Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Eclipse

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Eclipse by Richard North Patterson
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 560 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Ken Saro-Wiwa

In his acknowledgments, Richard North Patterson confirms that Eclipse is loosely based on the life and death of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995.

Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995) was born Kenule Benson Tsaro-Wiwa in Bori, Rivers State (a coastal state in the south of Nigeria, map).  He was the son of Jim Beesom Wiwa, a businessman and community chief of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority whose homelands have been targeted for oil extraction since the 1950s.  The Ogoni are one of the many indigenous people of the Niger Delta region. Their 404-square-mile homeland, known as Ogoniland, is located in Rivers State on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea and is home to about half a million people,

 At the age of thirteen, he won a scholarship to Government College in Umuahia in the South-East of Nigeria, where he was a model pupil who enjoyed the English way of life (Nigeria was a British colony until 1960).  After graduating from the University of Ibadan, he taught at various colleges and universities.  During the Nigerian civil war (also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, more about this in the sidebar to Half of a Yellow Sun) he chose the Nigerian side and was the administrator for an oil depot. After the war, he served in the Rivers State Cabinet as a regional commissioner for education but was dismissed in 1973  because of his opinions on autonomy for the Ogoni. 

Through his writings, which started with student articles and developed into a wealth of fiction and nonfiction writings, Saro-Wiwa became increasingly involved in activities which brought national and international attention to the plight of the Ogoni.

His first novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, was published in 1985. This antiwar work, which translates as 'soldier boy' is written in 'pidgin' English ("rotten English") - an English-based dialect spoken by many Nigerians. Further novels and short stories followed, as did an extremely popular TV series for young people about a character named Basi.  Saro-Wiwa wrote and produced more than 150 episodes of Basi & Company until the military dictatorship banned it in 1992.

At the height of his career in the 1980s, he wrote and published seven books in one year but his success as a writer was shadowed by a family tragedy when one of his sons dropped dead while playing rugby at the English boarding school, Eton.  Saro-Wiwa sent five of his children to private schools in England, hoping that they would all return to Nigeria and contribute to the development of the country.

In 1990 he founded the non-violent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). It is said, but not proven, that he also founded a more radical youth movement whose role was to sabotage the Shell oil company. Following Saro-Wiwa's 1992 book that criticized corruption and condemned Shell and British Petroleum, the Nigerian government decided to break MOSOP and Saro-Wiwa was arrested. 

In a letter written in prison, and published in May 1995 in the British newspapers The Mail and the Guardian, Saro-Wiwa states, "Ultimately the fault lies at the door of the British government. It is the British government which supplies arms and credit to the military dictators of Nigeria, knowing full well that all such arms will only be used against innocent, unarmed citizens." In the summary to another letter he writes, "The most important thing for me is that I've used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it. And it sure makes me feel good! I'm mentally prepared for the worst, but hopeful for the best. I think I have the moral victory."

Despite considerable efforts at intervention by a number of international groups including Greenpeace, Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni leaders were executed in 1995 following a show trial. 

Article by Donna Chavez

This article is from the February 19, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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