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 seem
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 important, 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
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.
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
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.
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
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 if 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!
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 condour. 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.
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.
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 honours. 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?
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 of 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
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.
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?
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 un-employed. 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!
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.
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?
newspapers will faithfully record the fact of our shooting. If they have
space, they’ll probably carry a photograph of us to garnish your
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
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.
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.
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.
nice chaps, are 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.
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.
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!’
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.
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
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.
Indeed as he said " I am a man of ideas in and out of prison -- my ideas will live." Celebrating Ken Saro Wiwa; An African social justice icon who was felled by the vicious oil profiteers!!