Ken Saro-Wiwa's (1985) Sozaboy: 'I can buy my own lorry and then I will be big man like any lawyer or doctor'



I am currently reading/re-reading some classics of Nigerian literature in the search for references to lorries, lorry art and possibly cowboys. – I have to confess that I enjoy plenty of them better the second time around now that I am reading at my own pace rather than to the schedule of a university course. The latest I have read was Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy (and, for once, I actually do like the German translation I accidentally ordered). The book's strangely topical with the anniversary of Biafra last week, the pro-Biafra rallies in recent months and the proclamations of certain self-proclaimed (and promptly and widely disowned) northern youth leaders. For my own purpose, however, the fact that the novel's protagonist, the eponymous Sozaboy, starts out as an apprentice driver is of greater interest at the moment. This was one of the details that didn't mean much to me back at university but that get me excited now.

I am sure you, dear reader, have been much more attentive already in your first reading of the novel. Nevertheless, let me remind you of the beauty of Saro-Wiwa's writing and the ways in which he may well have contributed to this research project. Take for example the following scene.

'I am very clever boy in school and I like to work hard always. It was very hard for my mama to pay my school fees but she tried hard to make me finish in that school. When I passed the elementary six exam, I wanted to go to secondary school but my mama told me that she cannot pay the fees. …

So my mama told me that I should learn to be driver. Because Dukana people have one lorry they call 'progress'. But they have no driver and they have to go and get driver from another country to drive lorry. And this driver is very rich man because he gets salary every month and every day he must get chop money. And the lorry is his house so he does not spend money to get house. My mama say that if I am apprentice to this driver, after some time I will get my own licence and then I can get my own lorry to drive. And if I save my salary and my chop money, I can buy my own lorry and then I will be big man like any lawyer or doctor.'

(Saro-Wiwa (1995[1985]): 11)

With my head deep in the books and stuck between trucks on German highways, it is sometimes easy to forget what an aspirational profession driving and especially long-distance driving used to be  and to an extent still is – just consider the noise around Dangote's Truck Ownership Scheme in 2015 (also, let's not forget his Graduate Driver Scheme in 2012, even though, if I remember correctly most – all? – of them were quietly sacked in later and some may still be waiting for outstanding salaries).

And, then there are these beautiful scenes in which Sozaboy provides insights into his ideas of what makes the driver and the man.

In the night, I will wash myself, comb my hair and put powder and some small Bint-el-Sudan scent. Then I will wear better cloth too and go to any Bar that I like. I must wear better cloth when I am going out in the night because when I go out I can meet some fine baby and although driver work look like dirty work, it is not so. Driver work is good work and drivers must preserve their persy all the time. Otherwise someone can start to mess up their senior commando. As driver, the same for apprentice driver. …

(Saro-Wiwa (1995[1985]): 12-13)

I admit that my Pidgin was not up to the task and I had to look up 'persy' in the appendix: persy - dignity, composure; preserve their persy – maintain their equanimity. I have to admit that this notion reminded me of the ways in which the heroes of certain Westerns are portrayed. Think Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, The Ugly or Franco Nero's eponymous hero Django. It’s a while since I've last seen these films, so I'll put that very tentatively: Don't they throughout these films make an effort to 'preserve their persy all the time'? I don't mean to read to much into what's essential my vague memories of two Italian Westerns. Still, maybe this points to one of the reasons that Westerns appealed to drivers?

Anyway, with this I have come to the end of my tea break and need return to the things that I should be doing right now instead of blogging. Still, let me end this post on an admission: I hadn't read much Nigerian literature in a while. In fact, I hadn't really read much fiction at all. Instead, I limited myself to academic and non-academic non-fiction. What a mistake that was! I've already order plenty of other Nigerian literature (some that were on the reading lists at uni and some that weren't) and I can't wait to dive in again. It's fun and it does seem to improve my writing, even my non-fiction, if I may say so myself. So, with the last drops of tea, dear reader, let me advice you: Never ever abandon fiction!

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