'Why didn't I cry when my father died?'

What do you do when your father is hailed around the world as a saint, and you can't bear to talk to him? When freedom fighter Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, his son took on the fight - in public. In private, he was angry and bitter
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The Independent Online

I first met Ken Saro-Wiwa junior in 1992, when we were both students. He was one of the lads; a good laugh, most notably passionate about sport and his girlfriend, Olivia. Not being particularly politically aware, I didn't understand the significance of his name - and he didn't enlighten me.

I first met Ken Saro-Wiwa junior in 1992, when we were both students. He was one of the lads; a good laugh, most notably passionate about sport and his girlfriend, Olivia. Not being particularly politically aware, I didn't understand the significance of his name - and he didn't enlighten me.

But when his father, the writer and freedom fighter, was sentenced to death by the Nigerian authorities in 1995, that all changed. Ken metamorphosed into an international spokesman for the Nigeria's persecuted Ogoni people, careering around the world in the company of presidents and mandarins, desperately trying to save his father's life. He was, as the nightmare unfolded, the epitome of the loyal son, fighting against extraordinary circumstances for the sake of his father. What I didn't know was that this visible battle was only one of many Ken Wiwa had fought as a result of being his father's son - the greatest ones being against his father himself.

"He envisaged that I would be part of the struggle. He felt he was doing it for us," he says now. "But I didn't want to fit into the straitjacket of what he wanted for me."

The problems of growing up with a famous parent are well documented - celebrity addiction clinics are full of those offspring unable to live in a long shadow. But what if your father is considered a saint? How do you cope with his legacy, when you can only see his flaws? How do you separate yourself from him, if you share his very name?

It has taken five years, and the shared experiences of the children of other freedom fighters, among them Zindzi Mandela, Nathi Biko and Aung San Suu Kyi, for Ken Wiwa, as he is now known, to come to terms with his father's legacy - and to work out how to live in its shadow. His struggle, and theirs, are revealed in his book: The Shadow of a Saint, published this week.

Even as a schoolboy, Saro-Wiwa's role in the struggle prompted conflicting emotions. While proud of his father's standing in Nigeria, his resolve ("I could genuinely boast "my dad is stronger than yours") and of his own position as first - or "Saro"- son, Ken resented the lengthy absences his position imposed. His loyalties were also strained by his father's womanising. But the real tensions began when Saro-Wiwa began to apply pressure on his son to embark on his chosen career path: notably Oxford, the law, and a return to Nigeria. "I didn't want any of that... I was growing more and more alienated from my country," he says. "But I was rejecting it because I was rejecting him."

When his younger brother, Tedum, died suddenly of a heart attack, Ken was determined to protect his mother from further hurt. His father was jailed in 1994, and the fractures in this complex relationship were not put aside, but actually worsened. While Ken mounted a fierce campaign to save his father, the differences between the public and private faces of the loyal son were as wide as ever.

"During the campaign I was so caught up in events I barely had time to think about its implications," he says. "I was becoming Ken Saro-Wiwa junior, I was being the dutiful son. In some ways, it was nice - people were listening to what I had to say, I was meeting presidents... Having never been very sure of myself, I fitted that role very well. Yet that was for the public. In private, I was full of bitterness and anger, but I didn't have time to deal with it." Struggling with this dichotomy of feeling, he found himself isolated. Who could bear to hear that the son of a jailed saint felt angry enough with him not to reply to his letters?

Saro-Wiwa was hanged on 10 November, 1995. For the next two years, Ken tried to distance himself from the whole event, embarking on a life more ordinary - he got married to his British girlfriend, bought a house in London, and fathered his first son, Felix. "All these questions began to gnaw at me. Why was I not taking on my father's struggle? Did that make me a coward? Why didn't I cry when he died? Then there was the anger I felt at him, because his life had so compromised my life that now I could barely say my name without people saying 'that's Ken Saro-Wiwa's son'.

"Everyone's making out he's a saint, but you're angry with him. There are all these stories about him, and you're the only one who can defend him because you know the truth - but telling the truth would drag you back into it. I got to the point where I had a breakdown and I had to do something."

That something turned out to be a book.He travelled the world to meet children of other freedom fighters - and discovered relationships that were just as complex, but ultimately resolvable.

Zindzi Mandela, daughter of Nelson, had been held up by Saro-Wiwa as a role model for his son. When her father was in detention, she was his mouthpiece. "She said she had same thing, of publicly defending him, but in private being angry", he says.

Zindzi said that she grew up not knowing Mandela because of his incarceration. "When I first began to understand who he was", Zindzi told Ken, "I could only relate to what he stood for". In his book, A Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela, in turn, wonders whether "politics is merely a pretext for shirking one's responsibilities".

It was a sentiment echoed by anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko's son, Nathi, who described himself as being "trapped in his history". "It's a blessing and a curse that he's learned to live with. He's still involved politically, but he has learned to do it in his own image, and at the same time he's involved with efforts to preserve his father's memory, because like mine, he didn't have a proper burial", says Ken.

"The other aspect is how to live with the name.There are things that come with it to compromise your own identity - he will always be known as Steve Biko's son."

But perhaps the most liberating exchange of all came with Ken's meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father Bogoyoke, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, died trying to gain independence for Burma. She is now known primarily as someone who has been separated for years from her own children, due to her house arrest in Burma, and Ken wanted to know what had compelled her to further her father's struggle, at such personal cost.

In going to her house in Burma and smuggling in a video camera, he said, he was also testing himself, half feeling, in the face of these revered parents, that he, too, had to be incarcerated to prove his authenticity. "She said that no matter how often she tried to tell her son Alexander she didn't expect him to follow in her footsteps, or in her own father's, he never believed her," he says. "I heard this and I thought, that's exactly what my father said to me."

It was at this point, he says, that he started to believe his destiny could be different from his father's, yet forged with his approval. "When I looked back at letters my father had sent me, I found one where it said he didn't expect me to do what he had done, he thought my contribution was to write. When he had said the greatest honour was to die for your country, I had thought, 'I'm supposed to die for my people, too'. But re-reading that letter liberated me."

Ken Wiwa has finally "stopped arguing" with his father. He now considers handling his father's legacy a labour of love. He even accepted having to "share" his father's burial, earlier this year, with the thousands of others who also considered Saro-Wiwa father. Now, as senior resident writer at the University of Toronto, he considers his father's greatest gift to be his education, enabling him to tell a story. "Telling stories is important in Ogoni culture. The whole point is to counter death. In storytelling, I've been able to confront my father's death and to transcend it, to take something positive from it."

A father of two sons, Felix and Suanu, he is also conscious of not letting his own first son's identity become subsumed by the long shadows preceding him. "With this book, I've left a record, explaining who I am and who his grandfather was. He can read it if he wants to."

Most importantly, he has come to terms with the way his own life will always be inextricably linked with his father's. He recalls a conversation he had with Nathi Biko. "We harbour this fantasy that our fathers will be known simply as our fathers, but we all know that we are going to have to go a long way to achieve that", he says. "They were rare individuals and what you learn is that it doesn't matter if you can't beat them."

'In the Shadow of a Saint', by Ken Wiwa, is published by Doubleday priced £16.99. An 'Everyman' programme of the same name will be broadcast on BBC 1 on Tuesday November 28