BY GAD WESONGA
This short story was published in 1989, foreshadowing Ken Saro Wiwa’s own death six years later at the cruel, brutal and unscrupulous hands of Nigeria’s military regime of Sani Abacha.
Written in the form of a letter to an old girlfriend from a prisoner on the night preceding his execution, Africa Kills Her Sun is a satire on the endemic sleaze and corruption, rampant at all levels of Nigerian society and with it, the evaporation of any form of optimism among the masses.
To illustrate the gravity of corruption in society, Bana, the narrator confesses that though in prison, the letter will get to Zole because “the prison guard has been heavily bribed to deliver it.” Clearly, because of his corruptibility, this guard should also face the firing squad in the morning, but of course, nothing will ever happen to him, concludes Bana.
Saro-Wiwa blames these corrosive social patterns for the growing challenges African people face when trying to live a productive and happy lives as revealed through the personal compelling story of Bana, to his beloved, Zole.
Although he had a prestigious job working for his government, Bana realized that everybody was corrupt and stealing. Striving to be more “honest,” he chose to steal openly as a robber.
Bana explains that he turned to robbery after meeting a prostitute who revealed that she chose this line of work, same as a nurse or secretary would, an honest confession that impressed Bana. As such, he decided to leave his job in the Merchant Navy and take another job at the Ministry of Defense where he “came face-to-face with the open looting of the national treasury.”
When he tried to report what he saw, he was fired. Instead of trying to again rejoin a part of society that robs covertly, Bana decided to live openly – to become a thief and bandit outright rather than simply skirting laws and bending rules like those around him.
However, he was captured when one of his operations was botched by a police officer, with whom they were always in communication with to organize their crime and as a result, Bana faces death for, as he sees it doing honestly and openly what everybody else does in secret.
Bana has been imprisoned with two other men, Sazan and Jimba. All three are celebrating their last night on earth rather than mourning their imminent deaths. In their death sentences for theft, they have pulled an unforgettable trick on “the other thief, the High Court Judge” who was floored to see the accused people admit their guilt and demand the highest possible sentence.
The three men decided to do this on purpose. This way, they feel they’d avoid the spectacle of lawyers lying and courts dispensing unbalanced and unfair justice. Instead, by confessing to being armed robbers, “We were being honest to ourselves, to our vocation, to our country and to mankind.” By denying the judge the ability to rule, they made him a prisoner of their words.
Bana considers Sazan and Jimba as heroes. Before joining Bana’s gang, Sazan used to be a Sergeant in the army, while Jimba was a police Corporal. To Bana, their bravery and heroism is clearly reflected in the fact that they are deeply asleep even though in the morning they will die. But of course, his country being what it is, courage isn’t celebrated but instead squashed.
In any case, the three men aren’t actually guilty of the crime they are being executed for. They robbed, but never killed – and for everything they did, they had the full cooperation of the police and it’s Superintendent. This time, however, something went wrong in the planning, and a policeman was killed while the robbery was occurring. Instead of letting the lower-tier members of their gang take the blame, Bana, Sazan, and Jimba stepped forward. In general, Bana writes, “we didn’t see any basic difference between what we were doing and what most others are doing throughout the land today” – no matter the profession, its main motive is theft.
Contemptuously, to Bana the prison is easily escapable, but the men have no wish to do so. Instead, it is death that will make them free, while the living are trapped in a prison of their own making.Bana then speculates at length about the execution about to happen. They will be made a spectacle of in the stadiu. A hypocritical priest will offer them comfort, which they will throw back in his face. The audience in the stands will react to what they’ve seen with the same base excitement as they would to a soccer game. Afterwards, people pathetic enough to have the job of disposing the men’s bodies will dump them in an unmarked mass grave. Newspapers will record what happened.
As his letter draws to its close, he writes the following lines: “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.’
Bana plays on the phrase “Africa kills her sons” to enlarge its meaning and its somewhat depressing focus by changing it to “Africa Kills Her Sun.” The sun is of course a symbol of hope, life, of a better future and prosperity. The major theme of this excellent short story therefore is the way in which Africa itself is engaged in a process of killing its own future and any chance it might have of a brighter tomorrow through its own actions. The story points the finger at the endemic corruption that seeks to completely destroy any chance of improvement or recovery.
In a final rueful joke before saying goodbye, Bana jokes: “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 Continent? Yes?”
In the next and last of this chronicle, we look at Chenua Achebe’s signature ingenious piece of work in A man of The People