Zina Saro-Wiwa Visits Students at Washington University in St. Louis

By Lola Oladini, Undergraduate in the College of Arts and Scienes at Washington University in St. Louis

On Wednesday, November 7th, British-Nigerian film-maker and video artist Zina Saro-Wiwa was invited by the African Students Association of Washington University in St. Louis to speak about her work. She showed clips from her film, This is My Africa. The clips she showed us were answers to the question: “What do you want the African continent to be like in the year 2060″ and there was a section on quirky colloquialisms from different regions of the continent. She also showed us her NYTimes documentary Transition and then clips from her most recent work, a documentary and video installation piece called Eaten By The Heart, which deals with the “performance of love” in various African, African-American, and African-Caribbean contexts. Zina mentioned that the inspiration for this project came in part from her childhood, when she reached the conclusion that Nigerian parents do not display affection for each other in public (or even in front of their children), and she wanted to know if this applied to all Africans and African Diasporans.

Many students attending the discussion shared their personal knowledge of their parents’ romantic expressions, ranging from a Haitian-American student who said her parents never hugged her, to a Nigerian student (me) who owned up to the fact that her family didn’t use the phrase “I love you” until hardship came, and another Nigerian student who said her parents were strict because they grew up without parents (both of her grandparents were killed in Biafra). An Eritrean student shared that her dad once told her, “Why would I have to romance her [your mother]? We’re already married!” It was unclear from the discussion whether any given African country had predominating marital behavioral scripts. (Since most parents had spent time in America and could have differentially assimilated cues from American romantic culture.)

While the discussion was great, what interested me most was the conversation that I had with Zina afterward. I wanted to know how she decided that she was “British-Nigerian” and not “Nigerian-British”. She told me that there were just some aspects of Nigerian culture that will always bring her home, and will always be nearest to her heart.

Her statement made me think of her father, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was the leader of the Ogoni movement against Royal Dutch Shell Oil Corporation, a company that had been drilling oil in the Niger-Delta region at great expense to the people. Saro-Wiwa was executed by the military regime for leading a movement in the Delta River region demanding a share of oil profits from companies who drilled on their land, and unrelentingly criticized the Nigerian government for its incompetence. Saro-Wiwa became President of MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People), a group still active today. I was fascinated to note that the late Mr. Saro-Wiwa was both an author and a TV-producer. Additionally, he wrote “Africa Kills Her Sun”, a satirical piece foreshadowing his own execution.

This past summer, I studied abroad at a program at King’s College in London. There, I attended an African Literature Festival that featured a book discussion of Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking For Transwonderland. After some research, I found that she, too, had not returned to Nigeria for a long time after her father’s execution in 1995. In Looking For Transwonderland Noo discusses the post-execution visit to Nigeria, 10 years after her father’s death. Noo discusses how she was the one to pick up the bag of their father’s bones – which had only just been released back to the family – and how she, Zina, and a few other relatives attempted to piece together their father’s bones as a final act of closure.

Noo’s novel about a search for a part of her identity seems to parallel Zina’s search to make emotional sense of her world. Both daughters’ career goals seem somewhat connected to the traumatic murder of their father. Zina and Noo Saro-Wiwa may have discovered different avenues through which they can resist the cultural constraints placed against them by the same culture that rejected their father’s resistance to oppression.