Sozaboy – Ken Saro-Wiwa (1985)


One of the acclaimed pieces of African literature, “Sozaboy” is a rather harrowing tale that follows Mene, a young tribal man who enthusiastically signs up with the army to protect his country from the enemy, a term that evolves throughout the book. (Who is the real enemy? I wondered at the end.)

Mene (or Sozaboy – “Soldier boy” said in the book’s dialect of “Rotten English”) grows up in a decent-sized town in Nigeria and as a young man, hears the siren song of military service when he learns of an invading group of soldiers coming their way. He is very impressed by the smart uniform and formation marching of the soldiers who come through town, and so he signs up to serve. Eastern unrest in the country had led to military intervention, and he is delighted (or “prouded” as the dialect phrases it) when he puts on his new togs and gets his own gun.

However, as Sozaboy is exposed to brutal NCOs and hard training exercises, his dream of being a soldier starts to get tarnished. Later, when he is exposed to war horrors and death, he really starts to question if he has done the right thing. As one of his older friends had said in the village earlier, “war is war.”

So, Sozaboy continues to serve and describes his time, and it’s an involving reading experience (at least for me). The whole book is written in what the author describes as “Rotten English” which is a strong dialect comprised of Nigerian words, English slang words, and then some British English (which means that it uses “big grammar words” that sound very official).

This dialect takes some getting used to, but it is really an effective tool to enable the reader to experience what Sozaboy experiences. The POV is through Sozaboy’s eyes and thoughts, and as the book progresses, we learn and then understand how his opinion changes as he spends longer and longer with the army. This read rather reminded me of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque (1928) which also follows a naïve soldier recruit as he is exposed to mental and physical stress during his time at the front. (This time, the front was WWI.)

“I do not know. Praps they will set us free. Praps they will come and kill us all one time. Everything is in the hand of God. Because war is war. Anything can happen.”

As mentioned, the dialect can be hard to decipher but you learn to get the hang of it and there is, thankfully, a glossary at the back which I found to be invaluable. (You’d be ok without using the glossary, but it definitely helps you get the full picture as the narrative continues.) In researching this further, I learned that the author created this dialect as a way to reflect the feelings of dislocation that Sozaboy (and others) were feeling.

At this time in Nigeria, there were the Biafran Wars when the eastern part of the country was fighting for its independence which led to much conflict, corruption and unrest. Some Nigerian people felt that the country was falling apart and being split into two and families were cleaved by which side of the fight you were on. Sozaboy’s language is really an effective tool to show this split: it’s not Nigerian, it’s not English, it’s not British English. It’s a mix of several languages and yet it’s not the same, just as Nigeria was now a mix of tribes, separate and with conflicting beliefs and values.

Nigeria gained independence from colonial Britain in 1960, so this new situation unbalanced governmental forces leading to several military coups in 1966. By the time that the civil war was officially over, estimates of the number of dead ranged between 1 and 3 million, from warfare, disease and starvation.

Ken_Saro-WiwaThis was such a powerful read, but can’t deny that it was a book that needed some effort to complete due to the dialect mostly. What also threw me off was the occasional appearance of an African spirit who would impact Sozaboy’s actions and world. This got *slightly* confusing, but sorted it out in the end.

Author Kenule “Ken” Saro-Wiwa was a writer and activist who became very visible for organizing a non-violent campaign against the oil businesses in Nigeria and for openly criticizing the Nigerian government (which did not go over well). He was eventually tried in a military tribunal and then hung in 1995 which created an international outcry.

This was a powerful read for me and I enjoyed it (if “enjoyed” is the right word there).

(And if you’re interested in reading some other African books, LitHub has a great list of titles in an article by Aaron Baby.)

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