“Well, it was food of a sort,” says Sr Majella McCarron, chuckling at the thought of it all. It was thanks to the witting or unwitting bearers of such baskets in a detention centre in Nigeria that she shared an illicit mailing route with Mandela, Roddick, Boyd and US human rights campaigner Ethel Kennedy. Their mutual correspondent was imprisoned poet Ken Saro-Wiwa.
“I have seen your work and your pictures in The Irish Times and I think you yourself might be surprised how far those Ogoni bells are ringing now, and how you yourself have become the bellman,” Saro-Wiwa wrote to her in March 1995, “thanking God” for her presence in his life.
Eight months later, Saro-Wiwa was dead, along with colleagues Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine.
The nine, all participants in a non-violent campaign to highlight the environmental degradation wrought by the petroleum industry in the Niger Delta, were charged with having murdered Ogoni chiefs on spurious evidence and were hanged on the orders of a military tribunal.
Sr Majella was back in Ireland at the time, and her shock and sadness were tempered by the knowledge that she had kept Saro-Wiwa’s extensive correspondence, amounting to some 28 letters in all – and a poem which was dedicated to his “sweet soul sister”. It was while lecturing in education at the University of Lagos that she had first met the writer. The Derrylin native and science graduate had spent almost three decades teaching in Nigeria, having joined the Missionary Institute of Our Lady of Apostles in 1956.
She remembers how he had “a tiny office with a desk and a fax machine and a typewriter in Lagos”, and she contacted him to offer the support of the missionary Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network for the environmental campaign in his native Ogoniland. She thought he would be an “excellent mentor” in the area of advocacy, as she says she “hadn’t a clue about same”. It was, she remembers, “tragically fulfilling”.
She travelled 500km to visit Ogoni villages which were destroyed in 1993, and offered to lobby for EU relief, with the support of the Daughters of Charity in Port Harcourt and Trócaire back in Dublin.
His first letter to her was his note of thanks. Such was the trust that developed between them, before and during his imprisonment, that when Saro-Wiwa was awarded a Swedish prize, the Right Livelihood Award, in October 1994, the nun travelled to Stockholm to collect it for him. She also delivered the acceptance speech which he wrote in military detention.
Photographs from that event form part of the extensive archive which Sr Majella has donated to Maynooth University.
An edited version of the Saro-Wiwa correspondence to her, along with his poems, was published in 2013, and this has now been updated again as a freely available e-book.
It places Saro-Wiwa’s legacy in an international context, at a time when a recently published review by Amnesty International of thousands of internal company documents and witness statements relating to Royal Dutch Shell’s attempts to silence protesters in the Niger Delta in the 1990s has informed its new call for a criminal investigation. The multinational had denied the allegations.
The e-book includes contributions from Maynooth University academics Ide Corley, Laurence Cox and Anne O’Brien, deputy librarian Helen Fallon, and poet Nnimmo Bassey, who co-ordinates Oilwatch International.
There are hyperlinks to an audio-archive of related interviews, and the work also includes a poem which Sr Majella was moved to write after her visit to devastated Ogoni villages.
Saro-Wiwa was a “contradictory figure”, Corley writes. He was an “Ogoni ethno-nationalist who upheld federalism during the Nigerian civil war, 1967-1970”; a “democrat who appeared, at times, to have embarked upon a drive for personal authority”; and “a proponent of non-violent protest whose execution was arranged on charges of incitement to murder”.
The letters to Sr Majella, which form the core of the book, reveal a man with a sense of humour and no trace of self-pity. “Do not forget that I have been here only 23 weeks now,” he wrote in October 1994. “Mandela and Sisulu were there [imprisoned in South Africa] for 26/ 27 years. How can I complain?”
“I’m not worried for myself,” he admits at another point. “At 52, I think I’ve served my time and, come to face it, I’ve lived a charmed life. A few more books, maybe, and the opportunity to assist others would have been welcome. But it’s okay. . .”
And there was concern about his family, and some care for his jailers. “What do you think a Nigerian soldier earns? 800.00 naira a month. And that’s after 27 years in the force. I’ve had to feed the soldiers who guard me!”
After the executions, Sr Majella and Ogoni Solidarity Ireland campaigned on behalf of 20 more Ogoni detainees, who were released. She gave her support to the self-styled “Bogoni”, the community activists opposed to the methodology of the Corrib gas project in north Mayo, and to the Love Leitrim campaign against fracking.
As her late “mentor” observed in his poem dedicated to her: “What is it, I often ask, unites/ County Fermanagh and Ogoni? /Ah, well, it must be the agony/ The hunger for justice and peace/ Which married our memories/ To a journey of faith . . .”
Silence Would Be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa is available free on http://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/8940/