When I was at media school in England I used to daydream-usually during shorthand or media law classes-of the day when I would walk out of college and go straight onto the pages of a national newspaper.
Reader, I did. But nothing in my wildest daydreams would ever have hinted at how I would eventually realize my indolent fantasies. At 23, my main preoccupation in life was finding ways to avoid my responsibilities. I hoped that by busying myself as a newspaper reporter in England, I would prolong or even avoid the issue of when I would have to go back to my home in Africa, where I had always been expected to return to apply my mind to the problems facing my people.
Although an estimated $30 billion to $100 billion of oil had been extracted from our lands since 1958, Ogoni-a community of 500,000 people who live on 100,000 square kilometres of an oil- rich, fertile and gently sloping plateau in southern Nigeria-was one of the most destitute communities in Africa and facing extinction. For years my father, himself a writer and journalist, had been campaigning vociferously and tirelessly to bring the world’s attention to the destruction of our lands and culture by what he described as the “genocidal” policies of the Nigerian oil industry and the country’s rulers.
Oil accounts for over 90 per cent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings, bringing in something in the region of $30 billion per year to Nigeria’s treasury. Much of that money finds its way into the pockets of the ruling elites who, in turn, give the oil companies carte blanche to operate as they please. As long as the oil flows and stolen dollars continue to pour into private Swiss bank accounts, nobody really cares about the irreparable damage being done to the Ogoni environment by the reckless and unchecked prospecting for oil.
In the end, my father won international recognition for our people’s plight, but only after he was hanged by Nigeria’s military government following a show trial that lasted nine months. The trial and execution gave birth to Ken Saro-Wiwa the human rights martyr but it also reinvented his first son, who, having once dreamed of nothing more than filing sports stories for English newspapers, was suddenly transmogrified into something I like to describe as a journalactivist. During my father’s trial and detention, I travelled the globe lobbying world leaders, writing, speaking and campaigning for my father, for my people.
That was five years ago. I have spent the meantime trying to figure out my true identity. Was I an activist or was I a journalist? The time I spent floating between both left me with conflicting thoughts and ambivalence about the value, and values, of activism and journalism.
One of the most interesting things about being on both sides of the media is that it not only affords you an interesting perspective, but it also foreshortens your education about the way the world works. As a media student, I had always bristled when gnarled old hacks suggested that there was no substitute for experience. I now know that some of those curmudgeons meant well.
My time as a journalactivist enabled me to buy that experience cheaply. I got two for the price of one, as it were, because there is no learning curve as steep as being on the end of an interview. From there you can almost see the invisible lines between propaganda and reporting, you can see how readily opinion is often read as fact. From my vantage point, I was often able to see just how much my prejudices informed my opinions. Or how the rumour mill works, spinning out stories that often get recycled, emerging, somewhere down the line, as fact.
Seeing all this amplified my doubts about what it was I was actually doing. Which was why I was stumped when someone recently asked me whether I considered myself a journalist or an activist? I guess the answer to that question is, “It depends on the context,” because I, as I have hinted, carry both identities within me. If I am evasive it is because the question carries with it some dangerous implications.
It might look innocuous, but once you start reviewing it, the confessions it throws up might send you scurrying for cover. Because those of us who stand tall and principled on the moral high ground, claiming for ourselves such lofty notions as guardians of the public interest, the question of how much you are activist and how much you are journalist throws up conflict-of-interest issues.
So, tempting as it might be to fold one identity into the other, I have become convinced that there is a fork in the road where the two must head down separate paths. While one sees the world as black and white, manipulating the facts to service his agenda or interests, one-eyed and unapologetic for being so, the other inhabits a less-certain world. He likes to think of himself as a dispassionate observer, reporting events as he sees them, weighing both sides of the argument and leaving the reader to decide.
Ken Wiwa is a senior resident at Massey College, University of Toronto. He writes for The Globe and Mailand his first book, In the Shadow of a Saint, is published by Knopf.