see Ken’s anguish at his homeland’s situation at a time when Ireland was embracing peace”, he said.
By 1993, it had become a security risk to be seen visiting his office. Sister Majella said, “Anyone protesting in a military dictatorship places themselves in a dangerous position,”
Ultimately, Saro-Wiwa’s peaceful activism led to his arrest and detention and eventually, a trial before a special tribunal which contravened several key international standards for a fair trial and provoked international outrage.
The strong bond between the two was strengthened on Saro-Wiwa’s arrest and detention as Sr. Majella became his lifeline to the outside world. He shared with her his despair at his incarceration and also the comfort he received from their correspondence. She was to receive his final letter one month after his execution by hanging. He also sent her a number of his poems which have not yet been published.
Saro-Wiwa is considered to be one of the great humanitarian figures of the late 20th century and his letters reflected his passion for peace and justice around the world. He and Sr. Majella both wished for peace in their respective homes. Saro-Wiwa’s interest in the situation in Northern Ireland continued while in detention. In one letter, dated the 16th September 1994, he wrote,
‘In the month since you left, I see the situation in N. Ireland has improved tremendously. The possibility of peace is so comforting, I hope it happens. 25 years is a long time to be fighting, surely. God grant that it works. Nigeria has progressively gone down the drains to its worst possible nadir. With all sensible newspapers banned, a lot of people in detention & laws which establish that the dictatorship cannot be challenged in court, we are in real trouble, to say the least.’
He also reflected on the struggle of the Ogoni people to secure basic rights. In a letter dated the 1st October 1994, he wrote,
‘Even what is happening now is, and please don’t think me sadistic, helpful. For one, they are able to see me battling from prison – from the very jaws of the lion…I have a sense that the Ogoni people are holding out bravely. They are not fighting – because I did not ever prepare them for physical combat – but they are holding out psychologically.’
One month before his death in 1995, Sr. Majella secured a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Saro-Wiwa which was handed to his son in Belfast in 1995. Sr. Majella continued to work for the rights of the Ogoni people after Saro-Wiwa’s death.
Sr. Majella McCarron said she had an immediate affinity with the plight of the Ogoni people. “I suppose my background in coming from Fermanagh and the conflicts that have been experienced there over the years, I was quick to understand the struggle a minority people can be subjected to. Ken and I used to talk at length about the problems concerning the Ogoni people. He appreciated my analysis and thoughts. I think he felt I was a benign, spiritual presence. I was a trusted witness”
Professor Anne Ryan, Academic Director of the Edward M Kennedy Institute at NUI Maynooth, said, “We look forward to having access to this unique correspondence and to bringing the lessons of the need for open dialogue around conflict to a wider audience. It is particularly appropriate that this research should happen in NUI Maynooth which has an overt commitment to equality and social justice.”
NUI Maynooth Senior Archivist Roisin Berry, said the donation was significant as it documents his transition from activist to political prisoner. “The letters in particular provide rich detail on the on-going struggle to protect the Niger Delta, growing political instability in Nigeria and the importance of his friendship with a nun from County Fermanagh during the final chapter of his life.”
Ends 10th November 2011
Further information from:
Deirdre Watters +353 86 803 5274
Cathal McCauley, University Librarian, Prof Philip Nolan, President NUI Maynooth, Sr Majella McCarron and Helen Fallon, Deputy Librarian